Whether you want to watch polar bears in the Arctic or penguins in Antarctica and every cultural, historical and wildlife highlight in between. Read on to discover the very best polar adventures...
What’s so cool: Glimpsing a polar bear patrolling the pack ice or roaming the shores of some far-flung Arctic island is a heart-stopping moment.
Whether it’s a distant sighting from your ship or, if you’re really lucky, a lingering encounter from a Zodiac, you’re sure to be spellbound by the world’s largest land carnivore.
Weighing 450kg or more and capable of sprinting at 40km/h, polar bears are formidable seal hunters, tracking their prey across the sea ice.
But with this shrinking year by year as a result of climate change, each and every polar bear encounter is tinged with a mixture of awe and poignancy.
North or South: Lords of the Arctic, polar bears can be seen throughout the far north. Svalbard is home to around 3,000 – their preferred hunting grounds include Phippsøya and Isbukta.
Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic is also a good spot, while Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay is well-known for its polar bear gathering in October and November. The Russian Arctic is another stronghold – as is the Arctic coast of Alaska.
Just as cool: The sight of polar bears wading through swathes of bright pink fireweed on the Canadian tundra is a late summer treat at wilderness lodges near Churchill.
What’s so cool: Kayaks not only give you a sea-level perspective, they’re also quiet and stealthy. Imagine paddling right up to the cerulean hulk of an iceberg or weaving through the crystal maze of an ice-choked fjord – just the swash of water beneath your hull and the tinkle of meltwater dripping all around.
Each ’berg is a unique ice sculpture, chiselled into arches and spires by the waves, and as you paddle among them, you might also spot the odd seal spread out on a smaller floe. But it’s reward enough to simply drift around, gazing into the inky-blue waters and contemplating the depths to which the ice descends.
North or South: Calved from tidewater glaciers, icebergs can be carried hundreds of kilometres on ocean currents. Greenland ’bergs, for example, regularly make it as far south as Newfoundland.
The best spots for sea kayaking around icebergs include Disko Bay in West Greenland’s Ilulisat Icefjord, Alaska’s Glacier Bay and pretty much anywhere around the Antarctic Peninsula (be sure to choose a ship that offers kayaking as an optional activity).
Just as cool: Stand-up paddle boarding is available on some polar expedition ships and can also be arranged from settlements along the Greenland coast.
What’s so cool: Whether you’re approaching cautiously on foot, or drifting offshore in a Zodiac, a walrus haul-out will hold you rapt.
At first glance, it’s just a quivering mass of pinky-brown blubber gently steaming in the frigid Arctic air and reverberating with muffled grunts, snorts and belches.
Then one will raise its head to reveal that trademark moustache and those curved ivory scimitars. Don’t let the flab fool you, though: often weighing over 1,000kg, walruses are plucky pinnipeds, diving deep below the surface to chomp on clams and more than a match for marauding polar bears.
North or South: Walruses are only found in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. There are populations in the Bering Sea, West Greenland and Canadian Arctic, but for your best chance of a sighting, head to Svalbard or the Russian Arctic.
The Oransky Islands in Novaya Zemlya and Apollonov Island in Franz Josef Land are renowned for walrus haul-outs, while northern Svalbard – particularly Moffen Island – has well-known colonies.
Just as cool: At around 3m, leopard seals are similar in length to walruses, but only a third of the weight. Sleek, solitary predators of the Antarctic, they are particularly partial to penguins.
What’s so cool: Polar expedition ships tend to be small and nimble, exploring remote locations with only 100-200 passengers on board and minimal impact on the environment. But decanting into a Zodiac (or RIB) as part of a small group can provide an even more intimate brush with nature.
You might shadow a polar bear foraging along the shoreline, or manoeuvre into the perfect position to watch penguins diving into the ocean. Zodiacs can also get you into the lee of seabird nesting cliffs to witness a head-spinning avian spectacle. And if humpback whales surface nearby, you’ll have the perfect sea-level perspective to take a spectacular photo.
North or South: Zodiacs provide ship-to-shore transport and wildlife-watching excursions on cruises in both the Arctic and Antarctica.
Part of the excitement of a polar voyage is never knowing how wildlife opportunities might affect your itinerary – Zodiacs can be deployed at any time, especially during the 24-hour daylight of summer.
Just as cool: Watching polar wildlife on foot can be equally rewarding. Imagine stepping ashore from a Zodiac into the midst of hundreds of thousands of king penguins on South Georgia, or walking to within 50m of a walrus haul-out in Svalbard.
What’s so cool: The elusive route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Canadian High Arctic defeated explorers for centuries, but modern-day ships can probe this polar wilderness, sailing across the Davis Strait and around Baffin Island before venturing into the maze of ice-wreathed islands beyond.
En route you can spot walrus, beluga, narwhal and polar bear, but this is as much a homage to past explorers as a wildlife odyssey.
Going ashore at Beechey Island, you will find four simple graves from the ill-fated 1845 Franklin expedition and subsequent search party, and follow in the footsteps of Roald Amundsen, who landed there in 1903 at the start of the first successful voyage through the Northwest Passage.
North or South: A typical two-week Northwest Passage cruise through the Canadian High Arctic starts in Kangerlussuaq on the West Greenland coast (served by flights from Copenhagen) and ends in Cambridge Bay, from where you can fly to Edmonton.
Just as cool: A voyage from the southernmost tip of South America to Antarctica involves crossing the infamous Drake Passage, a 1,000km stretch of water connecting the Pacific and Atlantic and known as either ‘Drake Lake’ or ‘Drake Shake’, depending on conditions.
What’s so cool: Weighing up to 4,000kg and reaching 6m in length, sexually mature male southern elephant seals haul out on beaches throughout the Southern Ocean each September, rounding up harems of females to mate with.
They are especially grumpy during this period and use their bulbous snouts to generate loud bellows to ward off other males. If that doesn’t work, rival ‘beachmasters’ come to blows, rearing up and lunging at each others’ throats in blubbery, bloodstained battles.
By all means share a beach with elephant seals – but give them the space and respect they deserve.
North or South: Although they’re commonly found on sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia and the Falklands during the austral summer, southern elephant seals spend most of their lives at sea, travelling thousands of kilometres a year.
Just as cool: Orcas – the elephant seal’s main predator – are frequently sighted in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. But one of the most reliable places to see them is the Snaefellsnes Peninsula on Iceland’s west coast, where they gather every spring to hunt overwintering shoals of herring.
What’s so cool: You only have to crunch across a black-sand beach in Iceland, or take a boat through a fjord in southern Greenland to stir the Viking in you.
Erik the Red founded the first European settlement on Greenland around AD985, cajoling enough fellow Icelandic Vikings to establish a farm in the ‘green land’ that he’d discovered.
Qassiarsuk is still a farming area today, but you need to visit nearby Hvalsey to see rock-solid evidence of Norse occupation.
Erik’s son, Leif, brought the first Christian missionaries to Greenland and the ruins of the settlement’s stone church, offer proof of Greenland’s Viking era.
North or South: Although the most spectacular Viking heritage sites lie further south at places such as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Norsemen pop up all over the far north.
The Lofotr Viking Museum in the Lofoten Islands, for example, has a reconstructed chieftain’s longhouse.
Just as cool: As the settlements founded by Erik the Red thrived to the south, the ancestors of the Inuit were colonising northern Greenland, bringing with them the resilient and inventive culture that, refined over generations, is still around today.
What’s so cool: It’s almost impossible to visit Antarctica and not feel the presence of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. The explorer is best known for his ill-fated 1914 to 1917 expedition to the Weddell Sea aboard Endurance, which became trapped in pack ice and drifted for 10 months before being crushed.
Stuck on ice floes for a further five months, Shackleton and his crew escaped in boats to Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands. With five others, he then sailed 1,300km to South Georgia before hiking across the island’s mountainous backbone to reach the whaling station at Grytviken.
Shackleton then set about rescuing his crew from Elephant Island. Throughout the ordeal, remarkably no one was killed. In 1922, during an expedition to circumnavigate Antarctica, Shackleton died unexpectedly aged 47 – a granite column marks his grave at the Grytviken whalers’ cemetery.
North or South: Going ashore at Grytviken to pay your respects at Ernest Shackleton’s grave is a poignant highlight on Antarctic voyages to South Georgia. Some itineraries also take in the Weddell Sea and South Shetland Islands.
Just as cool: Occasional voyages to the Ross Sea visit Cape Evans where Scott’s Hut (from the 1910 to 1913 British Antarctic Expedition) still stands.
What’s so cool: If you watched March of the Penguins, you’ll know what all the fuss is about. The breeding cycle of the emperor penguin is a heart-wrenching story of resilience, played out on remote sea-ice in Antarctica.
Fluffy grey chicks hatch around August and moult in December so they can head to the ocean in late summer when food is plentiful. But this means that emperors must lay their eggs in the cold, dark depths of winter and share gruelling parental duties.
Cradling a single egg on their feet, males huddle together for warmth while their mates head to sea to feed, returning nine weeks later when the chicks hatch.
North or South: Located in the remote Weddell Sea, the Snow Hill emperor penguin colony is home to around 4,000 breeding pairs and is often unreachable due to thick pack ice.
But join an icebreaker cruise and you just might get close enough for a helicopter flight that takes you to within walking distance of this extraordinary spectacle.
Just as cool: It’s all about emperors at Snow Hill, but for maximum ticks on your Antarctic birdwatching list, head to the Falklands where – as well as king, rockhopper, gentoo, macaroni and Magellanic penguins – you can spot everything from the black-browed albatross to the endemic Cobb’s wren.
What’s so cool: There’s nothing quite like the narwhal. Of all the animals with tusks – from elephants to walruses – they’re surely the most fantastical. Unicorns of the sea, these porpoise-like creatures can grow spiral tusks up to three metres long.
These projections are an extraordinary modification of the left canine tooth that grow straight through the narwhal’s upper lip.
Their purpose is not fully understood – some believe males use them in mating rituals; others say they are used to slap and stun fish. They are also packed with millions of nerve endings, so could be used in communication.
North or South: Narwhals live in the Arctic seas of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Groups of several hundred are sometimes trapped in channels – or leads – in the winter sea-ice of Baffin Bay and the Davis Strait. During summer, they are often sighted at Qikiqtarjuaq (formerly Broughton Island) along with their close relatives, the beluga whale.
Just as cool: Sharing the same Arctic waters as the narwhal, bowhead whales grow to 18m in length and weigh up to 100 tonnes. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, they can now be found in large numbers in Isabella Bay on Baffin Island each summer.
What’s so cool: The Northern Lights glimmer expectantly on most travellers’ bucket lists. To experience the Aurora Borealis in full glow – luminous green and crimson veils swirling above the wintry wilderness of the far north – is utterly bewitching.
But the lights are notoriously fickle. It’s better to plan an Arctic adventure packed with activities such as snowmobiling and husky sledding, and treat any sightings of the aurora as a bonus.
North or South: To boost your chances of witnessing the northern lights, timing and location are crucial. The Aurora Borealis is visible between the autumn and spring equinoxes.
Aurora forecasts are issued by organisations such as NOAA, which monitors solar winds – the source of charged particles that interact with Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field to create the lights. A shifting band of optimal activity, draped over the Arctic Circle, is known as the auroral oval.
But while this covers northern Scandinavia, Iceland and parts of Greenland, Canada and Alaska, local conditions also affect your chances. Light pollution and cloudy skies are the aurora hunter’s nemeses. Avoid towns and cities and focus instead on wilderness areas such as Sweden’s Abisko National Park, which is renowned for its clear night skies.
Just as cool: Unless you’re a scientist based in Antarctica during the winter, the next best places to glimpse the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, are Stewart Island, Ushuaia and the Falkland Islands.
What’s so cool: Starting just north of Fairbanks, the Dalton Highway arrows north for 666km, crossing the Yukon River and Brooks Range before traversing the Arctic coastal plain to reach Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay on the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Originally built as a supply route for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the pioneering road also enables adventurous travellers to explore the rugged landscapes of Alaska’s far north.
Choose a summer road trip for the midnight sun and amazing wildlife of the Arctic tundra, or opt for a daring winter drive for an opportunity to see the northern lights.
North or South: The Dalton Highway bisects two spectacular wilderness areas: the Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) – both home to grizzly bears, muskoxen and large herds of caribou.
Around 300,000 migratory snow geese can be found in the ANWR from late August to September, while polar bears den along its northern fringes, with mothers and cubs emerging in late March or April.
Just as cool: Self-sufficient travellers can access the Gates of the Arctic National Park by floatplane. But once dropped off, you’re on your own, so experience of low-impact wilderness camping is essential.
What’s so cool: High above the Arctic Circle, in the far north of Finland, the polar night banishes the sun for almost two months during midwinter – a period in December and January known as kaamos. It’s not a time of complete darkness, though.
From mid-morning to mid-afternoon, the land is bathed in an eerie glow: a kind of polar twilight that infuses sky, snow, mountain and forest with hues of deep blue.
According to the indigenous Sámi people, this is dálvve – the longest of eight seasons that they recognise. While their reindeer herds browse on lichen hidden under the snow, the Sámi keep warm in tepee-like lavvu tents or venture outside to go ice fishing.
North or South: The polar night is a phenomenon of both Arctic and Antarctic winters. But because the Antarctic is far less accessible, it’s mainly scientists at polar bases that get to witness – or endure – it. By contrast, the Arctic polar night can be experienced from a cosy log cabin in Finland or a modern hotel in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.
Just as cool: Travel to the Arctic Circle and you can see the midnight sun from mid-June to early July. At higher latitudes, the sun doesn’t set from April to August, while the North Pole has six months of midnight sun (late March to late September).
What’s so cool: Snowmobiling might get you there faster, but there’s nothing more exhilarating or satisfying than mushing your own team of huskies through the frozen wilderness of the Arctic.
Sign up and you’ll be taught all the basics – from fitting dog harnesses to steering your sled and braking.
Once off on your canine-powered thrill ride, the huskies will settle into a steady rhythm and all you’ll hear is their panting and the rasp of snow beneath the sled’s runners.
Despite their wild appearance and manic barking prior to departure, the dogs are incredibly affectionate and you’ll quickly bond with them.
North or South: One of the most popular winter activities offered by lodges, husky sledding is available right across the Arctic, from the Canadian Yukon and Greenland to Spitsbergen and Lapland.
Choose anything from a few hours of gentle mushing to a more challenging multi-day expedition. Alternatively, you can just opt to ride in the sled.
Just as cool: Known as ‘the last great race on Earth’, the Iditarod is a gruelling 1,600km dog-sled dash across Alaska each March, from Anchorage to Nome on the Bering Sea coast.
This year’s winner was Peter Kaiser, whose dogs completed the marathon mush in just nine-and-a-half days.
What’s so cool: Workhorses of the polar regions, snowmobiles are not only easy to get the hang of (thumb throttle on the right, brake on the left), but they can also cover the kind of distances and terrain that would otherwise require a full-scale expedition by husky sled or on cross-country skis. They’re also great fun.
Slip into an all-in-one polar suit, don helmet and mitts and off you go: hurtling across the icy expanse of a frozen lake in Finnish Lapland or weaving through snow-clad forest trails in the Yukon.
Snowmobiling tours can last anything from a few hours to several days, spending the nights in cosy wilderness lodges. All you need is your driving licence and a sense of adventure.
North or South: Unless you’re bound for the South Pole, you’ll likely opt for a snowmobile excursion in the Arctic. Lodges throughout Lapland, northern Norway and the Canadian Arctic offer skidoo safaris – often with an added twist such as Aurora Borealis watching or moose spotting.
For something more epic, head to Greenland or Svalbard where longer snowmobile trips take you to remote fjords.
Just as cool: Imagine riding in a snowcat through the polar night in Svalbard, or hopping in a hovercraft at Brändön Lodge for a spin across Sweden’s frozen Gulf of Bothnia…
What’s so cool: Many Antarctic cruises offer optional activities designed to give you a more intimate brush with the Great White Continent – and camping is one of the most popular.
Some operators provide tents, while others simply give you a camping mat and thermal sleeping bag. Don’t expect to sleep much – you’re bound to be captivated by the hubbub of nearby penguin colonies or creaking tidewater glaciers.
And as camping excursions are usually high summer affairs, you’ll also be wide-eyed as the sun dips towards the horizon, then climbs again, painting the sky peach and orange during the seamless Antarctic dusk-dawn.
North or South: If a single night on the ice during an Antarctic cruise gives you a taste for polar camping, you can spend longer at a tented camp in Svalbard or the Canadian Arctic.
Changing location throughout winter and spring, the camps are reached by snowmobile and feature dining tents, delicious food and cosy beds.
Just as cool: For the most pampered way to sleep on ice, Swedish Lapland’s ICEHOTEL now features deluxe suites complete with ice beds strewn with reindeer furs and heated en suite bathrooms and saunas, all surrounded by spectacular ice sculptures.
What’s so cool: From Southern Ocean odysseys linking South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula to equally epic voyages exploring the Russian Arctic, circumnavigating Svalbard or probing the Northwest Passage, expedition cruises embody the free-spirited adventure of great polar explorers such as Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott.
Modern-day expedition ships follow in the wake of historic vessels such as the Endeavour and Terra Nova. But unlike those often ill-fated polar adventurers of the past, today’s operators use high-tech navigation and ice-strengthened ships to take you to the ends of the earth.
North or South: You can get a real sense of the history of Antarctic exploration at Grytviken, South Georgia – stopping point for many early expeditions and the site of Shackleton’s grave.
In the Russian Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, historic sites include the remains of a hut at Cape Norway used by Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen in the winter of 1895-96 following their failed North Pole expedition.
Just as cool: The starting point for Amundsen’s airship journey in 1926 when he became the first person to reach the North Pole, Ny-Ålesund in northwest Spitsbergen is now an international polar research station that can be visited on summer voyages.
What’s so cool: The long days of summer, coupled with the warming touch of the midnight sun, bring the Arctic to life, flushing the tundra with gentians, saxifrages and other plants desperate to flower and set seed before the long, dark winter returns.
Seabirds, geese, Arctic foxes and caribou seize the moment to rear their young, but perhaps the most astonishing wildlife event during the Arctic summer is the annual gathering of thousands of beluga at the mouth of the Churchill River.
Zodiacs and kayaks get you eye-to-eye with these ‘white whales’, while hydrophones enable you to eavesdrop on their chirpy repertoire of calls.
North or South: Migrating to coastal waters to give birth, approximately 3,500 beluga move into the Churchill River basin in July and August from Hudson Bay – home to around 60,000 of these curious, almost friendly cetaceans.
Known as the accessible Arctic, Churchill in Manitoba province is easily reached by rail or air from Winnipeg.
Just as cool: During October and November, polar bears gather on the tundra around Churchill, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can move on to the sea ice to hunt seals.
Dubbed ‘the polar bear capital of the world’, the town offers bear-watching safaris in giant-wheeled tundra rovers.
What’s so cool: Greenland is a fascinating mix of ancient traditions and modern twists. In the capital, Nuuk, you’ll discover a buzzing Arctic metropolis where restaurants fuse French, Thai and Japanese cuisine with local delicacies such as ptarmigan and halibut.
Venture to smaller, more remote settlements and you’ll find that seal hunting is still the primary source of income. At Sisimiut, locals rely on dogsleds as much as snowmobiles, while old traditions flourish at Inuit settlements such as Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, where soapstone is sculpted into exquisite figurines.
North or South: Originally from northwest Alaska, the Inuit – Inuktitut for ‘the people’ – began migrating in waves across Arctic Canada about a thousand years ago, before entering Greenland around AD1250. Their homeland now stretches over 5,000km from the Bering Strait to the coast of eastern Greenland.
Just as cool: Before you become immersed in its culture and traditions, your first impression of modern day Greenland could well be a rainbow-coloured town scattered across rocky slopes above an iceberg-strewn fjord.
Different colours once depicted each building’s function: blue for fish factory, black for police station, and so on. Nowadays, though, any colour goes.
What’s so cool: With 24-hour daylight during the boreal and austral summers, your opportunities for whale watching within the Arctic or Antarctic Circles are endless.
If a pod of minke or humpback whales happens to appear at 2am, simply head outside and enjoy the sight. Under clear skies, their blows rise like golden exclamation marks under the midnight sun; their backs glistening in the perpetual light.
There’s also a scientific reason why cetacean spotting is so rewarding during high summer in the polar regions. The longer, warmer days trigger an explosion of life, luring numerous whale species to the colder waters to feed.
North or South: Given fair weather, the sun is visible for 24 hours around the summer solstice (21 June in the Arctic and 22 December in Antarctica).
How long the midnight sun season extends either side of these dates depends on how close you get to the poles. In Svalbard, for example, the sun doesn’t set between mid-April and the end of August.
Just as cool: A total solar eclipse will be visible from Antarctica in December 2021, but you’ll need to book a voyage to the remote Weddell Sea to witness it.
What’s so cool: Few wildlife experiences are more captivating than crouching next to a colony of inquisitive, trusting penguins. Make that several hundred thousand king penguins and you’ll be totally enthralled.
They breed in such numbers on the remote, sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia that their massed ranks transform entire bays into a monochromatic mêlée, flecked with the bright flashes of their orange bills, throats and ear patches.
Though individual king penguins breed every other year, the rookeries are in constant use, so you might well see adults incubating eggs or crèches of chicks.
North or South: Rearing above the Southern Ocean in a defiant scimitar of dragon-back peaks, South Georgia is over 2,000km east of Tierra del Fuego. It’s often included in circular cruises combining the Falkland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula.
No fewer than 65 million birds are thought to breed here, including over 450,000 pairs of king penguins in rookeries at St Andrews Bay, Gold Harbour and Salisbury Plain.
Just as cool: Voyaging through the South Shetland Islands and along the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll encounter large colonies of chinstrap, gentoo and Adélie penguins on King George Island, Elephant Island, Half Moon Island and Petermann Island.
Sign up today for free and be the first to get notified of new articles, new competitions, new events and more!