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A Suitcase Full Of Memories (Part 1) - Inside the Arctic Circle

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From the romance of the African veld, to the awe-inspiring ice-scapes of the Arctic and the red sands of Jordan, three writers go in search of the holiday of a lifetime.

Inside the Arctic Circle

Midnight sun and polar bears – Nicola Davenport takes an unforgettable trip to the frozen north

‘Walk in a straight line, directly behind me. Three metres between each person. Do not lag behind!’

Description: Polar bears outnumber humans up here

Polar bears outnumber humans up here

You tend to do as you’re told when you’re trekking across an ice floe towards a seal basking in the Arctic summer sunshine, in prime hunting territory for hungry polar bears. And when those orders come from an ex-Norwegian army sniper, loaded rifle at the ready, you follow them to the letter.

We’re on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, where just weeks later British expedition student Horatio Chapple will be tragically killed by a polar bear. Despite their protected status, polar bears (estimated population 3000) outnumber people (2000 inhabitants), and for this reason, we’re forbidden from venturing outside our Scandi-chic lodgings at Basecamp Isfjord Radio without an armed staff member.

It’s advice we happily follow as we squelch our way across the ice on high alert. We’re clad in unwieldy survivals suits with integral wellies that make a quick escape impossible, and every step creates a footprint that rapidly fills with water. It’s a joy and a privilege to tread slowly through this pristine wilderness like nowhere else on the planet, the sun bright, the air crisp, and the water sparkling beneath a cloudless sky.

Description: the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago

the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago

We’re just an hour’s flight north of the Norwegian mainland, but exactly halfway between Tromso in northern Norway and the North Pole, at 78010’N, staying in the most northerly hotel in the world. Originally a base for trappers and miners, Longyearbyen now hosts mainly geology and climate scientists – and is the starting point for husky – sledging tours, for those who fancy an adrenaline-charged tour of the island.

On arrival, we voyaged 28 nautical miles out of Longyearbyen to the far western edge of Spitsbergen, bouncing across the deserted glassy waters of lsfjorden sea fjord past spooky barely-populated Russian mining settlements. Along the way, we spied cliffs packed with nesting guillemots, and flocks of the different seabirds of the Arctic – bobbing puffins, swooping fulmars, terns and little auks, which are like the Northern hemisphere equivalent of penguins.

My trip of a lifetime moment, though, has to be watching the pair of walruses, impressively tusked old men of the deep, who surface just metres from our boat in the bay outside our snug, stylish hotel Isfjord Radio one morning, their huge speckled pink faces calmly starting at us as we gasp at the sight. It’s hard to go to bed when you’re in the land of the midnight sun – the sky is blue, the sun high day and night – and you never know when another amazing bird or creature will loom into view. From my bedroom window, I spot the distinctive blow patterns of basking blue fin whales on the horizon. Wild white reindeer graze their way past, snow buntings peck in the perma-frosted scrubby vegetation, eider ducks guard nests on the tundra. Binoculars aren’t just handy, they’re essential.

Description: hotel Isfjord Radio

hotel Isfjord Radio

A refreshing pre-breakfast dip in the Arctic Ocean is the perfect pick-me-up. No wetsuit – we were told to travel light, as space is tight in the boat – so it’s a dash into the water, then a matter of how long before the chill forces us out. My lungs freeze, it feels like someone is sticking icy needles into my skin, and I can’t feel my feet. But the sense of achievement is massive: how many people can say they’ve swum within touching distance of the North Pole?

Description: The white reindeer

The white reindeer

Without doubt, it’s the trip of a lifetime, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll do everything I can to make sure I return.

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