Worth a Trip: The Kurils
Spreading northeast of Japan, like stepping stones to Kamchatka, this gorgeous and rugged 56-island chain of 49 active volcanoes, azure-blue lagoons, steaming rivers and boiling lakes is one of the world’s great adventures. The Kurils are part of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ – the islands being the visible tips of an underwater volcanic mountain range. The rare visitors here are treated to dramatic landscapes, isolated coastal communities a world apart from the rest of Russia, and seas and skies brimming with marine and birdlife.
The three most populous islands, accessible by public boat and/or plane, are Kunashir, Iturup and Shikotan. You can attempt to visit these islands on your own, but secure permits first well in advance through a travel agent or from the border control office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Permits have become increasingly hard to get in recent years and you should begin planning your trip at least three months before you want to travel. Be prepared to get stuck for a few days because of storms and heavy fog. Late summer and early autumn provide the best chance of stable weather.
Aurora flies to Yuzhno-Kurilsk on Kunashir Island five times a week, and to Buravestnik, Iturup, four times per week. On the seas, Sakhalin-Kurily has a ferry that departs twice a week from Sakhalin to Kunashir, Shikotan, Iturup and back to Sakhalin. The entire loop takes up to two days. Omega Plus in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk offers groups of four or more a seven-/eight-day tour to Kunashir or Iturup Island for R50,000 to R80,000 per person, including visa support. Transport is by public boat. Individuals can piggyback on these trips.
More northern islands, many of them uninhabited, can only be visited by private sea craft or on upmarket expeditions such as several 12- to 13-day cruises by Heritage Expeditions (www.heritage-expeditions.com). They offer a trip between Kamchatka and Sakhalin, and another from Sakhalin Island to Magadan; these typically happen in May and June (from US$8500 per person).