For adventure seekers, the Arctic is a wish-list destination that’s easier to reach than Antarctica and easier to experience. It’s a vast area, stretching across the North Pole and including Alaska and northern Canada, as well as the northern regions of Russia, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, and Norway.
Because it is so vast, there are many ways to experience the Arctic, from “soft” adventure options, like coastal sailings from Norway that might include a photo op at the Arctic Circle to expedition sailings that could feature glacier walks and dog sledding.
In addition to the natural phenomena of Midnight Sun and Northern Lights, there is breathtaking scenery (majestic fjords, soaring snow-covered mountains, barren tundra), an abundance of wildlife (notably the walruses and polar bears beloved by photographers)—as well as indigenous tribes, museums and historical landmarks recounting the days of the early explorers.
More cruises are offered by more lines during the summer season, when the adventure tends to be “soft.” Hardier travelers choose the winter season itineraries, offered by P&O, Viking, Hurtigruten, Cruise & Maritime Voyages and Fred Olsen, which cruise the Arctic in both seasons.
Popular coastal Norway itineraries often include Tromso and Spitsbergen among the ports of call.
Tromso, the capital of Norway’s high north, is known as the gateway to the Arctic. While the scenery is spectacular, encompassing both dramatic mountain peaks and glorious fjords, there are also all the hallmarks of an exciting city: fine hotels, excellent restaurants and rich cultural and educational options.
The Arctic Cathedral, the iconic symbol of the city, is a major attraction, along with the Polar Museum. Excursion options include Midnight Sun photographic tours, fjord tours, scenic excursions (by coach, helicopter or plane), horseback riding and glacier walks. (For the winter travelers, popular options include reindeer or dog sledding, whale watching and Northern Lights experiences.)
Longyearbyen is the capital of Spitsbergen, Norway, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. Officially the world’s northernmost town, Longyearbyen is a rugged place of raw, untouched beauty, where, although there is a fine museum, the scenery is the star—enhanced by teeming wildlife. Shore excursions include fossil hunting, glacier walks, summer dog sledding and boat tours of the fjords. (Though un-scheduled, there are occasional polar bear encounters.)
Expedition lines like Hurtigruten and Quark Expeditions sail to Greenland and Canada as well as to other Arctic destinations. Nature dazzles visitors to Greenland, notably with the Ilulissat Icefjord, a massive collection of icebergs that have calved from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier one by one and have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier is the world’s biggest ice stream outside of Antarctica—and one of the most active, calving massive icebergs that break away and float on Disko Bay. In Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, cultural tours are also an option.
The small ship, Saga Sapphire, will be retired after the 2019-20 season. Meanwhile, she sails a 17-night Arctic Norway cruise in August 2019. Oceania, Lindblad, Silversea and Compagnie du Ponant offer in-depth itineraries that include Iceland and Greenland; the latter two traverse the legendary Northwest Passage—the only possible shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific–which claimed the lives of so many early explorers.
In Summer 2019, Ponant offers an impressive number of Arctic itineraries, ranging from 9 to 23 days, this latter being the Northwest Passage voyage, which takes guests beyond the Arctic Circle to the Far North.
New itineraries include “Magnificent Volcanoes of the Aleutian Islands,” which takes guests along the Pacific Ring of Fire and “Greenland of Great Explorers,” which follows in the footsteps of great French Explorers who pushed the boundaries of polar navigation in the 19th century.
Iceland itineraries will also be offered aboard Le Champlain, one of the newer ships in the PONANT EXPLORERS series. Ports of call will include Reykjavik, where visitors can take glacier walks or geothermal tours—or view the largest visual art institution in Iceland. Other ports: Grimsey, the nation’s northernmost territory, is an ideal setting to experience the Midnight Sun–and Heimaey, which is home to 8,000 puffins.
Quark Expeditions led the inaugural North Pole journey almost 30 years ago. In 2020, they’ll bring two 14 day itineraries to travelers, aboard the 50 Years of Victory, one of the world’s largest, most-powerful nuclear icebreakers.
Kicking off in Helsinki, Finland, travelers then fly to Murmansk, Russia, to embark on their purpose-built polar vessel. The route heads through the remote Frans Josef Land archipelago and the Arctic Ocean. Expedition highlights include helicopter tours, Zodiac cruises, wildlife viewings and hot-air balloon rides at 90º North.
Schedule to launch in August, 2019, the new Scenic Eclipse, billed as the world’s first discovery yacht with 6-star amenities, will offer a full season of Arctic itineraries, from 10 to 23 days. Passengers on the Eclipse’s Arctic cruises will explore some of earth’s wildest regions while enjoying such luxuries as a 5,000 square-foot spa, an indoor heated pool with a retractable roof, plunge pools, a gym and yoga and Pilates studio and six dining options. Additionally, the Eclipse’s discovery voyages will be enhanced with such toys as two helicopters and a mini-submarine.
I’m sure Roald Amundsen never dreamed of polar expeditions like this.