Explore vestiges of ancient empires, fathomless lakes and fjords, and spectacular accomplishments of art and architecture as you circumnavigate the Northern Hemisphere by private jet. Revitalize your spirit in the tranquil gardens and exquisite temples of the one-time imperial Japanese capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Learn nomadic traditions in Mongolia, and delve into the rich history of Russia’s rulers and revolutionaries in Irkutsk and St. Petersburg. Venture further north to discover Norway’s pristine fjords, the remarkable geology of Iceland, and the otherworldly realm of Greenland’s vast glaciers.
Arrive in Seattle and transfer to our hotel for a welcome reception and dinner, where you will meet your fellow travellers and accompanying National Geographic experts. The next morning, board our private jet bound for Japan, setting clocks ahead a day as we cross the International Date Line.
Four Seasons Hotel Seattle (B, L, D daily)
Arrive in Kyoto, a former capital of imperial Japan. Transfer to our hotel and enjoy a welcome dinner featuring world-class Japanese cuisine, along with a traditional performance by geisha and maiko, or geisha-in-training.
Explore the historic monuments of Kyoto, including wooden temples and exquisite gardens collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visit the iconic Kinkakuji, or the Golden Pavilion, and gaze at its gleaming reflection in the Mirror Pond as you stroll the surrounding garden. Tread carefully across the famed nightingale floors of Nijo Castle, designed to give away intruding enemies. This impressive castle complex is one of the best surviving examples of palace architecture from Japan’s feudal era, when the Tokugawa shoguns and the warrior samurai reigned supreme.
In the afternoon, share tea with a local family and attend a performance of traditional Noh theatre, where silent masked storytellers use scripted movements to share Japanese legends. Or step into the Tenryuji temple, the head temple for a sect of Zen Buddhism, and clear your mind in a private meditation lesson. Then stroll the Sagano Bamboo Forest, listening to the sound of the stalks rustling and creaking in the wind—a phenomenon recently designated an official Japanese soundscape.
Spend a morning in the ancient capital of Nara, famous for its many Buddhist temples and monuments. Stand at the base of the 50-foot-tall Buddha statue in the soaring main hall of Todaiji temple, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. Alternatively, explore Kyoto further and visit the centuries-old Nishiki Market to sample fresh seafood and Japanese sweets, and watch master knife makers shaping new blades. Learn techniques of Japanese cooking from a local chef in a traditional machiya—wooden townhouses that once housed the city’s merchants and craftspeople. Afternoon activities include the opportunity to learn about the symbolism of the kimono or take a private taiko drumming lesson.
Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto (B, L, D daily)
Fly to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. Situated on the bank of the Tuul River amid the rolling steppe, the city was founded centuries ago as a transportable gathering place for nomadic Mongolian princes. Take a private charter flight to the Gobi and arrive at Three Camel Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World, where we’ll enjoy a gourmet dinner before settling into our traditional ger tents overlooking a dramatic expanse of green hills and red stone plateaus.
The next day, choose between two hiking routes into the desert, both offering spectacular vistas and the opportunity to spot black-tailed gazelles and wild Bactrian camels. Join our National Geographic photographer on a photo walk to learn the best techniques for capturing the colours and textures of this incredible landscape. After a hearty lunch at our lodge, visit the Flaming Cliffs, where paleontologists famously discovered fragments of dinosaur eggs in 1923. Follow in the footsteps of Genghis Khan on a walk along the mesmerizing Moltsog Els sand dune, then meet for tea with a nomadic family to learn about their close relationship with this extreme environment.
Set out the following morning for a hike between the towering canyon walls of Yol Valley, named after the Mongolian word for the lammergeier, or bearded vulture—a unique bird whose diet consists almost exclusively of bone. Ride on horseback across the steppe with a local guide, or learn how to construct a ger. Then participate in a demonstration of Naadam, a traditional sporting festival and recent addition to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Return to the Flaming Cliffs at sunset with our National Geographic photographer and document this spectacular landscape ablaze in fiery shades of orange and red.
Alternative: Travelers who have already visited the Gobi will have the option to explore Ulaanbaatar and the surrounding area. After arriving in the city, enjoy a special opportunity to sit down to dinner with a government minister and a distinguished community leader. The next morning, marvel at the 86-foot-tall statue of Avalokiteśvara, and visit the Gandantegchinlen Monastery, where monks live in accordance with the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism. Discover the treasures of the National Museum of Mongolia, featuring exhibits on everything from prehistory to the Mongol empire and the influence of Soviet Russia on Mongolian culture.
Venture outside the city to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, and experience a traditional shaman ceremony to learn about the role of Buddhism in Mongolian life. We’ll also visit the Genghis Khan Statue Complex, where a colossal equestrian statue of the Mongolian emperor faces east towards his birthplace. Meet with a local family to hear tales of nomadic life. Enjoy a traditional Mongolian musical performance over dinner.
Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar and Terelj Hotel or Three Camel Lodge or Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar and Terelj Hotel (B, L, D daily)
At the confluence of the Angara and Irkut Rivers lies the city of Irkutsk, the administrative and cultural centre of Siberia’s Irkutsk region. Founded as a winter camp for fur traders and miners in the 17th century, the city grew in importance after the construction of the Tran-Siberian Railroad, and today is one of eastern Russia’s major economic centres. A tour takes us to the baroque-style Church of the Savior and the World War II Memorial of the Eternal Flame. Then we’ll step back in time at the Decembrist Museum, featuring two manor houses meticulously restored to the period following the 1825 Decembrist Revolt—when Russian artists, military officers, and aristocrats were exiled to Siberia and initiated Irkutsk’s artistic and intellectual renaissance.
Travel to Listvyanka and embark on a private cruise across the glassy waters of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. At over a mile deep, the lake holds about one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water—more than the North American Great Lakes combined. Baikal is also home to many species of flora and fauna that exist nowhere else in the world, including the Baikal seal, or nerpa, the only species of freshwater seal. As we cruise past the forested lakeshore, keep your camera ready for sightings of brown bears, wolves, red foxes, elk, and wild boar. Savour a hearty barbeque lunch on shore accompanied by a folklore performance. Return to Irkutsk by way of a traditional Trans-Siberian steam train, followed by a private hydrofoil trip up the Angara River.
Courtyard by Marriott, Irkutsk City Center (B, L, D daily)
Since its founding in 1703 by Peter the Great, St. Petersburg has held a place as one of the world’s great cities—an epicentre of imperial splendour, revolutionary fervour, and artistic innovation. Your visit coincides with the famed “white nights,” when daylight extends nearly round the clock, and the city celebrates each night with a variety of festivals.
Begin your exploration at the magnificent Catherine Palace, commissioned by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine. Initially built in the flamboyant Rococo style, the palace has undergone many elaborate renovations by various architects, according to the whims of subsequent rulers. Meet with the palace curator for a tour of the spectacular Amber Room and the workshops where master artisans recreated this historic space. Ramble through the vast formal gardens of Catherine Park, dotted with sculptures and historic monuments.
The next day, travel by private hydrofoil to Peterhof, a series of seafront palaces and gardens known as the “Russian Versailles.” Tour the red-roofed Monplaisir Palace, a favourite residence of Peter the Great, complete with the original kitchen and dishes. See the iconic Grand Cascade, a magnificent series of gilded fountains, and enjoy a special opportunity to step inside the heart of the structure to view its complex mechanics.
Enjoy lunch in the ornate Blue Hall of the National Congress Palace, then choose between several activities in the afternoon. Discover treasures of Russian fine art at the State Russian Museum; explore the world’s largest collection of Carl Fabergé works at the Fabergé Museum; or tour the city’s magnificent cathedrals, including the Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood, the gold-domed St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the imposing Kazan Cathedral. Tonight, dine at the traditional dacha—or rural cottage—of a St. Petersburg family, or choose from one of several curated meals in town, such as a literary- or Soviet-themed experience.
We’ll begin our final day in St. Petersburg with an exclusive early entrance to the State Hermitage Museum, housed in the spectacular Winter Palace. Highlights include the grand Twenty-Column Hall, the famous Venus of Tauride, and countless works by European masters. After a full day to explore this world-renowned museum complex, gather for a private ballet performance and a gala dinner in the lavish Yusupov Palace.
Belmond Grand Hotel Europe (B, L, D daily)
Our next stop is the Norwegian port city of Ålesund, spread over several small islands at the mouth of the mountainous Storfjorden. After a devastating fire in 1904, the city was almost entirely rebuilt in the art nouveau style. Visitors come from all over the world to marvel at the elaborate ornamentation, gentle curved lines, picturesque turrets, and bright colours of the buildings lining Ålesund’s canals. The city’s proximity to the stunning landscape of Norway’s inland fjords provides numerous opportunities for adventure in the pristine backcountry.
Over two days, choose between several ways to explore the city and surrounding fjords. Pedal through Ålesund’s historic centre on a bike tour, and visit the Norwegian Aquarium, offering up-close encounters with otters, penguins, and other sea life. Set out to explore by kayak, paddling from the winding canals of the city to the steep shores of the fjord, where seals play amid forests of kelp and sea eagles soar overhead. Gather on our final morning for a cruise up the Hjørundfjorden from Ålesund to Sæbø, a village nestled near the base of the soaring Skårasalen mountain. Here, we’ll enjoy lunch at a traditional Norwegian farm complete with spectacular views.
Hotel Brosundet or Storfjord Hotel (B, L, D daily)
Arrive in the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavík, founded by Viking settlers in the ninth century. Tour the historic district, characterized by colourful timber houses and overlooked by the distinctive Hallgrímskirkja Church, visible from almost every part of the city. Meet performers for a behind-the-scenes tour at the waterfront Harpa concert hall and enjoy a private welcome dinner in the evening.
The next day, set out on a tour of the celebrated Golden Circle. Glimpse signs of the volatile activity occurring deep underneath the island at the Geysir geothermal area, namesake of the world’s geysers. While years go by between eruptions of the enormous Geysir, countless smoking fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, boiling hot springs, and explosive geysers dot this otherworldly landscape. Hear the roar of the Gullfoss waterfall, then explore Thingvellir National Park, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet at the deep fissure of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Thingvellir is also the ancient gathering place of the Althing, the oldest democratically elected parliament still in operation today. Instead of the Golden Circle tour, you may choose to soak in the mineral-rich, geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon. This evening, embark on a whale-watching excursion to spot minke and humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and elusive orcas.
On our final day in Reykjavík, gain a new perspective on the natural wonders of Iceland with your choice of three activities. Hike past thundering waterfalls on your way to the ice cap of Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest glacier, and glimpse its blue heart while walking in a man-made cave through the ice. Or venture to the mouth of the dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano, and don a helmet and harness to descend alongside expert guides to the floor of the vast magma chamber—a cavern so large it would easily accommodate the Statue of Liberty. Opt to visit an Icelandic horse farm to learn training techniques before heading out on a trail ride over the vast rolling hills outside Reykjavík. Afterwards, join the farmers for lunch and share stories over home-cooked Icelandic fare.
Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center (B, L, D daily)
This morning, explore Kangerlussuaq, a small village on the west coast of Greenland founded in 1941 as a U.S. Air Force base, and designated as part of the early warning network to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War. Continue by private charter flight to Ilulissat, where the population of sled dogs is nearly that of humans. Houses painted in every colour of the rainbow cluster around the base of soaring grey mountains at the mouth of the Ilulissat Icefjord, a World Heritage Site.
Cruise up the fjord, and spot reindeer, musk oxen, and Arctic foxes in brown summer coats camouflaged amidst the rocks. Go flightseeing over the Jakobshavn glacier at the head of the fjord and witness the precipitous calving front, one of the fastest and most active glaciers in the world. Traverse a wooden boardwalk over the heath to a viewpoint situated directly north of the glacier, offering spectacular views of the icy expanse. Explore the abandoned ancient settlement of Sermermiut and neighbouring archaeological remains from a 2,000-year-old Early Dorset settlement.
Hotel Arctic (B, L, D daily)
Fly to Boston and gather for a farewell gala dinner. The next morning, connect with your commercial flight home.
Four Seasons Hotel Boston (B, L, D daily)
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