The destination beloved of ecologists, artists and politicians seeking to prove their eco-credentials is becoming more accessible, thanks to enterprising operators and a new generation of wilderness-seeking travellers who eschew heat in favour of killer whales, polar bears and lungfuls of the cleanest air in the world.
For tour operator G Adventures, which claims to run the best value trips to the frozen north, sales have increased 15 per cent year on year. “Some of that can be attributed to Frozen Planet,” says a spokeswoman. “The expedition market has grown, with customers realising the Arctic is accessible by taking a flight to Norway.”
She adds that expedition cruises are particularly popular with the adventurous over-50s clientele, to which we can only say, “But of course.”
Kayaking and whale watching
G Adventures’ vessel M/S Expedition goes to the Arctic, the Antarctic and, next year, to the developing zone of West Africa. The Arctic trip includes kayaking and spotting orcas, humpback whales and polar bears.
It is the most powerful icebreaker on the planet and has a helicopter on board, so travellers can get even closer to the Pole
The company offers a “100 per cent Bear-antee!” and says: “If clients don’t spot a polar bear, every passenger on board will be credited the value of their cruise to put toward a future M/S Expedition Arctic cruise.” Confident, then.
Quark Expeditions, which says it is the world leader in polar adventures, also reports an increase in passenger numbers. The 2011-12 season is up ten per cent on the previous year.
“We hope this will be an outstanding Arctic season,” says company president Hans Lagerweij. “With smaller, more efficient vessels we can provide access to the Arctic but also help preserve the indigenous wildlife and rugged beauty.”
Quark’s 2013 season has been expanded to include icebreaker adventures to the North Pole and luxury expeditions to Spitsbergen, Greenland and Iceland.
From next year, its luxury all-suites adventure ship, the Sea Spirit, will be used on the company’s Spitsbergen, Greenland or Iceland itineraries.
It also has the 50 Years of Victory, a marvellously-named Russian scientific vessel that is the most powerful icebreaker on the planet. The 50 Years has a helicopter on board, so travellers can get even closer to the Pole.
Back on the planks, cruise company Hurtigruten sails along the chilly magnificence of Norway’s northern coast up to the far North in Kirkenes (beyond the Arctic Circle) and Spitsbergen, even further north. It is an undoubtedly beautiful journey.
“There is no dressing for dinner and no fighting for the Captain’s table,” says a spokeswoman. “This is about immersing yourself in the heart of the destination‘s culture.”
Journey to the South Pole
At the other end of the world, there is great tourist intrigue this year in Antartica, driven by the 100th anniversary of the epic struggle of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his men to conquer the South Pole in 1912.
“There is amazing interest in Scott,” says Heather Lane, keeper of the collection and librarian at the Scott Polar Research Institute and Museum in Cambridge (itself a visitor attraction, refurnished last year and containing the world’s best collection of art and artefacts about of polar exploration). “We had 40,000 visitors last year, and are expecting 50,000 this year.”
Lane thinks part of the Scott fascination derives from Britain’s particular love of explorers and exploration. Tourism is restricted, but one operator that does go to Antarctica is White Desert, part of the Mantis Group, which takes travellers to stay at Whichaway, its luxury camp, and can include the Emperor penguin colony.
The company travels there in Anarctica’s summer, so you won’t have to endure Captain Scott-style hardship. You’ll pay for the privilege: from eu25,200 for three days and up to eu56,000 for an expedition that actually goes to the South Pole, leaving in December this year.
With 12 guests on each adventure, the experience is bespoke. And, at a time when tourists are being signed up to visit space, Antarctica remains the planet’s last great wilderness. “There are many places in Antarctica that humans have not been, and that we cannot hope to conquer,” says Lane.
But really, either polar region will give the intrepid traveller terrific water-cooler cred.
The Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge
The Natural History Museum is showing Scott’s Last Expedition until 2 September
Realm of the Polar Bear: an eight-day tour with G Adventures, from £2,269pp for departures on 3 August 2012. This is the trip for spotting orca and humpback whales. Phone 0844 272 2040
Quark’s North Pole voyages start from £14,190 for twin occupancy for 14 days. Packages to Spitsbergen and Greenland cost from around £4,000
White Desert: Antarctica trips from a luxury base camp