Over the centuries, intrepid explorers such as Henry Hudson, Willem Barents and Vitus Bering were among the many who had tried in vain to find a navigable water route atop the world. They searched for the almost-mythical Northwest Passage atop Canada, Alaska and Greenland, hoping to shorten the lengthy journey ships had to make around South America’s Cape Horn or Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, when moving between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
But Arctic ice and brutal cold made the Northwest Passage as well as a separate Northeast Passage route atop Russia virtually impenetrable. Only in the 20th century were full transits made possible, thanks to modern icebreakers and, more recently, the receding Arctic Ocean ice. Today, those with a taste for adventure can sail these passages on expedition cruises. Starting this year and next, even Crystal Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises will sail the Northwest Passage.
High Arctic Enticements
What’s the voyage experience like? Travelers will gaze at snowy and icy landscapes, tundra, glaciers and fjords. They’ll seek out Arctic birds, marine life and mammals, including polar bears, musk oxen, Arctic foxes and whales. Cruisers can hike the tundra or explore deserted bays and coves by means of kayak or Zodiac. Cruisers will also interact with indigenous people in small villages virtually untouched by civilization and learn about life in a harsh polar climate.
In summer, cruisers can view dinosaur fossils and Inuit, Thule and Dorset archaeological sites. Much of this expedition experience, though, is simply about admiring the water scenes, wildlife and land vistas from a ship’s deck or private balcony. Not surprisingly, this cruise is especially geared for die-hard maritime buffs and eco-enthusiasts. It’s not recommended for shopaholics; although some passage voyages start or end in cities like New York or Montreal, they are many days away from civilizations of any kind. That said, cruisers can buy lovely hand-made items crafted by indigenous people at certain stops.
Into the Northwest Passage
Back in the 1980s, the Lindblad Explorer became the first passenger/expedition cruise vessel to transit the Northwest Passage; many other expedition ships have followed since then. But, next month, a new chapter will begin as Crystal Cruises’ 1,070-passenger Crystal Serenity, accompanied by an icebreaker, will depart on its first Northwest Passage sailing. The luxury line has been prepping for the journey for more than two years. Crystal is taking many safety precautions — outfitting the ship with forward-looking sonar, ice detection radar, ice searchlights, thermal imaging and an ice navigation system.
It has also secured the icebreaker RRS Ernest Shackleton with its own experienced ice pilot to accompany Crystal Serenity and provide operational support and to break ice when needed. The icebreaker will also carry additional safety and environmental protection equipment, two helicopters for ice spotting and Zodiacs for “wet landings” so guests can explore remote locales. The icebreaker’s crew will assist with flightseeing and Crystal’s recently added “Unexpected Adventures” ashore. Two veteran Canadian ice pilots also will join Crystal Serenity’s bridge team, which has received additional ice navigation training.
While the 2016 voyage is sold out, Crystal sails another 32-day Northwest Passage voyage on August 15, 2017, from Anchorage (Seward), Alaska to New York City, also on the Crystal Serenity. At press time, there was still availability for the luxurious Penthouse Suites with Verandah (PS) on Deck 11 and Penthouse with Verandah (PH) category accommodations on Decks 10 and 11, as well as in some of the lower categories.
A dozen or so lecturers and expedition leaders will give talks and offer seminars and workshops on Crystal’s Northwest Passage cruises. Among the highlights of the 2017 voyage are port calls at Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and Nome, AK; cruising the Bering Chukchi and Beaufort seas, and many other waterways; an overnight call at Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada; calls at Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada; cruising the fjords of Baffin Island; calls at Ilulissat Icefjord (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Sisimiut and Nuuk, Greenland; and then on to New England and New York City.
While ashore in Cambridge Bay, we’d suggest guests meander through the trails of Ovayok Territorial Park in search of musk oxen and nesting birds. As the ship approaches Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada, across Baffin Bay from Greenland, it’s often rewarding to eyeball local waters for the odd-looking Arctic narwhal, a whale with a long, spiraling tooth that projects up to 10 feet from its upper lip — almost like a seagoing unicorn.
Undertaking a new, 30-night “Grand Northwest Passage” voyage on July 19, 2017, from Seward, AK, to Montreal, Quebec, Canada is Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator, which just emerged from an extensive dry-dock renovation. All suite categories, lounges, the library, casino, boutiques, reception area and signature restaurants, Compass Rose and La Veranda, have been completely renovated. The 1,067-square-foot Master Suite (MS) category with a large balcony was still available on this cruise at press time, as were Penthouse Suites (A, B, C) and other lower categories, although Grand Suite (GS) and Navigator Suite (NS) accommodations were wait-listed.
This voyage is also a part of the ship’s 62-day cruise departing on June 17, 2017, from Miami through the Panama Canal to Alaska, the Northwest Passage and ending in Montreal. During the Northwest Passage portion, Seven Seas Navigator will call at Homer, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and Nome, AK; Herschel Island, Yukon Territory, Canada; Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada; Nuuk, Paamiut and Qaqortoq, Greenland; Corner Brook, Newfoundland; and Saguenay, Quebec City and Montreal Bay, Quebec, Canada and more.
At Herschel Island, we’d highly recommend guests go ashore to observe Arctic plants, animals and sea life. Did you know the island is home to the largest colony of Black Guillemots in the western Arctic? In the late 1800s, American whalers also established a station at Pauline Cove, so, it’s a “moment in time” to peruse the exteriors of several structures from this historic outpost.
During a call at Nuuk, Greenland, we’d opt for Regent Seven Seas’ “Guided Short Walk and Visit with Local Family,” to glean a firsthand account of what it’s like to live in Nuuk. This tour involves 45 minutes of walking within the oldest parts of the town, and then, over coffee, you’ll learn from your guide about what it’s like to cope up with the harsh winter conditions there. We’d suggest touring Nuuk’s National Greenland Museum & Archives, if time permits. It’s a bit of a time warp, displaying everything from ancient costumes to dog sleds and even centuries-old female mummies, including that of a baby, unearthed at Qilakitsoq.
For a luxurious 24-day expedition experience, Abercrombie & Kent offers “The Northwest Passage: From Greenland to the Bering Sea” itinerary on Le Boreal. This sleek, luxurious vessel sails from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, on August 21, 2017, to Nome, AK. With A&K’s guide-to-guest ratio of 1:12, luxury travelers can chat one-on-one with expert geologists, ornithologists and marine biologists. On this Le Boreal charter, A&K offers butler service for cabin categories 6-8, which includes the 484-square-foot Owner’s Suite. At press time, the top suites were at “call for availability” status, but space was still available in balcony stateroom categories.
Most importantly, A&K limits the number of onboard guests to 199 even though the ship has capacity for more. All guests will have a private balcony. Eco-enthusiasts will likely appreciate Le Boreal’s green technology. Certified as a “Cleanship” by the Bureau Veritas, the vessel has the most up-to-date wastewater system and recycling facilities and its Zodiac boats are equipped with fuel-efficient engines.
French-flagged Ponant, owner of Le Boreal, also offers a variety of polar cruises now through 2017. A full “Northwest Passage” itinerary on L’Austral departs August 16 from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, and ends 23 days later in Nome, AK. Another advantage is that small ships like L’Austral often can provide schedule flexibility, such as stops to observe wildlife, hike across tundra or to explore by kayak or Zodiac.
For those who love fine dining, L’Austral’s Gastronomic Restaurant serves French and international cuisine, highlighted by regional culinary specialties such as lobster and fresh fish, reflecting the ports of call. The ship’s 24-hour room service might include, for example, carpaccio of yellowfin tuna with truffle and vegetables or pan-fried filet steak and merlot-flavored juices. Guests can luxuriate in 132 well-appointed cabins and suites. We’d opt for the Deck 6 accommodations, which include butler service. Top digs? It’s the 484-square-foot Owner’s Suite with private balcony. The 398-square-foot Prestige Suites, also with balconies, are quite luxurious too.
While guests will find luxury onboard L’Austral, the shore options — as with most voyages through the passage — often remind travelers of storied past explorers, who searched in vain for a water passage atop the world. Sir John Franklin, who set off in 1845, was forced to shelter for two years in Erebus Harbor off Beechey Island, Nunavut, Canada, until ice floes receded. During L’Austral’s call at Beechey, cruisers can view a memorial honoring Franklin and his crew, as well as several sun-bleached, wooden grave markers of crew members.
Navigating the Northeast Passage
In 2014, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ Hanseatic became the first non-Russian cruise ship to successfully navigate the Northeast Passage with paying passengers; it visited the Chukchi Peninsula and Wrangel Island before traveling through the Kara Sea to Novaya Zemlya, the Barents Sea and Murmansk, Russia. Since then, this expedition ship, which carries the industry’s highest “ice class” rating, has received new carpeting, new environment-friendly stabilizers and new wildlife and eco-photos for public areas and staterooms.
Hanseatic will once again transit the Northeast Passage on a 25-day sailing from Tromsø, Norway, on August 16, 2016, to Nome, AK. This expedition ship has spacious accommodations — 237-square-foot outside staterooms and four 474-square-foot suites (Nos. 101 to 104). All have an ocean view, either a panoramic window or portholes. Fresh fruits and champagne await guests upon boarding and the ship has a modern communications and information system with Internet and Wi-Fi. We’d opt for the Bridge Deck accommodations with butler service.
All guests can order 24-hour room service, plus a stateroom minibar is refilled daily. Accommodations also feature a flat-screen TV and DVD player. One nifty perk? As the ship enters the next harbor, its forward-view camera will send images directly to the accommodations’ flat-screen TVs so guests can e-mail them to friends with their own comments about the voyage.
Polar Cruises, Quark Expeditions and several other expedition companies also offer top-of-the-world or High Arctic cruises. For die-hard adventurers, who desire to “do it all,” Quark’s 75-day circumnavigation of the North Pole combines both the Northeast and Northwest Passage routes. It departs July 10 on the Kapitan Khlebnikov. Even though the itinerary and not the ship is the prime draw, this Russian icebreaker does deliver peace of mind for a very difficult journey. It has completed more Northwest Passage voyages than any other vessel and has extreme power to break through pack ice.
Guests can also rest comfortably in 51 outside cabins and suites, all with private bathrooms, large windows, a writing desk, hair dryer, robes and large closets. The vessel also carries two helicopters, one of which is used for aerial flightseeing. While the upcoming 75-day voyage isn’t offered in 2017, Quark has other High Arctic options, including those on the 78-passenger Ocean Nova both this year and next.
Whatever type of cruise travelers choose, and whether on an icebreaker, expedition vessel or luxury ship, they’ll journey to what was “the great unknown” centuries ago. For those experiencing a full Northwest or Northeast Passage, that’s the stuff of legends.
Touches of Arctic
Some voyages simply brush the outer edges of the Northwest Passage, make a partial passage or focus on a deeper regional experience. Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic’s “Epic 80°N: Exploring Greenland, Baffin & Ellesmere Islands” itineraries on August 13, 2016, and August 3, 2017, will take cruisers to the extreme High Arctic. Its 148-passenger National Geographic Explorer sails roundtrip from Reykjavik, Iceland. It heads for Lancaster Sound, gateway to the Northwest Passage, before venturing as far north as ice permits.
Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer, which completed the company’s first-ever journey through the Northwest Passage in 2014, offers an 18-day roundtrip from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, departing August 22. It ventures into the High Arctic as far north as Caswell Tower, Radstock Bay and Beechey Island, Nunavut, Canada. On August 31, 2017, Silver Explorer also departs from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, for a 15-day voyage to St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.
Hurtigruten operates unusual Arctic sailings, which include voyages in Greenland and “Circumnavigating the Realm of the Polar Bears,” a tour of Svalbard’s largest island in northern Scandinavia.