Wild reindeer, steep fjords, the flashing northern lights and Icelandic glaciers await at the Arctic Circle.
Ever wondered what it’s really like to travel to top of the earth? The Arctic Circle is a polar region sequestered in the northernmost part of the earth and comprised of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Alaska, Canada, Europe, Russia and surrounding seas. From Iceland’s snow-capped mountains and cerulean waterfalls to Sweden’s ice-sculpted art hotel, the Arctic is high on the list of many winter-enthusiasts and worldly travelers. We spoke with travel guru and adventure-enthusiast, Jonny Cooper, to discuss all things Arctic and how his love for the region developed into a successful travel business.
“A trip into the Arctic makes you realize that you are one part of a larger ecosystem, it reconnects you back to nature, it gives you that cozy feeling in the winter, and that feeling that you never want to come inside during the summertime.”
Off The Map
So, the UK-based couple decided they wanted to share this magic with others. Cooper would go on to develop the travel and tour company, Off the Map Travel, to bring his clients similar experiences to his own. He tells us that all trips begin with a blank sheet of paper where their hand-tailored tours are developed alongside their Adventure Artists, who use their expert advice and knowledge of the Arctic Circle to plan custom itineraries for clients.
Not only do these curated expeditions include luxury accommodations and epic dining spots in some of the most remote parts of the earth, but guests can book snowmobile tours, dog-sledding excursions, a sea kayak trip and even intimate encounters with the native tribes of the area—all set against the steep fjords and glacial peaks of the region.
A trip to the Arctic Circle will also bring your attention to the very real issue of climate change that is causing a rise in sea levels, shrinking sea ice, and ultimately a warmer planet. And because tourism is growing rapidly in the Arctic, there is even more reason to preserve and protect this most fragile ecosystem. Jonny Cooper believes that travel plays an important role in educating people to make the changes necessary to reduce our harmful impact on the natural world.
Perhaps this chance to disconnect is really an opportunity to reconnect—to nature, to oneself and ultimately to the fragility of one of the most biodiverse and remarkably remote places in the world. Here, we take you through a travel guide to the Arctic Circle spanning transportation, iconic to-dos, how to prepare and ways that Off the Map Travel (OTMT) is helping travelers manage their carbon footprint during their trek to the north.
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Off The Map
HOW TO GET THERE
Traveling to the Arctic may be a bit out of bounds for many, but compared to the South Pole, it is much more navigable than going to the icy landscape of Antarctica. Because the Arctic Circle region comprises a few of Europe’s most northern countries, like Iceland and Sweden, there are major cities you can fly to from most parts of the world. We also love the proximity to a range of countries, offering travelers a taste of many unique landscapes and cultures.
Consider taking a flight to Finland’s seaside capital city of Helsinki where contemporary culture abounds; then hop over to Oslo, Norway to take in the forested hillsides dotted with lake views before taking a flight directly to Svalbard. This Norwegian archipelago sits just below the North Pole and is one of the last true wildernesses on earth. The possibilities are as vast as the polar region itself. And because Cooper and his company pay close attention to the carbon footprint left by each traveler, there is an effort to find alternative ways to explore when on the ground. To minimize air travel and dependence on cars for transportation, OTMT connects travelers to the eco-friendlier mode of transport of riding the train; journeying guests through the majestic lands of the Arctic Circle via railway.
Hurtigruten Svalbard & Augurtxane Concellon
ICONIC TO-DOS AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD
“There are very few experiences in life that can match seeing the aurora and that connection you have to nature—it puts a perspective to life,” Jonny Cooper professes. The northern lights, which occur between October through March, are never guaranteed to be seen but when this natural light display occurs, it is a sight to behold. Shades of green, pink, blue and violet dance across the sky—a phenomenon caused by electrically charged particles from the sun entering the earth’s atmosphere in the northern hemisphere. Cooper raves about this enchanting sight that changes from moment to moment and is different every single time.
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For an Arctic excursion to catch the lights firsthand, head to the glass-encased Manshausen cabins perched over the Norwegian Sea for an ideal lookout to witness the sky flash with the aurora borealis.
For an Arctic excursion to catch the lights firsthand, head to the glass-encased Manshausen cabins perched over the Norwegian Sea for an ideal lookout to witness the sky flash with the aurora borealis. Guests will be treated to the Arctic Circle’s fjords filled with marine life and Europe’s largest colony of sea eagles soaring above your floating sea kayak.
After a smattering of gourmet eats for dinner, dip into the outdoor hot tub to hope for a show of the northern lights. On the Truly Green Aurora excursion in Svalbard, they aim to promote travel with the least amount of impact, blending eco-friendly elements, like electric snowmobiles and even a trek through new eco-developments in the area—all while chasing the ribbons of sky light from the aurora.
For an offshore experience in the Arctic Circle, the Icebreaker Sampo is an icy expedition that includes cruising through layers of cracking sea ice in the Gulf of Bothnia, a snowmobile across the frozen landscape and even taking a dip into the chilled waters. OTMT also extends cruises for whale watching, fjord sightseeing and trips to see the northern lights from the sea.
Surprisingly, the Arctic does not exclude many, even the pleasure-seekers craving high-end cuisine and day spas will have an itinerary that caters to them. “You can come to the Arctic Circle and not do anything strenuous but still feel like you are exploring. Or if you like, you can do an overnight dog-sledding trip and jump into activities that are the antithesis of exploration.”
The world’s first—and largest—ice hotel in Sweden, Icehotel 365, is a frozen masterpiece that doubles as an art exhibit and has secured itself as the original place to have a luxury overnight in an iced-out hideout. Other outstanding accommodations include a floating hotel and spa in Swedish Lapland that debuted last summer. The Arctic Bath is comprised of 12 timber-made cabins, six of which are floating above the water with views of the sparkling water below. A trip to the circular spa opens guests up to a day of pampering with saunas, cold baths, and meditative sessions, such as crystal healing and yoga—all in the remoteness of the wild.
Foodies will feign over Finland’s Jávri Lodge, a gastronomic getaway that delivers its guests sustainable and seasonably sourced organic cuisine. The five- to seven-course meal ranges from matsutake gnocchi, king crab tortellini to reindeer tartar and a cloudberry sorbet to finish off the meal.
Looking out onto the frozen tundra and seemingly untouched swathe of lands that comprises the Arctic Circle, you may think it is virtually uninhabited. But the native Sami people are the real stewards of the land here, the quiet dwellers who have been protecting and shaping the landscape since the last Ice Age. These traditional reindeer herders have lived off this frigid landscape and can be looked to for their innate understanding of the snowy climate.
The Sami have more than a hundred names for the different varieties of snow, and they use this intimate relationship to nature to determine herding techniques and to study recent climate changes. “Sami culture is a major opportunity to educate travelers. I believe the way this culture can be preserved in a fast-moving world, is to show people their lifestyle, so that they may begin to see the value in preserving the Sami’s lifestyle and practices,” remarks Jonny Cooper. His company aligns travelers with specific programs that allows them to get up-close with these traditions of these remarkable locals.
“We always try and interweave trips and experiences that allow people to talk to Sami people and intersects the lifestyles between locals and travelers.”
“We always try and interweave trips and experiences that allow people to talk to Sami people and intersects the lifestyles between locals and travelers,” says Cooper. For example, food foraging is a way of life that has been passed down from generations and guests can participate in one workshop that involves sourcing the seasonal flora and fauna outdoors. These are then made into edible treats like pine-needle breadsticks, flower-infused water and sweets made from fresh hand-picked berries.
Nature-enthusiasts looking to connect with the local wildlife in the Arctic Circle can book the Night with the Wolves tour in Norway, which includes a stay at a rustic but fully-equipped cabin and, of course, interaction with the Arctic wolves. Visiting the Polar Park allows guests to get close to these powerful creatures with the guidance of their keepers in a safe enclosure. Wolf kisses are aplenty, and the snow-speckled scenery is one you won’t soon forget. For a higher adrenaline excursion, book a dog-sledding tour to cruise with the crew of wolves that will whisk you through the wintry woods.
WILD WEATHER WON’T STOP YOU
The Arctic Circle has two polar seasons—the winter and summer months that can both showcase extreme conditions that take adjusting to. Jonny Cooper comments on the coldness and darkness that persists in the winter months: December through March are the coldest months with minimal to no sunlight that can last for up to three months. The summer has its own set of extremes with 24 hours of sunlight that can last from June through September.
Getting up in the middle of the night can be a trick to the senses as you catch a peek of broad daylight. But not to worry, it’s nothing an eye mask and dark curtains can’t mend. In addition, OTMT provides the right cold-weather gear for outdoor ventures, from snowmobiling to snowshoeing.
Outside, the challenges persist, but as Jonny Cooper puts it, “it’s all about balancing the challenges: you need to watch out for reindeer on the road and unexpected snowstorms.” Weather conditions can affect tours but since the company works directly with high-end suppliers, they work around the inclement weather by having alternate destinations and itineraries to accommodate guests.
“There are always challenges but it also adds an excitement to the day. Although each day is set with an itinerary, there is always room for those unscripted moments to happen, which allows for people to really have an experience rather than just travel,” says Cooper.
Off The Map
LEAVE NO TRACE
OTMT acknowledges that tourism to the Arctic is becoming a more popular and cost-efficient option for an array of travelers. What was once regarded as inaccessible locations are now becoming accessible. Their mission is to help manage the development of these destinations and preserve the beautiful elements of the Arctic Circle that attracted Cooper here in the first place.
They have worked directly with local suppliers from the beginning, as well as leading small tour groups to scale their impact and promote recycling, eco-friendly transportation and always supporting local communities who have sustained life in these remote parts of the Arctic for centuries.
Alongside the World Land Trust, the company is working to help travelers offset their carbon footprint by donating to the Plant a Tree program to restore the natural environment, and for every 100 customers they will buy an acre of land for the wildlife to roam undisturbed. In addition, they work with a company that helps offset the carbon footprint caused by air travel, to initiate a balance between long-distance travel to this polar region.
Cooper offers travelers a dynamic and integrated experience in the Arctic Circle that is meant to be shared with friends and family back home. When people impart their own personal stories and knowledge from their travels, it invites others to share in a more global perspective while telling tales of beauty and abundant adventure.
Arctic Circle Svalbard Huset Restaurant and Bistro
• People inhabiting the Arctic Circle have a meat-centric diet that consists of seal, fish, grouse and reindeer, among others, because edible plants are very scarce. But, many chefs in the Arctic are using this challenge to experiment with what may be seen as a limitation by making their main courses more of an experience meant to reflect the region. Svalbard’ Huset restaurant and bistro works with hunters and trappers to bring local protein to the table that is artistically paired with fresh produce, nuts, reductions and delicious cheese foams. Come hungry!
• Snow, ski, sled and trek. Although considered to have extreme temperatures and weather, the Arctic is approachable year-round and offers travelers seasonal expeditions based around your preferred climate.
• Pack right! When planning your attires, ensure you have a set of thermal wear that can be layered under your waterproof outer gear so that you have proper insulation when temperatures dip.
• Polar bears, gray whales, wild Pacific Salmon, reindeer, the snowy owl and the Arctic wolf are among the magnificent creatures you may see on your journey north. Bring a quality camera to capture the magic!
• With nearly 4 million people living across the Arctic today, including indigenous groups, hunters, herders and city dwellers, there are many opportunities to learn about these distinct communities that blend old tradition with modern living. Ask questions and say “yes” to trying new things!