Svalbard & The Arctic: An expedition cruise guide

Travel Advice

The Arctic is about a lot more than just ice and snow. On an expedition cruise to this fascinating region you'll learn about the Arctic's more human side, from the dauntless early Vikings, to intrepid explorers from the 18th century onwards, to those stalwarts who live in these extraordinary lands today. And throughout your journey you will be hoping for a glimpse of the Arctic's most iconic resident, the polar bear.

This vast region surprises many visitors with its diversity. You can visit an Inuit village to meet welcoming locals, witness lands ravaged by mining, seek out the reminders of an earlier civilisation in the barrows of Newfoundland, find Viking traces in present day towns, see lives carved out in a hostile environment, and be captivated by the silence, the breathtaking beauty, and the extraordinary wildlife.

Viking homes in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland

When to visit the Arctic

From May through to August, as the polar ice begins to melt, opportunities open up to explore further and further north. Within the Arctic Circle you will marvel at the spectacle of the sun barely grazing the horizon before beginning to rise again, the strange gloaming at midnight, and feel re-energised and reluctant to go to bed. For the longest nights, travel around the summer solstice, 21st June. Earlier in the summer, Norway, Spitsbergen and Iceland will be your choice. Later on as the ice-cap recedes, explore the fjords of Greenland, Baffin Bay and the Northwest Passage.

The best time to visit the Arctic: A month-by-month guide >

Midnight sun at the North Cape, Norway

Which itinerary to choose

Once you are captivated by the Arctic you will choose to go back time and again, in search of different scenery, more historic tales, different wildlife. Many people choose to start with a circumnavigation of Svalbard, where you will find remains of old whaling stations and meet the handful of permanent residents, before sailing to explore the fjords and sea cliffs, and seek out the elusive polar bears.

Reindeer in Svalbard

A circumnavigation of Iceland gives you access to some extraordinary geographical features which inspired the Icelandic sagas, and meet the locals in the two key towns of Reykjavik and Akureyri. This is a trip combining fire and ice, extraordinary wildlife, and captivating legend and myth.

Turf houses in Sandar, Iceland

Greenland's awe-inspiring fjords and ice-clogged bays are strikingly beautiful, and the local people will amaze you with their ability to eke out an existence in such a hostile and isolated environment, whilst in Newfoundland you will see the bleak lands where the Vikings came ashore, leaving barrows and dwelling places. Or follow the great explorer Amundsen, the first to travel through the Northwest Passage, from the icy bays of Greenland to the tundra of northern Canada, encountering wildlife, extraordinary geological formations, and the resolute Inuit people.

Ittoqqortoomiit village, Greenland

How to get there

Whilst certain gateways in the region have regular airlift (for example Reykjavik for Iceland cruises), you will find that many Arctic expeditions start in a location with irregular flights. As a result, most expedition cruise lines include the final leg of your flight as a private charter. For example, to get to Spitsbergen you would normally take a scheduled flight into Oslo, overnight there, and then join an onward charter flight. Greenland cruises tend to incorporate a charter flight from Denmark, and so forth. Expect to have quite a complicated journey, and know that you will probably need to break it on both the outbound and the homebound legs.

Timings of charter flights are often not confirmed until quite close in, so you would not take the risk of missing a connection. Note also that charters are also often single class, so if you prefer a roomier business class cabin, this may not be possible.

Ny Alesund, Svalbard

Arctic wildlife

As well as polar bears the Arctic is home to walrus, Arctic foxes, reindeer, lemmings, musk ox, caribou, bearded and ringed seals, and whale species including fin, humpback and minke. as well as the more elusive bowhead, blue and sperm. Other sealife includes narwhal and massive shoals of herring, and make sure you keep your eyes peeled for up to 60 species of bird, including Arctic tern, barnacle goose, common eider, northern fulmar, purple sandpiper, great phalarope (red), Arctic skua, great skua, glaucous gull, blacklegged kittiwake, ivory gull, Brunnich's guillemot, little auk, puffin, snow bunting, snowy owl and peregrine falcon.

Arctic fox in Svalbard

Extending your Arctic expedition

Adding a sprinkle of magic to these remote Arctic locations is sometimes tricky - because of the limited airlift, we wouldn't suggest extending your stay, and in any case the infrastructure would not support an extended visit other than by ship. However, your European gateway city may have more to offer, and we would certainly recommend a couple of days in Oslo (for the fantastic sculpture park and Munch art gallery) or Copenhagen (for the beautiful buildings and palaces, not to mention some fantastic gourmet restaurants).

Wooden houses in Oslo, Norway

How do I choose the right Arctic cruise?

First of all, you are going to be selecting by itinerary. If you choose something like the Northwest Passage, be warned, these itineraries sell out very early, so it may be that you have to pre-register and leave it for another year. For other locations, check out how far north the itinerary is scheduled to travel, and also add in whether you want to use some of the cool tools carried by some vessels (kayaks for example). You may be very motivated by levels of comfort, and some vessels are much more comfortable than others. In all cases, you can expect that, if you sign up for it, you will be called as soon as a polar bear is spotted - even if it is 3am!

Silver Explorer - Restaurant

For more advice on choosing the right Arctic cruise for you, why not give us a call today on 020 7399 7630 and speak to one of our expedition experts.

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Our expedition cruising guide to the Arctic will tell you everything you need to know, including when to visit, what to see and how to get there.

Meet the author

Tom is a Communications Manager at the Galapagos Conservation Trust and former Marketing Manager at Mundy Adventures

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