Arctic Cruises Travel Guide
and Packing List
Cruises and Adventure Travel in the Arctic With Cool Antarctica and ExpeditionTrips
Tourism in the Arctic - Where will I go and what will I see?
There is a greater range of environments in the Arctic than the Antarctic and there are a greater variety of trips it is possible to take there. You can travel around by land or sea or stay in one place. The different countries around the Arctic allow for different types of wilderness experience, some have cultural interests both modern and traditional in a variety of settlements of all sizes.
Svalbard - coastal voyage or circumnavigation
A series of islands belonging to Norway, the largest of which is Spitsbergen. High above the Arctic Circle, the largest town Longyearbyen is about 1,300 km (820 miles) from the North Pole. In the summer months when the winter sea ice breaks up and melts, polar bears retreat onto Svalbard and there is a very good chance of seeing them. There are estimated to be around 3,500 polar bears in the area in mid summer, outnumbering the human population of 2,650, though they are spread out (the bears that is).
You can see the midnight sun on Svalbard from April 19th to August the 23rd, it's light for 4 straight months!. There are many historic remains including the Dutch whaling station of Smeerenburg. Other wildlife is also plentiful including reindeer, walrus and many kinds of sea-birds with nesting cliffs that house many thousands of them. Glaciers, ice-bergs and sea-ice will be in evidence, complete circumnavigation of the island may be prevented if there is too much sea-ice but there are plenty of alternatives if it is.
Greenland - coastal voyage
The largest island in the world, 80% of the island is covered in the only permanent ice-sheet outside of Antarctica. A full circuit of Greenland would be about 7,000km (4,300 miles) so cruises skirt along part of the West or East coast. Human habitations in Greenland can be traced back at least 4,500 years, Erik the Red came to Greenland and named it in order to attract other settlers there (seems he kept quiet about all that ice). Vikings from Iceland lived on Greenland from about the 10th century until 1500AD. Until recently Greenland was part of Denmark, it now has self-rule and is heading towards greater independence.
There is a rich Inuit culture across all settlements on Greenland. The towns are often colourful places with each building painted in bright colours and little clutter from utilities which are placed at ground level rather than suspended from telegraph poles, a lack of fences and the presence of sledges outside homes and sled dogs around add to the story book feel. There are no roads between towns in Greenland, the distances are too great and terrain too rugged, transport between towns is by sea, air or via the sea-ice in the winter time. Greenland is the least densely populated, permanently inhabited place on earth.
The west coast of Greenland is home to the highest concentration of ice bergs and the busiest ice-berg making factory in the Northern hemisphere, colossal ice structures abound. It has spectacular fjords and glaciers. Polar bears, musk-ox, reindeer, four species of seals, whales, walrus, arctic fox, and sea-birds can be seen around the green coastal belt that is free of permanent ice, though is still covered in the winter by seasonal snow.
Iceland - cruise, city break, interior travel
Iceland is one of the most populated places in the Arctic though still the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Reykjavik, the capital, is a modern European city, though there is extensive rugged wilderness not so far outside of the major population centers. Iceland has extensive volcanic activity and geothermal phenomena such as boiling mud lakes, geysers, thermal springs, and even the occasional volcano! You can go and relax in the geothermally heated "Blue Lagoon" near Reykjavik. geothermal energy provides much of Iceland's power and heat.
The terrain is often very rugged and volcanic being very young in geological terms with relatively little weathering. It is possible to walk (and even scuba dive) between the North American and European tectonic plates. The sea is rich in whales, seals and all kinds of fish which historically were the mainstay of the Icelandic economy.
Rarely visited, yet a truly unique destination. The North Pole lies in the Arctic Ocean 725 km (450 miles) from Greenland the nearest point of land, you can visit on an icebreaker during the summer months that powers its way through sea-ice to get there. Helicopters give you a view of the ship breaking through the ice en route.
When you get there there's a champagne toast and BBQ on the ice and if conditions allow, you can fly above it in a tethered hot air balloon or have a chilly (and brief!) dip in the sea, a "Polar Plunge".
It is for the those with deep pockets, but truly one trip that you will remember forever.
Churchill, Canada - Lots of polar bears up close
Each year as the warmer months with long days draw to an end polar bears assemble at the western edge of Hudson Bay waiting for the sea-ice to form so they can leave the land where they have spent the summer and go hunting seals again on the ice.
On a 6 to 7 day trip you can view these bears up close from a "tundra buggy" during the day time or stay out on the tundra in the "tundra lodge" while the bears walk around and underneath you. You might see the aurora borealis too!
In July and August this is the place to see thousands of beluga or white whales as they arrive in the Churchill river to calve. Churchill is also a great place for bird watching.
Canadian Arctic - cruise amongst the islands
That top part of North America that you may have noticed on the map where it dissolves into over 36,000 islands is a huge wilderness area with isolated settlements where Arctic trips can start and end.
On land you'll find polar bears, grizzly bears, arctic foxes, wolves and hares, caribou, musk-ox, moose and lemmings. In the sea there are seals, narwhals, orcas, beluga, fin, bowhead and right whales. Birds fill nesting cliffs in multitudinous thousands. What you won't find on the tundra are trees or grasslands, but this lays bare the geology of the land and gives clearer views of magnificent mountain ranges, valleys and fjords.
There is a rich history here from indigenous peoples to the voyages of those in search of the North West Passage or in search of the people who disappeared while looking for the North West Passage.
A giant area of the widest of open spaces, sea channels between the islands that may be impassable one year but completely clear the next depending on where the ice has formed or broken up.
Alaska - cruises and land trips or a mix of the two
Alaska has a range of low and sub-artic habitats, there are trees here alongside the glaciers and ice, there's more plant growth in the southern part of the state which gives a different feel to the exposed tundra further north. The state has 20 official indigenous languages which gives an indication of the richness and variety of cultures of the native Americans here. There are large modern cities and towns but also huge areas of uninhabited wilderness, especially in the interior, many communities are reached by sea or air rather than road, even Juneau, the state capital, is not accessible by road.
There are glaciers, though less ice and more greenery than many other Arctic destinations in the summer months. Cruises will take you past calving icebergs, thick rainforests and along deep fjords. You may also see humpback and minke whales and orcas, porpoises, sea otters and thousands of harbor seals in the seas. On land you can see the greatest concentration of brown bears in North America, there are trips that focus on this when the bears are fishing for migrating salmon swimming up rivers. Hiking, fishing, caving and kayaking enable you to get close up and immerse yourself in the landscape.
Russian Far East - Cruise along the coasts
A rarely visited area of the world and almost completely inaccessible by tourists until the early 1990's. This is an arctic and subarctic region that has many indigenous people's, lots of wildlife, a vast wilderness and a land of fire and ice on the Kamchatka Peninsula with around 30 active volcanoes.
The seas have plentiful seals, whales and walrus, on land there are around 18,000 bears on the Kamchatka Peninsula along with 4,000 Steller's Sea Eagles, you may also see red and arctic foxes, hares, sable, wolves, reindeer, lynx, otters, caribou, mink and snow sheep. There are places with many thousands of sea birds, Matykil Island part of the Yamskiye group is estimated to have 7 million nesting birds - guillemots, auklets, puffins and fulmars.
Multi-region trips - There are many cruises that incorporate more than one of the above regions. Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland can often be combined, all or two of the three maybe with a visit to northern Norway too. Arctic Canada and Greenland make a good combination with a variety of sights and experiences. You can sail the fabled Northwest Passage or the counterpart Northeast passage.
At the start or end of almost any trip to the Arctic you will most likely be in a North American or European airport so combining the trip with a few days in the nearby city of your choice is always a good option too.
contact our travel partners who will help you find the best cruise for your requirements
What do I need to take?
As your trip will be in the Arctic summer, you won't
need any really extreme cold weather gear. It depends
where and exactly when you go of course, but you can expect
temperatures on many or most days to be between 0C and 10C,
the wind-chill can make it feel a lot less so windproof clothing
is as important as insulated clothing to stay warm.
People respond to cold weather in different ways and while some may be comfortable in light-weight clothing others only feel comfortable when wrapped up like the Michelin man in the same conditions. Layering your clothing for different conditions is the key, to allow for flexibility in changing conditions warming up when walking uphill or cooling down when the wind gets up and it's time to take a break.
The outer layer should be wind and waterproof, you may or may not not get any actual rain, but you may get some wet snow and will almost certainly get splashed significantly while riding on a zodiac by sea water at some point. 3 in 1 jackets are a good choice a clip-in or zip-in insulated liner jacket that can be worn on its own or with the waterproof and windproof layer give extra versatility. You may also be sitting in a damp zodiac at some time, so waterproof pants/trousers as well as a jacket are also needed.
A good pair of boots are very important. You may be splashing around in the shallows during zodiac landings or pick-ups, in any case being able to paddle out a little way will make things much more convenient. Modern neoprene topped wellington style boots are an excellent choice if you don't already have something suitable. These are much better for walking in than traditional style wellingtons with a good solid rugged sole for rough terrain, they are close fitting around the calf so are warmer and more comfortable to walk in. Alternatively, stout winter-style waterproof walking boots will do the job though there's a greater chance of getting water over the tops of them at some point as they are several inches shorter.Hire Gear - Some ships cruising the Arctic have equipment for hire. You will need to make your requirements known in advance especially for sizes. As well as not spending money buying things you may rarely if ever need again, hiring gear cuts down your luggage weight and bulk which can be a factor if you have a charter flight with restricted baggage allowance and can be far and away the more environmentally friendly option.
Arctic - Svalbard / Spitsbergen - Sample Cruises - 2019
|Around Spitsbergen - Kvitoya||Circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, attempt to reach rarely visited Kvitoya, sea-ice, sea-bird colonies and other wildlife, hiking, child-friendly.||$5,000 -
|Svalbard / Spitsbergen Circumnavigation||Historic sites, sea-ice, glaciers, wild flowers, lush tundra, walrus, polar bears, reindeer, huge sea bird colonies, optional kayaking.||$7,895 -
|Norway's Fjords & Arctic Svalbard||Fjords, Lofoten Islands, sea-bird colonies, wild-flower tundra, hiking, child-friendly, optional kayaking.||$17,940 - $33,700||17|
Arctic - Greenland and Canada - Sample Cruises - 2019
|Iceland and East Greenland||Spectacular scenery of East Greenland and Western Iceland, Inuit culture, museums, historic sites. Fjords, mountains and ice, geothermal hotsprings. Seabirds, look out for humpback and minke whales. Optional kayaking.||$5,995 -
|Baffin Island and West Greenland||Historic Canadian and Greenlandic sites, abundant wildlife, rich Inuit culture and dramatic icy landscapes. Polar bears, whales and walrus, hike across the tundra, Ilulisat, UNESCO World Heritage Site. Optional kayaking.||$10,895 -
|Greenland and Northwest Passage - Franklin's Legend||West Greenland through the fabled Northwest Passage, Beechey Island, polar bears, walrus, sea-birds, Inuit culture, historic sites, glaciers, ice-bergs, made famous by explorers Roald Amundsen and Sir John Franklin.||$24,870 - $71,210||23|
Arctic - Land Based - Sample Trips - 2019
|Churchill - Tundra Lodge Polar Bear Adventure||Polar bear experience staying at the Tundra Lodge outside Churchill. Constant proximity to polar bears, a unique northern adventure. Optional dog-sledding and helicopter trip.||$6,895 - $7,295 + $795 return charter flight to Churchill||7|
|Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, Nunavut||Beluga whale observation site, 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, guided opportunities for hiking, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, fat biking, photography, fishing and exploring the Arctic tundra by all-terrain vehicles. Muskox, Polar Bear, and Arctic fox.||$10,295 - $15,495 + $1,895 return charter flight||10|
Alaska - Sample Cruises - 2019
|Alaska's Fjords and Glaciers||Isolated waterways where bigger cruise ships can't reach. Tongass National Forest, glaciers, Misty Fjords National Mounument, Wrangell Narrows. Optional kayaking, paddle board, hiking, snorkeling. Child-friendly.||$3,795 -
|Fjords of Alaska - Ultimate Expedition||Wildlife, ice, Tlingit culture, deep fjords, Snow-capped mountains, wildlife and birds, waterfalls, tree-lined narrow passageways, glaciers, kayak through the narrows, hike into the rainforest. Child-friendly. Itinerary operates in reverse on alternate voyages.||$6,845 -
* Prices are based per person, the lowest price is usually for triple occupancy in a basic cabin, the highest for double occupancy in the best available suite.
Options may be at additional cost and are usually booked when the cruise is booked - it may be too late once the cruise has started.
Picture credit: Brown Bear - Robert F. Tobler - Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution Share Alike International license.