The complete guide to the Arctic Circle


Why travel to a frozen landscape, rather than bask in a tropical paradise?

Why travel to a frozen landscape, rather than bask in a tropical paradise?

For the uplifting feeling of being at the northernmost extremity of the globe, of having reached somewhere otherworldly. For the scale, the emptiness, the invigorating cold, the staggering natural beauty, the well-adapted wildlife, and even the astounding colours (honestly). Ask anyone who has watched rays of copper light streaming low across the skies of Greenland, glinting off icebergs tinged with turquoise and emerald. Or those who have travelled to Spitsbergen, and seen the cliffs of deep blue ice and black ravines, draped with waterfalls in shocking shades of russet and yellow. Even above the Arctic Circle, in summer, you will find vast stretches of green where the mossy earth and birch trees have sprung into life.

So where should I start?

Iceland is a good bet, even though it lies just south of the Arctic Circle - those dotted lines on the map at 66.5° north indicate the limits of the area that receives 24 hours of daylight on Midsummer Day and 24 hours without daylight on Midwinter Day. This land of volcanoes, glaciers, lava wastes, icecaps, boiling lakes and frozen fjords offers northern wilderness at its most accessible and affordable. The main specialist tour operator here is Arctic Experience (01737 218800, www.arctic-discover.co.uk), which offers a panoply of Icelandic holidays all year round, from hiking across glaciers to horse riding across turf.

Then there is Lapland, in northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. Travel to these regions in high summer, and you probably wouldn't believe that you were in the Arctic - if it wasn't for the 24-hour daylight, that is. This is because the Gulf Stream makes Arctic western Europe much warmer than anywhere else on the same latitude.

Paying a visit to Santa Claus in his Arctic home is becoming an increasingly popular pre-Christmas trip. These tend to be brief because this is obviously a particularly busy time of year for him. His precise whereabouts is disputed by the Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Greenlanders, all of who seem to be able to produce him, complete with reindeer, elves and bells. Canterbury Travel (01923 822388, www.santa-holidays.com) specialises in journeys to the Arctic in quest of Santa. Norvista (020 7409 7334, www.norvista.co.uk) also organises visits to Santapark - the "Christmas theme park" - which opened last Yuletide in the Finnish Arctic.

Alternatively, you could hop on board the daily cargo/passenger steamer, the Hurtigruten, which sails from Bergen, up the Norwegian coast, round North Cape to Kirkenes on the Russian border, calling at 34 ports along the way. You could book through Norwegian Coastal Voyage (020 7559 6666, www.hurtigruten.com) or the Scandinavian Travel Service (020 7559 6666). Inntravel (01653 628811, www.inntravel.co.uk) offers stays on the Lofoten islands in the Norwegian Arctic, combined with journeys on the Hurtigruten.

Cruising's big in the Arctic isn't it?

Yes. In summer, fleets of cruise ships make their way up North America's western seaboard from Vancouver to Alaska's Inside Passage, and on to Hubbard Glacier, Skagway, the Misty fjords and Yakutat - some even go as far as the Aleutian Islands. Two of the most popular cruise lines to Alaska (for British passengers at least) are the deceptively named Royal Caribbean International (01932 834300, www.rccl.com) and Norwegian Cruise Line (0800 181560, www.ncl.com). Prices with both start at around £1,500-£1,600 per person, including return flights to Vancouver. These two lines actively woo families, providing a variety of children's clubs and activities for those who need to dilute their diet of icebergs and cavorting whales. Norwegian Cruise Line also offers 12-night summer cruises from Dover up to Arctic Norway and over North Cape, from £1,275 per person.

However, these trips are all in the finest dinner-at-the-captain's-table tradition of cruising. For a true experience of the Arctic, there are a variety of voyages on smaller vessels in less pampered conditions.

Such as...?

Trips around Svalbard (the Norwegian archipelago of which Spitsbergen is the largest island) are a good place to start. Between stops at the desolate Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg, and a happier little research station called Ny Alesund, there are cliffs of ice and glaucous blue glaciers to gaze at, seabirds by the million, and polar bears, walruses, beluga and killer whales to spot. Arctic Experience and Scandinavian Travel Service offer a variety of voyages in the area, including 11-13 day trips to and from Longyearbyen, the archipelago's capital.

Arcturus Expeditions (01389 830204) organises voyages round Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen Island, on ships strengthened against the ice, easing as far north as it is possible while the pack-ice melts. Here, the emphasis is on learning about the geology, history and wildlife of the area. The company also offers Arctic voyages aboard S/V Noorderlicht, a two-masted schooner where passengers are expected to take part in sailing duties.

Another possibility is to sail up the west coast of Greenland. This is the best place in the northern hemisphere to watch icebergs. Every year, 20,000 million tons of ice calve from the Ilulissat Icefjord alone, and float off into Disko Bay in bergs of all shapes and sizes. People seeing these for the first time are left speechless at the sight of brilliant white skyscrapers tinged with turquoise, cathedrals with crystal spires, giants' faces with hooked noses and icicle fangs, and myriad other examples of natural sculpture strewn across the wastes of the frozen fjord. Several options, including day trips by boat, are offered by Arctic Experience.

Again, Arcturus Expeditions offers even more intrepid trips, up to Ultima Thule in the far northwest of Greenland, and to the northernmost navigable reaches of east Greenland. There are also early summer expeditions from Iceland, crossing the north Atlantic, to the south tip of Greenland to visit Viking ruins, warm springs and fjords.

And, for a price of £18,000 in a shared berth, excluding air fares, Quark Expeditions (www.quarkexpeditions.com, 01494 464080) is offering berths aboard the icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn, which will circumnavigate the Arctic between 6 July and 4 September. The voyage begins by sailing from Iceland up the west coast of Greenland, then proceeds to Canada's Baffin Island and through the Northwest Passage over northernmost Canada and Alaska to skirt Arctic Russia and the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya, finally ending up in Spitsbergen.

But can i actually get to the North Pole?

Ah, the ultimate, the Holy Trail. Actually, it can be accomplished these days without icicle-hung beards and frost-bitten digits. Quark Expeditions offers a 14-day expedition to the Geographic North Pole aboard the Russian nuclear-powered Sovetskiy Soyuz or Yamal, the world's most powerful icebreakers. Sail from Oslo to Spitsbergen and on through a kaleidoscope of ice flows and channels, into pack-ice metres thick that the ship breaks en route to the Geographic North Pole. You return via the islands of Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya and the Russian port of Murmansk, ending in Helsinki. The cost, around £11,200 per person, includes helicopter flights over the iceflows, but travel to Oslo and from Helsinki is extra.

If that sounds too easy, get in touch with the Polar Travel Company (www.polartravel.co.uk, 01364 634470). From Longyearbyen in Spitsbergen, it will fly you on a Russian jet to a drifting airbase on the ice (called Borneo, the name being some unfathomable Russian joke) at 89° north. From here, you can choose to helicopter the final 1° to the pole, to ski it while dog-sledges carry your equipment, or to drag-haul your gear yourself. And, using the helicopter, there are other options for the final step; you can ski just the last 0.5° (which takes 5-6 days) or start from 2° out (which takes three weeks). Prices from Longyearbyen are from £3,750 per person for the helicopter option, to £9,375 for the masochistic 2° haul. Additional activities at Borneo include flying over the ice in a hot-air balloon or microlight, or - yes, honestly - diving under the ice floes!

Finally, Arcturus organises 19-day expeditions to the North Pole from Canada. You fly up to 88° north via Ottawa, Resolute and Eureka on Ellesmere Island, land on the ice and then ski for the next 12 days with dog-sledge support. All for £19,300.

what else can i do in the Arctic?

Several operators, including Exodus (020 8675 5550, www.exodus.co.uk), Explore Worldwide (01252 760001, www.explore.co.uk), and Waymark (01753 516477) offer guided summer hiking holidays in Iceland. An unmissable side-trip is to cross the half-mile-thick icecap covering the Vatnajokull volcano on a skidoo. You journey under the midnight sun to the lip of a deep crater, hundreds of metres across, steaming with naturally scalding hot water. Opposite is a frozen blue cliff, pieces of which regularly break off, with reverberating cracks, to fall into the cauldron. The force of the impact arouses a ferment as water leaps into the air and waves pound the shore. People watch in awe as the turmoil calms and the bergs begin to melt.

Arctic Experience, Scandinavian Travel Service and Scantours (020 78392927, www.scantoursuk.com) all offer a variety of winter activities in Arctic Norway, Sweden and Finland, from ice-fishing and skidoo-riding to husky sledging.

Arcturus offers heavier-duty winter expeditions, including driving your own dogs from the Ovre Dividalen National Park in Arctic Norway to Jukkas Jarvi in Sweden, led by an expert guide. The company also organises occasional trips to Russia's Kamchatka peninsula, for 19-day expeditions with reindeer herders; or trips dog-sledging or hiking across Canada's Baffin and Ellesmere islands.

Arctic Experience and Regent Holidays (01983 864212) can organise dog-sledging expeditions in Greenland - either from Uummannaq on the west coast north of Ilulissat, or the less-visited Ammassalik on the east coast. And, for more hairy chested experiences of Spitsbergen than viewing the archipelago from the water, contact Longyearbyen-based Svalbard Polar Travel (www.svalbard-polar.com, 00 47 79023400, or bookable through Arctic Experience). Camp on a snow-sprinkled beach where temperatures hover at around 0C in the summer, and hike into the interior, trudging through snow, crossing glaciers and spotting polar bears and reindeer.

One of the world's best places for witnessing the aurora borealis, or northern lights, is the Northern Studies Centre near Churchill on Hudson Bay. To keep visitors busy during the short hours of daylight, the centre also offers instruction in Arctic survival and igloo building. All Canada Travel & Holidays (01502 585825, www.all-canada.com) can arrange travel.

What about the wildlife?

For some people, wildlife is the main attraction of a trip to the Arctic. One of the reasons why a voyage round Spitsbergen is so popular is the prospect of meeting the inquisitive stare of a fat, bearded seal or even a tusked walrus lumbering on an iceflow as you sail by. Landing on the islands and walking into the interior, you see Arctic foxes and small, Svalbard reindeer. The ultimate sighting, of course, is of a polar bear lumbering across the ice with head low and hindquarters high, its coat a buttery yellow colour against the whiteness.

Polar-bear watching is a more organised activity in North America and Discover The World (01737 218800, www.arctic-discover.co.uk) offers four-night Polar Bear Weekends in October, flying to Churchill via Winnipeg and observing the creatures from a huge-wheeled, hulking "Tundra Buggy"; the trip costs £1,169 per person. Wildlife Worldwide (020 8667 9158, www.wildlifeworldwide.com) runs 15-day "Lords of the Arctic" trips to watch Polar bears at Churchill and Wager Bay, in the far north-western corner of Hudson Bay (£2,795 per person). It also offers a variety of Alaskan departures, concentrating on observing walruses, sea lions, sea otters, Pacific dolphins, and various species of whale.

Sightings of whales, particularly humpback, blue, finback and killer, are features of many Arctic journeys - particularly Alaskan cruises. However, one of the world's most spectacular and reliable whale watching experiences is seeing the huge pods of orcas (killer whales) that congregate in the Tysfjord in northern Norway, every November. Discover the World offers four-day trips to witness this spectacle, which frequently also includes sightings of otters, elks and lemmings. The area is also good for birdlife, including white-tailed eagles and gyrfalcons.

I want to read up on the area

Accounts of the heroics of Arctic exploration - the last great acts of territorial discovery before the space age - makes inspiring reading on any visit to the region. A good introduction is North Pole, South Pole - Journeys to the Ends of the Earth by Bertrand Imbert (Thames & Hudson, £6.95), a compact collection of tales. For a weightier read, try Nansen by Roland Huntsford (Thames & Hudson, £25), a full-scale biography of the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

It was Nansen who discovered that the ice of the Arctic Ocean is in constant movement. He designed a ship with a rounded hull, the Fram, able to rise above the freezing sea and drift with the pack ice.

Nansen made several expeditions into the high Arctic in 1893 and 1896 and came within a few degrees of the Geographic North Pole. During the following decade, a bitter rivalry developed between American explorers Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, each claiming (without conclusive evidence) to have reached the Pole, and accusing the other of lying.

No such controversy surrounds the heroism of Roald Amundsen (the man who later beat Scott to the South Pole). In 1905, Amundsen discovered the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific aboard an old fishing boat, the Gjoa. Accounts of previous attempts at the feat make chilling reading - especially the voyage of Briton John Franklin whose expedition was stranded on the ice north of King William Island over the winter of 1845-6. All 105 members of the expedition froze to death.

Last Places by Lawrence Millman (Abacus £5.99) is an entertaining travelogue describing the author's journey through Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Canada. And, in fiction, there's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Danish author Peter Hÿeg (Flamingo £5.99), a gripping thriller set in Greenland and Denmark.

Lonely Planet publishes guidebooks on The Arctic (Deanna Swaney £12.99) and on Iceland, Greenland and The Faroe Islands (£12.99). There is also a Bradt Guide to Spitsbergen by Andreas Umbreit (Bradt, £10.95).

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