Article 05 August

North bound: 10 ideas for incredible Arctic adventures

A trip to the planet's tips remain at the top of most travellers' wishlists. Grab your base layers and head north to discover spectacular Arctic wonders across Greenland, Norway, Russia and more...

With huge swathes of the USA, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia poking beyond 66° north, travellers enjoy a freedom beyond the usual cruise schedules and seasons in the Arctic. Whether hunting down the northern lights in winter, following a reindeer migration in spring, hiking the Kungsleden in summer or heading off on early autumn cruises to spot polar bears in the Russian Arctic, the north gives you plenty of choice.

With people also comes culture. The Arctic is a richer experience in terms of human history. Occupied towns are found as far north as 78°, and indigenous peoples as diverse as the Sámi (Lapland), Chukchi (Russia) and Inuvialuit (Canada) welcome curious visitors. Then there’s the history, from Viking ruins in the High Arctic to the ghostly mining towns of Svalbard – this isn’t a frigid relic, it’s a living, breathing land.

That’s not to say the northern fringes don’t have their wild frontiers, too. Arctic seas have warmed over the past few decades, opening up previously impossible routes, as cruises in the High Arctic (May-September) follow in the wake of great explorers, revealing glaciers as big as mountains and wildlife fierce in beak and claw.

1: The North-West Passage

View over the inland ice in Greenland near Kangerlussuaq (Dreamstime)

View over the inland ice in Greenland near Kangerlussuaq (Dreamstime)

As far back as the early 1600s, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via Canada’s Arctic archipelago was the Holy Grail for explorers. Success promised new trade routes and accompanying riches, but while Roald Amundsen first threaded the needle in 1903-1906, rounding the tip of Baffin Island to weave through Lancaster Sound before dipping south to skirt mainland Canada to the Bering Sea, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that things changed. The Arctic climate warmed and its infamously thick pack ice began to melt (it became fully clear for the first time in 2007). Now, every late-summer (August–September), ice-strengthened ships forge courses that once confounded the bravest of the Heroic Age.

Last year, some 33 vessels made the full North-West Passage, inching its seven main routes. Most sample only a small part of the archipelago, looping west from the Greenland coast to spot narwhal off Devon Island, meet the Netsilik Inuit of Gjoa Haven – where Amundsen holed up for two years – or ford the creaking pack ice of the Fury and Hecla Strait. It’s worth the longer trip, though, if only for the bragging rights, but also to spy some of Canada’s lesser-seen sights, including the great rises of flaming bitumen (Smoking Hills) that combust off the North-West Territories.

Duration: 14-24 days

Start/finish: Kangerlussuaq (Greenland) to Nome, Alaska (USA)

Why go? To complete one of the great journeys of our age.

2: The North-East Passage

Franz Josef Land (Dreamstime)

Franz Josef Land (Dreamstime)

Just as warming Arctic seas have opened up Canada’s North-West Passage, the same goes for its lesser travelled Russian equivalent. Yet, until recently, the North-East Passage – which runs from the Bering Strait through to the White Sea – was off limits to all but local ships. Then, in 2014, the first non- Russian cruise cast off, and now a handful of vessels are following in its wake, opening up frozen Siberian islands, far-off cultures and little-seen seas during August and September.

Trips typically begin in the Chukchi Peninsula (see ‘Russian Arctic’) amid the wild flora of the Medvezhye Islands, before crunching through ice floes to the Kara and Barents seas, scanning for walruses and polar bears on the ice. The remote archipelago of Franz Josef Land is arguably the highlight, its barren, craggy islands rising up in great cathedrals and spires of rock, with cliffs inhabited by vast colonies of kittiwakes, guillemots and skuas.

Along the way are the 19th-century relics of explorers past, including the hut of Benjamin Leigh Smith, who first landed on Bell Island in 1881. Just glimpsing this remote, frozen world makes this an Arctic trip like no other.

Duration: 27-30 days

Start/finish: Tromsø (Norway) to Nome, Alaska (USA)

Why go? The great Arctic journey you don’t know about.


Top tip: You can’t predict an aurora, but you do need to be between 60- and 72-degrees north, where the magnetic fields are strongest. From November to January yields the best sightings, with the prime sighting hours between 10pm and 2am.

3: The North Pole

The North Pole (Dreamstime)

The North Pole (Dreamstime)

Unlike the proverbial Carnegie Hall, there are two ways to get to the North Pole: by air or sea. Trips come at a premium, though, and which you prefer may depend on the time you have available. But both result in the only thing that matters: standing at 90° north.

The simplest but no less breathtaking route is to fly from Longyearbyen (Svalbard), a 2.5-hour charter flight to the ice runway at Barneo Ice Camp. This permanent site is run by the Russian Geographical Society and lies on the cusp of the pole (89°, to be precise). Trips only happen in April and cost a hefty £15,995 for three days, as you spend nights under the glare of midnight sun, while helicopters whisk you north to the tip of the world during the day.

A much slower burn of a journey is to climb on board the 50 Let Pobedy (‘50 Years of Victory’), a hulking red-and-black leviathan, as dainty and subtle as a nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker ought to be. Tours of its vast engine room are well worth it, as it crunches out of Murmansk in summer (June-July) on a fortnight’s voyage past the icy archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Polar plunges and hot-air balloon trips are the icing on the cake as you finally plant your feet on the North Pole.

Duration: 3-14 days

Start/finish: Murmansk (Russia)/ Longyearbyen (Norway)

Why go? Bragging rights and to set foot where so few have been.

4: The Russian Arctic

Wrangel Island is home to thousands of walruses (Dreamstime)

Wrangel Island is home to thousands of walruses (Dreamstime)

Russia’s ancient Chukotka coastline and the wild islands off its northern fringes are what makes this route utterly unique. Like much of this Arctic region, the pack ice that clogs up the Chukchi and Bering seas makes them impenetrable during winter, but the summer thaw brings smoother waters and a brief window to discover a remarkable land of barren steppe, Chukchi culture and more polar bears you ever thought likely.

Most trips (August-September) set off from Anadyr, working their way up the Chukotka coast and past the eerie Whale Bone Alley of Yttygran Island before hitting Arctic waters. Here, the Inuit villages of Cape Dezhnev lie at the tip of Eurasia, their culture and traditions unchanged for thousands of years, with visits offering rare insight into life on the frozen edge.

The true star, however, lies in the zapovednik (restricted nature reserve) of Wrangel Island. This polar bear breeding ground is home to as many as 400 denning mothers over winter, and encounters are common as visitors make their way onto the raw steppe. It is a genuine lost world, where you’re as likely to stumble across mammoth bones (it was one of the last refuges for this long-gone creature) as Arctic foxes, terns and barracking walruses – coastal rookeries here can number as high as 100,000. Utterly unique.

Duration: 15 days

Start/finish: Anadyr (Russia)

Why go: Explore wealth of Arctic wildlife and indigenous cultures.

5: North-East Greenland

Sermilik Fjord and glacier (Dreamstime)

Sermilik Fjord and glacier (Dreamstime)

Busy is a relative term in Greenland, a country that sees fewer than 18,000 visitors a month in peak season. But if there is a ‘busy’ part, then the eastern coast isn’t it. Settlements are sparse, with most towns scattering the Ammassalik district, an area the size of the UK but with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. Here, the main town of Kulusuk (flights link it with Iceland) lies just outside the Arctic Circle, with kayaking tours to the sheer ice walls of Sermilik Fjord able to take you to the very edge of 66° north.

For true Arctic grandeur, head north to the only other inhabited region, on the world’s largest and deepest fjord system. Flights take you to Constable Point, from where it’s a short helicopter ride to the remote village of Ittoqqortoormiit, with hikes nearby into a national park that spans a quarter of the country. It’s more typically visited as part of a longer cruise, though, and cinematic views of its giant glaciers calving into the sea are breathtaking when seen from the water.

Cruises (June–September) run the length of the north-east coast, with Zodiac trips weaving grounded ’bergs – some 100m high – to spy the ruins of the old Thule (early Inuit) winter houses at Sydkap. Elsewhere, treks ashore see you tread dwarf birch and Arctic blueberry to spy grazing musk oxen at Hofman Halvo, gaze at the northern lights at night or wander the old settlements of Danmark Ø in a land that gives little quarter but makes those hard-won sights feel all the more rewarding.

Duration: 1-10 days

Start/finish: Flights/ships go via Akureyri / Reykjavik (Iceland)

Why go? Monster icebergs, Inuit culture and a side to Greenland few see.

Arctic chills and thrills

Have a dogsled adventure

Dogsledding (Dreamstime)

Dogsledding (Dreamstime)

Some towns in Greenland have nearly as many dogs as people. Expeditions for as long as ten days can be found up in the Qaanaaq (Thule) region, crossing polar deserts above 77° to see how the local Inuit survive in its harsh climate.

Spend a night on the ice

Ice cave (Dreamstime)

Ice cave (Dreamstime)

Svalbard has many adventures, perhaps none more so than spending the night in an ice cave, having trekked a glacier outside Nybyen. Drift off in a frozen world.

Aurora spotting

Spot the northern lights in Norway (Dreamstime)

Spot the northern lights in Norway (Dreamstime)

Such is Norway’s reputation that some cruises offer free follow-up voyages if you fail to see the northern lights. Dramatic fjords and whale-watching make the Norwegian coast a thrilling consolation while you wait for night, with some cruises making it as far as the Arctic waters of Kirknes.

Arctic hiking

Hiking through the snow (Dreamstime)

Hiking through the snow (Dreamstime)

Sweden’s Kungsleden is one of Europe’s remotest summer hikes. Its 440km can be broken up into more manageable sections, though, and the final 110km between Kiruna and Abisko reward with mountain views, Arctic saunas and the glare of midnight sun.

6: North-West Greenland and the High Arctic

Phoebe Smith walking the Arctic trail (Phoebe Smith)

Phoebe Smith walking the Arctic trail (Phoebe Smith)

While Greenland’s east coast is as remote as it gets, there is more variety for adventures in the north-west, not least in the 164km Arctic Circle Trail (June-August) that winds out of Kangerlussuaq to Sisimuit. This is solitary backcountry hiking but polar-bear-free, and you arrive in a town where there’s one working dog for every five people, so sledding trips are de rigueur.

Further north, the UNESCO-listed ice fjord of Ilulissat is Greenland’s most popular sight, offering frozen panoramas of a region where 35 billion tonnes of icebergs pass through every year. It’s a 56km inlet of Disko Bay, and ships sail out past its monster icebergs, up the Davis Strait and on to the High Arctic.

In the far reaches of Greenland lies Siorapaluk, the world’s most northerly indigenous community, just 1,362km from the North Pole. Cruise typically stop at Devon and Ellesmere islands, revealing ruins of the Thule (ancient Inuit) and the chance to spot polar bears hunting seals out on the ice floes, before peaking in the icy realms of 80°north.

Duration: 3-16 days

Start/finish: Kangerlussuaq / Ilulissat (Greenland)

Why go? Dogsled, hike and meet the world’s most northerly indigenous community.

7: Svalbard Archipelago, Norway

Svalbard glacier (Dreamstime)

Svalbard glacier (Dreamstime)

Daily flights from the UK via Oslo almost make a mockery of quite how remote the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard actually is. Spitsbergen’s Longyearbyen lies at over 78° north, making it the northernmost town of its size on Earth, yet you’ll still find a local brewery here, great food and a museum detailing its mining past. Ghost towns like Pyramiden remind us of quite how tentative life on the frozen edge is, but then that’s all part of the appeal; hiking and sledding trips to the caves of Lars Glacier let you sleep on the ice, and trekking the wilds roamed by reindeer and Arctic fox can take you to the Global Seed Vault, the world’s largest collection of crops and plants.

Take to the water and you’ll see a wilder side to Svalbard, cruising vast icefields or even polar-snorkelling with seals. Cruises run between May and August – when midnight sun smothers the islands in an eternal glow – typically visiting the South Cape and West Spitsbergen. But for rarer glimpses, a few circumnavigate the whole archipelago, edging up past Ny-Ålesund (a mining village once served by the world’s northernmost railway) to the farthest reaches of Kvitøya, a giant ice cap where massed gangs of walrus bully the shores. From here, ships drop down to Diskobukta, edging waters filled with Greenland whales and cliffs where polar bears patrol beneath the nests of thousands of kittiwake and glaucous gulls. Wild.

Duration: 1+ days

Start/finish: Longyearbyen (Norway)

Why go? Polar bears, ice sleeps and the most northerly town on Earth.

8: Arctic Canada’s National Parks

Kluane National Park, Canada (Dreamstime)

Kluane National Park, Canada (Dreamstime)

Nature dominates the upper reaches of North America, much of it impenetrable but for ships and single-propeller flights in and out. The islands of Nunavut are especially remote, with the wild tundra and glowering peaks of Ellesmere Island’s Quttinirpaaq NP less than 800km from the North Pole. For the truly adventurous, summer-run charter flights land here, with wilderness guides leading backcountry treks (June–July) across its glacial caps and tundra to spy roaming musk oxen and caribou in a land that received just 21 visitors last year.

Just as impressive are the Arctic parks of Baffin Island to the south. Here, visitors can ski, snowmobile or dogsled their way in during spring, or even catch a boat in summer. Floe-edge tours of its Sirmilik NP bring narwhals, beluga whales and seal-hunting polar bears up close, while Pond Inlet offers a chance to see the planet’s largest flock of snow geese.

Then there’s Canada’s far west. Yukon’s Ivvavik NP runs a fly-in base camp (June-August) that lets visitors soar north of the Arctic Circle. Here, Inuvialuit hosts put you up at Sheep Creek, deep in the heart of grizzly country, with wild hiking and rafting deep into this little-seen land. Visits here, like all of Canada’s Arctic parks, require a lot of planning but it’s worth it to step this far out of your comfort zone.

Duration: 5+ days

Start/finish: Yukon, North-West Territories and Nunavut (Canada)

Why go? Inuit culture, river rafting, and the northern lights.

9: Lapland (Finland, Sweden and Norway)

Reindeer and a member of the Sámi community (Dreamstime)

Reindeer and a member of the Sámi community (Dreamstime)

The bulk of Lapland lies within the Arctic, where it accounts for 30% of northern Finland (and just 3% of its population) and spills into Sweden and Norway. No matter which area you visit, you’ll find dogsledding, snow hikes, reindeer treks, northern lights excursions and ambitious ice hotels.

Yet what truly makes a visit here are encounters with Lapland’s indigenous Sámi people, who still make a living herding thousands of reindeer through the boreal forests of Arctic Scandinavia. Stays in Lappish communities, huddled in a lavvu (tent) and devouring wood-smoked reindeer, give an insight into a people still tied to the rhythms of their livestock. Some trips even offer the chance to follow families of herders on their spring migration, or stay in nature camps that teach bushcraft and the traditional skills still integral to the community, such as reindeer lassooing. You’re rarely not active, whether dogsledding Finnmark’s plains with the Sámi, hiking sacred Saana Fell from Finnish Kilpisjärvi, or learning to drive a reindeer-pulled sleigh through the forests of Sweden’s Jukkasjärvi.

Duration: 3-7 days

Start/finish: Alta, Norway/Kittilä, Finland/Abisko, Sweden

Why go? Live alongside the reindeer-herding Sámi people on year-round trips.

10: Arctic road-tripping (Canada and Norway)

Arctic Norway (Dreamstime)

Arctic Norway (Dreamstime)

Flights and cruises are all well and good, but there’s nothing like the feeling of tarmac beneath you. North America has some epic car journeys, but few as stark as Canada’s 735km-long Dempster Highway, which begins in Dawson City (Yukon) and finishes over the border in the North-West Territories town of Inuvik. Cruise past the Arctic Circle, gold rush settlements and wild trails, before taking the newly opened 137km extension up to Tuktoyaktuk, the remotest Inuvialuit village in Arctic Canada (just 898-strong), savouring every empty horizon along the way.

Just as breathtaking is the scenery of north Norway, with the 1,150km between Trondheim and Tromsø not only crossing 66° but also affording some sumptuous detours. Take the ferry to the Lofoten archipelago, where tarmac takes you through steep mountains, past windswept Arctic beaches and red-painted villages where salted cod dries in the breeze. Then there’s the Andøya Route that runs between the island’s bare coastline and flat cloudberry marshes, with Bleik offering a welcome stop for boat trips out to spot sperm whales and its 80,000 pairs of roosting puffins. The perfect Arctic drive.

Duration: 4-8 days

Start/finish: Dawson City, Canada/Trondheim and Tromsø, Norway

Why go? Strap on your all-weather tyres (bring a couple of spares), grab a satphone, take plenty of supplies and set off into the lonely wild.

Arctic wildlife wonders

Arctic Tern

This bird migrates between the poles (about 70,000km), flying from its breeding grounds in Greenland to the shores of the Antarctic.

Polar bears

Wrangel Island has some 400 polar bear dens – the largest density in the world. But to see them, you have to wait until the ice breaks up in July/August.

Humpbacks

As many as 300 humpbacks were once recorded in a single visit to Wilhelmina Bay. Large concentrations of krill draw them to feed in the bay, with numbers peaking in February/March.

Did you know? There are 19 sub-populations of polar bears living in the Arctic.

Polar bear and cubs (Dreamstime)

Polar bear and cubs (Dreamstime)

Reindeer (Dreamstime)

Reindeer (Dreamstime)

Walrus

Walruses have been protected in Svalbard since 1952. Spot them in summer on cruises to Prins Karls Forland island.

Reindeer

Stays in the Norwegian Finnmark region let you walk in the footsteps of generations of Sámi reindeer herders.

Narwhal

Sledge out to Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, where you can don a wetsuit and dive in to swim with these unicorns of the sea.