You can navigate these waters for just a few months each year. The wilderness islands include the Wrangel Nature Reserve, whose mammoth steppe vegetation is filled with strange endemic flora. Visit the remains of a 3,400-year-old Eskimo camp, and look for grey whales, polar bears, musk oxen and Pacific walrus. The burning embers of 30 active volcanoes light up the Kamchatka peninsula.
There is a palpable sense that Kamchatkans value their isolation and want to remain as far away as possible from memories of the Cold War, yet it remains a significant and intriguing part of the area’s history. Visit abandoned submarine bases and travel past abandoned salmon fisheries where people just packed up and left. Chilling, but very interesting to see the effects of the war frozen in time.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of a trip to Kamchatka is that for days you may not meet another living soul, or see another ship. You’re most likely to run into a lone salmon fisherman, or a couple of locals hanging out in a hot spring and they’re so welcoming – not at all the stereotypical stand-offish Russian, and far more likely to offer you some caviar and an obligatory shot of vodka.
The black-throated diver, red-faced cormorant, and the rough-legged buzzard; all names of jaunty Kamchatkan locals, but of the bird variety; in fact, there are hundreds of bird species to spot in the peninsula and you don’t have to be twitcher to be astounded by their wonder. The Steller’s sea eagle, an enormous bird of prey that deftly swoops salmon from the water, is the leader of the pack.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Wrangel Island is home to a large polar bear population, as well as Pacific walruses, Arctic foxes, snowy owls, snow geese, musk ox, reindeer and more. In addition, Wrangel Island is believed to be the last home of the woolly mammoth and mammoth tusks and bones are regularly unearthed in the riverbeds and interior of the island.
Kamchatka has a staggeringly beautiful geology. The land of fire and ice, its volcanoes, of which there are over 300, are magnificent and surprisingly brightly coloured; the volcanic landscape bubbles, steams and shines as though someone has taken a paintbrush and just gone to town. In 2013, four volcanoes erupted simultaneously, which is frankly bananas. Spectacular.
The wildlife in Kamchatka is almost indescribably spectacular. Wrangel Island, untouched by glaciers during the last ice age, is a treasure trove of Arctic biodiversity; the peninsula is awash with great brown bears that patrol the coast sweeping for salmon; pink, wrinkly Pacific walrus loll about in their masses, and reindeer, musk ox and snow geese can often be seen further inland.
Ditch any preconceptions you may have about “cruising”, an expedition cruise in Kamchatka is no floating Las Vegas. Black tie is replaced with all-weather gear, the onboard entertainment involves ecology talks and photography tips, and strict itineraries are chucked out the porthole. Cruising in Kamchatka is an exciting journey into an untamed wilderness, all on nature’s terms.
Entirely at odds with its spellbinding natural setting, Petropavlovsk is not a pretty city, but then nothing is, and very few other places probably will ever be, quite as beautiful once you’ve been slapped in the face by the sheer stupendous wonder of Kamchatka’s wilderness. A gateway to Russia’s most spectacular scenery, regard it as a necessary blot on the landscape and escape ASAP.
A little bit like being in a holding cell, but where you’re free to come and go and you can use your own toilet, the accommodation around Petropavlovsk is very basic Soviet-style, plus the rates are sky high – we’re talking upwards of £130 a night – isolated, expensive and utterly uninviting, it’s a much better option to get out on a tour and camp near a volcano, or escape to the wilds on a boat.
A playground for oil-struck business people, there’s a lot of gas and oil exploration money coming in to this island, which has environmental ramifications, but also hikes up prices further. The isolation of this part of the world has meant, until now, wildlife has been left to do its own thing and we can’t imagine the brown bears, quietly getting on with their salmon runs, are particularly pleased.
Poaching has reared its ugly head and over-hunting now endangers wild reindeer, bighorn sheep and bears in Kamchatka. Despite legal hunting outside of reserves allowed for four months each year, illegal hunting sees between 400 and 500 bears poached annually for meat, for the supposed medicinal virtues of gall bladders and for head, skin and paw trophies. Whatever you do, don’t buy into it.