Bears larger than bison, national parks the size of nations, and glaciers bigger than other US states. The word ‘epic’ barely does Alaska justice.
Pure, raw, unforgiving and humongous in scale, Alaska is a place that arouses basic instincts and ignites what Jack London termed the 'call of the wild.' Yet, unlike London and his gutsy, gold-rush companions, visitors today will have a far easier time penetrating the region's vast, feral wilderness. Indeed, one of the beauties of the 49th state is its accessibility. Few other places in the US allow you to scale an unclimbed mountain, walk where – quite possibly – no human foot has trodden before, or sally forth into a national park that gets fewer annual visitors than the International Space Station.
Who needs zoos when you can get close-up views of brown bears snatching leaping salmon out of angry waterfalls or see curious moose posing majestically on national-park roadsides? Alaska is a land for wilderness purists who desire to observe big fauna in its natural habitat. This is no place for the timid. Hiking in unguarded backcountry might sometimes feel like being a guest in a very big food chain, but keep your wits about you, and the musk oxen, gray wolves, bears, caribou and other creatures great and small will quietly accept you into their domain.
Space might be the final frontier, but for those without billions of dollars and their own space rocket, Alaska can provide a pretty gritty alternative. With scant phone coverage and a dearth of anything that passes for urban sophistication, this is a region for ‘doing’ rather than hanging out in coffee bars. Get a skilled bush pilot to land you on a crevasse-riddled glacier, or hire a backcountry guiding company to take you on a bracing paddle down an almost-virgin river. Whether you go it alone with bear-spray, or place yourself in the hands of an experienced ’sourdough’ (Alaskan old-timer), the rewards are immeasurable.
For savvy repeat visitors, the real joys of Alaska are the ones you least expect: ginormous vegetables, epic bus rides, half-forgotten Russian cemeteries, friendly, hassle-free airports, and dive bars where no one's rethought their hairstyle since 1984. Welcome to a state with as many offbeat attractions as off-the-beaten-track locations. Imagine a land where locals still go subsistence hunting, campers plan gold-panning expeditions in the wilderness and wi-fi is just a rumor. Pitch in with a quirky medley of contrarians, rat-race escapees, wanderers, dreamers, back-to-the-landers and Alaska Natives and discover what makes America's biggest state tick.
'When you've seen the world there's always Greenland' goes the old travellers' saying. But why wait till then? Greenland is not a cheap destination, but few places combine such magnificent scenery, such clarity of light and such raw power of nature.
Vast swaths of beautiful, unfenced wilderness give adventurers unique freedom to wander at will, whether on foot, by ski or by dogsled. With virtually no roads, transportation is expensive, but splurging on helicopter and boat rides is worth every penny. These whisk you over truly magnificent mountainscapes and glaciers or through some of the planet's most spectacular fjords. Greenland also offers world-beating but charmingly uncommercialised opportunities for sea kayaking, rock climbing and salmon fishing.
The world's biggest non-continental island has the world's sparsest population. Nonetheless, scattered mainly along Greenland's west coast are dozens of photogenic little villages of colourfully painted wooden cottages, plus a few small towns as well as the capital, Nuuk Town (Godthåb). In the south there's an appealing sprinkling of emerald-lawned sheep farms.
Culturally, the unique blend of Inuit and Danish blood has produced a Greenlandic society all of its own. This sometimes discordant mix of ancient and modern combines hunting and dogsledding with Carlsberg and kaffemiks. Sensitive visitors with a passionate but unaggressive interest in local ideas will find a fascinatingly rich culture beneath the thick facade of Greenlandic taciturnity.
With an ever-improving network of tourist offices, hotels and hostels, Greenland is no longer the sole reserve of plutocratic cruise-ship passengers. However you travel, it's wise to schedule a wide safety margin for unpredictable weather. Leave ample time in each destination to unwind, soak up the midnight sun, witness a glacier calving or to be dazzled by the magic of the aurora borealis.
Hitting headlines, topping bucket lists, wooing nature lovers and dazzling increasing numbers of visitors – there seems no end to the talents of this breathtaking northern destination.
An underpopulated island marooned near the top of the globe, Iceland is, literally, a country in the making. It's a vast volcanic laboratory where mighty forces shape the earth: geysers gush, mudpots gloop, ice-covered volcanoes rumble and glaciers cut great pathways through the mountains. Its supercharged splendour seems designed to remind visitors of their utter insignificance in the greater scheme of things. And it works a treat: some crisp clean air, an eyeful of the cinematic landscapes, and everyone is transfixed.
It's the power of Icelandic nature to turn the prosaic into the extraordinary. A dip in a pool becomes a soak in a geothermal lagoon; a casual stroll can transform into a trek across a glittering glacier; and a quiet night of camping may mean front-row seats to the aurora borealis’ curtains of light, or the soft, pinkish hue of the midnight sun. Iceland has a transformative effect on people too – its sagas turned brutes into poets, and its stories of huldufólk (hidden people) may make believers out of sceptics. Here you'll find some of the world's highest concentrations of dreamers, authors, artists and musicians, all fuelled by their surrounds.
Don't for a minute think it's all about the great outdoors. The counterpoint to so much natural beauty is found in Iceland's cultural life, which celebrates a literary legacy that stretches from medieval sagas to contemporary thrillers by way of Nobel Prize winners. Live music is everywhere, as is visual art, handicrafts and locavore cuisine. The world's most northerly capital is home to the kind of egalitarianism, green thinking and effortless style that its Nordic brethren are famous for – all of which is wrapped in Iceland's assured individuality.
The warmth of Icelanders is disarming, as is their industriousness – they’ve worked hard to recover from financial upheaval, and to transform Iceland into a destination that, thanks to its popularity with visitors, can host more than six times its population each year. Pause and consider a medium-sized city in your country – then give it far-flung universities, airports and hospitals to administer, 30-odd active volcanoes to monitor, and hundreds of hotels to run. How might they cope? Could they manage as well as the Icelanders – and still have time left over to create spine-tingling music and natty knitwear?
The essence of Norway's appeal is remarkably simple: this is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Impossibly steep-sided Norwegian fjords of extraordinary beauty cut gashes from a jagged coastline deep into the interior. Glaciers, grand and glorious, snake down from ice fields that rank among Europe's largest. Elsewhere, the mountainous terrain of Norway's interior resembles the ramparts of so many natural fortresses, and yields to rocky coastal islands that rise improbably from the waters like apparitions. Then, of course, there's the primeval appeal, the spare and staggering beauty of the Arctic. And wherever you find yourself in this most extraordinary country, these landscapes serve as a backdrop for some of Europe's prettiest villages.
Enjoying nature in Norway is very much an active pursuit, and this is one of Europe's most exciting and varied adventure-tourism destinations. While some of the activities on offer are geared towards the young, energetic and fearless, most – such as world-class hiking, cycling and white-water rafting in summer, and dog-sledding, skiing and snowmobiling in winter – can be enjoyed by anyone of reasonable fitness. Whether you're here for seemingly endless summer possibilities, or for snowsports and the soul-stirring Northern Lights in winter, these activities are an exhilarating means of getting close to nature.
The counterpoint to Norway's ever-present natural beauty is found in its vibrant cultural life. Norwegian cities are cosmopolitan and showcase the famous Scandinavian flair for design through the ages. Bergen, Trondheim and Ålesund must surely rank among Europe's most photogenic cities, while contemporary Arctic-inspired architectural icons grace towns and remote rural settings alike. Food, too, is a cultural passion through which Norwegians push the boundaries of innovation even as they draw deeply on a heartfelt love of tradition. At the same time, a busy calendar of festivals, many of international renown, are worth planning your trip around.
When it comes to wildlife, Norway has few peers in Europe. Here you can watch whales – humpback, sperm and orca, depending on the season – off Andenes, Stø or Tromsø, while the interior offers up wild reindeer, prehistoric musk oxen, ponderous elk (moose) or beguiling Arctic foxes. Birdwatching, too, is a highlight, from the puffins of Bleik to the migratory seabirds of Runde and Varanger. But the real prizes inhabit Norway's high Arctic, in Svalbard, where polar bears and walruses are the poster species for a wilderness of rare, dramatic and precarious beauty.
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