Polar opposites: holidays in the Arctic and the Antarctic

The Northern Lights above a teepee
The Northern Lights: a warming experience

Arctic or Antarctic: which of the extremes is better for adventurous travellers? Chris Carter compares the north and south poles.

North or south? Polar bears or penguins? Choosing your polar escape is about setting your goals, says Wanderlust magazine. The Arctic is admittedly much easier to get to for most of us. But then again, Antarctica’s remoteness is all part of its appeal. Just to set foot on the “Great White Continent” is an achievement. On the other hand, it has no answer to the Arctic Circle’s sheer variety of landscape and wildlife – 98% of it is covered in ice. What it does have, however, is 20 million breeding penguins. And who could resist the sight of tens of thousands of king penguins on South Georgia’s Salisbury Plain?

Wild about the Antarctic

Actually, contrary to what some may think, the Antarctic is full of life, says Alexandre Meneghini in The Independent, who went on a trip organised by Greenpeace to promote the EU’s conservation efforts. “Penguins, seabirds, and different species of seals and whales could be seen at all times.” The former do not see humans as predators and can surround you for hours. “On these trips ashore, I generally had a couple of hours to shoot pictures,” she says. “On every one of them I felt like a child in a candy store.”

Wildlife-spotting in the Antarctic doesn’t have to come at the expense of comfort. The superyacht Legend, for example, a former Russian icebreaker, has its own cinema, “toasty” outdoor plunge pool, spa, gym, submersible and helipad – in fact, all the accoutrements a billionaire might need for a week’s cruise in Antarctic waters, says The Daily Telegraph’s John O’Ceallaigh.


Ship moored in the Antarctc
The Antarctic: more full of life than it looks

“I left the other passengers sipping aperitifs in the pool, and strolled to the prow to enjoy the view alone,” he says. “Threatening and magnificent, the sea was a ceaseless oil-black swill, save for a slip of baby-blue iridescence on the horizon: we were approaching our first iceberg. “Lifelong naturalists who had worked in some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems, our guides were confident that exposing Legend’s influential clients to Antarctica would produce a net benefit.” Previous wealthy passengers have been so moved by the scenery they have donated to conservation projects, and lent their own boats to research teams. And who could blame them? This is, after all, “the most beautiful place on Earth”.

Legend costs from €490,000 a week to charter through Eyos-Expeditions.com

The Arctic bright lights

Or is it? Aboard the small Saga Pearl II, over-50s tour operator Saga gives its 449 passengers a winter jacket, says Andy Lines in the Daily Mirror. But as cold as it was in Alta, northern Norway – deep in the Arctic Circle – the most warming experience was watching the “extraordinary” Northern Lights. “Saga arranged for coaches to take us 50 miles away to a spot which was renowned for the aurora.”

For the first hour, nothing. “We were given hot chocolate and home-made cakes in the local village hall before huddling around fires outside.” Then, there was a gasp. “We turned… [and] there they were – a magical, jaw-dropping sight of leaping and falling green lights.” It lasted for 20 minutes before stopping as suddenly as it had started, “as if part of an orchestrated show”.

The Aurora borealis, as the Northern Lights are also called, is “the biggest and most mysterious light show on earth” – especially when viewed from Mount Låktatjåkko in Sweden, says author John Gimlette in the FT. To get there, take the Malmbanan (“ore line”) – a mostly single-track railway line that runs from the ports of Narvik, on the Norwegian Sea, and Luleå, on the Gulf of Bothnia, tracing an arc across northern Scandinavia.

On the way, stop at Björkliden, and the Hotell Fjället – a resort since 1926 that became a refugee camp for Norwegians in 1940. “With Arctic char for dinner and deliciously tart lingonberries for breakfast, the Fjället is like a modern-day Valhalla.”

Once up in the foothills of Låktatjåkko, the trees sparkled like chandeliers in the moonlight, and “we saw plump white grouse and a fox stalking through the drifts”. Then, just before midnight, “we reached a plateau, and the sky changed. Great smudges of colour appeared, and a brilliant halo of green.”

From £2,791 per person for a 15-night cruise, Travel.Saga.co.uk. From £935 per person for three-nights on the Polar Express Train, BalticTravelCompany.com

A polar bear