When I took my first Arctic cruise, saw my first polar bear, saw my first arctic fox, and saw my first beluga whale, I felt on top of the world and returned home, wishing that everyone I knew could experience the same thrills. I even wish they could all endure the arctic plunge—jumping into the sea—a seemingly mad-cap venture that I and 150 of the 160 passengers on my cruise all experienced.
The Evolution of Expedition Cruises
Myths and misperceptions still surround expedition cruises. Once the domain of ex-Soviet science ships and decommissioned supply boats offering great itineraries with very few creature comforts, there is now a great selection of contemporary and modern exploration and expedition ships, with all mod-cons.
Luxury and Comfort in the Arctic
Today’s expedition ships combine the latest adventure equipment (sea kayaks and Zodiacs) with polar ice-class technology, high-end boutique hotel facilities, and stylish interiors. Chic, spacious, well-planned accommodations (many with private balconies) provide a luxurious home-from-home for guests to relax and recharge for the next day’s adventures. Observation lounges and lecture spaces, boot rooms to store protective boots and parka coats (all supplied by the operators), a choice of dining experiences and a world-class spa are now the norm.
Accessibility to Arctic Exploration
Many assume that to visit the Arctic, you have to be young, lean and as fit and self-reliant as Bear Grylls. If you wish to walk to the North Pole towing a 90kg sledge of provisions behind you, that is the case. But that’s different for a modern expedition cruise holidaymaker visiting the remarkable waters around frozen mass! Expert guides, on-ship tour leaders, and guest lecturers illuminate your voyage and lead you ashore. You will do famously as long as you have your balance and can step in and out of zodiac landing vessels and walk over unbroken land when ashore.
Attracted by the lust to see more of the planet and its wilderness, inspired by magazine articles and TV programmes such as those featuring David Attenborough, most passengers on expedition cruises are Gen X (40s–50s) and Baby Boomers (late 50s–70s). Many have never cruised before, and many are solo travellers, booking because they appreciate that the best way to see the wonders of the Arctic is by ship in company with people of similar interests.
The beauty, diversity, and extraordinary light make the region a magnet for photographers and videographers. A growing trend is for multi-generational trips, with grandparents, parents, and children (usually ten years plus) travelling together to experience the wonders of the Arctic together. The same applies to Alaska, which we often overlook when considering Arctic regions.
Exploration cruising certainly isn’t sentry and just the domain of the ultra-wealthy as it was back in the 1980s. With modern ships and so much choice in the region, visiting the Arctic has never been a better value. Just as with traditional sunshine cruises, operators and price levels are chosen to suit most budgets.
Immersive and Educational Experiences
With diverse on-ship facilities, great guest speaker programmes and entertainment to suit all tastes, cruises are immersive but far from the academic wastelands of voyages in the 1970s. Guides and tour leaders aboard all have first-hand experience in the region—on my voyage, the assistant head of tours had walked to both poles—and inspire you with their enthusiasm and knowledge. At one of the first talks I attended, our tour leader suggested guests might create photo blogs to share with friends and family back home, and I and many other travellers did just that.
Cultural Expedition Cruises
A cultural expedition cruise is a superb choice for travellers who want to experience authentic, intimate, and unforgettable moments in extraordinary locations and remote landmarks while enjoying a sophisticated and elegant atmosphere onboard.
Recommendations for Arctic and Alaskan Adventures in 2024
For summer 2024 in the Arctic (Iceland, Greenland, and North Norway), we recommend luxury operators Silversea Cruises and Seabourn Cruises, specialist exploration brands Swan Hellenic and Quark Expeditions, and premium-rated Hurtigruten Expeditions.