As interest in post-pandemic polar travel grows, Sarah Marshall shares her insights on how to plan the perfect trip to the Arctic and Antarctica
It’s hard to make any great predictions about foreign travel over the next few months, but one thing is for certain: tourists are set to be bolder in their choice of destination, with bigger trips in store.
Bucket-list adventures and once-in-a-lifetime escapades will be topping most wish lists as we seek to make up for travel time lost in the past year. Already, tour operators have seen increased interest in itineraries to Antarctic and the Arctic, with some companies even releasing trips for 2023.
Tempted by the big freeze? Here are a few things to consider before taking the polar plunge.
North or South: where should I go?
Although both poles are frozen kingdoms at opposite ends of the earth, there are several distinct differences. The North Pole is essentially ice surrounded by land, while Antarctica is land (the world’s seventh continent, in fact) surrounded by ice.
Most journeys south concentrate on the Peninsula, a thin strip of land curling from Antarctica towards the tip of Argentina. There are pricier expeditions further inland to climb mountains and search for colonies of emperor penguins, but at around €35k-plus, they are beyond most people’s reach. Instead, travellers head either west or east along the Peninsula and her islands, depending on levels of ice and their chosen interest.
Tourism in the Arctic, on the other hand, is mainly divided between trips to the Canadian Arctic and Svalbard (an archipelago under Norwegian sovereignty).
Because of its scale and the abundance of guaranteed wildlife sightings, many would argue Antarctica is the most dramatic option – although every area has its appeal. If you’re a polar newbie, Svalbard is the easiest and cheapest region to reach.
What wildlife will I see?
First, make a choice between birds and bears: polar bears live in the north while penguins are only found down south. If you’re urging to see ursus, Churchill in Canada has some of the biggest gatherings, especially in September when tours are conducted on specialised tundra buggies.
Although much harder to track, sightings of bears in Svalbard can be more rewarding. Dwarfed by tumbling glaciers and spikey mountains, the buttery blobs are trickier to spot – but the setting is as wild as it gets.
If plumping for penguins, Antarctica is the only choice. Thousands of Adelies, chinstraps and gentoos gather along the Peninsula, so you’ll almost be sick of the sound (and smell) after a few days. Emblazoned with distinctive gold collars, king penguins only reside in the subantarctic islands of South Georgia and the Falklands, along with colonies of rockhoppers.
Humpbacks, blue whales and orcas can be found navigating waters at either end – with populations bounding back in recent decades, thanks to bans on whaling.
Likewise, birdlife is equally healthy at both poles, although avian addicts will be overwhelmed by the cliffs of Alkefjellet in Svalbard, where clouds of kittiwakes and guillemots billow like smoke.
What about human history?
Multiple explorers have attempted to conquer the white continent by traversing its empty desert, but no-one has ever managed to colonise it. The only signs of human settlement are expedition huts preserved almost perfectly in the deep freeze, along with modern-day research stations.
Antarctica’s most chilling recollections of the past can be found on Deception Island and subantarctic island South Georgia, where rusted blubber ovens are the remains of a decimating whaling industry. It’s a similar story in Svalbard, where the ocean giants were slain by sailors in the 17th and 18th century.
But in terms of human history, the most intriguing area is the Canadian Arctic, where indigenous communities have eked out a living on the ice for thousands of years.
The history of foreign exploration also dates back much further, with countless sailors spurred by a mission to find the Northwest Passage – a fabled trade route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, now ironically opened up by melting ice and climate change.
Cruises following the Passage stop at islands such as Beechey Island and Devon Island, in a stretch of water where 19th century British explorer Sir John Franklin mysteriously lost his two ships Erebus and Terror, both of which were only recently found.
I get seasick. Are there any other options?
Most polar itineraries use cruise ships to access remote areas and provide a good degree of comfort once back onboard. Newer, modern vessels fare much better in stormy weather, but if the idea of crossing the Drake Passage is still too unnerving, there are other options for accessing the Peninsula.
Taking off from Punta Arenas in Chile, flights land directly in King George Island in the South Shetland Islands, cutting out the notoriously stormy body of water between South America and Antarctica. Once you’re weaving in between islands, the water is typically glassy and calm.
To see polar bears in Svalbard, you’ll need to set sail. But if it’s a taste of Arctic life that appeals, it is possible to do a land-based stay in Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen during winter (December to March), when activities include husky rides, snowmobile safaris and looking for northern lights.
For land-based polar bear tours, Churchill in Canada is ideal.
When is the best time to travel?
The Antarctic season generally starts from early November until early March. Most photographers prefer to travel at the start of the season, when there are still long pink polar dawns and purple dusks.
Depending on the penguin species, chicks can be seen throughout the season, but December and January are generally the best times to see hatchlings. February and March are the top choice for cetacean sightings, and itineraries focused on crossing the polar circle depart at this time.
Cruises to the Arctic take place in the summer, roughly from June to September. In Svalbard, it’s generally easier to find marine-dwelling bears in June and July when there’s more ice; as the weeks progress, most bears found are those stranded on land. In September, however, the light is glorious, as sunrises and sunsets return. There’s also an opportunity to circumnavigate the archipelago, rewarding visitors with dramatic scenery.
How can I choose the right cruise ship?
Prior to the pandemic, the polar regions were set to have their busiest seasons, with an increasing number of ships setting sail. When selecting a voyage, first decide on size: bigger ships might have more facilities, but they won’t all be able to tuck into certain sites of interest. It’s worth noting, most locations have a maximum visitor number of 100 at a time, so excursions might take longer as guests are rotated.
Other important considerations include the speed of engines, sustainability policies adopted by the cruise company, the calibre of naturalists and speakers on board, and any additional activities offered. Some companies, for example, sell kayaking, overnight camping on the ice and even snorkelling.
In many ways, nature has flourished during lockdown: trees in city parks have breathed the cleanest air in decades, emboldened foxes are strutting along residential streets as if they own them, and the cast of critters in Springwatch has never seemed healthier.