Arctic cruises travel guide

Arctic Cruises travel guide


2 minute summary

Evocative names – Svalbard, Longyearbyen, Disko Bay, the Northwest Passage – fall softly across the Arctic map, conjuring images of midnight sunshine, frolicking whales, rainbow-painted wooden houses and enormous herds of caribou and musk oxen spilling across the tundra.

Strange creatures inhabit the roof of the world – tusked narwhal and walrus, blubbery seals, and the lonesome polar bear, which can fast for eight months of the year, hunkered down with tiny cubs. The Inuit that live alongside them straddle the widening chasm between tradition and modernity – hunting, fishing, taking tourists for rides on dog sleds.

A cruise in this wild region is eye opening in more ways than one. As well as discovering what – and who – lives on the edge of the ice, you’ll see how far the ice has shrunk, threatening the futures of both the animals and the people that depend on it.
Read more in our Arctic cruises travel guide.
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What we rate & what we don't


Our best & worst of Arctic Cruises

Underrated

Other wildlife Eastern Russia Group rapport Food onboard

Other wildlife

The bear may be the polar poster child, but in your hunt for the king of the Arctic, don’t overlook the other wildlife that shares his frozen kingdom. The great caribou migration is a chilly version of the Serengeti, while the impossibly huge walrus, with metre-long tusks, is an astonishing sight. Arctic foxes are adorable balls of fluff, and narwhals are an eerie sight in the icy seas.

Eastern Russia

Navigating these waters is possible 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. Brown bears and smoking volcanoes can be seen along the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Group rapport

People spend so much time thinking about what’s surrounding the boat that they rarely consider what is on it. The rapport with other passengers – particularly on smaller ships, is often a trip highlight. You can share stories and adventures, have photography competitions and meet likeminded expeditioners from around the world. The vessel is all part of the voyage.

Food onboard

You might think that being on a boat for a fortnight would leave you living off uninspiring rations – or facing the quantity over quality cruise ship approach. But this is a high-end holiday – with high-end cuisine to match. You need good food in a cold climate, and restaurants serve an excellent variety of dishes. More luxurious vessels have three course meals and extensive wine lists.

Rated

Polar bears Inuit art Svalbard Baffin Island

Polar bears

Top of the Arctic cruise bucket list, the earth’s largest land predators is certainly deserving of the acclaim. Look out for them on ice floes, peering for seals beneath the breathing holes, or leading their cubs from their winter dens across to the sea ice. Onboard lectures explore the life of the polar bear – you’ll learn about its life cycle and how such a huge creature can survive in such an inhospitable landscape.

Inuit art

Canada is the place to go for Inuit art. Always a creative culture, the Inuit traditionally used bone, ivory and antlers for their carvings. Soapstone and serpentine are now common, although hand carving is still the preferred method. Prints, baskets textiles, painting and wall hangings are superb, and buying items ensures the traditions are taught to future generations – as well as providing much-needed income.

Svalbard

Far beyond the Arctic Circle, this archipelago is the stuff of icy legend. Walrus and auks, reindeer and bearded seals, foxes and some 2,000 polar bears inhabit the snowy shores and mountains – meaning there’s more bears than people! Spitsbergen, the largest island, has glaciers and fjords to explore. Trek across flowering, windswept tundra, visit the polar research station and try your hand at dog sledding.

Baffin Island

Enormous, frozen Baffin Island is a haven for Arctic wildlife, including walrus, seals, polar bears and huge colonies of seabirds. Sail past glaciers, fjords and Arctic plant life, looking out for rare bowhead whales. Meet the Inuit inhabitants of tiny Kimmirut, who live a traditional lifestyle and create wonderful carvings and drawings. You may also hear their unusual throat singing.

Overrated

Old whaling camps Northwest Passage Whale meat Penguins

Old whaling camps

While bases in the Antarctic are well established relics of an old way of life, those in the Arctic are remnants of ephemeral, temporary campsites, a hut and a few whale bones in the bleak middle of nowhere. It is a part if the region’s history, but in our opinion there are better ways to spend your time up here.

Northwest Passage

The passage’s history is fascinating and brutal; this route around the top of the world was long sought. Today, however, there are much better ways to see the Arctic – with more wildlife, more culture and much better accessibility. Additionally, slapping the name “Northwest Passage” instantly equates to a higher price tag – it’s the cheeky designer label of the Arctic cruise world.

Whale meat

Defying international regulation, Norway still allows whale hunting – as well as eating whale meat. While we accept that native communities should be permitted to maintain traditional hunting practices, commercial whaling is a totally different prospect, posing a threat to the survival of the species. Don’t support it.

Penguins

You won’t find them waddling about in the Arctic, penguins can only be found in the southern hemisphere.

Arctic cruises travel guide


WHAT DOES AN ARCTIC CRUISE ENTAIL?

Ditch any ideas you have about “cruising” – an expedition cruise in the Arctic is no floating Las Vegas. Black tie is replaced with all-weather gear, the onboard entertainment involves ecology lectures and photography lessons, and strict itineraries can go out the porthole. You’ll be sailing to the rhythm of the sea and storms, the melting of the pack ice and the bobbing of the enormous icebergs.

Generally, you’ll start your trip by flying up to your departure point – typically Svalbard, Iceland, Greenland, Canada or Alaska. This means that as soon as you set foot on your boat, your Arctic adventure has begun: you’ll be sailing through chilly seas, looking out for whales and seabirds, and generally cruising along coastlines. Sailing distances are relatively short up here and land excursions are offered each day – reached using a little zodiac or RIB.

Once on land, you may be visiting Inuit communities on the islands of Greenland or Hudson Bay; watching Arctic foxes hunting guillemots on Spitsbergen, admiring the strange tundra flora of Eastern Siberia or photographing long-abandoned whaling camps.

If you are shipbound there’s plenty to keep you entertained on board – and none of it involves crooners or chorus lines. Aboard each vessel are scientists and filmmakers, researchers and geologists – who offer masterclasses in Arctic photography, reveal fascinating secrets about polar wildlife and tell the tales of those who have explored this ice sheet. Some ships have reading rooms and libraries, areas where you can upload photos to your laptop – and daily photography competitions, overseen by some of the best wildlife photographers in the industry. And of course, there are always staff on deck keeping vigil for the Arctic’s number one attraction: the polar bear. Don’t be surprised if you get summoned from your bed at 2am (this is the land of the midnight sun!) to come and watch foxes, bears or seals out on the floating ice.

If all that sounds like hard work – your ship will have a bar and maybe a sauna or even a gym – so you can pick your preferred style of warming up after a chilly Arctic adventure.

Is this trip for me?


A reasonable level of fitness is recommended for Arctic expeditions. Although you certainly won’t be roughing it onboard, getting in and out of the zodiacs down a steep gangway is challenging even with assistance, especially during wet landings – where you may be ankle deep in water (wellies essential!). You’ll also be able to join in other optional activities such as kayaking, snowshoeing and trekking through snow and tundra, making the most of this extraordinary landscape.

You also need to be well prepared with warm, windproof and waterproof clothing. All tour companies will provide detailed trip notes before departure – so be sure to read them! Some bulkier kit – such as rubber boots – may be supplied on board, but do check.

Choosing your cruise


Deciding you want to go to the Arctic is just the very first step of planning your trip. You’ll also need to decide when to visit and on which ship – as well as where. Our Best time to go page will give you a heads up on what can be seen and when – from freshly sculpted icebergs to whale and caribou migrations. But the best person to consult will be your tour operator – who can walk you through the different vessels and routes.
Additionally, it’s worth asking which experts will be giving the onboard lectures – whether your personal interest is photography, geology or polar bears.

A brief history of The Arctic


Unlike bulky Antarctica, the Arctic is a rather intangible place. The tips of countries – Canada, Norway, Russia – creep above the Arctic circle, but beyond that there is no land. The Arctic itself is an illusion, a creaking of sea ice stretching from the south from the pole to engulf islands and wild coastlines, before creeping back north each summer, a kind of frigid migration. Yet these lands bordering the ice have been inhabited for some 10,000 years, as early Inuits travelled north to hunt whales and bears and gather the sparse vegetation. Read more ▼
Photo credits: [Caribou: National Park Service, Alaska] [Eastern Russia: Eric Pheterson] [group rapport: Jessie Hey] [Food: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne ] [polar bears: jidanchaomian] [Innuit Art: Sugared Glass] [Svalbard: Alastair Rae] [Baffin: Mike Beauregard] [whaling camps: Mike Beauregard] [northwest passage: NASA ICE] [whale meat: Kent Wang] [Penguins: 23am.com] [What does a cruise entail? : NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] [zodiac: Smudge 9000] [is this boat for me: Göran Ingman]
Written by Vicki Brown
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