Mention the polar regions of Antarctica and the Arctic, and almost immediately visions of frozen tundra, majestic glaciers and polar bears appear. However, although these can be expected, there are stark differences between these two seemingly similar areas.
The isolated continent of Antarctica is an ultimate wilderness where peace, tranquillity and solitude prevail. The spectacular and dramatic scenery is dominated by jagged snowy mountains, dazzling glaciers and giant blue icebergs. Vast colonies of penguins, minke and humpback whales, leopard seals and a host of sea bird species give life to the frozen landscape.
A voyage to this fascinating place guarantees a truly unforgettable and enriching experience, and the changing climate and moving icebergs ensure that no two days are alike.
Far north, inside the Arctic Circle, lies a pristine wilderness. Spectacular natural landscapes and wildlife found nowhere else on Earth enchant visitors to this stark yet magical region, shaped by raw elements. Here, only mountain peaks penetrate the massive ice fields, and icebergs fill the fjords and inlets of the rugged coastlines. In the summer months, an astounding array of sea birds nest on rocky cliffs and the vast stretches of tundra are home to resilient wildflowers and hardy creatures. In the darkness of winter, marvel at surreal colours of the aurora borealis.
Slightly more accessible than Antarctica, travellers can choose to stay on land – from northern Canada, Greenland, Norway and Iceland to the remote Svalbard archipelago – and hunker down to watch the northern lights from an ice hotel, experience Inuit culture and go dog sledding. Meanwhile, passenger expedition ships also cruise between destinations – with some once-in-a-lifetime expeditions crossing the North Pole itself.
Gentoo, Adélie, chinstrap and the endemic emperor penguins inhabit the Antarctic Peninsula, while magellanic, macaroni, king and spiky crested rockhopper penguins can be found in the Falklands and South Georgia. Millions of sea birds migrate south every year with some, such as the tern, coming all the way from the Arctic. Magnificent albatrosses, petrels and fulmars can be encountered during voyages, while blue-eyed shags, skuas and sheathbills are spotted along the rocky shorelines. Meanwhile, leopard and crab-eater seals bask on the ice while orcas, minke, humpback and enormous blue whales frequent the cold nutrient-rich Southern Ocean waters.
The White Continent is home to various species of penguins – gentoo, Adélie and the distinctive chinstrap. These creatures, almost comical on land yet graceful in the water, live together in large rookeries on the Antarctic Peninsula, while the largest and endemic emperor penguins inhabit the ice floes. Magellanic, macaroni, majestic king and spiky crested rockhopper penguins can be found in the Falklands and South Georgia.
Navigate through narrow waterways filled with sea ice to venture south of the Antarctic Circle and celebrate a special geographical milestone. Reaching this extreme latitude at the very bottom of the world offers opportunities to visit less-frequented landing sites and enjoy additional time for wildlife viewing.
Falling asleep in the crisp fresh air against a polar soundtrack of creaking ice under the Antarctic skies is truly unique experience. Camping is available on selected Antarctica cruise departures and you will be accompanied by expert guides.
Some 480km from the coast of Argentina in the South Atlantic lies the remote and beautiful Falkland Islands archipelago. Its vast open spaces and pristine shorelines are home to a fascinating array of sub-Antarctic animal and plant life including rockhopper and king penguins, elephant seals and a host of Southern Ocean bird species. An interesting and often turbulent history can also be discovered on these welcoming islands.
The Arctic is home to impressive species adapted to life in this harsh environment. The majestic polar bear, the most recognisable icon of this far north region, is the world’s largest terrestrial carnivore and is best spotted on Spitsbergen. Meanwhile, flocks of migratory birds head north in summer to breed on the tundra and along the rocky coastlines. Walruses feed and rest on ice floes and beaches, while seals and whales can be found feasting in the nutrient-rich Arctic seas. Other land mammals include arctic foxes, wild reindeer and musk oxen.
Sea kayaking in the Arctic region offers an amazing experience in extreme conditions and perhaps the chance for an up-close encounter with marine wildlife. Paddle in small guided groups amid icebergs in serene surroundings, where glaciers and mountains reflect in the icy and still blue waters.
Majestic and often elusive polar bears are an icon of the Arctic region and roam remote, rugged coastlines and ice-floes hunting for food. Search for bears from the safety of an expedition cruise ship or on one of the daily zodiac boat excursions that access little-visited channels and inlets.
Experience the magic of the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, a spectacular natural phenomenon best seen in the high Arctic latitudes. The lights occur when highly charged particles from the sun hit gas atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, around the magnetic pole, causing these gas atoms to become energised and shine, shimmering in waves of green and sometimes violet across the night sky.
Visit Inuit settlements and glimpse traditional ways of life and customs kept alive through generations. Many Inuit are still subsistence hunters and fishermen, and continue to gather food for their families by dogsled, boat and kayak, as well as producing beautiful artwork, carvings and crafts.
See Polar come alive in this image and video gallery, showing off some of the best areas that you can visit and explore.
Discover the temperatures and rainfall you can expect when visiting the main areas of Polar, along with the best time to travel.
We have collated some of the best books and guides to Polar, to help you make the most of your holiday to the country.
Get to know our expert Polar tour consultants, their personal recommendations and favourite hotels around the world.