10 Things You Never Knew About the North Pole
There's more to the North Pole than just snow and Santa. Ever since it was discovered by Robert E. Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Eskimo companions back in 1909, the North Pole has been a place of international intrigue—did you know several countries are now fighting over vast underground oil reserves in the Arctic Circle? You can go see for yourself with expedition voyages or even spend the night in a hotel made entirely of ice—try the IceHotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, or stay overnight at the Aurora Ice Museum in Fairbanks, AK, for a unique twist on the average igloo. Here, 10 more facts about the North Pole that may surprise you.
There are two North Poles
Unlike the South Pole, which lies over the continent of Antarctica, there is no land beneath the North Pole but more of a floating Arctic ice sheet that expands during colder months and shrinks to half its size in the summer. To complicate things even more, there are two different definitions of the North Pole. The first is the north magnetic pole, which is, quite literally, a magnetic phenomenon which changes daily depending on changes under the Earth's crust. Additionally, there is a north terrestrial pole, which is the fixed point that references the top of the Earth. Regardless of how you define the North Pole, global warming continues to be a problem here—as the polar ice caps melt, the sea levels rise, eliminating the land that polar bears and other wildlife depend on for survival.
It's at the center of an international controversy right now
Did you know 30 percent of the world's untapped oil reserves are located in the Arctic Circle? The U.S. Geological Survey says that amount could actually be higher, since so much of the region has yet to be explored. Complicating matters is the fact that multiple countries lay claim to the Arctic Circle—Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark (via Greenland), and the United States (via Alaska). Each country is allowed to explore potential oil reserves within 200 miles of their coastlines, but in 2007, Russia used a mini-submarine to plant the country's flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean in an attempt to claim the region and its natural resources, a move that was rejected by the U.N. as the countries continue to work toward a solution.
The North Pole has seasons
Just like everywhere else on Earth, the temperature varies here depending on the time of year. The North Pole is warmest in July, if by warm you mean it's actually freezing—32 degrees. If that gives you the shivers, brace yourself. Temperatures in February drop to a bone-chilling 31 degrees below zero. The amount of light each day depends on the time of year, too. Alaska as well as Norway and the other Arctic Circle countries each face six months of broad daylight and six months of almost total darkness because of the angle at which this top portion of the Earth receives sunlight.
Yet, it is not the coldest place in the world
It might come as a shock, but even with temperatures with a high of just 32 degrees, the North Pole is not the coldest place on Earth. The South Pole is (in winter temperatures average -76 degrees F). Unlike the North Pole, the South Pole sits on top of a thick sheet of ice, which in turn sits on top of a piece of land—Antarctica. At more than 9,000 feet above sea level, Antarctica is also the world's tallest continent. The North Pole, on the other hand, is made up of a thin Arctic ice sheet that sits barely a foot above sea level—a fact that allows the landscape to absorb heat from the surrounding Arctic Ocean.
There is life up there
While the conditions may be considered too tough for most humans, there are native Inuit tribes living in northern Canada and Alaska. The outer reaches of the Arctic Circle are a great place to see polar bears in the wild. Keep an eye out for other Arctic dwellers like Orca, Humpback, and Beluga whales, the arctic fox, and Svalbard reindeer. This isn't the only place to see reindeer in the world; a reindeer herd in the U.K. inhabits the Cairngorm Mountains of northern Scotland. One animal you won't see in the North Pole is the penguin. They live in the South Pole. Several species of flying penguin-like birds called auks, guillemots, and puffins can be seen in the Arctic Circle, though.
Santa Claus is not the only legendary character in the North Pole
Did you know that the creature that inspired myths about unicorns comes from the North Pole? The narwhal, a small whale that lives in the chilly waters of the Arctic Circle, has a six-to-10-foot long tusk, a trait that earned it the nickname "unicorn of the sea." Back in the 16th century, they were often believed to possess magical powers that could be used to cure diseases. Demand was high, and legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I shelled out 10,000 pounds to get her hands on her very own narwhal tusk. Nowadays, narwhal populations are on the decline, due to hunting (Inuit peoples use the meat, tusks, and vitamin-C-rich skin in their everyday lives), climate change, and fishing for halibut, their main source of food.
Santa's magical workshop isn't in the North Pole proper—but it is nearby
Shh! Don't tell the kids, but Santa's Workshop isn't really in the North Pole—it's in Finnish Lapland. You can visit Santa Claus Village in the Finnish town of Rovaniemi year round, send letters to and from his post office (they'll bear the official postmark of the Arctic Circle), and spend time exploring Santa Park, a series of Christmas-themed caves where you can meet jolly old St. Nick and his elves. You can even visit Santa's reindeer at the onsite Sirmakko Reindeer Family Farm. If Finnish Lapland seems a little out of reach, Santa also has a satellite workshop in the holiday-themed town of North Pole, Alaska where the streets have names like Kris Kringle, Mistletoe, Donner, and Blitzen.
If you would rather write to Santa than visit his workshops, the U.S. Postal Service will postmark letters from Santa Claus as long as they are received by December 10th each year. Simply mail your letters to North Pole Postmark Postmaster, 41-41 Postmark Drive, Anchorage, Alaska 99530 with "Santa, North Pole" marked as the return address. If time is of the essence, you can always email Santa—he'll answer it right away. On Christmas Eve, use the Santa Tracker North Pole Command Center app ($1.99) to keep an eye on Santa's progress.
You can vacation there
While not exactly a budget destination, you can embark on your own Arctic adventure. Quark Expeditions offers a wide variety of cruising expeditions ranging from the Spitsbergen Explorer, an 11-day cruise around the Norwegian island (from $4,995 per person) to The Ultimate Arctic Adventure, which sails from Russia to the 90-degree north spot that represents the North Pole, visits Franz Josef Land, and tours the Arctic Ocean (from $23,995 per person). Go from June to mid-July to see the polar bears and walrus hunting in their own natural habitat, from mid-July to mid-August to see flowers and other arctic flora in bloom, or from mid-August to September as birds begin to migrate south.
There are hot springs up there
If you are in the frigid Arctic Circle, you'll need to find a way to warm up. Chena Hot Springs, located about an hour outside Fairbanks, AK, has a natural geothermal hot spring in a rock lake surrounded by nature. The hot springs are open from 7 a.m. to midnight, giving you plenty of time to soak and get a front row seat for the Aurora Borealis (best viewed between August and May). You can also stay at the Chena Hot Springs Resort ($65 a night to room in a Mongolia-style yurt, or stay in a room at the resort for from $189 a night). A number of hot springs can also be found in Norway's Svalbard Islands, in Iceland (the Landmannalaugar Hot Springs is well-known), and in Russia—Scientific American profiled the hot springs in Oymyakon, Siberia, the coldest town on Earth.
There is a North Pole marathon every year
The North Pole Marathon bills itself as the World's Coolest Marathon, and with an average wind chill temperature of 22 degrees below zero, they'd be right. It's happened every year since 2002—in 2011 255 people from 38 nations around the world braved the conditions to compete in the 26.2-mile marathon race on top of a floating Arctic ice shelf. Competitors are transported to an international North Pole Camp on the polar ice shelf to start the race. And they layer up-thermal layers, windproof pants, gloves, two pairs of socks, and even goggles are necessary. The next North Pole Marathon takes place on April 9, 2013, and costs a pretty penny—about $15,561 for the entry fee that includes accommodations in Spitsbergen, Greenland, before and after the race, flights to and from the North Pole Camp, helicopter flights within the polar region, medals, and a commemorative DVD of the race. But the bragging rights are priceless.
Europe's Up-and-Coming Destinations
You've checked Paris, London, and Rome off the list. So what should be your next European vacation destination? According to a survey of more than 1,000 American travel agents conducted by Travel Leaders Group (and based on actual trips already booked), perennial faves like London, Rome, and Mediterranean cruises are going to continue being top spots in 2013. But there were European countries that saw surprising gains in popularity. So you better book now. Here are the top three: SEE THE DESTINATIONS! Croatia. Surprisingly Italian in flavor, including a Roman emperor's palace and a gladiator coliseum, Croatia offers beaches on the Adriatic and and welcoming locals, inspiring a 34.9 percent increase in bookings over last year, according to the Travel Leaders Group survey. Turkey. East meets West, literally and figuratively, in Turkey's varied landscape. The opportunity to visit landmark mosques, Orthodox churches and Roman ruins, while enjoying chic boutique hotels and some of the region's tastiest cuisine has given Turkey a 12.9 percent bump in bookings for 2013. Czech Republic. Whether you're a casual backpacker or seeking luxe for less, this country, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2013, is known for its contemporary art and food scene as well as its old-world castles and iconic Charles Bridge. Now's a good time to see it, since booking for 2013 are up 12.2 percent. Talk to us! Are you planning a trip to Europe in 2013? If so, are you going with the tried-and-true, or venturing into one of these up-and-coming destinations?
The 12 Days of Aspen
Powderhounds take to Aspen like candy canes to a Christmas stocking, and nothing says "spend your holiday on the slopes" quite like the 12 Days of Aspen. From December 20 through New Year's Eve, the Colorado city welcomes visitors to its three snow-peaked mountains and four ski resorts with a full calendar of concerts, ice-skating, restaurant deals, and splurge-y shopping. If you're up for a last-minute indulgence, or just want to do a little vicarious window-shopping, here are some highlights: Free Ice Skating from 2 pm to 4 pm at the Silver Circle Ice Rink on the 12 Days of Aspen opening day, December 20 (Silver Circle Ice Rink, 433 E. Durant Ave., Aspen, 970/925-1710, free on opening day, other $7 for adults, $3 skate rental). The Spirit of Aspen Spectacular is a new musical presented evenings at the Wheeler Opera House, featuring Aspen locations and actors playing local legends such as the late pop singer John Denver. "The story is about what makes Aspen so special for the holidays," author Jayne Gottlieb told the Aspen Times. "It speaks to the magic of our town." (320 E. Hyman Ave, Aspen, wheeler operahouse.com, tickets $25 for adults, $20 for children 12 and under). Yoga for Skiers isn't just a relaxing and invigorating way to start the day. Poses such as Chair Pose and Spine Twist help prepare the body's muscles for the twists and turns of downhill skiing and snowboarding. Sessions are free with a lift ticket at Aspen Mountain, The Sundeck, Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays at 9:30 (Aspen Mountain, The Sundeck, 970/429-6974, free with lift ticket). Winter Explorers Class gives the little ones an educational, outdoors alternative to holiday favorites like cocoa with Santa and teddy bear story hour. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies offers kids ages 6 to 10 a chanced to explore the Lake Hallam nature preserve, including examining animal tracks, building a snow cave, and much more (100 Puppy Smith St., Aspen, aspennature.org, from $50). Free Hot-Air Balloon Rides will be offered in Wagner Park, presented by the Above It All Balloon Co. and The Westin Snowmass Resort, on December 30 from 1:30 to 3:30 (300 S. Monarch, Aspen, 970/925-1940, free).
St. Maarten Tourism Up in 2012
The St. Maarten Tourism Bureau announced this week that arrivals to the island have increased 17 percent since last year. One major reason, besides St. Maarten's drop-dead beauty and easygoing vibe, was that JetBlue added direct service to the island from Puerto Rico, which is about 150 miles southeast of St. Maarten and the most popular American hub in the Caribbean. That, in turn, has inspired more travelers from the New York and Boston areas to hop a flight. In addition, Delta has launched weekly round-trip flights from New York to St. Marteen. Not content with this significant increase, the tourism bureau is hoping to entice JetBlue and other airlines to add more routes from other metropolitan areas, including Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas. So, what will you do in St. Maarten? The island, part of the Lesser Antilles, has an average temperature of 80 degrees F year-round and offers some of the choicest white sand, coral, and snorkeling in the eastern Caribbean. Half the island is Dutch, the other half French, but English is the major language here. Don't miss these attractions: Dawn Beach, on the Dutch side of the island, is, yes, a great place to watch the sun come up. It's a snorkler's paradise, with a coral reef swimming distance from shore and a soft white-sand beach. Mullet Bay is known for its "curls"-gently rolling waves ideal for surfing. If you're not a surfer, the cerulean half-moon-shaped bay encourages total relaxation, and the island's only golf course is right next door. St. Maarten Zoo has more than 60 species of animals that hail from the tropics, including aviaries filled with multicolored birds from around the Caribbean and South America (Arch Road, across the Salt Pond from Philipsburg, stmaartenzoo.com, adults $10, children $5). Sunset Bar & Grill is a favorite place to hoist a beer or pina colada and watch jumbo jets take off and land at next-door neighbor Princess Juliana International Airport. American and Caribbean food are served for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, and late night (2 Beacon Hill Road, Beacon Hill, sunsetsxm.com, red snapper in lemon butter sauce $18).
New Travel Trend: Crowdfunding Your Dream Vacation
If your dream trip feels out of reach financially, crowdfunding websites let your friends, family, and even strangers help you pay for your vacation. Indiegogo.com You can raise funds for any project on this site, but it's also a good way to put the word out that you need a little help with your vacation budget. Make your case or post a video to let people know what you plan to use the money for, then share the link to your page on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Your page will stay on the website for a set number of days allowing people around the world to contribute funds via credit card or PayPal. It is free to create an account, but Indiegogo does take a small percentage of your earnings. If you want to help someone you don't know take their trip, a recent search found more then 350 people looking for help. These included a group raising money for a friend's 60th birthday trip, people putting together vacation funds for a military veteran and his family following his return from deployment, and a ninth grader trying to raise money for her school band and choir to travel to Disneyland. Honeyfund.comInstead of toasters and place settings, couples can register for hotel nights and even flights. It's free to set up a personalized page on honeyfund.com outlining details of your trip with options for how friends and family can help. According to the site, about 62 percent of couples pay for their own honeymoon, and this is a way to have friends and family contribute. Plus, many of would rather have a trip to the Caribbean instead of a set of hand towels.