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 Passage, where unpredictable ice means you can never be quite sure you'll make it to the other side without having to turn back. Currently the even more unusual Northeast Passage is unavailable, sailing as it does through Russian territory.
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 three of their ever-growing fleet of small ships currently ply the waters of the Arctic. Silver Cloud and the recently refurbished Silver Wind carry 260 guests and 274 guests respectively, though this is limited to 200 in the polar regions. Excitingly, they will be joined by the new build 200-guest Silver Endeavour, orginally built for Crystal Cruises and one of the world's most advanced luxury expedition ships. 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, Icealand and occasional transits of the Northwest 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. A third new ship, Hanseatic Spirit, launched in 2021. 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 Le Commandant Charcot, the world's first hybrid-powered luxury icebreaker, equipped with a PC6 class hull which allows her to travel into remote corners of Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and all the way to the North Pole itself!
Quark Expeditions focus purely on the polar regions, with nearly 30 years' experience operating in this challenging environment. Offering quite a choice of different ships and price points, we'd recommend travelling on World Explorer, launched in 2019 it's one of the fastest and finest in the Quark fleet, or Ultramarine, Quark's own ship equipped with two twin-engine helicopters and offering an amazing array of innovative excursions including heli-hikking, heli-biking, heli-kayaking and camping. Quark also offer an extensive range of itineraries: as well as the standard Svalbard and Greenland options.
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, along with transits of both the Northwest and Northeast Passage.
Seabourn Venture launched in 2022, 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. Operating eye-catching itineraries to Greenland, Iceland and the Canadian Arctic, they are a superb option for 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 innovative ships, the Greg Mortimer and Sylvia Earle, represents a significant upgrade on their previous fleet in terms of hardware. These distinctive ships, with their revolutionary X-BOW design, offer a smoother sailing experience and reduced emissions, and will explore destinations including Svalbard, Greenland and Canada.