Wild About Bears: The Top Luxury Cruises for Spotting Wildlife

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway. It is home to polar bears that can be spotted from expedition ships built to sail within icy waters. // Photo by Getty Images / Alexey Seafarer

If affluent travelers have a “bucket list” desire to head into the wild to spot polar bears and Kodiak bears — the largest bears on the planet — then a luxury ocean cruise can offer fantastic access to remote Arctic regions for potential bear sightings. Cruisers can also observe Sun Bears at a rehabilitation center in Borneo, see black and brown bears on Alaska excursions, or learn about Andean Bears at a Machu Picchu rescue facility. Here’s a sampling of global cruise adventures for bear lovers. 

Svalbard’s Polar Bears

An enigmatic symbol of the Arctic, polar bears roam the ice floes of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, an island chain of rugged terrain between mainland Norway and the North Pole. As the only permanently inhabited island in the chain, Spitsbergen is the “Land of the Midnight Sun” and home to polar bears, as well as walruses, seals, whales, reindeer and Arctic foxes. While wildlife sightings aren’t guaranteed, bears are often spotted as expedition ships are built to sail within icy waters and can get close to the ice floes where polar bears hunt. Dramatic, gorgeous scenery at Magdalena Bay in northwestern Spitsbergen is also a voyage highlight. 

Walruses are among the other wildlife attractions that cruisers are drawn to while sailing the Arctic. //Photo by Silversea/Richard Sidey

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Among many expedition cruises that sail to Svalbard, Scenic’s new 228-passenger Scenic Eclipse will operate a 14-day “Arctic Islands: Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland” itinerary, departing July 13, 2020 from Oslo, Norway to Reykjavik, Iceland. Cruisers with a sense of adventure can explore on foot, by helicopter or a submersible. This expedition ship has a PC-6 ice-strengthened hull and innovative zero-speed stabilizer fins that are much larger than normal, adding greater stability. Scenic’s polar expedition team will assist guests with options for exploring and spotting wildlife, such as polar bears, Arctic fox, caribou and narwhals.  

A Polar Bear is seen on an iceberg in Svalbard. These bears spend most of their time on sea ice, hunting for seals. //Photo by Silversea / Elliott Neep

Spending five full days in Svalbard is Silversea Expeditions’ 254-passenger Silver Cloud, as it completes a 167-day “Uncharted World Tour,” the industry’s first expeditionary World Cruise. That unprecedented voyage begins in Ushuaia, Argentina on January 30, 2021 and ends in Tromso, Norway. That said, a shorter segment operates between Reykjavik, Iceland and Tromso on July 3. Silver Cloud carries a fleet of 18 Zodiacs and 10 kayaks for exploring fjords and making wet landings and sails with a full complement of naturalists and lecturers onboard. Guests are pampered with butler service, four restaurants and a full-service spa, and during time in northern Svalbard, the line will transport guests ashore for walks and hikes so they can have a closer look at flora and wildlife.

In addition, Ponant’s Le Boreal and L’Austral, both 264-passenger boutique luxury ships, also sail multiple Svalbard itineraries, including a seven-night “Best of Spitsbergen” itinerary. The vessels have a mega-yacht feel with high-end French cuisine and styling, but they’re also ice-strengthened. Naturalists conduct lectures and accompany Ponant’s guests on land explorations; guests will receive a complimentary parka to take home, plus use of boots for the cruise. The cruise fare for this itinerary also includes a flight on embarkation day from Paris to Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, meet-and-greet airport service at the airport and transportation between the pier and ship, as well as a return flight to Paris.

Colorful homes seen in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement and the administrative center of Svalbard. //Photo by Getty Images / Leamus

Kodiak Bears in Alaska  

Cruisers desiring to gaze at the largest brown bears on Earth — massive critters that can tower 10 feet tall when standing on their hind legs — have good options during a port call in Kodiak Island, Alaska. Located in the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak is home to thousands of these gigantic bears, a subspecies of the Alaskan brown bear, or grizzly bear. Putting things in perspective, that equates to at least one bear per square mile.

Many luxury cruise ships call at Kodiak during repositioning cruises between the Pacific Northwest / Alaska and Japan / Asia. Silversea Cruises’ 596-passenger Silver Muse calls at Kodiak Island on its 20-day cruise from Vancouver to Tokyo, departing September 3, 2020. Travelers who book the line’s “Bear Viewing by Seaplane,” will take a half-hour drive to a floatplane base, get a safety briefing, don hip boots and take a flight into the wilderness. After landing, either for access to Kodiak or a bear-viewing area on the nearby Katmai Peninsula, cruisers will then accompany a skilled wilderness guide in search of bear-viewing spots. During the flight itself, travelers will see native villages, commercial fishing operations and possibly elk, mountain goats and deer, as well as marine life.

A Silversea expedition guest gets a close-up view of brown bears at Kukak Bay, Katmai National Park in Alaska. //Photo by Silversea / Richard Sidey

Coincidentally, Katmai National Park and Preserve is expected to open a new elevated boardwalk across the Brooks River this June, just in time for the summer bear-viewing season. The U.S. National Park Service believes this elevated bridge will make it safer to view the bears and prevent delays in visitors’ return trips as, in past years, bears would often block the trail. 

While many lines call at Kodiak on repositioning cruises, some are also incorporating the destination into regular Alaska sailings too. Kodiak calls are part of the itinerary line-up for Cunard Line’s voyages on the 2,081 passenger Queen Elizabeth, and the line is doubling the number of voyages in 2020. One highlight is the line’s 19-night “Alaska and Independence Day Celebration,” sailing roundtrip from Vancouver on July 2, 2020. While two thirds of Kodiak is a national wildlife refuge that protects the Kodiak bears, hundreds of bird species and six kinds of Pacific salmon, there’s also much more to do at Kodiak, including a microbrewery tour, native heritage museum and hiking along historic trails.

Sandakan’s Sun Bears

Sun Bears are a smaller species of black bear that inhabit lowland areas of Southeast Asia; they’re also called Malayan Sun Bears and have a reputation for being aggressive. While cruisers typically won’t likely see sun bears in the wild, the port of Sandakan, Sabah, East Malaysia on the island of Borneo is only a short drive from the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Here, visitors walking on elevated jungle boardwalks and viewing platforms can safely peer down into a natural jungle habitat to see rescued sun bears meandering on the forest floor below. Feeding time provides some good photo opportunities.  

Sun Bears, which are a smaller species of black bear, can be seen at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. //Photo by Getty Images / June Jacobsen

Adjacent to the bear center is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (also with elevated walkways and viewing platforms), so cruisers can have two different wildlife experiences in one excursion. Luxury Travel Advisor recently visited both centers and it was a hoot to be told by an employee to please move to the other side of the elevated walkway as an orangutan scampered down the railing on the other side. 

Several expedition ships call at Sandakan, including the ultra-luxury Crystal Yacht Expedition Cruises’ new 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor. It sails a 16-day “Philippines, Borneo & Indonesia Quest” itinerary from Taipei, Taiwan to Benoa, Bali, departing September 29, 2020. The ship arrives one morning in Sandakan and does not depart until the next morning, allowing plenty of time to explore in search of sun bears and orangutans. This pampering new ship has a two-level, glass-enclosed atrium, spacious suites, fine dining and butler service, plus it carries two helicopters and a submersible.

Orangutans are seen at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Borneo.  //Photo by Getty Images/lenawurm

For a classic oceangoing experience, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ 500-passenger Europa 2 also calls at Sandakan during its 15-night “Mystical Temples and Megacities” itinerary departing January 5, 2020 from Hong Kong to Benoa (Bali) and January 22, 2021 between Benoa (Bali), Indonesia and Hong Kong. One shore trips option will take cruisers to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. 

Bears in Sitka, Ketchikan & Denali 

Besides port calls at Kodiak in the Aleutian Islands, nearly all luxury lines sail Alaskan waters. Chances of seeing a bear sometime on an Alaska cruise are often surprisingly good, although it doesn’t happen every voyage. Case in point? We have sailed on 12 Alaska cruises and has spotted a wild bear or multiple bears on half those sailings. Even more interesting is that most of our sightings occurred on traditional tours or activities ashore, rather than extreme adventures, so guests of all activity levels have good bear-viewing potential.

For example, we watched as one bear ambled along the mountaintop trail adjacent to the Mount Roberts Tramway visitor center; another scampered in front of our tour bus near a Skagway scenic overlook; and five bears feasted on tasty barnacles at the waterside cliffs within Tracy Arm Fjord. We also have spotted other bears from the top deck of a cruise ship in Glacier Bay National Park and from an elevated platform near the parking lot at Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. 

Sitka, Alaska has a bear rescue center, named Fortress of the Bear. Shown here is the city’s Swan Lake. //Photo by Getty Images / Ruben Ramos

One surefire way to guarantee seeing bears, though, is to head for Sitka’s Fortress of the Bear, a nonprofit organization’s rescue center adjacent to the Tongass National Forest. The facility cares for rescued brown and black bears, several siblings orphaned as cubs. Outdoor enclosures recently were expanded to give the bears a bit more room to roam. It’s fun to watch the bears playing in the water and exploring their habitats (not pacing). Cruisers can get within 25 feet of the bears from the safety of a large, elevated viewing platform and a naturalist offers commentary. 

Here’s a look at just a few of the lines offering a Fortress of the Bear excursion. Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner sails within Alaska and to Sitka on multiple voyages this summer and in 2020. The line’s “Sea Otters, Raptors and Bears – Oh My!” shore excursion begins with a catamaran voyage to spot sea otters, whales, seals, other marine animals, black-tail deer and bears. In fact, the boat’s captain guarantees those on the catamaran will spot a sea otter, whale or bear, and if not, receive a $100 cash refund. Regent’s tour also includes visits to both the Raptor Center and Fortress of the Bear. Shoppers should explore the small gift shop at the bear attraction to peruse the gifts, jewelry and souvenirs, many “bearing” resemblance to the carnivores in residence. 

Azamara Club Cruises also offers this five-hour tour at Sitka during many Alaska sailings, including a 10-night “Alaska Intensive Voyage” departing July 20 from Seward to Vancouver. Ultra-luxury Seabourn calls at Sitka during many summer voyages of the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn this year and next, including an 11-day “Inside Passage and Alaska Fjords” itinerary between Seward (Anchorage) and Vancouver, BC, on July 6, 2020 and September 7, 2020. 

Ventures by Seabourn provides optional hiking, kayaking and Zodiac adventures. In Sitka, Seabourn also offers a “Fortress of the Bear & Behind the Scenes at the Alaska Raptor Center” excursion. Besides seeing the bears, cruisers will see raptors in the final stages of rehabilitation before release into the wild, plus outdoor raptors that can’t be released due to injuries. The center is adjacent to a trail frequented by bears. 

Windstar Cruises’ 212-passenger Star Breeze also calls at Sitka on its “Alaska Splendors” itinerary from Vancouver to Seward (Anchorage) sailing on June 8, 2020. It, too, has a “Best of Sitka: Fortress of the Bears, Raptor Center and National Park” tour. For those who prefer other wildlife, the “Sitka, Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest” excursion heads out on waterjet-driven tour-vessel cruise through Sitka Sound. Plus: This voyage is a James Beard Foundation culinary-themed cruise, so guests can view the great outdoors one moment, then indulge their culinary passion the next. 

One hot spot for excursions into the wild to see bears is Ketchikan. Calling in many Alaska ports, including Ketchikan is Viking Ocean Cruises’ 79-day “Australia, Asia and Alaska” voyage, operated by the 930-passenger Viking Orion; it sails August 24, 2020, from Sydney, Australia to Vancouver, BC. An earlier departure in March 2020 is sold out. One Ketchikan shore offering is the “Bear Country & Wildlife Adventures” shore excursion. Cruisers will journey by motorcoach to Herring Cove in the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary and hike out on a wilderness trail to an elevated boardwalk overlooking Eagle Creek; often bears can be spotted fishing in the creek. Bald eagles, mink deer and seals also call this sanctuary home. The tour ends with a walk through the Herring Bay Lumber Company sawmill, viewing birds of prey at Ketchikan’s Alaska Raptor Center and meeting a native master totem carver.

Sailing on multiple cruises to Alaska, Oceania Cruises offers several bear-focused shore excursions, including the “Bear Viewing on Prince of Wales” shore excursion from Ketchikan. This three-hour adventure will take cruisers by floatplane to the third largest U.S. island, which has overgrown former logging areas and streams brimming with salmon; both make ideal black bear habitats. After the half-hour flight to Prince of Wales, cruisers will go ashore on a beach and walk to a quiet water area where bears come to fish. At times, for safety, guests may be asked to stay with the plane, either inside or standing on the floats to observe the wildlife. 

Oceania Cruises' floatplane takes cruisers on a bear-viewing trip to Prince of Wales Island. //Photo by Getty Images/Andrea Izzotti

Ketchikan port calls also offer other bear-viewing opportunities, including excursions to the Anan Bear Observatory; the Margaret Creek Wildlife Conservation Area (also known as “Traitor’s Cove”) and Neets Cove. For more detail including the best times to view bears, visit www.experienceketchikan.com/bear-viewing-in-alaska.html. It’s important to know bear etiquette and have the proper safety tips if encountering a bear on a hike or other outdoor activity. The U.S. National Park Service offers good information at www.nps.gov/subjects/bears/safety.

A pre- or post-cruise stay in Alaska’s interior, such as to Denali National Park, also offers excellent opportunities for bear viewing. Many lines offer pre- or post-cruise land stays. For example, this summer, Seabourn is offering a five-day, fully escorted, custom-designed overland “Denali Experience,” with luxury accommodations and culinary options. Guests will soar above Alaska in a flightseeing plane and head deep into the protected park wilderness with a guide to possibly spot brown and black bears, wolves, moose, caribou and other wildlife.

More Bear Opportunities

Polar bears and brown bears can also be spotted in the wild on some voyages to the Russian Far East and remote Greenland, as well as on Northwest Passage or Northeast Passage cruises atop the Arctic. Crystal Endeavor’s maiden expedition voyage to the Russian Far East is August 20, 2020 and the vessel’s small size allows it to go where bigger ships can’t, including the Zhupanova River, where brown bears, seals and other wildlife are sometimes spotted along the shore. Separately, the expedition ship’s 28-day Northeast Passage voyage atop Russia and Norway sails from Anadyr, Russia to Tromso, Norway on August 10, 2021. A good place to possibly spot polar bears? The ship navigates through the waters of Russia’s Franz Josef Land, a collection of nearly 200 flat islands populated by polar bears, walruses, seals, Arctic foxes and sea birds.

Spectacled Bear, also known as the Andean Bear, can be spotted during a pre- or post-cruise overland trip from Lima to Machu Picchu. //Photo by Getty Images / asjos

Even if travelers aren’t on a cruise that journeys to a wild bear hot spot, they have other options, too. For Alaska cruisers visiting Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula on a pre-/post-cruise stay, one bear viewing option is a trip to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center along Turnagain Arm. In South America, it’s not likely that cruisers will see Andean Bears or Spectacled Bears (think the look of “Paddington Bear”) in the wild. But a pre- or post-cruise overland trip from Lima to Machu Picchu may create an opportunity. If time permits, travelers can view several small Andean Bears at the Andean Bear Rescue Center, located at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel.

Another adventure that’s perfect for cruise guests if their ship is overnighting in Singapore is the “Night Safari” at the Singapore Zoo. Many luxury lines call there, including Crystal Cruises on its 2022 World Cruise, the 116-day “Marvels, Myths & Monuments: A Cultural Mosaic” itinerary roundtrip from Miami. Operated by the 960-passenger Crystal Serenity, this voyage is highlighted by nine overnights in port, including one in Singapore. Cruisers who set out on the Night Safari will enter a high-quality zoo set amid hundreds of acres of natural, jungle habitats to view myriad wildlife, including Asian Sloth Bears along the East Lodge Trail. 

Silversea Expedition guests spot a brown bear during a voyage through the Sea of Okhotsk in the Russian Far East. // Photo Courtesy of Silversea

From Alaska to Borneo, from the Russian Far East to Norway’s Svalbard islands and beyond, cruisers can explore ashore in search of bears, often in the company of an expedition team or on shore trips staffed by naturalists. But when the explorers return to their ship, they’ll certainly have much more than the “bear necessities.” Instead, travelers can explore the globe in the lap of luxury on an upscale vessel that offers fine dining, high-quality entertainment, full-service spas and pampering service. 

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