Best Arctic and Antarctica cruises: The coolest thing in cruising right now

For many cruisers, a visit to the polar regions is the ultimate journey. The Arctic and Antarctic are destinations full of derring-do tales of maritime history and exploration, and still the most inaccessible places on the planet. Cruises offer close-up encounters with spectacular, untamed landscapes rich in wildlife.

Volcanoes are encrusted with snow, colossal glaciers crumble into milky oceans, and killer whales play in frigid waters. For those looking for active cruising with an adventurous edge, sea kayaking with Alaskan otters, polar-bear spotting in the Svalbard islands and walks among the penguin rookeries of Antarctica are just some of the experiences that await. 

IT'S A SMALL WORLD

Polar cruises are mostly made on small ships, with the focus squarely on the destinations and off-ship activities; although some larger ships sail to Antarctica for scenic cruising, they don't allow passengers to disembark. (Antarctic cruises are limited to 200 passengers.)

As a general rule, polar cruises have flexible itineraries that might, of necessity, change depending on prevailing sea, ice, wildlife and weather. They provide access to places normally only available to hard-core adventurers or explorers, often in considerable luxury. 

"Small ships not only provide a way to travel to destinations that are often otherwise inaccessible, but a base to be able to explore those destinations in a range of ways without the logistic issues of bigger ships," says Aaron Russ, general manager of Wild Earth Travel (wildearth-travel.com).

Such is the growing appeal of these holidays, even the family market is finding the idea of a cold climate cruise attractive, according to Todd Smith, founder of AdventureSmith Explorations (adventuresmithexplorations.com). He credits this trend to a growing realisation that cruises provide a safe, controlled environment in wilderness regions, matched with a high number of activities, such as hiking and kayaking, suitable for varying ability levels.

"Small ships allow guests to paddle in front of a glacier, walk a remote beach, encounter wildlife and visit isolated villages, all experiences that can prove difficult for families to achieve on their own."

THE ONLY WAY TO GO

In short, cruise companies have a unique commercial advantage in polar regions: there's quite simply no other way for the ordinary traveller to visit such destinations. The good news is that cruise companies are nonetheless continually improving their offerings, and there are now more choices than ever.

The Arctic and Alaska are seeing a surge of growth, and some 40 ships now visit Antarctica annually, disembarking just shy of 30,000 passengers. Ships range from rough-and-ready, converted Russian icebreakers to luxe French liners on which you can enjoy Roquefort and red wine even while surrounded by icebergs.

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As interest grows, it's full steam ahead as companies reposition ships to satisfy the growing polar market. For example, Silversea (silversea.com) is moving Silver Cloud to its expedition fleet in November 2017 after refurbishment, hull strengthening and the addition of 18 Zodiacs; the ship will mostly sail Arctic and Antarctic seas.

Norwegian fiord specialist Hurtigruten (discovertheworld.com.au) is moving Midnatsol to Antarctica this year, doubling its capacity there, and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises' (hapag-lloyd.com) Hanseatic is sailing four Antarctic and three Arctic cruises from November 2016. Lindblad Expeditions (expeditions.com) is deploying National Geographic Orion in the Arctic for the first time, visiting destinations such as the Svalbard Islands, Greenland and Iceland. Lindblad is also launching 100-passenger expedition ships in both 2017 and 2018. 

Ponant (ponant.com) has announced four new, ice-class, 92-cabin expedition ships from 2018. Crystal Cruises' (crystalcruises.com) 100-passenger Crystal Endeavor launches in mid-2018; the polar-class mega yacht features a seven-person submarine and two helicopters.

And Scenic's (scenic.com.au) first venture into ocean cruising, also launching mid-2018, has the Poles firmly within its sights: the ship will have the highest passenger ice rating and cutting-edge stabiliser technology. The 228-guest Scenic Eclipse aims to bring six-star luxury to cold climes: the ship will feature a full-service spa and six dining venues and, like Crystal Endeavor, will offer submarine and helicopter excursions.

More ships generally mean more itinerary options. In the Arctic, Quark Expeditions (quarkexpeditions.com) has its biggest season ever next year with the relaunched Sea Adventurer added to the fleet and 20 itineraries, including two new cruises that take in Greenland and Canada's Baffin Bay. Hurtigruten is entering Canadian waters for the first time with four 2017 voyages in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Lindblad Expeditions has eight Arctic cruises, Ponant 15, including an unusual 20-night voyage from Kangerlussauaq to Iqaluit in northern Canada. Aurora Expeditions (auroraexpeditions.com.au) will have a new 24-day "Arctic Complete: cruise from Spitsbergen to Reykjavik", and Poseidon Expeditions (poseidonexpeditions.com) a voyage along Iceland's northern fiords, the Norwegian coast and Spitsbergen.

THE BIG THAW

The changes to the polar ice pack are also opening up options. In Arctic waters, 2012 saw ultra-luxe liner The World (aboardtheworld.com) become the first passenger-carrying cruise ship to journey through the long-sought-after Northwest Passage, the ultimate in maritime navigation now made possible by the diminishing ice pack. A few other mainstream cruise lines have followed – Crystal Cruises and Ponant are sailing the Northwest Passage again in August 2017 – while several small expedition ships also now make the voyage. 

In the world of polar one-upmanship, Quark Expeditions recently announced it will attempt the first passenger crossing of the Kennedy Channel (separating Canada and Greenland) on icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov this July as part of an impressive 75-day Arctic circumnavigation. The crossing is dependant on sea and ice conditions, and the route will be scouted ahead by helicopter. If successful, it further pushes back the frontiers of polar cruising.

Previously seldom-visited, niche Arctic destinations are also seeing increased cruise traffic, including parts of Greenland and the Norwegian, polar-bear-rich Svalbard Islands, where Hurtigruten has extended the cruise season this year into spring. The Russian Far East is also seeing growing appeal.

Attractions include the highly scenic volcanic landscapes of the Kuril Islands, bear spotting on the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the polar bears and musk oxen of Wrangel Island, which is the planet's northernmost World Heritage site, scattered with the bones of mammoths. Chukotka boasts fiords and snowy mountains to rival Alaska. 

Some mainstream cruise lines make short visits to the Russian Far East, usually just a one-day add-on to a Japan cruise, but luxe lines Silversea and Ponant sail here on comprehensive expedition itineraries. Small-ship companies such as Aurora Expeditions and Heritage Expeditions (heritage-expeditions.com) also visit. Poseidon Expeditions has a new cruise to Novaya Zemlya this summer, and Peregrine Adventures (peregrineadventures.com) sails to the 90-odd islands of Franz Josef Land in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, south-east of New Zealand, is showing potential as shifting icebergs allow nimble ships to access to the region. Chimu Adventures (chimuadventures.com) now sails from Hobart to previously inaccessible Mawson's Huts, while Heritage Expeditions ventures as far south as the Bay of Whales, Roald Amundsen's base for the race to the South Pole.

ALL THINGS ICE

It isn't only destinations that are changing; the range and adrenalin-levels of shore excursions in those destinations is expanding too. "We've noticed a distinct trend towards more activities sought by our expeditioners," says Heritage Expedition's general manager, Dave Bowen. "As a result we've added sea kayaking along the Russian Far East coast and in the Sub-Antarctic islands. And we're seeing more and more participants, not necessarily just younger ones, asking for extended walks and even mountain hikes."

Mountaineering, snowmobiling and scuba diving are among the huge range of shore excursion possibilities in the Poles, and even more mainstream cruise lines are getting in on the action: Seabourn Cruise Line is introducing kayaking to its Antarctic trips at the end of this year.

Also this year, Oceanwide Expeditions (oceanwide-expeditions.com) starts ski-mountaineering excursions on the Antarctic Peninsula (climb up, ski back down), and AdventureSmith Explorations has announced roped ice-climbing parties on Wiencke Island, where guests use crampons and ice picks to reach a hilltop viewpoint.

Even more exotic offerings are on the increase, from a round of golf on an Icelandic caldera to camping out on the Antarctic ice. In 2014, Aurora Expeditions inaugurated Antarctic snorkelling (several others companies have since followed), and this year extended snorkelling opportunities to Spitsbergen and Greenland.

Such limit-pushing activities don't come cheap, with snorkelling attracting a surcharge of over $1000, but the plunge offers the chance to see icebergs and penguins from beneath. Just another of the new angles in the Poles, offering more adventures than ever to cruisers. 

POLE POSITIONS:

FIVE GREAT COLD-CLIMATE CRUISES

NORTHWEST PASSAGE

WHO Crystal Cruises

SHIP 1070-passenger Crystal Serenity

WHAT 32-day itinerary from Seward to New York via Canada's Northwest Passage and Greenland; Crystal is one of very few mainstream cruise lines to make the journey. One of the more unusual shore excursions features Arctic golfing; there's also an overnight ice-camping adventure in Greenland.

HOW From US$21,885pp ($30,240), with a single departure on August 15, 2017. Phone 1800 251 174; see crystalcruises.com.

ALASKA & BRITISH COLUMBIA

WHO Ponant

SHIP 264-passenger Le Soleal

WHAT 14-day itinerary from Seward to Vancouver through Alaska's indented coastline and Inside Passage. Few calls at ports, rather an emphasis on expedition cruising, Zodiac excursions and sailing into less frequented bays with accompanying naturalists. Passengers can attempt dry-suit snorkelling in Sitka Sound.

HOW From $8100pp, with departures between early June and the end of August. Phone 1300 737 178, see ponant.com.

THE SOUTH PACIFIC

WHO Heritage Expeditions

SHIP 100-passenger Spirit of Enderby

WHAT Eight-day itinerary round trip from Invercargill in New Zealand to some of the world's least-visited places, including the Auckland Islands and Campbell Island, home to albatross, sea lions, elephant seals and penguins.

HOW From US$4700pp ($6500), next departure on December 16, 2016; there are several other itineraries to the Sub-Antarctic Islands. Phone 1800 143 585; see heritage-expeditions.com.

ANTARCTIC PENINSULA

WHO AdventureSmith Explorations

SHIP 114-passenger Plancius

WHAT 12-day itinerary, round trip from Ushuaia in Argentina, across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. Notably active shore excursions, which include roped glacier walks, camping, mountaineering and snowshoeing. Passengers also have the opportunity to scuba-dive in frigid Antarctic waters.

HOW From US$7950pp ($11,000), with departures on Nov 18, Dec 17 and Dec 28 in 2017. Phone +1 530 583 1775; see adventuresmithexplorations.com.

SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE

WHO Hurtigruten

SHIP 500-passenger Midnatsol

WHAT 17-day itinerary, starting overnight in Santiago with a flight to Puntas Arenas and finishing in Montevideo in Uruguay, visiting the Chilean fiords, Antarctic Peninsula and Falkland Islands. Landings for wildlife viewing, whale watching and hiking, and a workshop with certification in basic sea kayaking.

HOW From €4686pp ($7200), with departures on March 1, 2017, and February 26, 2018. Phone 1800 623 267; see discovertheworld.com.au.

DUE NORTH:

THE ALLURE OF ALASKA

Alaska has long been a cruise staple, with every major cruise line taking big ships to the region during summer and calling in at popular ports such as Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka (the capital of Alaska when it was a Russian territory) and gold-rush era Skagway.

All are on a coastline whose scenery of mountains and glaciers is seldom less than awesome, at least when it isn't misty. College Fjord features glaciers on three sides of your ship, Hubbard Glacier massive cliffs of ice, and Tracy Arm rainforest-draped cliffs, waterfalls and icefields.

The continued popularity of Alaska has seen the further development of existing ports (Juneau gets two new docks this year) and new cruise stops such as Icy Strait Point near Glacier Bay, where millions of dollars have been invested in floating docks without (as yet) over-commercialisation. Icy Strait Point is already proving highly popular for its wildlife viewing, hikes along forest trails and the chance to learn about native culture at Hoonah, Alaska's largest indigenous village.

Cruise lines are increasing capacity in Alaska, or returning after long absences. Seven new ships sail in Alaskan waters this year (Crystal Serenity, Explorer of Seas, Island Princess, Maasdam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Seven Seas Mariner and Sun Princess), though some replace older vessels.

In all, Alaska will see 30 large ships this season, which the Cruise Line Industry Association says will carry over a million passengers, up from 976,400 in 2015. However, this is still only four per cent of cruise ships worldwide, so clearly there's room for expansion.

A recent poll of US travel agencies suggested bookings were up strongly, as American travellers become increasingly spooked by issues in Europe. Australians have a renewed interest in Alaska too. Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.com) alone says it has seen a 65 per cent increase in Australian bookings this year.

Celebrity recently announced that three of its vessels will cruise in Alaska in the 2017-18 season, with promises of locally sourced food, regional experts and local entertainment on board. (It will also run two new itineraries, a Great National Parks Expedition focusing on Denali and Kenai Fords national parks, and an Authentic Tastes of Alaska cruise with a food emphasis.)

Seabourn (seabourn.com) says it will return to Alaska from June 2017 after a 15-year absence, running cruises on Seabourn Sojourn between Seward and Vancouver that combine both popular ports and lesser-visited destinations such as Canada's Alert Bay and Klemtu Island, with frequent Zodiac and kayak excursions.

Surprisingly, Alaska has been rather untapped by smaller cruise ships, though that has changed in the last few years as expedition-style cruise lines such as Ponant take advantage of their nimbler vessels to explore rugged coastlines away from the state's busy ports.

Last year, Natural Habitat Adventures (nathab.com) launched a converted crab-fishing boat, with just eight guests on board, on a Grizzly Ship itinerary to spot Alaskan brown bears in Katmai National Park. This year, Aurora Expeditions has a new cruise on the 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer into regions such as Tongass and Misty Fiords, with daily Zodiac excursions to view glaciers, enjoy forest hikes and kayak among sea lions and humpback whales.

Also this year, Un-Cruise Adventures (un-cruise.com) has six small ships in Alaskan waters, with seven itineraries and 113 departures; each includes wilderness activities such as hiking, paddle boarding, skiff excursions and whale watching. AdventureSmith Explorations has also significantly expanded the number of its ships and itineraries, such as an eight-day Yachter's Alaskan Frontier on the 22-passenger Safari Quest, with hiking in Tongass National Forest and kayaking in the iceberg-rich Endicott Arm. It has launched an eight-passenger luxury cruiser Sikumi on seven-day cruises that have no strict itinerary but wander depending on the whims of the weather, wildlife and passengers.

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