Although cruises to Antarctica remain popular, in the past few years, the Arctic has become the hot spot of expedition cruising. This remote region has recently been in the news for some unfortunate reasons, notably shrinking ice coverage and threatened populations of polar bears. Understandably, people wish to see these pristine environments and impressive animals while they still can, and if there is any upside to the Arctic’s environmental changes, it is that the reduction in sea ice has allowed expedition vessels to explore the region in unprecedented fashion.
Of course, there is more to an Arctic cruise than icebergs and polar bears. The little-known fjords and archipelagoes of the far north have breathtaking scenery enhanced by the unique quality of the polar light. And the rich cultures of indigenous peoples still remain intact. A range of wildlife inhabits this region, including walruses, seals, various species of whales and prolific birdlife. These creatures thrive in places that were once inaccessible to all but the most intrepid travelers, who were willing to endure great discomfort. But an acceptance of discomfort is no longer a prerequisite for an Arctic trip.
Already, several leading cruise companies offer itineraries in the region, and other major lines have plush expedition ships in the works, set to start sailing within the next year or two. (I have every intention of reviewing one or more of these cruises myself.)
Although cruises are scheduled as soon as May of this year, as long as the pandemic continues there is a chance they may be canceled. So be sure to check the companies’ policies for cancellations and rescheduling, and purchase appropriate travel insurance. The Andrew Harper Travel Office has strong relationships with all the cruise lines described below and will help make the booking process transparent and worry-free.
This classic luxury cruise line has long been a favorite of Andrew Harper members. Two of its ships will ply the waters of the Arctic in the summers of 2021 and 2022: the 274-passenger Silver Wind, refurbished in late 2018 and set to be retrofitted with an ice-class hull later this year, and the 254-passenger Silver Cloud, one of the line’s oldest ships, recently overhauled to be expedition-appropriate. Spacious suites range from 240 to 1,019 square feet.
In August 2019, the retreat of the Arctic ice allowed the Silver Explorer to travel along the Northeast Passage, between Nome, Alaska, and Tromsø, Norway, over the top of Russia. A repeat of this journey was scheduled for 2020, but alas, it could not take place. Silversea has no passage crossings planned for 2021, but in 2022, the Silver Wind will sail the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada, a 24-day journey from Kangerlussuaq in western Greenland to Nome, Alaska. This extraordinary itinerary will take fortunate participants to some of the most untouched places on the planet, exploring them in depth with Silver Wind’s 20 Zodiacs.
Other enviable itineraries in the next two years include visits to remote Svalbard, a spectacular archipelago north of Norway indented with fjords and scoured by glaciers. In addition to polar bears, its wildlife populations include important colonies of walruses and a range of unique bird species. I also like the looks of the cruises visiting the dramatic and unspoiled coasts of Iceland, Greenland and Canada’s Baffin Island. These departures don’t require a 24-day commitment; the shortest itineraries that include Svalbard are just six days long, and there are numerous options in the nine- to 13-day range.
Silversea isn’t the only luxury line to offer cruises to some of the planet’s most inaccessible points. Ponant unveiled a new expedition ship last year: the 270-passenger Le Commandant Charcot. It has a heated outdoor pool, like the Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, as well as an indoor pool. The vessel also has an unusually large accommodation, the 1,237-square-foot Suite de l’Armateur, which has a terrace with an additional 1,937 square feet (the smallest cabins are about 215 square feet).
This summer, Le Commandant Charcot plans to take its passengers along the Svalbard coast up into the Arctic pack ice, all the way to the geographic North Pole. The bragging rights alone make the 16-day journey worthwhile. How many people can claim to have stood at the top of the Earth? But of course, that’s not the only reason to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip. The wildlife viewing promises to be memorable, and the luminous, sculptural ice floes in the polar light are exceptionally beautiful. When we visited Antarctica a few years ago, a fellow passenger remarked, “The first time we came here, it was for the penguins. This time, it’s for the ice.” Le Commandant Charcot will make three voyages to the North Pole, commencing on July 24, August 8 and August 23.
Two other Ponant ships, the 264-passenger L’Austral and its sister ship, Le Boreal, also offer enticing Arctic itineraries this year. Destinations include Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, and cruises range from eight to 17 days.
Scenic claims to be a “six-star” cruise line, and certainly the amenities of its flagship, the Scenic Eclipse, are impressive. The 228-passenger vessel (limited to 200 on polar cruises) has a six-guest submarine, capable of diving almost 1,000 feet deep, as well as two six-guest helicopters. It has several plunge pools, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and a spa with a yoga and Pilates room. There are numerous restaurants, and, like the other vessels described in this article, it comes equipped with kayaks and Zodiacs for excursions. The Eclipse’s Verandah Suites, its smallest accommodations, range between 344 and 366 square feet, and the Owner’s Penthouse Suites encompass 2,099 square feet (including their terraces with Jacuzzis).
The Eclipse doesn’t have any Northwest Passage or North Pole itineraries planned, but it does have several highly appealing voyages exploring Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard. If I could choose any of the itineraries, I would book the 14-day “Across the Arctic Circle” journey, which departs from Bergen, Norway, on June 30, 2022, and cruises up the fjord-filled Norwegian coast. From there it continues on to Svalbard, with five days to explore that dramatic archipelago before an included flight takes passengers from Longyearbyen to Oslo. The same itinerary is scheduled to depart on June 19, 2023.
The 14-day “Jewels of the Russian Far East” itinerary, departing May 27, 2023, looks equally alluring. It starts with a flight from Alaska to Nome, from where passengers sail across the Bering Sea to the little-visited Russian east coast. The Eclipse continues south down the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula, and the itinerary ends with a flight from its southern tip to Vladivostok. (Book well in advance to allow for Russian visa processing.)
For many Arctic travelers, the destination is the thing, and amenities such as spas, butler service and private teppanyaki dining are frills that aren’t worth the expense. For those who prefer that expedition-cruise feel, well, expeditionary, National Geographic (in conjunction with Lindblad) is an excellent option.
We cruised anonymously with National Geographic in 2016, journeying to Antarctica aboard the 148-passenger Explorer. The six-deck, 367-foot ship joined the Lindblad fleet in 2008 after a complete retrofit and redesign as an expedition ship. For travel in polar seas, the hull was strengthened to a rating of Ice-1A Super, the highest attainable, meaning it can easily cut through ice almost three feet thick. Inside, the appointments weren’t luxurious, exactly, but they were casually elegant and perfectly comfortable. I wouldn’t hesitate to take another cruise with the Explorer, and I feel especially tempted by its 18-day itinerary exploring Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, departing August 14, 2021.
The National Geographic fleet’s newest ship is the Endurance, a striking 126-passenger Polar Class 5 vessel, capable of operating at the ends of the Earth in ice of medium thickness year-round. Launched in December 2019, it includes a dozen 140-square-foot cabins for solo travelers, helping to reduce the pain of single supplements. While the stylish cabins have more luxurious fittings than we experienced aboard the Explorer, the largest category offers only 430 square feet. That’s spacious but not as sprawling as the top palatial suites on other ships described above.
Nevertheless, I would very happily spend a week or three cruising with the likes of the Endurance. For example, the 24-day “Exploring the Russian Arctic” itinerary (departing on June 28 in both 2021 and 2022) looks fantastic, with stops in the vast and little-known Novaya Zemlya archipelago; Severnaya Zemlya, a set of islands discovered only in 1913; and Franz Josef Land, the northernmost archipelago in the world. Again, book well in advance to allow time for visa processing. Shorter itineraries to Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland are also available.
The 102-passenger Orion also heads to remotest Russia, with a fascinating “Across the Bering Sea” itinerary from Seward, Alaska, to Nome, cruising up the Kamchatka Peninsula (departing July 13). The 13-day “Exploring Russia’s Far East and Wrangel Island” takes passengers even farther off the beaten track, with visits to the polar bear habitat of far-northern Wrangel and the ancient whalebone displays on Yttygran Island (departing August 3 and 15, 2021, and August 7, 2022). I’m also very intrigued by the Orion’s 13-day cruise from Anchorage to Nome, including stops at Kodiak Island, the remote Aleutian Islands (including a visit to a petrified sequoia forest) and little-known archipelagoes in the Bering Sea, such as the Pribilof Islands.
Also famous for expedition-style cruises, Quark is no stranger to the Arctic. Its former Soviet icebreaker, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, has reportedly completed more Northwest Passage transits than any other ship. The Seattle-based company is now entering the luxury expedition cruise market with a new vessel, the Ultramarine, scheduled to make its first cruise this May (seven days around Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago). Most of its 102 accommodations (including six 132-square-foot cabins for solo travelers) come with balconies. And double-occupancy cabins tend to be spacious, starting at about 280 square feet and ranging up to 609 square feet including a terrace.
The Ultramarine’s two helicopters allow guests to enjoy heli-hiking and heli-skiing, as well as scenic flights (a 10- to 15-minute “flightseeing” excursion is included in the price of many itineraries). In addition, it comes equipped with 20 Zodiacs, sea kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and even camping gear, for those who wish to spend a night on land. I wonder, though, if I could be convinced to give up the comforts on board, which include two restaurants, a fitness center with a yoga area, a sauna with a floor-to-ceiling window and a full spa. But comfort does not necessitate waste; great care has been taken to minimize the ship’s environmental footprint.
In addition to visiting Svalbard, the Ultramarine plans to explore the fjord-indented coast of southern Greenland and Arctic Canada. I’m most intrigued by the 17-day itinerary that goes from Resolute, Canada, down much of the western coast of Greenland to Kangerlussuaq (flights to and from Toronto are included). And the 12-day itinerary in the Canadian archipelagoes north of Baffin Island looks incredible. It doesn’t have a fixed route — ice and weather conditions determine the specific stops — but it plans to include Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands, north of already-remote Resolute. Both of these cruises are scheduled to depart in late August 2021 and 2022.
Crystal, determined not to be outdone, will also unveil a new expedition ship this year, the Endeavor. As on Seabourn’s upcoming ships (see below), all the cabins on Crystal’s 200-passenger vessel will have verandas. And like the Scenic Eclipse and Quark Ultramarine, the Endeavor will come equipped with two helicopters. The ship will also have a fitness center, spa and multiple restaurants, ensuring that life on board is up to the usual luxurious Crystal standard. Spacious accommodations will range between 304 and 1,130 square feet.
Arctic itineraries in 2021 include a monumental 30-day Northeast Passage voyage across the top of Russia (August 18 to September 15), including stops in Severnaya Zemlya, Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land before finishing in Tromsø, Norway. This itinerary is one of the only Northeast Passage crossings that any luxury cruise line has scheduled for this year, and Crystal doesn’t plan to repeat it in 2022. As with all cruises that include Russian ports, book well in advance in order to allow time for visa processing.
In 2022 there is a larger selection of Arctic journeys with the Endeavor, including 11-night explorations of the Svalbard archipelago, an enviable 16-night voyage departing from Reykjavik that includes both the southeast and southwest coasts of Greenland, and a 14-night cruise along the west coast of Greenland down to Montreal, Canada. I would eagerly hop on board any one of them.
Not wanting to be left out in the cold, Seabourn has announced two new “ultra-luxury” expedition ships: the Venture, set to launch in December 2021, and a sister ship launching in 2022. Both will have 132 cabins, all with verandas, as well as enough Zodiacs to accommodate every guest simultaneously. Its smallest cabins will offer 355 square feet (including the veranda), and the Owners Suite's will have a total area of 1,023 square feet.
These vessels will be ranked Polar Class 6, which allows for summer and autumn cruises in ice of medium thickness. Like the Scenic Eclipse, Seabourn’s expedition ships will each come with submarines for underwater excursions, as well as more conventional amenities such as sea kayaks. A full spa will provide après-paddle pampering.
The first Arctic cruises with the Venture depart, counterintuitively, in late 2021 and early 2022: unique 12- and 13-day “In Search of Northern Lights” itineraries up and down the Norwegian coast. The ship heads up to the Svalbard archipelago in May 2022. And one incredible-looking itinerary, departing August 6, 2022, encompasses Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland, finishing in Reykjavik on September 4. There are also shorter cruises, of course, including 12-day explorations of northern Norway and Svalbard.
But if I had my druthers, I’d be aboard the September 17th sailing in 2022. It starts with an included flight from Reykjavik to meet the ship in western Greenland, and continues up the coast before crossing to the far north of Baffin Island. The Venture then turns south, cruising down Canada’s northeastern coast to Newfoundland. The itinerary finishes in Barbados on October 12 after stops in Bermuda, St. Kitts and Martinique. Not a bad reward after some Arctic adventuring!
Looking directly down on the North Pole provides a very different perspective on Planet Earth. For centuries, explorers sought a trade route from Europe to Asia, but the Northwest Passage remained elusive. The most famous casualties of the quest were the two ships of the Franklin Expedition, which left London in 1845 never to return. Now, thanks to shrinking sea ice, cruise ships can travel safely from Greenland to Alaska, as well as along the Northeast Passage from Norway to the Bering Sea.