This incredible rail journey takes us in search of the incredible Midnight Sun, during the celebratory White Nights season. We cross deep into the Arctic Circle by private train to find incomparable cities, remote communities, dramatic fjords, abundant wildlife, serene forests and stories recounting a turbulent history on this adventure of a lifetime. A tour that will be a photographer’s dream, what better way to experience it than by private train?
The Midnight Sun refers to a natural phenomenon that occurs in the local summer months north of the Arctic Circle or south of the Antarctic Circle, when the sun remains visible at midnight. Around the summer solstice (approximately 21st June in the north and 22nd December in the south), the sun can be visible for 24 hours. During the few brief weeks of festivity, usually from May to the end of July in the north, luminous mid-summer evenings caused by high latitudes are drenched all night in a pearlescent glow and warm summer days are an enchanting time.
Our search for the enchanting Midnight Sun begins when we cross into the Arctic Circle in Murmansk, marking the occasion with a special on board celebration. This continues into Kirkenes, where our first real opportunity to see the Midnight Sun announces itself, before heading to St Petersburg, the epitome of commemoration and celebration.
Beginning in Moscow, we travel by rail for the day to the historic Golden Ring city of Vladimir, which was founded in 990 and is one of Russia’s oldest communities. This UNESCO world heritage site is full of outstanding architecture, like the Uspensky Cathedral, considered one of the most important and beautiful of Russian cathedrals, where many of the prominent Russian Tsars were crowned.
From Vladimir we travel onto Suzdal, where we visit the atmospheric St Euthymius Monastery to witness an enchanting choral performance of traditional church music, before returning to the train in preparation for our rail adventure deep into the Arctic Circle.
Petrozavodsk is the next destination and its name, translated as ‘Peter’s factory’, refers to a munitions plant founded here by Peter the Great in 1703. It stretches along the western shore of Lake Onega – the second largest lake in Europe and is one of the major cultural and industrial centres of the North-West of Russia. With a large student population and connections with Finland, there is a distinctly European atmosphere here.
We take a city tour and a hovercraft transfer to visit Kizhi Island, also on Lake Onega, to explore its open-air museum of wooden architecture. Marvel at wooden churches built without the use of a single nail, which have survived the challenges of Russian winters and revolution. We also enjoy a private folk performance at Kantele House. Kizhi is especially beautiful during the long northern summer, when the church domes shine with a mysterious, phosphoric light.
Once we cross into the Arctic Circle, there is a special ceremony on board to mark this occasion. We then arrive into Murmansk, a city located halfway between Moscow and the North Pole, and 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. As the main city of the Kola Peninsula, it started as a tiny settlement and Arctic trading post. Thanks to the influence of the Gulf Stream, the port is ice-free year-round and it is here we learn about the perilous missions of the many Arctic convoys, hunted continually by the German Navy, which sailed from the United Kingdom, Iceland and North America to Murmansk in World War Two to deliver essential supplies to the Soviet Union. Now home-port to Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreakers, we have a chance to visit the Nuclear Icebreaker Museum Ship.
We next cross the Russian/Norwegian border to Kirkenes for a two-night stay, where there is an opportunity to stop overnight in the atmospheric wooden log cabins of the Kirkenes Snow Hotel. The Midnight Sun shines in Kirkenes from May 17 to July 21 and the contrasting winter darkness runs from November 21 to January 21. Interestingly, unlike the majority of Norway, Kirkenes is located to the east of Finland and travelling directly west changes the time zone forward instead of backwards. Travelling directly east from Kirkenes into Russia changes the time zone forward by an hour in summer, but by two in winter.
It is from Kirkenes that we will take a boat cruise in search of the midnight sun. Weather permitting, this will be your first chance to see the beautiful dusky skies of an almost-sunset. Starting from Kirkenes central harbour we travel out onto the Bøkfjord and Barents Sea by RIB (rigid inflatable boat). There will be an experienced tour guide on board with you who will describe what life living by the fjord was like during World War Two, as Kirkenes was heavily bombed, along with the opportunity to observe the abundant sea life and coastal birds.
There will also be a unique King Crab Fishing adventure to participate in. You will have the opportunity to catch, prepare and sample these giant crustaceans with an experienced fisherman, who will take you out on a RIB boat and cruise along the Bugøyfjord and the Barents Sea to find the right place to anchor. You will then eat your catch of the day in a traditional renovated boat house located by the fjord, an unforgettable experience. Later that evening, we will celebrate the longest day of the Northern Hemisphere year with a Summer Solstice Cocktail Party and Gala Dinner.
There are additional optional activities available in Kirkenes, such as Barents Sea Fishing, where you can try to catch coalfish, cod or haddock. We will then say a fond farewell to Kirkenes as we cross the border back into Russia and re-join our train which is waiting for us in Nikel.
St Petersburg marks an exuberant conclusion to a fantastic journey, as the city finally emerges from months of enduring cold and darkness, around the time of the summer solstice (21st June) and the sun is visible for 24 hours a day. It is customary for the city’s citizens to stay up all night and welcome the summer, a tradition that dates back to the early 18th century when Peter the Great founded the city. Of course, these long summer days exist elsewhere in Russia and the Arctic Circle, but St Petersburg’s celebrations are the most renowned.
Most of the celebrations during the previous century were subdued by wars and the strict ruling of the Soviet state. Under Joseph Stalin, White Nights were extremely disciplined events, with just a small selection of classical music concerts to choose from. Even after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg’s summer remained quiet due to economic deterioration. However, there have been great improvements made in recent years; with the economy booming once more, celebrations have become a much livelier affair, both with foreign and Russian tourists.
Nowadays, locals revel in the heat and the outdoors by day and by night, there are ‘Stars of the White Nights’ festivals and concerts to indulge in. There are almost daily operas, ballets and classical concerts at the Mariinsky Theatre, featuring Russian and international stars. Guests are encouraged to purchase a ticket for one of these incredible ballet or opera performances, or alternatively take in one of the many outdoor concerts.
There are plenty of other highlights to enjoy, such as the tradition of watching the Neva River bridges parting to let boats through. The Scarlet Sails show, or “Alye Parusa” is the most famous public event during the White Nights period, and offers spectacular fireworks, music concerts, and an impressive water show which coincides with the end of school year and attracts more than three million visitors. You can also visit a choice of carnivals, the largest of which takes place in the suburb of Peterhof, and see actors performing and re-enacting historic events.
We will take a short touring programme of central St Petersburg, featuring St Isaac’s Cathedral and Nevsky Prospect. We stay for two nights at the Grand Hotel Europe, the luxurious, 130-year-old establishment with an ornate facade and a prime location, which has played host to a procession of European monarchs as well as Tchaikovsky and Pavarotti. We will also enjoy a guided tour of Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin and the spectacular Hermitage Museum, the former Winter Palace of the Tsars which houses the royal art collection of over three million works. It is one of the world’s largest and most impressive art museums.
This trip is truly a once in a lifetime adventure, where passengers have the pleasure of basking in sunlight, as the sun never dips below the horizon. A hugely popular, much loved and celebrated event, the White Nights season is a perfect time to explore Russia and the Arctic Circle. If you would like to join us on this exclusive journey, you can find further information here.