Russia and the wilds of the Arctic
Combine two wonderfully wintry experiences with this festive foray into Russia and the wilds of the Arctic. Spend New Year's Day aboard one of the most extravagant trains in the world, the Golden Eagle, go ice fishing for King Crabs, hunt for the Northern Lights and celebrate Russian Christmas in the stylish city of St Petersburg.
We meet today at London's Heathrow airport. It's then just a short flight to Moscow, Russia's energetic capital city. Here we check in to our hotel for the night, the 5-Star Four Seasons.
Beginning our day with a coach tour, we start to unearth the history of this unique destination by visiting sights such as Red Square and St Basil's Cathedral. Both attractions are famous the world over, and for good reason. Red Square, site of the Kremlin, has been at the heart of many political events over the years, and is home to the vast State History Museum. It is easily best-known as the final resting place of Lenin, whose remains have been carefully guarded in the square since his death in 1924. And with its round, brilliantly distinctive onion domes, St Basil's Cathedral is an instantly recognisable feature of Moscow's skyline that was constructed in about 1550 by Ivan the Terrible in order to celebrate a victory over the Tartars. Having changed very little since its completion, today the cathedral is one of the world's most colourful architectural wonders.
We also get to see a more modern landmark, the exterior of Moscow's GUM department store. An established chain throughout the country since the time of the Tsars, this particular outlet is the largest in Russia and has a magisterial facade worthy of the accolade. With entrance to the Kremlin's palace complex itself also included, we get to wander the palatial Armoury Chamber, a museum which hosts an eclectic mix of artefacts dating as far back as the 4th century BC.
Following our explorations, we transfer ourselves and our luggage to the train station where we meet our train-hotel for the first time, the plush Golden Eagle. We enjoy our first sumptuous dinner tonight, which is served accompanied by free-flowing wine.
Just north of Moscow's centre lies a collection of towns and cities that form the mysterious sounding 'Golden Ring' of Russia. Once collectively a region known as Zalesye, they are now destinations recognised individually - each one appreciated for its ancient roots. Our first port of call is Vladimir, one of Russia's oldest communities. Historians disagree on exactly when it was founded - with estimates ranging from 990 to 1108 - but what is certain is that Vladimir was the capital of ancient Russia for almost two centuries from 1157. It's most recognisable landmark is Uspensky Cathedral which survived a Mongol invasion in 1239, and later become the coronation site of many Russian Tsar's; a fact that earned it UNESCO World Heritage status.
Set in a valley close to Vladimir sits Suzdal, which we visit by coach. Little is known of the city before 1024, a time during which there was approximately one church for every ten families in the city. As more were built the city was enclosed with protective walls, structures that survive to this day. One of these religious buildings is the Saviour Monastery of St. Euthymius, founded in the 14th century, and during our time here we are treated to a haunting choral performance from a local choir. This is followed by a truly wintry experience, a horse drawn sleigh ride round around the city complete with Siberian snow boots, hats and scarves to keep you warm.
We spend a relaxing day on board the Golden Eagle today, admiring the landscape which grows ever more barren as we draw closer to the Arctic Circle. There is a chance to attend expert lectures as we travel, as well as relax to the music of the train's resident pianist. On Day 5 we arrive into Murmansk, a settlement halfway between Moscow and the North Pole. Starting life as a small, unnamed trading post, Murmansk grew into the largest city within the Arctic Circle during the First World War as it became the answer to keeping supplies flowing to the Russian army. Nowadays it's still an important shipping port that acts as a base for Russia's nuclear-powered icebreaker ships, something we'll learn all about on a visit to the Nuclear Icebreaker Ship Museum.
Following a comfortable night aboard the Golden Eagle, today we disembark with an overnight bag to make the journey by coach across the Norwegian border to Kirkenes for two nights. After settling into our accommodation, we make our way to the nearby Snow Hotel, a magical structure that has to be completely rebuilt every winter. We take a tour of the rooms, each with its own theme, and admire the hand carved ice sculptures created by local artists. Afterwards we enjoy an authentic Norwegian dinner in the warm dining room, tasting delicacies such as reindeer, if you so choose. Next we go on a hunt for the elusive Aurora Borealis accompanied by a Northern Lights professional, who will help decode the mysteries of the northern skies for us.
Day 7 includes a special experience - and something exclusive to this part of the world - an Arctic King Crab fishing expedition. Driven by guides on comfortable snowmobiles, we'll venture out onto the frozen fjords for a tutorial in how to catch these enormous creatures. Afterwards we have the chance to sample our hard work (or someone else's if we're unsuccessful), at a cosy lodge not too far away, where talented chefs expertly prepare a crab lunch for us.
In the afternoon you have a choice of either returning to the Snow Hotel to spend time with the resident reindeer and visit the largest husky dog farm in eastern Finnmark, or return to Kirkenes Village for a walking tour.
With a day spent aboard the Golden Eagle making the journey back south, you can make the most of the train's facilities. Day 9 heralds our arrival into Petrozavodsk, a city that stretches itself along the western shores of Lake Onega - the second largest of it's kind on the continent. We embark on a city tour with a local guide before rejoining the train.
We arrive into St Petersburg today and check into our hotel where we have dinner tonight. On Day 11 there's an included sightseeing tour by coach which reveals the legacy of this magnificent city that has grown from what was once swampland. With its grand boulevards, open squares and network of canals, it is a delight to explore, boasting a wealth of historic monuments and celebrated cultural attractions such as St Isaac's Cathedral and Nevsky Prospect. Day 12 is officially Christmas Day in Russia, as the Orthodox church still follows the Julian calendar for holy days, and we have time to soak up some of the festive atmosphere before transferring to the airport for our flight back to London.
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Russia and the wilds of the Arctic