Exploring Iqaluit

Begin at the Unikkaarvik Visitor/Information Centre (tel. 866/NUNAVUT [866/686-2888] or 867/979-4636), overlooking the bay, with a friendly staff to answer questions or suggest guiding companies to take you around, and a series of displays on Inuit culture, natural history, and local art. Watch one of the hundreds of Nunavut videos, read from the various books on the North, and pick up some souvenirs. There's even an igloo to explore. June to Labour Day, the center is open daily 10am to 5pm; the rest of the year, it's open Monday through Friday the same hours.

Next door is the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum (tel. 867/979-5537), housed in an old Hudson's Bay Company building. The collection of Arctic arts and crafts on display and for sale here is excellent, and this is a good place to observe the stylized beauty of Inuit carvings. It also hosts traveling exhibits, the most popular being the world-famous annual Cape Dorset Print Collection, and displays local and regional Inuit artifacts -- tools, skin clothing, or a sealskin kayak. It's open Tuesday through Sunday 1 to 5pm.

The Legislative Assembly (Building 926, near Four Corners; tel. 867/975-5000; www.assembly.nu.ca) has an impressive display of Inuit tapestries and carvings, and the pièce de résistance -- an intricately carved Narwhal tusk, embedded with gems, and crowned with a Western Nunavut diamond at its tip. Tours (by appointment) of the "Leg" are worthwhile and free. The public can sit in on legislative sessions, conducted mainly in Inuktitut with English translations. Contact the assembly for session schedules.

Apex (5km/3 miles southwest of town via the road to Apex), the quaint satellite community in the valley southeast of Iqaluit, resembles the small hamlets that make up the rest of Nunavut. On the beach are two former Hudson's Bay buildings, one converted to a private home, and the other used as an artist's studio. This is a picturesque place to walk along the shore.

Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park (tel. 867/975-7700; www.nunavutparks.com), a 30-minute walk from Iqaluit or C$6 cab ride (1km/ 1/2 mile northeast of town, along the road past Discovery Lodge Hotel), is an ideal spot for a light hike on the rolling tundra and pathways, or alongside the meandering Sylvia Grinnell River. There's a lovely look-out spot at the base of the park, where you might want to have a picnic and watch for caribou and Arctic fox. The river's abundant char population gave Iqaluit its name, and in summer, it's crowded with eager fishers casting along the river's edge. You need a license to fish here, and the easiest way to get one is at Arctic Ventures (Building 192, 5-minute walk east of Four Corners; tel. 867/979-5992). Canadian residents pay C$20 for the season or C$15 for 3 days, and non-residents pay C$40 for the season and C$30 for 3 days.

Qaummaarviit Territorial Park (tel. 867/975-7700; www.nunavutparks.com), the tiny rock island to the west of Iqaluit, is an archeological goldmine. About 12km (7 1/2 miles) from town by boat (or dogsled in winter), it's the best place near the capital to see ancient remains of the Thule people, ancestors of Inuit. Arctic conditions are ideal for preservation, and the remains of 11 sod houses bring you back to what life was like before European contact. It's a boat ride away, so hire a guide to take you there and interpret the site. Inuksuk Adventures provides tours here, including transportation, guides, and a snack, but not every day. You must book in advance (tel. 867/979-2113; www.inuksukadventures.ca).

Other Baffin Island Destinations

If you've come as far as Iqaluit, don't stop now. Smaller communities on Baffin Island are far more scenic and compelling than Iqaluit, and with excellent recreational opportunities. Each of the following Inuit communities is served by scheduled air service and will have a small hotel, store, and guide services. For current information on these communities, consult the Nunavut tourism website at www.nunavuttourism.com.

Pangnirtung & Auyuittuq National Park -- Called "Pang" by locals, Pangnirtung is at the heart of one of the most scenic areas in Nunavut. Located on a deep, mountain-flanked fjord, Pang is the jumping-off point for the 19,089-sq.-km (7,370-sq.-mile) Auyuittuq National Park.

Pang itself is a lovely little village of 1,200 people, with a postcard view up the narrow fjord to the glaciered peaks of Auyuittuq. The local population is friendly and outgoing, which isn't always the case in some other Inuit villages. TheAngmarlik Interpretive Centre (tel. 867/473-8737) is definitely worth a stop, with well-presented displays on local Inuit history and culture.

Just across the street is the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts (tel. 867/473-8669; www.uqqurmiut.com), where Pang artisans create stunning hand-woven tapestries sold around the world. The center is a huge economic driver in a region with few active industries. You can meet the artists at work on the large looms and view their wares in what may be the best gift shop in Nunavut, with its selection of tapestries, woven belts, and the ubiquitous Pang hats. There are also carvings and prints for sale, made in the adjoining print shop.

Most people go to Pang to reach Auyuittuq National Park, 31km (19 miles) farther up Pangnirtung Fjord. This is Nunavut's most popular national park, with 400 people visiting a year! Auyuittuq (pronounced Ow-you-ee-tuk) means "the land that never melts" and refers to the 5,698-sq.-km (2,200-sq.-mile) Penny Ice Cap, which covers the high plateaus of the park, and the glaciers that edge down into the lower valleys and cling to the towering granite peaks. The landscapes are extremely dramatic: Cliffs rise from the milky-green sea, terminating in hornlike glacier-draped peaks 2,333m (7,654 ft.) high; in fact, the world's longest uninterrupted cliff face on Thor Peak (over 1km/ 1/2 mile of sheer rock) is in the park. Auyuittuq is largely the province of long-distance hikers and rock climbers; if you're looking for an adventurous walking holiday in magnificent scenery, this might be it. The best times to visit are March until early April for skiers or day trips by snow machine to the Arctic Circle, and July to mid-August, when the days are long and afternoons bring short-sleeve weather. You must register and complete an orientation before entering the park, and you need to hire an outfitter to get you to the entrance. For details, contact the Auyuittuq National Park Office (tel. 867/473-2500;www.parkscanada.gc.ca/auyuittuq).

Pond Inlet -- In many ways, the best reason to make the trip to Pond Inlet on Baffin's northern shore is simply to see the landscape. On a clear day, the 4-hour flight from Iqaluit up to Pond is simply astounding: hundreds of miles of knife-edged mountains, massive ice caps (remnants of the ice fields that once covered all North America), glacier-choked valleys, and deep fjords flooded by the sea. It's an epic landscape -- in all the country, perhaps only the Canadian Rockies can match the eastern coast of Baffin Island for sheer scenic drama.

Pond Inlet sits on Eclipse Sound, near the top of Baffin Island, in the heart of this rugged beauty. Opposite the town isBylot Island, a wildlife refuge and part of Sirmilik (North Baffin) National Park (tel. 867/899-8092;www.parkscanada.gc.ca/sirmilik). Its craggy peaks rear 2,167m (7,110 ft.) straight up from the sea; from its central ice caps, two massive glaciers pour down into the sound directly across from town. Before entering Sirmilik, you must register and do an orientation session.

Considering the amazing scenery in the area, Pond Inlet is relatively untouristy, though it has seen an increase in summer visitors in the last few years with the rise of cruise traffic. The peak tourist season is May and June, when local outfitters offer trips out to the edge of the ice floes, the point where the ice of the protected bays meets the open water of the Arctic Ocean. In spring, this is where you find much of the Arctic's wildlife: seals, walruses, bird life, polar bears, narwhals, and other species converge here to feed, often on one another. A wildlife-viewing trip out to the floe edge (by snowmobile or dogsled) requires at least 3 days, with 5-day trips advised for maximum viewing opportunities. Other recreation opportunities, like kayaking and biking, open up in August, when the ice clears out of Eclipse Sound. Bird-watching boat trips to Bylot Island are offered (the rare ivory gull nests here), as well as narwhal-watching trips in the fjords. It's best to allow several days in Pond Inlet if you're coming for summer trips; the weather is very changeable this far north.

Polar Sea Adventures (tel. 867/899-8870; www.polarsea.com) is probably the most prominent operator in Pond, delivering safe, very well-planned and high-quality multiday trips in spring and summer. Among the scheduled offerings are dog-sledding, skiing, camping on the floe edge, hiking, and sea kayaking trips. The company also customizes trips, so if you want to bicycle across the sea ice, this is the place to call.

Enookie Inuarak of Inuarak Outfitting (tel. 867/899-8551; inuarak@gmail.com) offers floe-edge tours, dog-team tours, and fishing expeditions near Pond.

Kimmirut & Katannilik Territorial Park -- The center for Baffin Island's famed stone-carving industry, Kimmirut is located along a rocky harbor, directly south of Iqaluit on the southern shore of Baffin Island. While many people make the trip to this dynamic, picturesque community to visit the workshops of world-renowned carvers, there are other reasons to make the trip. Katannilik Territorial Park is a preserve of Arctic wildlife and lush tundra vegetation and offers access to Soper River. The Soper, a Canadian Heritage River, is famed for its many waterfalls in side valleys and for its long-distance float and canoe trips.

Many people visit Katannilik Territorial Park for a less-demanding version of rugged Auyuittuq National Park farther north. Wildlife viewing is good, and hiking trails wind through the park. Canoeing or kayaking the Soper River is a popular 3-day trip that's full of adventure but still suitable for a family. For more information on the park, contact the Katannilik Park manager (tel. 867/939-2084; www.nunavutparks.com).

Getting to the starting point of your Soper journey is tricky, and you would do well with a guide throughout the 3-day adventure. Northwinds (tel. 867/979-0551; www.northwinds-arctic.com) is there to help with customized tours.

Cape Dorset -- The rolling tundra surrounding Cape Dorset is similar to that of Iqaluit or Kimmirut; what makes Dorset stand out is the artists who live there. This is the home of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-Operative (tel. 867/897-8827;wbec@interhop.net), where fine soapstone carvings, stone-cut printing, etchings, and most famously, the Cape Dorset Print Collection, are created, marketed, and sold. Mid-20th-century artist James Houston put Dorset art on the map in the 1950s, when he recognized its brilliance and helped establish what came to be a world-famous, thriving collection. The prints are characterized by abstract, brightly colored portrayals of Inuit culture, Northern wildlife and scenery, and the more seemingly mundane aspects of Northern life, like shopping at the Northern store or lining up at the ATM. Art buffs flock to the village for tours of the co-op, to view artists at work, and to shop.

Other Nunavut Destinations

Bathurst Inlet -- One of the most notable arctic lodges, Bathurst Inlet Lodge (tel. 867/873-2595;www.visitnunavut.com/bathurstinletlodge.html) was founded in 1969 for naturalists and those interested in the Arctic's natural history and ecology. The lodge is at the mouth of the Burnside River on an arm of the Arctic Ocean in a rugged landscape of tundra and rocky cliffs. The lodge is housed in the historic buildings of a former Oblate mission and the old Hudson's Bay Company trading post.

The lodge is open for a brief mid-summer season only. Rates will depend on the activities available during your visit, but are typically C$4,995 a week, which includes charter air transportation to/from Yellowknife, all meals, and programs. The lodge can make arrangements to suit your individual interests, including fishing, hiking, flight seeing, wildlife photography, and river floating.

Quttinirpaaq (Ellesmere Island) National Park Reserve  -- A good part of the intrigue of Ellesmere Island is its absolute remoteness. A preserve of rugged glacier-choked mountains, ice fields, mountain lakes and fjords, and Arctic wildlife,Ellesmere Island National Park is the most northerly point in North America. During the short summer, experienced hikers and mountaineers make their way to this wilderness area to explore some of the most isolated and inaccessible land in the world.

History is well-preserved this far north. Archeological sites dating back to Independence I culture (Paleo-Eskimo peoples from 2400-1000 BCE) all the way to the Dorset culture (500 BCE-CE 1500) are scattered throughout the park, as are endless ancient fossils. Fort Conger, the site of Nares, Greely, and Peary explorations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, still stands as it was when left by Peary.

Getting to Ellesmere is neither easy nor cheap. From Resolute Bay (served by regularly scheduled flights on First Air), park visitors must charter a private airplane for the 3-hour, 960km (597-mile) flight farther north. Facilities are limited to shelters at Tanquary Fiord Operations Station and outhouses at Lake Hazen and Ward Hunt Island stations, so you must be prepared for extremes of weather and physical endurance. The most common activity is hiking from Lake Hazen at the center of the park to Tanquary Fjord in the southwest corner. This 129km (80-mile) trek crosses rugged tundra moorland, as well as several glaciers, and demands fords of major rivers. Needless to say, Ellesmere Island Park isn't for the uninitiated.

Kenn Borek Air (tel. 867/252-3845; www.borekair.com) charters Twin Otters from Resolute to the park. The craft will carry 907kg (2,000 lb.) -- equal to 8 to 10 people with gear -- and costs about C$50,000. A more feasible option is sharing the charter with other visitors, which you can coordinate through Kenn Borek, but make sure to do so well in advance.

For more information and an up-to-date listing of outfitters who run trips into the park, contact Quttinirpaaq National Park (tel. 867/975-4673; www.parkscanada.gc.ca/quttinirpaaq).

Cruising Across the Top of the World

Given the challenge of traveling to Nunavut -- expensive flights, limited accommodations and restaurants, and few packaged touring options -- another worthwhile option is taking an expedition cruise to Nunavut. It's a more affordable way to see vast landscapes of the territory, wildlife colonies, and villages, all in one pop. The cruises are typically on small ships with other like-minded travelers and include daily landings to hike around and explore. Itineraries vary, but most start in Western Greenland and traverse across Northern Baffin Island, through the Passage, ending in Cambridge Bay or Kugluktuk. Prices start at about C$7,500 for a 12-night journey throughout Nunavut's coastal areas. Adventure Canada (tel. 800/363-7566; www.adventurecanada.com) is a family-owned business with 20 years experience offering small-ship expedition cruising in the Arctic. Cruise North Expeditions (tel. 866/263-3220; www.cruisenorthexpeditions.com) is an Inuit-owned and -operated company that also offers expedition-style cruises through Nunavut and the Arctic.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.