Places to chill out
The harsh, cold but gripping beauty of the Arctic is shared by seven nations with a common thread in customs, food, people and landscapes: Canada, Finland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States. The Arctic is not a desolate wasteland but a beautiful and powerful place, alive with wildlife, striking landscapes and Eskimo culture. In winter, when the weather is good and the skies clear, moonbeams dance across the snow and the Northern Lights flower overhead. In summer, when the snow melts and tiny flowers bloom, a rush of bird life replaces the chilly silence of winter.
Half-an-hour from the wilderness, Anchorage is Arctic's soft-option destination. The city centre bustles with office workers, fine restaurants and upmarket shops. Modern towers fill the skyline against an immense landscape of forest, mountains, rivers and rocky tundra. The Alaskan state capital teases the senses with the anticipation of the wintry gems that lie beyond this modern bastion of civilisation.
Nome, Alaska (pictured) Each year, on the first Saturday in March, participants in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race gather in Anchorage and race 1,678km north across the snow to Nome in the biggest sporting event on the Alaskan calendar. Closer to Russia than to Anchorage, Nome, with its population of 3,900 people, most of whom are native Alaskan Eskimos, isn't the boom town it was during the wild Gold Rush days of 1899. Gold mining on the rocky tundra is still the principal industry, however, and the area is also a gold mine for hunters and anglers. Visit the Alaska Travel Industry Association at www.travelalaska.com.
As little as 80km separate Alaska's Inupiat and Yupik Eskimo communities from their Russian counterparts in Chukotka, but for decades they could have been in different galaxies. Now, long after the end of the Cold War, the populations either side of the Bering Strait are thawing the 'ice curtain' and becoming re-acquainted. Travel across the strait was once as common for people as for roving polar bears, and families spread themselves on both sides of the water. After all, only 4km stand between Alaska's Little Diomede Island and Russia's Big Diomede Island. One Eskimo dialect, Siberian Yup'ik, thrives in both Alaska and Chukotka, a testimony to a common past.
Sakha Republic, Russia
The cold wind blowing across the airport apron in Tiksi won't stop the brightly dressed welcoming party greeting visitors. It bears gifts of bread and salt, a warm-up for a traditional banquet of raw fish, reindeer tongue and smoked colt. Cracking the thermometer in winter at minus 60 degrees Celsius, when the wind-chill factor is taken into account, Tiksi is a multicultural place with more than a million people of 80 nationalities. Russians and Yakut reindeer herders rub shoulders with indigenous Evenk, Even, Yukagir and Chukchi tribes in a republic that produces about a quarter of the world's diamonds. VisitTourism Russia at www.russiatourism.ru/eng/default.asp.
This is the northernmost place in the world that can be visited on a regular scheduled flight: an Arctic desert aptly named the 'land of the cold coasts'. About 60 per cent of its barren islands are covered by ice. Despite this, and a community of only 1,700 inhabitants, Longyearbyen has a large number of restaurants, bars and hotels. There is even a Radisson chain SAS Polar Hotel that provides a view of snow-clad peaks on majestic mountains, while diners tuck into such Arctic treats as seal, reindeer and whale. Outside, the polar bears are being tracked by the World Wide Fund for Nature, which is funding research on the animals' survival strategies at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Radio collars are used to track the movements of female polar bears such as Marianne, who gave birth to cubs in January. See www.panda.org/polarbears/.
Inuvik is the northernmost town on a driveable public highway in North America. It is a strange melting pot of about 3,000 people, with native Dene, Metis and Inuvialuit people living alongside trappers, pilots, scientists and frontier entrepreneurs drawn here in the 1970s during the oil exploration boom. Snow-mobiling is the town's most popular pastime. The town's architecture provides an eye-opening introduction to living on permafrost - rock or soil that has remained frozen for two or more years. Buildings are jacked up on stilts to prevent heat emissions melting the permafrost and pipes snake above ground carrying water, power lines and sewage. Visit Canada Tourism at www.canadatourism.ca.