Travelers to the polar region can explore glacial caves in Iceland. // © 2015 iStock
Feature image (above): Visitors to Norway can use snowmobiles to herd reindeer. // © 2015 iStock
Mention polar travel to adventurers and one of two things happen: Eyes widen in either chilly withdrawal or anticipatory embrace.
It’s easy to understand why.
The polar region, which covers one-sixth of the Earth, is the source of generations of lore and legends. It’s a land of mystery that calls to the hearts of explorers — the grinding and crackling of calving glacier ice is music to their ears, and the dim, twinkling lights of barely inhabitable settlements on the polar fringe stand in contrast to the miles of flaring auroras overhead.
Each country that shares this region has its own appeal for adventurers. Here are just a few of the options available at the top of the world.
Norway and Iceland
The best way to experience the grandeur of Norway’s signature snowcapped mountains that tower above saltwater fjords is by cruising along the country’s coastline. Holland America Line (HAL), among other cruise lines, offers a wide selection of polar exploration packages for a variety of abilities and budgets that take in the sights of Norway and Iceland. Favorites include the 21-day Viking Sagas and North Cape; the 36-day Viking Passage and Voyage of the Vikings; and the 20-day Norwegian, Spitsbergen and Icelandic Explorer.
Erik Elvejord, director of public relations for HAL, says that agents should focus on the unique nature of the destinations when planning with clients.
“Well-traveled clients who have already journeyed to Asia or Europe are the perfect prospects for a polar adventure,” Elvejord said. “It won’t take much for an agent to sell to clients who are cruise-savvy and know what to expect onboard. Sell the highlights of a destination — not the highlights of a cruise — because seasoned explorers will already know the benefits of being onboard the ship.”
Not all of Norway’s adventures are above water. Responsible Vacations offers experienced scuba divers an eight- to 10-day Arctic Diving Holiday, Marine Life and Wildlife Expedition. When clients are not diving, the focus turns to marine-mammal viewing and photography in the waters near Hinlopen Strait and Nordaustlandet Island. All diving is in 30 to 60 feet for optimal visibility and safety, and professional guides offer photography workshops and evening seminars on Arctic ecology.
“Polar waters offer a photo-rich environment,” said Tim Williamson, director of marketing for Responsible Vacations. “Our guests capture one-of-a-kind videos and photos of Arctic invertebrates, huge kelp beds and sea life near icebergs and shelf ice.”
Explorers who pass on diving can instead opt for a nine-day Saami reindeer migration adventure from Responsible Vacations. This is an immersion expedition for the experienced backcountry adventurer. The Saami people use snowmobiles to herd reindeer, and participants work long, hard hours to help them push these animals to their spring and summer ranges. While not a prerequisite, survival skills are a plus, as dangerous whiteouts are common.
Krystina Price, a travel and wellness specialist and founder and CEO of BoomerBroadsAbroad.com, recommends Iceland for a more mellow experience — particularly a soak in therapeutic hot springs.
“Casual soaking takes place all day, every day and into the night in Reykjavik,” she said. “It’s a safe, wonderful and inexpensive opportunity to soak with the locals after exploring the natural geysers that are found all over this magical terrain.”
Sweden and Finland
Sweden is a land of sumptuous food and Viking culture with warm, friendly people who know how to celebrate life in most everything they do.
Clients can sample the Swedes’ generous hospitality in Jukkasjarvi at Icehotel, the largest ice hotel in the world, as well as an impressive piece of seasonal architecture. More than 2,500 blocks of ice weighing 2 tons each are harvested from the nearby Torne River, assembled each year by hundreds of workers and fine-tuned into art by ice sculptors. The temperature in the hotel remains at a constant 23 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The hotel is not just a destination, but also an experience,” said Christian Wunder, guest services manager for Icehotel. “We have more than 50,000 guests visit us each year. Many of them have not slept in a subzero hotel before, and some have never even slept in a sleeping bag.”
During its December to April winter season, the hotel becomes a base for reindeer and dogsledding excursions, aurora viewing and ice sculpting. The hotel also hosts 80-plus weddings each year. Tell clients to be sure to check out the hotel’s ice lounge — it’s a nonstop party.
For travelers seeking a bit more excitement, recommend an expedition based out of Helsinki offered by Responsible Vacations that traverses air, sea and ice to ultimately reach the geographic North Pole.
“We feature an expedition voyage onboard an ice breaker ideally suited to handle the Arctic pack ice, with the additional opportunity to take helicopter flights for aerial viewing,” Williamson said. “It’s the only way to go. Not only will you reach the North Pole and the ‘top of the world,’ but you will also explore the remote archipelago of Franz Josef Land.”
Greenland is the world’s largest non-continent island, consisting of ice fields and tidewater glaciers well above the Arctic Circle. It’s a land of extremes — in both weather and terrain — that appeals to hard-core adventurers.
For ski enthusiasts, Pioneer Expeditions offers a north-to-south, cross-country skiing trek of Liverpool Land, a seldom visited peninsula on Greenland’s east coast.
The 18-day, 75-mile trek winds along coastal sea ice before heading into glacially carved coastal mountains. On the excursion, clients will view numerous fjords, sea ice and alpine barren lands along rugged steep ascents and descents of mountainous and glacial terrain and ice caps. Possible wildlife sightings here include whales, polar bears, reindeer and seals.
For an easier way to explore Greenland’s rugged perimeter, a 10-day cruise from Polar Cruises takes in Greenland’s towns, culture and massive ice sheets and glaciers from both near and far. This is a cruise for iceberg lovers: Greenland’s ’bergs can be as wide as a football field and a half-mile long — second in size only to those in Antarctica. Photographers will want to focus on the abundant marine life, and there is also ample opportunity on shore excursions to learn about the Inuit culture and visit local shops and small museums.
While Moscow and St. Petersburg are popular tourist destinations for their culture, travelers who want a taste of polar Russia must look north to Kamchatka. Visitors who can pass up fancy borscht dinners and political museums will eat fresh fish and wild plants while whitewater rafting and trekking along remote shorelines.
Igor Tenyuta, a marketing specialist with Travel All Russia, has 10 years of experience planning custom adventure tours throughout Russia’s polar regions. He says one of his most rugged trips is the Three Volcanos tour of Kamchatka.
“It’s an 11-day tour where clients can explore several of the most diverse volcanoes in this region,” he said. “Clients can experience all forms of volcanism — from boiling hot springs to mud pots, steam jets, hot fields and geysers.”
The trip includes an eight-hour ascent of Avachinsky volcano, one of the most active in Kamchatka, followed by a trek up Mutnovsky volcano. At its higher elevations, Gorely volcano offers 11 craters filled with lakes, snow, ice and steaming fumaroles. An optional, must-do tour is a visit to the Valley of the Geysers in Kronotsky Reserve. Other portions of the expedition include rafting and fishing the Bystraya River and taking a relaxing soak at one of the health resorts at the Paratunka geothermal hot springs.
Monika Tamosiunaite, destination specialist for Firebird Tours, says that Russia’s limited access and lack of roads make a ship the best way to explore the country’s polar east. She recommends the 50-passenger Spirit of Enderby, an expedition vessel that serves as a floating base for custom exploration tours and research in the region, including remote Wrangel Island.
Wrangel Island is the polar equivalent to the Galapagos Islands in terms of wildlife diversity and concentrations. Expect seals, walrus, whales, polar bears and birds.
A third of mainland Alaska lies above the Arctic Circle, and access is as difficult as any other polar region. Fortunately, Alaska offers agents and their clients a familiar experience with a common currency and language, as well as a certain familiarity thanks to popular reality television shows.
Do-it-youselfers who want a taste of the Alaska Arctic might enjoy driving the Dalton Highway on their own or joining one of several summer and winter tours that cross the Arctic Circle. Northern Alaska Tour Company offers a variety of tours that include visiting the Brooks Range, the Arctic Ocean, the coastal city of Barrow or the Arctic Coastal Plain.
Bush plane is the transport of choice for exploring the rest of polar Alaska.
“You don’t find big resorts north of Alaska’s Arctic Circle,” said Amy Geiger, director of communications for Explore Fairbanks. “Most of the great adventuring opportunities are do-it-yourself trips, remote lodge or cabin adventures and guided treks.”
Polar exploration is a great opportunity for your clients to see some of the Earth’s wildest regions and remarkable destinations. Sadly, it’s also an environment that is quickly changing due to global warming. Encourage your clients to visit the polar region now, before its unique offerings change forever.
A Self-Drive Arctic Adventure
Many travelers like to combine a visit to the Yukon with an Alaska cruise-tour or plan expeditions that include long-range dogsledding, river rafting and trekking. But for adventurers on a budget, the Yukon offers the longest stretch of do-it-yourself polar exploration.
The Dempster Highway, the only public road in Canada that crosses the Arctic Circle, is a 10-day driving route that includes historical locales, fishing, rafting, hiking and opportunities for wildlife photography. The isolation and variable conditions can prove challenging for some, but easy access to alpine tundra, abundant wildlife and views of the Richardson Mountains make for epic bragging rights.