Antarctica & the Arctic travel guide

The Arctic’s attractions are easy to list – Inuit culture, polar bears, walrus – and its itineraries tick off legendary names, from Svalbard and Greenland to the Northwest Passage. Stepping ashore, the forbidding suddenly becomes friendly, the cold, warm – as foxes frolic, fjords sparkle and Inuit traditions are passed from generation to generation – from carving and weaving to fishing and hunting.
 
Antarctica’s appeal is less tangible; aside from penguins and icebergs, many wonder what they could possibly spend a week cruising past in the remotest of all continents. But it is this “lack”, this removal of all reference points, which makes Antarctica so seductive. With scant life, the icebergs, ocean, and scattered islands take on enormous significance, as does the movement of sunlight and shadow, snow and storms. It’s as otherworldly as you could ever imagine, while simultaneously a slice of the earth at its most untouched.
Our Antarctica and Arctic travel guide will help you decide which polar region is right for you.

What we rate & what we don't


Our best & worst of Polar cruises

Underrated

NZ Subantarctic Islands Eastern Russia Baffin Island Lectures

New Zealand Subantarctic Islands

If Antarctica is the forgotten continent, these specks of land are the least explored part of it. Collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these five groups of Islands nurture strange megaherbs and are a haven for seabirds, as the only land for thousands of miles. Further south, Macquarie Island – once considered too “harsh” to be used as a penal colony – shelters huge penguin and seal colonies.

Eastern Russia

Navigating these waters is possible for just a few months each year. The wilderness islands include the Wrangel Nature Reserve, whose mammoth steppe vegetation is filled with strange endemic flora. Visit the remains of a 3,400 year old Eskimo camp, and look for grey whales, polar bears, musk oxen and Pacific walrus. Brown bears and smoking volcanoes can be seen along the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Baffin Island

It may not have the romantic connotations of the Northwest Passage, but enormous, frozen Baffin Island is a haven for Arctic wildlife, including walrus, seals, polar bears and huge colonies of seabirds. Sail past glaciers, fjords and Arctic plant life, looking out for rare bowhead whales. Meet the Inuit inhabitants who live a traditional lifestyle and create wonderful carvings and drawings.

Lectures

When you sign up for an outdoor adventure in a wild, polar landscape, lecture programmes may sound rather dull. But the ships’ biologists, geographers, photographers, historians and geologists share fascinating insights about the land and creatures around you. You’ll learn to identify species, and a little knowledge means you will be even more amazed by the world passing you by on deck.

Rated

Extreme wildlife Inuit culture Shore excursions Southern Islands

Extreme wildlife

The fact that any creature can survive in these landscapes is incredible enough – but the animals themselves are awe-inspiring. Orcas and huge humpback whales breach beneath huger icebergs and 3m-long leopard seals hunt penguins beneath the waves. Polar bear cubs trek across the ice to the sea, caribou migrate thousands of miles and Arctic foxes hunt gulls along the cliffs.

Inuit culture

Canada and Greenland are places to meet the Arctic locals. Hunting and fishing are the basis of Inuit life – but they are also renowned for their artworks including woven textiles, carved soapstone and antlers, and baskets. There are “Inuit games” to join in, unusual throat singing, and the chance to hear the folklore of these most northern of villages.

Shore excursions

The power of the Polar Regions is never clearer than to those venturing out in tiny inflatable zodiac boats – surrounded by whales, seals and towering bergs. Cruises tend to include one or two shore trips a day, allowing you to get up close to the wildlife, mountains and local villages. Your schedule is dictated by the weather and the ocean – simply thrilling.

Southern Islands

In the rush to reach the Antarctic, don’t miss the desolate and beautiful resting place of Shackleton: South Georgia. A 3,000m mountain ridge discharges glaciers into sheltered harbours, home to king penguins and enormous, barking elephant seals. The Falkland Islands are another unusual detour – a bit of Britain tacked onto the tip of South America, complete with penguins and red phone boxes.

Overrated

Misplaced wildlife The Northwest Passage Whale meat Fly-bys

Misplaced wildlife

Get your wildlife right when booking your polar cruise. Polar bears are only found in the Arctic – along with walrus, narwhals, caribou, Arctic foxes and musk oxen. Head south for penguins, leopard seals and elephant seals.

The Northwest Passage

The passage’s history is fascinating and brutal; this route around the top of the world was long sought. Today, however, there are much better ways to see the Arctic – with more wildlife, more culture and much better accessibility. Additionally, slapping the name “Northwest Passage” instantly equates to a higher price tag – it’s the cheeky designer label of the Arctic cruise world.

Whale meat

Defying international regulation, Norway still allows whale hunting – as well as eating whale meat. While we accept that native communities should be permitted to maintain traditional hunting practices, commercial whaling is a totally different prospect, posing a threat to the survival of the species. Don’t support it.

Fly-bys

Reaching the South Pole once took months and killed many who attempted it. Now it takes a few short hours – a snip at £30,000. Ironically, this is designated a “Specially Managed Area” to protect it – but we’re not sure how flying all this way for a few short hours fits in with this. Likewise, you can take a helicopter to the North Pole, have a glass of champagne, then head back the same day.

Know your polar cruise


THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ANTARCTICA & THE ARCTIC

They’re both at the poles of the world, they both spend half of the year in darkness and half of the year bathed in light, and they are both – mostly – covered in snow and ice. But there the similarities end. On a polar expedition you’ll discover the huge differences between these regions – and our Antarctica and Arctic travel guide will help you decide which pole is right for you.

Wildlife
A huge reason for booking a polar cruise, the wildlife that thrives in these chilly regions is astounding. But you’ll need to make tough wildlife choices – penguins are only found in the southern hemisphere (including places such as South Africa and South America as well as Antarctica), while polar bears live exclusively in the Arctic. Other key Arctic species include foxes, walrus, caribou, reindeer and musk ox; Antarctica has leopard and elephant seals. You’ll see whales in both destinations, but narwhals are only found in the north.

Culture
Save for a few brave scientists and researchers, no-one lives in Antarctica. There are, however, some four million people living in the Arctic – including many Inuit communities in Canada, Alaska and Greenland. They live largely traditional lives based around hunting and fishing, and their subsistence culture means they use almost every part of the creatures they hunt – for clothing, food, decoration, fuel or crafts. Threatened by climate change and encroaching western values, the Inuit are struggling to maintain centuries of tradition – tourism is proving to be a valuable source of income.

Latitude
Few Antarctic cruises actually make it below the Antarctic Circle. The Antarctic is colder, harsher and jammed with pack ice, so most expeditions remain along the Antarctic Peninsula, the most northerly part of the continent which actually stretches far above the polar circle.
Arctic cruises, on the other hand, take place far, far north of the Arctic Circle. Svalbard is just over 1,000km from the North Pole but, warmed by the Gulf Stream, the pack ice melts in the summer months and you can sail all around it. The west coast of Greenland has an equally mild climate, although the far reaches of the Northwest Passage – far from the Gulf Stream – experience more brutal conditions – the sailing season here is short.

Cruising
Your cruise will be hugely different depending on whether you head north or south. Once you have flown to South America, reaching Antarctica still requires a rough two-day crossing of the Drake Passage – or a two-hour flight from Punta Arenas to the South Shetland Islands, just off the Antarctic Peninsula. Many cruises also include visits to the Falkland Islands or South Georgia – extending the trip even further, but also allowing you to get your sea legs before setting sail across the passage.

Once in Antarctica, only 100 people may disembark at any one time, so passengers on larger vessels may be required to take it in turn to land. You can kayak, dive, wander amongst the penguins (keeping your distance) and even camp on the peninsula and surrounding islands.
You can fly direct to your departure point in the Arctic – so your Arctic cruise begins as soon as you set sail. This means those pressed for time can make the most of shorter expeditions. There’s also likely to be more shore time, with more opportunities for trekking, kayaking, snowshoeing and even dog sledding – but camping’s not usually an option here, thanks to the polar bears…

Much less visited, Eastern Siberia as well as the remote Ross Sea and New Zealand Subantarctic Islands are different adventures altogether, so read our Arctic and Antarctic guides to learn more about these wild regions.
Photo credits: [shags flying: Liam Quinn] [NZ Subantarctic Islands: lin padgham] [Eastern Russia: Eric Pheterson] [lectures: Eli Duke] [Baffin: Mike Beauregard] [polar bears: jidanchaomian] [shore excursions: Kathy] [southern: Gregory "Greg" Smith] [Innuit Art: Sugared Glass] [south pole flyin: Eli Duke] [Penguins: 23am.com] [whale meat: Kent Wang] [Northwest passage: NASA ICE] [cruising: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] [: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] [trampoline: Christine Zenino] [Disembark: Polar cruises]
Written by Vicki Brown
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