The 5 best Arctic cruise itineraries, from someone who has tried them all

There may be an vacancy to the Arctic that’s mesmerizing.

Touring throughout it by ship, you may encounter patches of snow-covered ice that stretch for miles, an endlessly white panorama punctured solely by the occassional seabird and, when you’re fortunate, the sight of a far-off polar bear.

In some components of the Arctic, there are rocky islands so windswept and desolate that you simply’d suppose you are on the moon; in different areas, there are islands lined with essentially the most spectacularly stunning mountains and glaciers. The widespread theme between all of them is that they’re not often visited by people.

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Not that there are no people within the Arctic. There are some, together with Inuit who’ve lived within the area for hundreds of years. However large swaths of the Arctic lack a human presence, and the wildlife is equally sparse. Recognizing essentially the most well-known denizens of the Arctic — the polar bear and the Arctic fox — is a uncommon second to treasure.

As somebody fortunate sufficient to have traveled by ship to nearly each nook of the Arctic over practically 30 years as a cruise author, I can say that the area is one in every of my favourite locations to go to — possibly my very favourite. But it surely’s not for everybody. It affords a refined form of magnificence that reveals itself slowly.

Relying on the itinerary, an Arctic cruise may embody days of bumping via icy waters lined by a fog so soupy that each one you see out the window is a lightweight greyish bubble throughout. For all you realize, you would be in a simulation.

However give the Arctic an opportunity, and it may be life-changing.

When you’re not sure learn how to start pondering of which Arctic itinerary could be the proper selection, check out my picks for the 5 greatest Arctic cruise itineraries, chosen after a lifetime of attempting nearly each doable route within the area. As is typical for Arctic sailings, they’re all itineraries that may solely be performed on polar-class expedition cruise ships — a specialised sort of small, hardy cruise vessel constructed for polar journey and carrying its personal touchdown craft for exploring.

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A circumnavigation of Spitsbergen


When you solely have time for one Arctic cruise, that is the one I like to recommend. Contemplate it a form of “best hits of the Arctic” itinerary. You will get just a little style of every thing the Arctic has to supply on a single, comparatively easy-to-do crusing as quick as per week or 10 nights.

On a voyage round Spitsbergen, the most important of a cluster of rugged islands that make up the Svalbard archipelago, you may probably see lots of the Arctic’s best-known wildlife — polar bears, whales (when you’re fortunate), walruses, and big colonies of Brunnich’s guillemots and different Arctic birds — over the course of some days. In comparison with some locations within the Arctic, this area is comparatively wealthy with wildlife.

Associated: TPG’s ultimate guide to expedition cruising

Spitsbergen can also be about as scenic a spot as you may discover within the Arctic, lined in mountains and glaciers. It is simply accessible by air via Longyearbyen, a settlement of about 2,500 individuals on the island’s west facet.

Situated 600 miles north of the northernmost tip of Norway, which administers the Svalbard archipelago, Spitsbergen can also be house to some cultural oddities. Barentsburg is a semi-abandoned mining city operated by Russia underneath the phrases of a century-old treaty, and Ny Alesund is a small mining camp that has been became a scientific analysis station. Spitsbergen itineraries typically embody visits to each.

Ny Alesand, notably, was the spot the place legendary explorer Roald Amundsen set off on a record-setting expedition flight to the North Pole by airship in 1926. Guests to the outpost can see the still-standing remnants of the expedition, which embody a tower that held the airship earlier than it departed and a telegraph hut that broadcast information of the flight to the world.

Who goes there: Norway-based Hurtigruten is the best-known model for Spitsbergen circumnavigations. It affords voyages out of Longyearbyen each summer season. Most different expedition cruise operators, together with Lindblad Expeditions and Seabourn, supply sailings to only a portion of Spitsbergen (often the north and west coasts) mixed with stops in Iceland and/or Greenland.

The west coast of Greenland


If you wish to see icebergs and glaciers on a really epic scale, a voyage alongside Greenland’s west coast needs to be your decide.

It’s house to what are, undoubtedly, a few of the world’s most spectacular glaciers and snow-topped mountains.

On a visit down the west coast of Greenland, you’ll sail previous large icebergs which have shorn off the large Greenland ice sheet in your technique to go to not less than a couple of of the coast’s colourful Arctic settlements.

These settlements, notably, embody Ilulissat, website of an iceberg-jammed fjord that may be a marvel of the northern hemisphere.

Associated: 8 things you need to know about Arctic cruises

When you’re fortunate throughout a go to to Ilulissat, you may get to do two wonderful issues. One is to hike to an overlook close to the city that reveals an enormous pile-up of big ice blocks which can be slowly flowing down the fjord from a glacier. The opposite is a Zodiac trip to get near a few of the largest icebergs which can be caught within the bay simply offshore.

It’s a panorama of icebergs at a scale you could’t think about till you see it.

Who goes there: Seabourn, Lindblad, Silversea Cruises, Ponant, Viking and a number of other different expedition cruise firms supply sailings down the west coast of Greenland. These voyages usually embody a go to to the japanese facet of Canada’s Northwest Passage or Iceland.

The Northwest Passage

Bellot Strait, Northwest Passage in Canada. OSCAR E. FARRERA GONZALEZ/HURTIGRUTEN

For cruisers who love the historical past of exploration, a visit throughout the Canadian Arctic’s Northwest Passage could be the final word Arctic journey. That is as a result of it affords an opportunity to comply with within the footsteps of a few of the best polar explorers of the 18th and nineteenth centuries, for whom discovering the long-hidden Arctic route between Europe and Asia was one of many largest (and deadliest) challenges of the age.

Stretching greater than 2,000 miles from the Davis Strait close to Greenland to the Bering Strait off Alaska, the still-often-iced-in Northwest Passage famously swallowed up the two-ship, 128-man Franklin Expedition of 1845 (an enormous and massively outfitted British exploratory social gathering that disappeared into the ice, by no means to be seen once more), in addition to different explorers. It was lastly conquered in 1903 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen — who additionally was the primary human to succeed in the South Pole.

Till simply the final couple of many years, touring via the Northwest Passage remained nearly as daunting because it was throughout Franklin and Amundsen’s time. However quickly shrinking ice protection throughout the Arctic, pushed by international warming, has been making it extra accessible. In recent times, half a dozen expedition ships or extra have sailed into the passage yearly in the course of the warmest summer season months.

Nonetheless, even now, solely a handful of the hardiest expedition vessels make a full transit of the Northwest Passage in any given 12 months, whereas different vessels solely supply partial transits.

Associated: I loved my 1st Arctic cruise — here’s why

Notice that the Northwest Passage is a comparatively desolate a part of the Arctic. A typical touchdown by Zodiac throughout a visit throughout the passageway may carry a go to to a forlorn, windswept island lined in boggy fields of lichen-covered rocks and low-lying grasses. That’s, if the island is not lined in drifting snow.

However such journeys additionally embody stops at iconic historic websites associated to the area’s early explorers. These embody the ruins of the final recognized camp of the Franklin Expedition at snowy Beechey Island and the remnants of a short-lived Hudson’s Bay Firm outpost on Somerset Island.

Stops at Inuit settlements akin to Arctic Bay and Gjoa Haven are additionally widespread.

Who goes there: Most main expedition cruise operators, together with Ponant, Hurtigruten, Silversea, Seabourn and Journey Canada (a specialist in Canadian Arctic journeys), supply sailings that transit not less than a part of the Northwest Passage. Full crossings are uncommon.

The North Pole

Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot on the North Pole. PONANT

With regards to bragging rights, it is exhausting to argue that any journey to the Arctic tops an expedition cruise to the North Pole.

The primary undisputed expedition to succeed in the North Pole wasn’t till 1926, when a group of explorers led by Roald Amundsen overflew the vacation spot on the airship Norge. Even at this time, few people have ever visited the northernmost level on this planet — some put the quantity at just some thousand.

For the reason that Nineteen Nineties, working (and spartan) Russian icebreakers chartered by expedition journey firms have often taken vacationers in small teams to the world’s northernmost spot. However since 2022, adventure-seekers have a extra upscale possibility for a visit to 90 levels north: A voyage on Le Commandant Charcot — the primary built-for-tourists icebreaker.

Operated by Ponant, a French firm recognized for upscale expedition cruises to far-off locations, the 245-passenger ship is the primary and solely built-for-tourists cruise vessel able to touring to essentially the most distant, ice-filled components of the polar areas, together with the North Pole.

Associated: I just snowshoed at the North Pole — here’s how you can, too

Named for a famed French explorer, Le Commandant Charcot is in contrast to every other vessel that has traveled throughout the polar ice cap. It has all the weather of essentially the most elegant lodges on land: spacious suites, trendy lounges, superb eating (together with a restaurant with a menu designed by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse) and a spa.

In different phrases, you may not simply be touring to the North Pole, you may be touring to the North Pole in high-end consolation.

Who goes there: The one approach for an American to succeed in the North Pole by ship is aboard the brand new Le Commandant Charcot, which is working three or 4 journeys to the vacation spot every summer season. A Russian icebreaker that expedition journey firms have chartered up to now for such voyages, the 50 Years of Victory, nonetheless is often making the journeys, however it’s not bookable for now by vacationers from the USA and most different Western nations.

The Northeast Passage


A voyage throughout the Arctic’s Northeast Passage is definitely essentially the most off-the-beaten-path Arctic cruise you are able to do — much more off-the-beaten-path than a visit to the North Pole.

Hardly ever provided and usually about 30 days lengthy, these are true explorers’ journeys throughout the virtually unvisited Arctic territory that stretches throughout the highest of Russia from Arctic Norway to Alaska.

These sailings cross 5 frigid seas — the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi — that in some components historically freeze over throughout a lot of the 12 months and solely partially thaw in the course of the late summer season. Alongside the best way, typically unfold aside by a whole bunch of miles, are glacier-topped, usually mountainous archipelagos and island teams that passengers can discover throughout Zodiac landings.

Highlights of those journeys embody seeing the Arctic’s iconic wildlife — polar bears, Arctic fox, walrus, seals and musk ox — and historic websites associated to the area’s early exploration. Amongst them is Cape Amundsen, the place you’ll be able to nonetheless see the ruins of a small stone hut constructed by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen throughout a failed try to succeed in the North Pole. Amundsen’s ship turned caught within the ice on the Cape for greater than a 12 months.

Solely true icebreakers or the hardest ice-strengthened expedition cruise ships could make a Northeast Passage journey. Traditionally, they’ve occurred solely often. (I used to be on what was solely the fourth voyage by any expedition cruise ship throughout the Northeast Passage, and that was as just lately as 2018.)

Alas, for now, such journeys are on maintain, as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has introduced all cruising to Russia by Western firms to a halt. However, in idea, these expeditions might resume within the coming years.

Who goes there: Whereas Northeast Passage voyages are on maintain for now, the journeys historically have been provided by Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, an upscale German cruise model that was a pioneer of expedition cruises within the Russian Arctic, and New Zealand-based Heritage Expeditions. The latter firm historically chartered an ice-class Russian analysis vessel that may maintain 50 individuals, the Akademik Shokalskiy, for the journeys.

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