Into the Arctic

Lindblad Expeditions has 2014 and 2015 voyages along the Northwest Passage.Pictured: Lindblad Expeditions has 2014 and 2015 voyages along the Northwest Passage.

Atop the world, the Arctic Region is the land of the midnight sun with up to 24 hours of daylight in summer. In winter, it’s known for its hauntingly beautiful Northern Lights. So it’s no surprise the Arctic is a top bucket list destination for some luxury travelers seeking views of tundra landscapes, massive glaciers and polar bears.

Good to know: The Arctic experience isn’t filled with designer shopping, Michelin Star culinary experiences nor traditional sightseeing. Instead, it’s all about scenic views, wildlife spotting, remote villages, native culture, and “experiential” activities by Zodiac and on land.

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From a historical perspective, polar explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage, an icy water route from western Greenland through northern Canadian waters to the Bering Sea. Since his early 20th century voyage, though, the route often has been ice-packed and impassable. In the 1980s, Lars-Eric Lindblad was the first to successfully navigate the passage with a commercial passenger vessel, M.S. Lindblad Explorer.

Today’s luxury cruisers can sail in much greater comfort on a 2015 Abercrombie & Kent “Inside Passage” expedition voyage, a charter of Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Boreal. The luxurious trip will retrace Amundsen’s Northwest Passage ocean route but A&K is only taking 199 guests so all will have a balcony stateroom or suite. Butlers will serve those in top category suites.

The month-long adventure will begin in Montreal on August 20, 2015, with a charter flight to Kangerlussuaq in western Greenland. Then Le Boreal will sail along Greenland’s western coast, head north into Baffin Bay for six days, then enter Lancaster Sound and pass through Canada’s northwestern islands and across the top of the world to Anadyr, Russia. Guests will be flown back to Vancouver, B.C.

A&K’s expedition team will help guests look for polar bears, whales, birds and possibly the elusive narwhal, that’s a medium-sized whale with a large “tusk” from a protruding canine tooth.

Nome, Alaska is home to one of the world’s largest gold pans.Pictured: Nome, Alaska is home to one of the world’s largest gold pans.

Next month, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic will operate two Northwest Passage voyages; both are sold out. However, the veteran expedition operator has other appealing 2014 and 2015 voyages that navigate portions of that Arctic route along western Greenland and Canada’s Baffin Island.

On several “Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic” voyages next year, National Geographic Explorer will sail as far north in Arctic Canada as Lancaster Sound, the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage. While Inuit villages are big draws along the way, so are ringed seals, arctic foxes, walruses and polar bears. We’d also suggest keeping a close watch for beluga, killer and bowhead whales.

Even those who’ve seen glaciers in Alaska or Scandinavia will be awed by the Ilulissat Icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located at the sea mouth of the Jakobshavn Glacier, this icefjord moves incredibly fast—100 feet a day—so cruisers will spot large icebergs and hear frequent “calving” as glacier pieces break off and slide into the ocean.

Silver Explorer’s Owner’s Suite is the largest accommodation on the ship at 728 square feet.Pictured: Silver Explorer’s Owner’s Suite is the largest accommodation on the ship at 728 square feet.

We say luxury cruisers will appreciate the region’s simplicity, native cultures and artistic appeal. In northern Greenland, for instance, A&K’s guests take an Ilulissat walking tour to learn about village life at a small museum, visit residents in their homes, and watch a sled-dog demonstration.

Quark Expeditions offers “Arctic Quest” voyages on 111-passenger Sea Explorer between Greenland and Churchill. Sisimiut, Greenland, is the island’s second largest settlement, yet it seems to have a small fishing-village vibe. The local arts community is also robust. We’d suggest a visit to the artist’s workshop at Uniarsualivimmut, the former Royal Greenlandic Trade warehouse. One specialty is hand-made jewelry or decorative items made from walrus or narwhal teeth.

On Canada’s Baffin Island, arts lovers visiting Kimmirut, another traditional Inuit community, shouldn’t miss the Soper House Gallery. It sells Inuit scrimshaw ivory, serpentine, soapstone and marble creations, some crafted with local semi-precious stones.

At the island’s Cape Dorset, one-fifth of the population is employed in the arts. Some carvers work outside their homes and will happily chat with visitors. The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative is one of two global sales outlets for these local artisans (the other is in Toronto); we recommend perusing the print-making creations of Kenojuak Ashevak, the cooperative’s first female visual artist.

Small ship-focused Polar Cruises also offers Arctic voyages between Churchill and Greenland on the Sea Explorer. The expedition vessel has a yacht-like aura, 57 outside suites and four-star amenities. Each suite has ocean views, a sitting area, TV, mini-refrigerator and marble bathroom; several suites have private balconies and verandas, and penthouse suites offer butler service.

Polar Bears are a major draw on Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic’s Northwest Passage cruises.Pictured: Polar Bears are a major draw on Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic’s Northwest Passage cruises.

One Sea Explorer highlight is Akpatok Island, along the eastern edge of Baffin Island within Ungava Bay. Akpat is the Inuit name for the thick-billed murre or Brünnich’s guillemot; these birds nest on the tall limestone cliffs and cruisers will see one of the world’s largest colonies. This island is also favored by polar bears.

For 2015, Adventure Canada is upgrading its charter fleet with the addition of the 198-passenger Ocean Endeavour, which replaces Sea Adventurer. The expedition ship is purpose-built for passenger service, outfitted with 20 Zodiacs, and has advanced navigation equipment, multiple lounges and a top-deck observation room.

If luxury travelers want to combine an Arctic voyage, an exotic Far East Russia itinerary and luxurious onboard amenities and suites, Silversea Cruises’ Arctic itineraries on Silver Discoverer and Silver Explorer are good choices. We particularly are salivating over the one-of-a-kind voyage departing roundtrip from Nome on Alaska’s northern coast. Departing July 31, 2015, this 14-day Silver Discoverer voyage brims with exotic Russian Far East ports on both sides of the Arctic Circle.

In fact, most ports on this itinerary are unknown to even the most experienced travelers, earning luxury cruisers “good bragging rights” if they sail. The itinerary includes Provideniya, Cape Dezhnev, Lorino Village, Anastasiya Bay, Meynypilgyno, Cape Navarin, Anadyr, Kresta Bay, Konergino and Meechkin Island, to name just a few. At the small Chukchi fishing village of Mainapilgino along the Bering Sea, Silversea cruisers will sample local caviar and salmon, watch traditional dances, and keep an eye out for migratory birds, including the Red Knot and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

Hurtigruten voyages in the winter allow guests to enjoy daytime darkness and the stunning northern lights.Pictured: Hurtigruten voyages in the winter allow guests to enjoy daytime darkness and the stunning northern lights.

Silversea’s luxury cruisers will head out by Zodiacs during the day and, then at night, sip on fine wines and dine in an onboard restaurant featuring signature dishes by Relais & Chateaux. All of Silver Discoverer’s suites are oceanview, some with private verandas. All suites have butler service. Lectures are presented by an expedition team in the onboard theater.

Also operating Arctic expedition sailings in the Russian Far East, northern Canada and Europe, is Hapag-Lloyd Cruises. Its Hanseatic operates an 18-day Russian Far East expedition-style Arctic cruise, sailing roundtrip from Nome on July 29. One highlight is Wrangel Island, Russia, believed to have the world’s highest concentration of polar bears. For July and August 2015, we’d suggest “bucket list” cruisers look at Hanseatic’s new itinerary that’s roundtrip from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland; it sails deeper into northern Arctic Canada than in the past.

On the European side of the Arctic, visitors will find the Norwegian Arctic’s climate less harsh and waterways easier to navigate. Why? These ports essentially remain ice-free all year as a result of the warm Gulf Stream. Thus, the Norwegian Arctic is visited by both small-ship and big-ship lines. The sleek upscale vessels of Compagnie du Ponant often visit Arctic Norway, and Le Boreal sails eight-day “Best of Spitsbergen” voyages on July 2 and July 9, 2015.

Hurtigruten’s guests who arrive on Fram at Spitsbergen, Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, have several new land adventure options this summer. Outdoor lovers might book the adventuresome “Nansen Night – Camping in the Arctic” wilderness excursion; the line provides tents and Arctic-equipped sleeping bags, while guests take one-hour shifts watching for polar bears with the expedition team. Hurtigruten also has introduced a glacier hike from Spitsbergen. Guests suit up with climbing spurs and ropes, climb with a team and need no prior experience.

For a creative, regional meal, the Restaurant Nansen at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel has everything from reindeer to continental fish, vegetarian and meat selections. The restaurant has a good selection of Bordeaux wines, Cognacs and Armagnacs.

The warm Gulf Stream keeps most Norwegian ports open throughout the year, so there are more centers of population in this area. Tromso and Bodo, both north of the Arctic Circle, have tens of thousands of residents. In Bodo, take a quick cab ride to the Norwegian Aviation Museum for its extensive aircraft collection. Our favorites include the Junkers Ju 52/3m, a civilian aircraft from Germany that was used in Norway in the 1950s, and the American Northrop F-5 fighter, used by Norway’s military in the 1960s.

At the museum, leave plenty of time to return to the ship by cab or by walking as it’s a bit out of town. In downtown Bodo, be sure to pop into a cool little spot called Kafe Kafka for a chicken, bacon and avocado salad with toasted seeds. The café also serves good Colombian coffee.

Further north along the Norwegian coast is Tromso, nestled amid snow-capped mountains much of the year. It has several polar-focused museums, plus the Arctic Cathedral, home to northern Europe’s largest stained-glass window. Hint: This is a great overlook for snapshots of Tromso’s downtown and the harbor.

End of an era: Poseidon Expeditions says July 30, 2015 will be the last North Pole cruise departure on 50 Years of Victory, a Russian icebreaker that’s sailed expedition cruises for many years. The ship’s owners plan to re-deploy it on cargo and scientific voyages.

Not all expedition voyages are luxury but many are upscale, and the eco-experiences are priceless. Accommodations are comfortable, some vessels have suites with balconies, and many ships have Internet access. Most lines carry an expedition team of eco- or scientific experts, including naturalists or marine biologists. Increasingly, many are enhancing their culinary focus and creating regional dishes that reflect the areas visited. And many “Far North” adventures await those eager to explore beyond the horizon.

More Northern Choices

If travelers aren’t sure if an expedition cruise is right for their vacation, they might opt for a mainstream cruise itinerary with touches of Arctic adventure. Oceania Cruises’ 680-passenger Nautica sails a “Path of the Midnight Sun” cruise, departing London for Copenhagen on August 2. Oceania’s guests spend 20 days in the Baltic and the northern Arctic areas of Norway and Russia. Calls include the North Cape (Honningsvag, Norway) and Murmansk, Russia’s largest city north of the Arctic Circle. Nautica also sails into remote Magdalena Bay, 600 miles from the North Pole, about the closest travelers can get on a mainstream ship.

Un-Cruise Adventures lets travelers explore and get close to the wildlife in Glacier Bay National Park.Pictured: Un-Cruise Adventures lets travelers explore and get close to the wildlife in Glacier Bay National Park.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises sails to Spitsbergen this summer while Azamara Club Cruises will operate a 14-night “Fjords to the North Cape” voyage with Azamara Journey on June 14, 2015. Disney Cruise Line, Holland America Line and other lines visit Iceland in 2015. The new Viking Ocean Cruises will sail two different “Midnight Sun” itineraries in 2016 with calls at Bodo, Tromso and the North Cape.

How about a White Sea voyage? If travelers don’t know where it is, Crystal Cruises will acquaint them with this remote Russian sea via an Arctic entry by Crystal Symphony. It’s “White Sea Exploration” voyage sails from Reykjavík to London on July 8, 2015. Port calls above the Arctic Circle include Murmansk, Russia; Honningsvag, North Cape; and Leknes, Narvik and Bordo, Norway. Within the White Sea, the ship calls at Solovetsky and Zayatsky Islands, inhabited since the 5th century B.C. Travelers may go ashore to explore the region’s monastic heritage and view historic churches.

But what if travelers prefer an expedition cruise with similar sites closer to home. Or perhaps they desire a bit shorter voyage. One option is Un-Cruise Adventures, which offers many week-long Alaska (non-Arctic) voyages that spend two days in Glacier Bay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Guests will view glaciers, interact with park rangers, go on wilderness treks within the park, explore Chichagof Island’s waterfall coast, and kayak in secluded bays. Many voyages also go to Sitka, Alaska, which has Russian heritage and cultural sites.

If luxury travelers want to delve more deeply into themed photography or marine biology, they might check out Un-Cruise Adventures’ photography cruises this year with David Julian on June 29 and Bill Howard on August 17. The marine biology cruises are set for July 6, July 13 and August 10. In 2015, photography theme cruises are offered on June 7 and July 5 and marine biology voyages on July 26, August 2 and August 16. The Boat Company, Alaskan Dream Cruises and other small-ship operators also offer Alaska expedition voyages.

Summer Sun, Winter Fun

What’s the best season for Arctic expedition travel? The answer lies in what’s important to the cruiser. May or early June Arctic sailings are often shorter in duration as winter sea ice is still not melted enough for travel any further north. At the same time, though, travelers are likely to see more wildlife because polar bears and walruses are still wintering further south and many migratory birds haven’t begun their flight north.

For those traveling mid-summer, the rewards are two-fold—flora are in bloom and newborn wildlife are often visible with their mothers. As summer temperatures rise, ice melts and many smaller ships also can sail further north so voyages can be longer. Most tricky Northwest Passage navigations are in August or early September.

But as late September arrives, the climate cooling cycle begins again and Arctic voyages shift further south again. Even the advent of winter, though, brings rewards. Hurtigruten operates winter Norwegian cruises. Yes, cruisers will have more daytime darkness, but also Aurora Borealis viewing and opportunities for such fun adventures ashore as dog-sledding or snowmobile trips at night through a frozen Arctic landscape.

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