During the Arctic summer, the most popular time to visit on an expedition cruise, the sun never dips below the horizon, while the winter darkness is tempered by the eerie sight of the Northern Lights dancing across the firmament. You will normally be sailing in remote and inaccessible areas, often far from human settlement, so a specialist expedition ship with an ice-strengthened hull is essential. You will occasionally see larger ships calling at the more southerly Arctic ports, but the overwhelming majority of ships operating here are small, usually under 500 passengers, with the top-end luxury lines carrying no more than 250 guests.
If this will be your first or only trip to the Arctic, we would always recommend a cruise to the Svalbard archipelago, high in the Norwegian Arctic. This is one of the best places in the world to see polar bears in the wild, along with walruses, whales, Arctic foxes, reindeer, puffins and more. Key turnaround ports include Longyearbyen (in Svalbard itself), Tromso and Reykjavik. There are occasionally cruises to Svalbard from the UK, though you'll normally still have to fly home.
Expeditions to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic will have more of a focus on the human side of the Arctic, visiting small Inuit communities at the edge of the ice cap, and you'll explore spectacular fjords scattered with icebergs. Iceland also features on many itineraries, a fascinating destination that lies just outside the Arctic Circle. If you want to see the Northern Lights then your options are limited, with Hurtigruten's winter voyages to northern Norway your best bet. For a real collector's item, look out for the rare voyages transiting the Northwest or Northeast Passage, where unpredictable ice means you can never be quite sure you'll make it to the other side without having to turn back.
As you might have guessed by now, an Arctic expedition cruise is very different to a regular cruise: your itinerary can change at short notice depending on the position of the ice, the weather and wildlife sightings nearby, and you'll be going ashore in small zodiac boats, usually hopping out directly into the shallows on remote beaches. The ship's onboard expedition team will help you to understand more about your surroundings through engaging talks and lectures, and you'll be accompanied ashore by experienced naturalist guides.
Travelling to the Arctic is not cheap, and there are a number of different operators competing for your custom. With this in mind, we've put together this guide to the best expedition cruise lines visiting the Arctic:
Silversea pioneered the luxury expedition cruise concept, and two of their ever-growing fleet of small ships currently ply the waters of the Arctic. The petite Silver Explorer carries just 144 guests, while the recently refurbished Silver Cloud is a little larger at 260 guests, though this is limited to 200 in the polar regions. Reasons to choose Silversea include superb all-inclusive value, with everything from meals and alcoholic drinks to butler service and a professionally produced voyage DVD included in your fare. Itineraries include in-depth explorations of the Svalbard archipelago, Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, and occasional transits of the Northwest or Northeast Passage.
Hurtigruten are best known for their Norwegian Coastal Voyage service, ferrying passengers, cargo and mail up and down the craggy coast of Norway. They are one of the few cruise lines with ships in the Arctic during winter, when the Northern Lights are at their brightest. Hurtigruten also have a growing fleet of specialist expedition ships, with voyages to Svalbard and Greenland during summer. Hurtigruten's ships are some of the largest in the region, ranging from 318 up to 628 guests, so the number of landings each day will be more limited, but appealing fares offer a more affordable way to see the Arctic.
German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd have nearly three decades of experience in the polar regions, and a new chapter began in 2019 with the launch of two brand new expedition ships, Hanseatic Nature and Hanseatic Inspiration. Don't be put off if you don't speak German - Hanseatic Inspiration is operated as a bilingual ship, with all communications in both English and German. The style on board is contemporary and Nordic-inspired, with innovations including glass-bottomed balconies, a deck track at the bow for wildlife viewing, and a water-level marina at the back of the ship. The expedition operation is top notch, and destinations include an extensive Greenland and Arctic Canada programme.
Lindblad's small ships are packed full of tools for exploration, including remote-controlled submarines, hydrophones and sea kayaks, while a prestigious tie-up means there is a National Geographic photographer on board every voyage. Lindblad is a great choice for serious explorers looking for an intimate and informal atmosphere on board; although not ultra-luxurious, this is not a cheap cruise either, with your fare invested in high-end hardware rather than butler service and free-flowing Champagne. Itineraries range from shorter Svalbard sailings to extended Greenland, Canadian Arctic and Northeast Passage expeditions.
French cruise line Ponant have been making waves of late as they roll out six stylish new yachts, the Explorer class, with each ship carrying just 184 guests. The slightly older and slightly larger Boréal class yachts, which entered service between 2010 and 2015 and carry 264 guests, also operate in the Arctic, and offer the same combination of contemporary flair and technological innovation. Even more exciting for polar explorers is the launch in 2021 of Le Commandant Charcot, the world's first hybrid-powered luxury icebreaker, equipped with a PC6 class hull which will allow her to travel into remote corners of Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and all the way to the North Pole itself!
Excitement is building for the launch of Crystal's first expedition ship, Crystal Endeavor, in 2021. You can expect the same superb onboard experience that has won Crystal's existing ocean and river fleets so many awards, with dining options including Nobu Matsuhisa's Umi Uma, a stunning double-height solarium with swimming pool and Jacuzzi, and high-tech toys including two helicopters and a 6-person submersible. Endeavor's maiden season includes an epic 29-night Northeast Passage expedition, and we expect a full Arctic programme to follow in the future, either on Endeavor or one of the two sister ships set to join her.
Quark Expeditions focus purely on the polar regions, with nearly 30 years' experience operating in this challenging environment. You have quite a choice of different ships and price points, making Quark a good option if you're not fussed about travelling in the height of luxury. They also offer the unique opportunity to sail to the North Pole on board the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory, as well as a wider range of activities than most cruise lines, including snowshoeing, sea kayaking and hot air ballooning. Quark also offer an extensive range of itineraries: as well as the standard Svalbard and Greenland options, they also travel to the remote islands of the Russian Arctic and Canada's Baffin Island, and operate a unique Northern Lights cruise to Iceland and eastern Greenland.
Scenic's much-anticipated discovery yacht, Scenic Eclipse, launched in July 2019 to great fanfare. This sleek 228-guest vessel is arguably the most luxurious expedition ship currently at sea, with stylish interiors, an amazing 10 different dining options and gadgets including two helicopters and a submarine. Scenic Eclipse is the first in a new generation of expedition vessels, for those who want all the trappings of an ultra-luxury cruise ship while travelling in remote and inaccessible regions of the world. An extensive Arctic programme includes Svalbard, Greenland and Iceland, with future plans for a transit of the Northwest Passage.
Seabourn Venture is set to launch in 2021, the first of two new expedition ships, as Seabourn become the latest ultra-luxury line to enter the expedition market. Seabourn have already dipped their toe in with their expedition-style 'Ventures by Seabourn' programme in Antarctica and Alaska, which will stand them in good stead when it comes to operating in the polar regions. The experience on board also promises to match the high standards Seabourn guests have come to expect, with personalised service, all-inclusive fares and chic interiors by designer Adam D. Tihany. The inaugural season features eye-catching itineraries to Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard and the Canadian Arctic, including longer sailings combining different regions of the Arctic.
Polar specialists Aurora Expeditions offer something a little bit different, with an unusual array of Arctic activities including snorkelling, scuba diving, rock climbing and stand-up paddleboarding. Aurora's focus is on immersive experiences and off-the-beaten-track exploration rather than onboard luxury, although their recently launched new ship, the Greg Mortimer, represents a significant upgrade on their previous fleet in terms of hardware. This distinctive ship, with its revolutionary X-BOW design, offers a smoother sailing experience and reduced emissions, and will explore destinations including Svalbard, Greenland, Canada and the Russian Arctic. A sister ship, the Sylvia Earle, is scheduled to join the fleet in 2021.