Pull on your polar-bear skins and head north

Henry Sutton discovers why more and more tourists are heading for wintry climes
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The Independent Travel

Arctic exploring might once have been the preserve of the occasional brave eccentric. Now it seems that anyone and everyone is having a go. Travel to the snowy wastes of northern Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland is booming. Not only has it become remarkably safe, it is also very accessible and often pretty luxurious. Jet-skiing has been replaced by snowmobiling as the mode of transport for the holidaying sensation-seeker.

Arctic exploring might once have been the preserve of the occasional brave eccentric. Now it seems that anyone and everyone is having a go. Travel to the snowy wastes of northern Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland is booming. Not only has it become remarkably safe, it is also very accessible and often pretty luxurious. Jet-skiing has been replaced by snowmobiling as the mode of transport for the holidaying sensation-seeker.

Gone are the days when going on holiday automatically meant heading towards beaches, palm trees and sun. Ice tourism is the new way forward - which should not be confused with, and is entirely separate from, the ski industry. These days, tour operators offer an amazing array of wintry breaks - notably Arctic Experience, Cresta Holidays and Bridge the World - and there appears to be an ever-increasing sense among holidaymakers that travelling to Lapland, say, is both wildly new and decidedly wholesome. You might be travelling with a tour operator, but it does not quite seem like that, because there are no high-rise hotels or airports teeming with sunburnt lager louts, while the scenery is white, crisp and fresh-looking.

One friend of mine, heading off to Iceland for a weekend break, puts it this way: "I've always been attracted to extremes, whether hot places or cold. But I've done the hot stuff. I want to check out the cold now." She also thinks that, in part, it is travelling for the jaded palette - trying something new. Another friend, who is visiting Sweden's famous Icehotel this month, says: "Beach holidays are naff. I want to breathe crystal-clear air, not smell suntan lotion. It's a nature thing - being able to tune in to the wild."

The growing popularity of the Icehotel is just a small indicator of the whole winter travel phenomenon. The first Icehotel, then not much more than an igloo, was constructed for the winter of 1990-1991 in the tiny village of Jukkasjarvi in Swedish Lapland. It attracted around 2,000 visitors. Last season 40,000 people visited, of whom 8,600 stayed overnight, and the structure, using solid blocks of ice from the nearby River Torne, measured some 131,000sq ft (4,000sq m). Scantours, the official UK tour operator for the Icehotel, says bookings are already up three times on last year. This month should be especially busy because there is a snow and ice festival here from 24-27 January.

Finland also has an ice hotel, The Snow Castle. This was built in 1996 and is in Kemi, on the north Bothnian coast. It receives a surprising 300,000 visitors a year. Another big draw in Kemi is a trip on an icebreaker, which smashes its way around the Gulf of Bothnia, allowing passengers to don thermal suits and wallow in its wake. Dog-sledding and snowmobile safaris are very popular, too, as is Santa's grotto; some 35,000 British visitors travel each year to meet Father Christmas in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle, compared with just 5,000 who visited in 1992. In Austria, too, amid a panoply of snow-and-ice related activities, you can learn how to build an igloo.

Even if some of these holidays provide only an illusion of visiting some untamed wilderness, it seems that it is an illusion people are increasingly eager to experience. "People want to see scenery they may have never encountered before, and to feel they've really been away and achieved something," says Steina Palsdottir, the Icelandic-born marketing manager of Arctic Experience.

If there is one icy place that is both hip and largely untamed, but still very accessible, it is Iceland, where in the past 18 months the British have overtaken the Germans to become the biggest visitor market, with some 45,000 British visitors expected this year. Stephen Brown, marketing manager for Icelandair, believes a long weekend in Reykjavik offers the perfect combination of a cultural city break with serious winter outdoor pursuits. "You can be just 20 minutes outside Reykjavik and feel you are the first person to set foot on that piece of land," he says.

Even in January there are between five and six hours of daylight, which apparently is plenty of time to go snowmobiling, or horseback-riding across a glacier, and then be back at your hotel in time to have a nap before a night of serious clubbing. Indeed, the trendiness of Reykjavik (spawned largely by Bjork in the early 1990s) and places such as the Icehotel with its super cool Absolut Icebar, have done much to fuel the popularity of these winter wonderlands among the young, trendy and environmentally aware.

Yet, for the truly intrepid Iceland is far too easy. Danish-owned Greenland - a four-hour flight from Copenhagen - does not exactly have a clubbing scene, and its frozen interior, where temperatures can dip to -75C, is fraught with danger. Here, dog-sledding is the most popular winter pursuit, as snowmobiling is deemed too unkind to the environment. But Stig Winther, Greenland's aptly named head of tourism, says that even to go dog-sledding you have to be extremely well prepared. He quite seriously recommends wearing polar bear-skin trousers and a sealskin anorak.

Still, there are plenty of people willing to get togged out like this. Tourism in Greenland has been growing by 30 per cent a year for the past three years. Last year there were about 25,000 visitors, mostly Danes, although each year sees more curious British tourists arrive.

Winther believes that what makes Greenland so special is the fact than most of its largely Inuit population live in communities which are incredibly isolated and that their way of life has barely changed for centuries. "With a population of just 55,000 people in a country that stretches for nearly 3,000 kilometres , there will always be plenty of room for adventure," he says. "The environment here is clean and unspoiled."

As he talks, he looks through his office window to watch three humpback whales frolicking in the bay. This, rather than the attractions of dog-sledding or ice-hole fishing, for that matter, is the real reason why Greenland and its snowy neighbours are so in vogue. We want to cleanse ourselves of the gritty, modern world, and tap into that purity, even if only for a weekend break.

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