Things to do on an Arctic Cruise

The onboard amenities on a cruise are perfectly adequate for a week or two. You might have a library, a fitness suite, even a small pool, and there will be a restaurant, but not much beyond that. The reason for that is perfectly simple: the boat is just a means of getting from A to B, you’re supposed to get off as much as possible. Of course your time onboard is far from dull – in fact the travel hours fly by as you admire the Arctic scenery, practise your photography on sea birds and marine wildlife, attend talks from the expedition team and gasp in awe at the icebergs floating past.

Star in your own wildlife documentary

Step into the set of the BBC's Frozen Planet during an Arctic wildlife cruise. You won’t be sure if you’re the hunter or the hunted, as whales bob beneath your ship, surprisingly large walruses wield their tusks beside your kayak – and the threat of a polar bear encounter looms around every icy corner. Onboard experts can help you spot – and photograph – the whitest of foxes against the whitest of backgrounds, and you’ll learn about Arctic ecosystems in the world’s largest classroom.
Top sights include polar bear cubs reaching the edge of the ice with their mothers; walruses hauling themselves onto the ice with their tusks; and shaggy musk oxen, like a creature from a strange fairytale, grazing their way across the tundra.

Activities in the Arctic

The type of activities available to you depend on the holiday you go for, but most involve heading out in the small fleet of Zodiac rigid hull boats that most ships carry with them. The restriction on Antarctica cruises, with only 100 passengers allowed ashore at a time, does not apply in the Arctic, but given that daily excursions involve ferrying large numbers of people back and forth, they need to be, and always are, extremely well organised.
Specialist expedition crew accompany you on excursions and the ratios are excellent, sometimes as low as 1:8, allowing you to learn a great deal from experts with years of experience in this environment and wildlife. Other crew members act as well-trained bear-spotters, armed with flares and guns and positioned on high ground. If a polar bear does appear in the close vicinity and can’t be scared off, groups will return to the ship as soon as possible.
All activities are of course entirely optional, and once everyone is on land they may be divided up into smaller groups, for instance with some heading off on two-hour hikes, the more adventurous going further and steeper, and others preferring to stick around on the beach instead. Arctic cruise itineraries are purposefully made as flexible as possible and daily schedules can easily be torn up depending on the weather or wildlife sightings. When choosing a cruise one factor you should take into account is your own fitness level, so that you can make the most of your time in the Arctic.

Nature hikes

Hiking in the Arctic is invigorating and sensory, as you cross tundra strewn with beautiful wildflowers, climb summits such as the 400m Plateau Mountain on Spitsbergen, and listen to the loud groans of glaciers in the long process of calving icebergs. You might also strap on a pair of snowshoes (bring your own foldable poles) to traverse fields of snow and ice, explore historic mining, whaling and trapping communities, and of course there will be innumerable opportunities for photography.

Northern Lights

From late September until April the Arctic sky darkens enough to make it possible to view the Northern Lights. The majority of Arctic cruise holidays take place in the summer months when the weather is warmer and the ice more broken up, but there are some Arctic Northern Lights cruises that depart as late as September in search of the aurora borealis.

Sea kayaking

Along with their RIB launches for land excursions, many ships also carry a number of sea kayaks. The waters are generally calm, so you can paddle along as part of a group, getting much closer to gigantic icebergs, coastline and wildlife such as whales, sea birds and seals than you would be able to on the ship itself. Beyond being a good way to shake out the kinks in your muscles after days of cruising, sea kayaking promises another amazing perspective on the Arctic scenery.

Polar Plunge

Weirdly enough, taking the ‘polar plunge’ is one of the most popular activities on an Arctic cruise. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you’ll either jump from the ship (wearing a safety harness) or run from the beach into water that in summer is usually around 0°C. And no wetsuit. Most people manage only few seconds, but the bravest stay in for several minutes.

Dog sledding

Exploring the coastline around Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago is a common Arctic cruise route. If your itinerary visits the main town on Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen, then you might be able to book a session of mushing aboard a husky-drawn sledge – bound to be one of the most exhilarating moments of your trip even though it may not compare to your first sighting of a polar bear.

Beach cleans

Sadly, while we may think of it as one of the Earth’s last remaining pristine wildernesses, even the Arctic is no stranger to the curse of plastic pollution. The movement of ocean currents mean that beaches are often sprinkled with waste that’s both unsightly and a hazard for Arctic wildlife. Some Arctic cruises organise beach cleans, and it’s always worth bringing a bag with you on any shore excursion to pick up any litter you find.

Lecture programme

When you sign up for an outdoor adventure in a wild landscape, lecture programmes may sound rather dull. But the ships’ biologists, geographers, photographers, historians and geologists share fascinating insights about the land and creatures around you. You’ll learn to identify species, the best angle to photograph a polar bear and a little knowledge means you’ll be even more amazed by the world around you.
Life onboard is an ongoing learning experience. Every time the wild landscapes throw up a new question - you'll have some of the world's top experts at hand to answer it.

Meet local communities – past and present

The Inuit have lived in some of the earth's most stunning locations and wild conditions for centuries. Yet not only do they manage to survive out here between ice and Arctic water, they have a warm, rich culture, with ancient folklore and a thriving art scene. Soapstone sculptures have today replaced the traditional bone and ivory, but the hand carving technique remains the same. Cruise to Canada's Baffin Island and the shores and islands of Greenland to meet the Inuit, see their finely woven textiles and hear their eerie throat singing. Be prepared for evidence of hunting, though – this is a subsistence culture and every part of the animal will be used. Nearby visitors' centres reveal more about the history of the Arctic peoples, and showcase their clothing and crafts.

Historically, the Thule people lived around the shores of Greenland and Arctic Canada – the remains of some of their settlements give fascinating insights into their lost culture. Eastern Siberia’s Wrangel Island reveals older culture still – with a 3,400 year old Paleo Eskimo camp.

Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Arctic cruising or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.


For passengers with limited mobility or requiring the use of a wheelchair, trained expedition staff are available to provide assistance on land and also on the ship if needed and some ships have lifts between decks. The level of assistance can vary from cruise to cruise, so it’s advisable to discuss with our travel team when making an enquiry to ensure the trips suggested will meet your personal requirements.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: steve estvanik] [Top box: Gary Bembridge] [Nature hikes: Kitty Terwolbeck] [Polar plunge: Geoff Jones] [Wildlife documentaries: Polar Cruises] [Local communities: Arian Zwegers] [Lecture programme: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]