The High Arctic has always been the natural companion to Antarctica, both in terms of modern-day expedition cruises and those of centuries ago, when countries sought to be the first to discover valuable new trade routes and claim new territories for themselves.
The term “Arctic” refers to an enormous geographical area that can stretch all the way from northern Alaska to Norway’s North Cape. High above North America, the Northwest Passage has been an object of fascination and desire for explorers and countries for hundreds of years, and the subject of its exact ownership is still hotly contested to this day.
Arctic Svalbard, on the other hand, has been settled since the 12th century, despite being the northernmost location in Norway. Known for its midnight sun, polar night in winter and northern lights, Svalbard is a popular location for expedition cruises thanks to the enormous amount of glacial coverage – up to 60 percent of the islands are covered in ice.
Arctic expedition voyages can cover a wide range of ports, and may include destinations in Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway’s North Cape, and even the extremely northern Russian city of Murmansk. In fact, the diversity of the Arctic lends itself well to the creation of literally dozens of completely unique itineraries.
One of the most appealing Arctic journeys is also the rarest: an expedition that traverses the Northwest Passage. A few lines (notably, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Quark Expeditions) offer one or two journeys each year, but these trips come with a gigantic asterisk: Because of ever-changing ice conditions, the entire itinerary proceeds on a day-by-day basis, and can be called off entirely should conditions deteriorate.
Typically, things go off without a hitch, allowing guests to sail between Alaska and Greenland or even Iceland on journeys that can take up to a month. One notable attraction included on all Northwest Passage itineraries is a visit to the rocky shores of Beechy Island. Here, in the darkness of the winter of 1845, the first three crewmembers to die on Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated Northwest Passage Expedition were buried. They remained preserved by the ice until being unearthed in remarkable condition by Dr. Owen Beattie, a researcher with the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Beattie was able to perform autopsies that determined lead poisoning from the ship’s improperly sealed foodstuffs was the primary cause of death.
The graves of these three men can still be seen on the island to this day, along with the remains of tin cans and other “garbage” from Franklin’s expedition.
Next year, ultra-luxury line Silversea plans to mount an Arctic expedition aboard its expedition vessel, Silver Explorer, that will not only explore Canada’s High Arctic but also be one of the first cruise ships to explore Canada’s Hudson Bay, turning around in the port of Churchill, Manitoba —famed for its numerous Polar Bear sightings.
Nearly every line offering expedition cruises to some region of the Arctic, and for those considering this exciting area filled with wildlife, glaciers and history for the first time, there’s no right or wrong itinerary to choose.
Even mainstream cruisers can get their feet wet, so to speak, in the Arctic, with several lines routinely offering calls to ports in Iceland and Greenland as part of their late-summer Transatlantic repositioning voyages, or as part of longer Northern European sailings, departing from cities such as Southampton and Copenhagen.
As the earliest discoverers, who travelled in far less comfortable circumstances, discovered: it takes just a single day in the Arctic for this magical region to form a lifelong impression on you.