Polar travel advice, including tips on travel in Antarctica and the Arctic, and where to see polar bears and penguins

The Arctic and Antarctica were once the preserve of extraordinary polar explorers, of whalers and trappers, and – in the case of the Arctic Circle – of nomadic indigenous people. However, these icy wildernesses that once seemed so remote are now accessible to all.

Several countries fall within the Arctic Circle – parts of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the USA (Alaska). An estimated 650,000 indigenous people live here today, although they live in settlements and buy food at the supermarket rather than live off the land as they once had to do.

For the visitor it is the wildlife, the wilderness and the remoteness that bring them, as well as natural phenomena such as the midnight sun and the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). However, once here the history and culture of the peoples can fascinate just as much. You can explore the oceans and coastlines of the area on an expedition cruise, or you can stay in any of the countries that fall within the Arctic, perhaps having a go at dog sledding or snowmobiling, or enjoying the brief, bright summers.

Antarctica is very different to the Arctic. For a start, there are no polar bears; instead this is the land of the penguin. There are no permanent populations of people either. Stunning icebergs of myriad sizes, shapes and colours dot the water. Antarctica is everything you expect but much more too. This is a destination that certainly lives up to the hype, and Antarctica’s haunting beauty will stick with you forever.

A growing number of visitors are making it to this terra incognita, usually on an expedition cruise. However, you should still be able to avoid other people, other than your fellow passengers, and get to appreciate the solitude. A trip here isn't for those who like a fixed itinerary: Antarctica’s weather is unpredictable, as is the Arctic’s, and a salutary reminder of the power of nature.

Some people find that they prefer the far North. Some find that it is Antarctica that they fall in love with. Either way, you cannot fail to be impressed, touched and moved by the Poles.

Further Reading

Top 10 polar travel experiences

Chilly, but worth it – see the best bits of the planet's icy extremes

  1. Experience the disorientating midnight sun – in the high summer months (from late-May to July in the north; December to February in the south) the sun scarcely sets, delivering 24-hour daylight, so even more time for great wildlife watching. Just be sure to pack an eye mask so you can get some sleep.
  2. Be astonished and spellbound by a display of the aurora borealis (northern lights). These sparkling particles produce incredible celestial displays; hotspots include Wiseman (Alaska), Tromso (Norway) and Abisko (Sweden).
  3. Go dog-sledding across frozen tundra – there's nothing quite like scooting across the snow behind a pack of huskies. Trips range from short jaunts, where you're driven by an expert, to multi-day wilderness expeditions where you mush your own sled.
  4. Spend a night in the Ice Hotel – Sweden's infamous winter palace offers snowy suites for super-cool sleeps. Or bed down in a schooner frozen into the ice: the two-masted Noorderlicht is purposefully frozen into the Spitsbergen ice every winter to provide the ultimate explorers' retreat.
  5. Cruise the Svalbard archipelago, looking for polar bears. By boat is by far the best way to explore the remote fjords and glaciers of this icy set of islands. Book a vessel that carries kayaks to delve even deeper.
  6. Marvel at how indigenous people, trappers and hunters, lived in the Poles year-round and without any mod-cons. You can arrange indigenous experiences throughout the Arctic – try Greenland or Iqaluit, Canada.
  7. Hang out with curious and comical penguins in Antarctica and South Georgia. There are 100,000-strong rookeries in these regions. For seriously remote birds, try a helicopter trip to Snow Hill Island.
  8. Follow in the footsteps of polar explorers, visiting the historic huts of the Ross Sea or walking Shackleton’s route on South Georgia to reach Grytviken, an old whaling station now home to an interesting museum and the great explorer's grave.
  9. Scan the skies for remarkable birds such as wandering albatross, snow petrel and the incredible Arctic tern, which migrate between the Arctic and Antarctica. Remember to pack binoculars and a good field guide.
  10. Take a Zodiac cruise around the stunning icebergs of Antarctica’s Paradise Harbour. These zippy, rigid-hulled inflatable boats will allow you to get closer to the sculptural ice and the wildlife.