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Conde Nast Traveler - North Pole

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T he 50 Years of Victory is a Russian state- owned working vessel and until 2016 the most powerful nuclear icebreaker on the planet. Each summer, the ship makes two or three trips to the North Pole with Quark Expeditions, her 100-strong crew doubling up in their cabins to make room for paying passengers. Travelling from her home port of Murmansk, she glides through the icy Barents Sea, past the remote archipelago of Franz Josef Land (where polar bears outnumber humans) before cracking through six-foot pack ice on the final push to the Pole. Up here in the frozen North, the bears are the stars of the show. Whenever there's a sighting, at any time of day or night, an announcement is made over the ship's tannoy and we eagerly scramble for open decks to get a better look through our binoculars. At this time of year (Quark's trips run in the summer), the sun never sets meaning the 5am appearance of a mother and cub happens in broad daylight. Sleep is swiftly forgotten as the six-month-old bear gleefully bounces, slithers and tumbles about the sea ice to a chorus of camera clicks. The bears might look cute – we have 10 sightings during our two-week voyage – but they're not to be messed with. On each of our excursions into Franz Josef Land in inflatable zodiacs, a team of Russian Arctic National Park Rangers goes ahead first, sweeping the area and establishing an armed perimeter. It lends the exploration of these frozen islands a certain thrilling menace, as we reconnoitre the abandoned huts of early 20th- century expeditions under the icy gaze of the red jackets and their automatic weapons. Life on the ship is exceedingly comfortable: there's a gym, sauna and small saltwater swimming pool on the lower decks, while a helicopter on the stern is co-opted for the ultımate cruıse guıde MURMANSK FRANZ JOSEF LAND NORTH POLE outstanding sightseeing opportunities. A free bar helps bond us disparate adventurers – Chinese, French, a score of Americans and a six-strong British contingent, including a knight of the realm and a dominatrix – together from the off. As we approach 90 degrees North shortly before midnight on the sixth day, the expedition leader gives us a New Year's Eve-style countdown and the ship's horn blasts when we achieve the Pole. Champagne corks pop, music blares and national flags wave above the mass of parkas, balaclavas and woolly hats. Overnight the captain "parks" the enormous icebreaker in a sturdy ice floe, and the next morning we descend to the top of the world like excited schoolchildren eager to leave the first footprints in fresh snow. The celebrations continue with a barbecue on the ice, an impromptu football match and the infamous "polar plunge" into a hole in the floe. A queue forms at a replica phone booth to make free calls home via two of the ship's satellite phones. This might be the top of the world, but it's far from the end of it any more. The North Pole is more accessible than ever – and this is the way to reach it in style. QUARK EXPEDITIONS offers an all-inclusive 14-day North Pole expedition voyage from £22,900, starting in Helsinki. Price includes return charter flights to Murmansk where you board the 50 Years of Victory, as well as all excursions from the ship, including zodiac, hot air balloon and helicopter rides. Call 0808 120 2333 or visit quarkexpeditions.com Clockwise from top: Isfjorden fjord, Svalbard; polar bears on the ice; putting down anchor The North Pole Plot a course true north towards polar bears and the top of the world MURMANSK FRANZ JOSEF LAND

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