Active & adventure holidays: Penguins or polar bears?

Active & adventure holidays: Penguins or polar bears?

How do you choose between the Arctic and the Antarctic? Joanna Booth finds out

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Have you felt the David Attenborough Effect yet? It’s up there with Lumley Force as one of travel’s great motivators.

The Poles are the latest destinations to see their star rising as a result of David. The BBC’s smash-hit Frozen Planet series has ignited our desire to visit the white worlds of the Arctic and the Antarctic, and polar expedition cruising is doing very nicely, thank you, as a result.

Operators are reacting to the interest. Explore has 19 new polar itineraries for the 2012-13 season, G Adventures’ sales are up 15% year on year, and Exodus reports a marked increase in both interest and bookings. Transun, famous for its northern lights itineraries, now offers a full programme of both Arctic and Antarctic cruises.

Expedition cruise ships give passengers the chance to enjoy the remote beauty of icebergs and, if they’re lucky, polar mammals and birds. Zodiac trips, camping and sea-kayaking are available too.

THE ARCTIC


For travellers from the UK, the Arctic is much the easier to access of the two, and the waters tend to be relatively calm, so it’s a better bet for nervous sailors. Choose the Arctic for polar bear, walrus and reindeer, and to see fjords as well as glaciers. Voyages run during the Arctic’s summer, between May and September, when they enjoy 24 hours of sunlight.

The most common spot for polar cruising is Spitsbergen, the largest island of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago and the wildlife capital of the Arctic. There’s a range of ships and itineraries so it’s pretty tourist friendly, as polar travel goes.

Most travellers fly into Longyearben and can pack a trip into a week, for example G Adventures’ eight-day Realm of the Polar Bear, which starts from £2,269 land only.

Some cruises depart from UK shores, so it’s possible not to fly at all. The coasts of the world’s largest island, Greenland, are sometimes added to Spitsbergen itineraries, but can also be visited on their own after a short stopover in Iceland.

Transun recommends visiting the west coast between May and July for whale watching and fjords, and north and east later in the season for polar bears, glaciers and expanses of tundra.

Even more remote is Franz Josef Land, an archipelago of nearly 200 islands north of Russia. The craters have given it the nickname Moon Archipelago, and it’s only slightly easier to reach than its namesake, accessible for a very limited time each year and requiring not only a Russian visa, but a special permit.

Priciest of all is a cruise to the true North Pole. There are often just one or two departures a year, leaving from Murmansk in northwestern Russia in July.

Nuclear-powered icebreaker 50 Years Of Victory has its own helicopter so travellers willing to shell out £15,000 on a two-week trip can see the Pole from every angle. The trip is available through Quark Expeditions and Transun.

Passengers travelling in 2013 will be able to cruise Arctic itineraries on Quark’s luxury all-suites ship, Sea Spirit. Previously only used in the Antarctic, it will start sailing Spitsbergen and Greenland itineraries too.

Exodus has two new Arctic trips, a Spitsbergen Family Adventure with a minimum traveller age of 10, and the 10-day Greenland: Scorsebysund by Schooner on a 12-berth ship.

A schooner cruise is new for Explore this season too, around south Spitsbergen. The eight-day trip starts from £1,590.

Arctic or Antarctic

ANTARCTICA


Remote, pristine and stunning, Antarctica really is the final frontier. The shortest itinerary requires at least a fortnight, as clients will need to fly to Ushuaia in Argentina, the embarkation point for most cruises.

The crossing over the infamous Drake Passage to the Antarctic peninsula can be choppy, though it is possible to avoid this with a fly and cruise option, available through operators such as Quark Expeditions and Exodus.

But the effort – and cost – are worth it. Visitors cruise past 5,000-metre-high mountain peaks, glaciers calving icebergs into the sea, penguins, seals, and minke and humpback whales breaching. Temperatures hover just above freezing in the Antarctic summer, with cruises running between October and March.

The shorter itineraries visit the South Shetland Islands and the closest points of the Antarctic Peninsula after crossing the Drake Passage. KE Adventures’ Antarctic Classic (from £3,269 land-only), lasts 12 days.

Longer options visit the Falkland Islands for its extraordinary bird life and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands for king penguins.

Venturing further around the Antarctic peninsula, Explore’s new 11-day Weddell Sea and Emperor Penguins tour sails to the pristine area made famous in March of the Penguins, giving clients the chance to see the imposing emperor penguins, black-browed albatross and Weddell seals. Travelling in November, the voyage costs from £3,025 excluding flights.

For those inspired by the great Antarctic explorers, the operator has a new Ross Sea Odyssey voyage, a 31-day expedition that curves around the Antarctic continent, beginning in Argentina and ending in New Zealand. It visits the stations and huts used by Scott and Shackleton – particularly timely, as this year is the centenary of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.

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