Polar bears, icebergs, and the Northern Lights – Your intro to cruising the Arctic
From the polar bears, walruses, and reindeer of Spitsbergen, to the glaciers, whales, and fjords of Greenland, and the ancient landscapes and cultures of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Arctic Circle sure packs a punch. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights. Read on for the lowdown on one of the world’s last untouched frontiers…
Making sense of the geography
The Arctic Circle cuts an imaginary line (66.5˚N) through the very top of the globe. One look at a map of the region will show you that there’s actually quite a lot going on in this neck of the woods. Here are the most important destinations.
Spitsbergen, Norway. The largest and only permanently populated island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago (80˚N!), Spitsbergen is the wildlife capital of the Arctic. You’ve got a very good chance of seeing polar bears here (especially in the spring), and walrus and reindeer sightings are virtually guaranteed. Not to mention an incredible variety of Arctic birds. Most Spitsbergen cruises depart from Longyearbyen which is accessed via a four-hour flight from Oslo, Norway’s capital (which is about 10 hours from New York). Many guests choose to spend a day or two exploring quaint and charismatic Longyearbyen (home to the world’s most northerly university) at either end of their cruise.
Greenland. This enormous island (it’s larger than Alaska and Texas combined, and stretches from outside the Arctic Circle all the way up to 83˚N!) is home to only 56,000 people, making it one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet. While the southern reaches of the island, where almost everyone lives, (the quirky capital city of Nuuk is a real gem) are actually quite green, North Greenland is an entirely different world of glaciers, icebergs, and blue whales. Due to its location, Greenland is generally accessed on cruises departing Longyearbyen or Iceland, although some cruises do depart from the former US Air Force Base of Kangerlussuaq.
Iceland. This autonomous nation is 20 times smaller than Greenland and six times more populated (but it’s still only got 357,000 residents). The entire (main) island is located outside the Arctic Circle so it’s usually more of a start/end point for cruises. That said, Iceland is breathtakingly beautifully – waterfalls, glaciers, thermal geysers and endless tundra landscapes – and we’d highly recommend spending (at least) a few days exploring the country before or after your trip. Reykjavik, the nation’s capital, is also really easy to get to (it’s only 5.5 hours from New York City) while Akureyri, the primary port, is accessed via a breathtaking six-hour drive (included in your tour) from the capital.
Northwest Passage, Canada. For centuries, explorers have obsessed over finding the great sea route at the top of the world, and the area retains an intoxicating aura of impenetrability. The many islands, inlets, bays, and channels of Canada’s High Arctic combine unparalleled scenic beauty with the opportunity to spot polar bears and musk oxen (both fairly likely) as well as elusive narwhals and Arctic foxes. As the ancestral home of the Inuit people, the Northwest Passage also offers fantastic cultural experiences. Most of our guests fly into (and out of) Toronto – from where they take a five-hour chartered flight to the Inuit hamlet of Resolute, Canada (74˚N, population 198) to board their vessel.
Newfoundland and Labrador. Canada’s most easterly provinces may not be quite as far north as the other destinations on this list, but this doesn’t make them any less rugged, remote, or fascinating. Separated from Greenland by the 200-mile-wide (at its narrowest point) Davis Strait, this pristine land of high mountains, boreal forests, and dramatic coastlines is every hiker’s and kayaker’s dream. Canada’s east coast is also home to thriving Inuit settlements, charismatic fishing ports (including St John’s, the oldest colonial settlement in North America) and L’Anse aux Meadows, the only verified Norse ruins in North America. This region is typically visited on a 14-day odyssey that commences in far-off Kangerlussuaq, Greenland and culminates in St John’s, Newfoundland which is a three-hour flight from Toronto.
But what about the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights, aka Aurora Borealis is not a destination but a phenomenon which can be observed across a region called the Aurora Zone which spans northern Scandinavia and parts of Canada, Alaska, and even the United Kingdom. By far, the most popular way of witnessing the Northern Lights is on a week-long cruise that departs from Iceland and explores the pristine Scoresby Sound (which is also home to immense icebergs and glaciers, some fascinating Inuit settlements and ruins, and a great variety of fauna and flora) in south-east Greenland. These trips typically depart in September, so you’ll also get to enjoy the fall colors of the Arctic fauna.
Diehard Aurora Borealis fans should note that the one failsafe way of witnessing this incredible lightshow is to go on a sailing cruise to Norway’s northern fjords in the European winter, when the permanent darkness makes for optimal viewing conditions (not to mention great whale-watching opportunities). This surreal and unforgettable experience is probably most appropriate for people who’ve already been to the Arctic during daylight hours.
What to expect on your Arctic cruise
While boats and daily itineraries do vary, most Arctic vessels are comfortable (without being luxurious) and extremely safe and sturdily built. The cuisine is hearty, the wine lists are extensive, and the naturalist guides are from the very top drawer. The ships are much smaller than conventional cruise liners, typically accommodating around 100 passengers (and never more than 200). As most cruises take place during spring, summer, and fall, you can expect to experience daylight conditions 24/7. This means that on most cruises you’ll have more than enough time for two daily excursions (these range from Zodiac trips to hikes to kayaking) – and perhaps even three, if you’re up for an after-dinner outing.
While some itineraries are, by definition, more active than others (case in point the epic Norwegian sail and ski cruises which we can arrange on request), most vessels are able to cater to a variety of interests by allowing passengers to naturally gravitate towards the activities that interest them most. In the Scoresby Sound, for example, one group of travelers might want to hike 2.5 hours to a nearby summit, while others might prefer to remain closer to shore, taking pics or ticking bird species off their life-lists. Yet others might even choose to explore the bays and inlets in a kayak.
What’s the difference between the Arctic and Antarctica?
While both regions are icy, pristine and remote, they do also have many differences. Not least the fact that they’re at opposite ends of the globe and their travel seasons are also diametrically opposed (the Arctic is almost always visited during the northern summer).
- There are no polar bears in Antarctica (and no penguins in the Arctic). In fact, the Arctic has far more landbased species than the Antarctic: you’ll never see Arctic foxes, hares, caribou or reindeer in the Antarctic (or a flowering plant for that matter). You can see marine mammals at both poles, although there’s probably a greater variety of whale and seal species in the Antarctic. Narwhals, however, are unique to the Arctic. And it’s also easier to spot blue whales (the largest living creature) up north.
- Arctic oceans are much calmer and distances are shorter. Most Antarctic cruises feature choppy seas and dayslong stints in the open ocean (many people choose to fly in to avoid the legendary Drake Passage). The Arctic, meanwhile, is almost always placid and its relatively crowded geography means that you’re generally able to sail from one destination to the next overnight.
- The Arctic has a rich cultural past (and present). Save from a few scientific outposts, Antarctica is the last frontier of human civilization. While this makes visiting the Blue Continent an utterly surreal experience, it does also mean that it doesn’t really have any culture to speak of. The Arctic, on the other hand, has a rich and varied history of human settlement that spans the Vikings (aka Norsemen) and the Inuits as well as centurieslong traditions of explorers, whalers, fishermen, and seafarers.
What are you waiting for?
Whether you’ve got your sights set on a Polar Bear & Norway Arctic Cruise, a Northern Lights spectacular, or a Newfoundland and Labrador Cultural Highlights cruise, we’d love to make your Arctic dreams come true. Check out our most popular Arctic cruises or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting the bespoke northern adventure you’ve always yearned for.