How to Choose Your Cruise: Arctic and Greenland

Much of what we’re told about the North Pole involves a toy workshop and a man in a red suit, though the truth might be even stranger. The exact location of the North Pole, in the Arctic Ocean, is not precise due to a phenomenon called the Chandler wobble, which causes the earth’s axis to shift slightly at any given moment. With constantly moving ice floes, human habitation here is near-impossible, though the greater Arctic Circle is home to many communities, including the Inuit. Canada’s postal code for the North Pole is a tongue-in-cheek “HOH OHO.”

For decades, exploration of this remote part of the world consisted strictly of scientific expeditions, and they weren’t all successful. To consider a luxury vacation in the Arctic and Greenland is a modern marvel, with the first tourist vessel making a complete transit of the Northwest Passage — a sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Ocean — in 1984. However, it wasn’t until the 21st century that cruise lines again began considering the route; in 2016, a ship with more than 1,000 passengers traversed the passage from Seward, Alaska to Greenland and on to New York, and paved the way for this spectacular itinerary to become slightly more commonplace in an uncommon destination.

However, the Northwest Passage isn’t required for an Arctic or Greenland sailing. The Arctic Council is made up of eight nations: Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Often considered an Arctic territory, Nome, Alaska is actually 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, though other chunks of Alaska are considered within the Arctic.

So where does Greenland fall? The world’s largest island, surrounded by the Arctic Ocean and just west of Iceland, is not actually a country but an autonomous territory of Denmark. Therefore, it is technically an Arctic nation under the umbrella of Denmark, as all Greenlanders also maintain Danish citizenship and EU membership.

Today’s traveler has options when it comes to exploring the Arctic — including Greenland — in comfort. Which itinerary you choose depends on what you’re looking to see and how long you want to be at sea. Just know that due to conditions in this part of the planet, voyages are only offered during the summer months, primarily July and August. Flexibility is also key when traveling the Arctic, as weather conditions can quickly alter itineraries.

If spotting a polar bear is a priority….

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Choose a cruise that focuses on the region of Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago of Norway. Polar bears can be seen at any time of year in Svalbard, which makes it hard to predict sightings, along with the fact that these sought-after animals are endangered. Unlike whales or other creatures who follow seasonal migration patterns, there is no dedicated “polar bear season,” which means that seeing a polar bear on any given day is more or less a stroke of luck. But expedition guides and locals are knowledgeable about the best ways to get lucky with sightings of these magnificent mammals. The King of the Arctic, as polar bears are known, is more commonly spotted around the islands east of Spitsbergen, though the Visit Svalbard tourism board claims the best way to spot them is simply to spend as much time as possible in the region.

Longyearbyen, on Spitsbergen Island in Svalbard, is a cruise port where round-trip and one-way Arctic voyages embark and disembark. Sailings from Longyearbyen to Tromso (and reverse) are Norway-intensive, spending a week in Svalbard as well as one full day of stops in Nordkapp — also called the North Cape — scenic sailing with a stop in Gjesverstappan, a series of islands known for birdwatching. For those with limited time but grand Arctic dreams, a six-day Svalbard cruise is available round trip from Longyearbyen. The sailing offers time in both the northern and southern regions of Svalbard, with opportunities to hike, kayak, or nip into a Zodiac for a spin.

If you want to immerse yourself in Greenland….

Even with its superlative of “world’s largest island,” Greenland is a territory that is less touristed by Western travelers. Its relatively remote location, paired with extreme weather, can eclipse all that Greenland has to offer, beginning with its rich history that dates to 2500 B.C. Traditional Inuit cultures blend with European influences against a jaw-dropping landscape of icebergs and even hot springs.

It’s important to select a Greenland itinerary that spends as much time as possible on the island, so one can truly begin to experience and understand its unique culture and topography. Consider a nine-day Greenland-intensive itinerary that begins and ends in the territory, from Kangerlussuaq to Narsarsuaq (or reverse). A dozen different Greenland ports will surround you with spectacular fjords and glaciers, as well as local communities like the Sisimiut, or “People of the Fox Holes.”

For Greenland, with time in Arctic Canada, sail round trip from Kangerlussuaq, spending 16 days between 14 ports. Half of the voyage’s ports are in Greenland, while the other half explore Arctic Canada’s Nunavat and various other less-touristed islands off the coast of Baffin Island. Baffin is the largest island in Canada and the fifth-largest island in the world.

Nothing can compare to three weeks in Greenland, which is possible with an exclusive 38-day itinerary that begins in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland and ends in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For anyone wishing to experience the island nation in depth, this is the way to go. With three days in Scoresby Sound alone — the longest and largest fjord system in the world, filled with wildlife and natural wonders to behold — guests aboard this expedition will begin to feel a true connection to Greenland and all it has to offer. A bonus of this voyage is time in Canada and New England as your ship sails to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and seven U.S. states. 

If you want to see the northern lights….

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On Silver Cloud, the northern lights made a stellar appearance.

Know that summer, in general, is not an ideal time to witness the northern lights, when much-needed dark skies are a rarity. The midnight sun is in effect from April through August, when the sun never seems to set. However, Tromso, Norway is one of the best places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis, so if they make a late appearance, you may be in luck. A 13-day itinerary from Tromso to Reykjavik (and reverse) gives guests the added benefit of Iceland, also known for spectacular northern lights displays in season, which begin to show again in late August.

Perhaps a better visual phenomenon to plan for on an Arctic cruise are “white nights.” As the name suggests, they are lacking the dancing green and purple colors of the northern lights, but white nights are a related spectacle to the midnight sun that occur in places above a certain latitude, usually found just south of the Arctic Circle. White nights are characterized by twilight at midnight, very late sunsets, and early sunrises.

This itinerary also calls on Norway’s Jan Mayen, an island formed by a volcano; it’s a place many are unlikely to have on their “been to” list. The island was reportedly first sighted by Henry Hudson in the early 17th century, and was ultimately claimed by a Dutch sea captain named Jan May in 1614, who used it as a whaling base until whales were exterminated from the region in less than 30 years. Today, visitors might glimpse a tundra fox.

If you want to tack on a stellar pre- or post-cruise stay….

Arctic Terns dive-bombing for fish - Iceland
Arctic Terns dive-bombing for fish in Iceland/Lucia Griggi

Consider a sailing that begins or ends in Reykjavik. The capital of Iceland has been trending as a popular destination for a while, and for good reason. Iceland comes alive in the summer when the strong winds die down and the island becomes verdant and lush with its thaw. Ring Road, which encircles the entire island nation and becomes much more easily drivable in the summer months, will bring you to the country’s top attractions. The Golden Circle alone offers geysers, waterfalls, and national parks in one afternoon. It’s a day trip from Reykjavik.

Adding on just a few days in Iceland will round out an incredible two-week trip and give you the opportunity to take a guided hike, kayak under the midnight sun, or simply joyride with lush green hills and wild horses rolling past the window. Iceland is at its warmest in August, so thrill-seekers have the chance to snorkel or dive; one of the best places is Thingvellir National Park, in the fissure between the America and Eurasia tectonic plates — it doesn’t get more epic than that.

Eating a hamburger within view of the cows might seem a little cruel, but the food is delicious at ranch and eatery Efstidalur along the Golden Circle in South Iceland. Located just 11 miles from the Geysir attraction, it’s a popular stop and you’ll have to give their black licorice ice cream a try — Icelanders are obsessed with salty black licorice. Just be aware that your tongue will inevitably turn black — similar to that of the cows.

Ten-day Greenland-intensive sailings cruise to or from Iceland on itineraries from Reykjavik to Kangerlussuaq (and reverse). For those looking to see Svalbard, Norway, there are 12-day sailings from Reykjavik to Longyearbyen.

If you wish to be one of the few who have crossed the Northwest Passage….

9715, Hakodate – Nome, Silver Discoverer, Horned Puffin

Heading along the western coast of Greenland, through Baffin Bay, around the many islands of Northern Canada and along the east coast of Alaska toward the Bering Sea, you will find yourself on the other side of the Northwest Passage. This renowned sea route was long sought after for its connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The first journey through the Northwest Passage, accomplished by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in 1906, took three years. Today, travelers on holiday can follow in historic footsteps in just three weeks.

We recommend the 24-day Kangerlussuaq to Nome expedition, which brings guests from Greenland to Alaska, traversing through the celebrated sea passage. Five days in the main cities of Greenland are followed by a tour through the High Canadian Arctic.

With icebergs and endless stretching landscapes, there is also history. Guests on this itinerary might have the chance to land on Beechey Island, a National Historic Site of Canada. This island located in Nunavat is the site of Captain Sir John Franklin’s failed Northwest Passage attempt, which ended in shipwreck. Remnants of the expedition remain here, along with a monument from his wife who spent a fortune orchestrating a search operation to find his remains.

If you want to start out drinking Aquavit and end up drinking Scotch….

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Irish whiskey dates back more than 600 years and has evolved in a number of ways since/Ronan O’Connell

This itinerary is regularly waitlisted for a reason. Simply put, that reason is you are transported through more than two weeks in the Arctic before sailing into the magical islands of the United Kingdom for yet another two weeks. Longyearbyen to Dublin is a sublime program, giving visitors a taste of Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, the Hebrides of Scotland, the Isle of Man, and a disembarkation in Dublin where the 26-day party can certainly continue.

From polar bears and puffins to green cliffs and Guinness, this itinerary smartly pairs Northern Europe with Western Europe. Guests will be hiking through desolate otherworldly landscapes at the start of their sailing, before strolling Dunvegan Castle in the Isle of Skye not long after. In addition to being the only time to sail through the Arctic, the warm-weather months of summer are an ideal time to visit the brisk Scottish Highlands. The port call of St. Kilda claims the title of the UK’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site for natural heritage and cultural significance (and one of just 39 sites in the world to achieve both).

Aquavit, derived from the Latin meaning “water of life,” is a traditional spirit throughout Scandinavia, often enjoyed with rye bread and a Viking toast of “skol!” Scotch is made throughout Scotland, and many ports of call are within distance of famous distilleries, like Glen Morangie in the Orkneys. Keep a look out for these distinctive spirits as you cruise the coasts.

If you simply can’t decide….

Cruise Christian Sound, Greenland
Greenland’s Prince Christian Sound

If you are set on an Arctic cruise but can’t choose between time in Norway, Iceland, or Greenland, just go with all three. The 21-day Tromso to Kangerlussuaq itinerary gives Arctic enthusiasts about a week in each region, from the wildlife sightings of Svalbard to the colorful villages of Iceland and onward to the mesmerizing landscapes of Greenland.

Of course you know Reykjavik, but have you heard of Stykkisholumur? The environmentally certified European Destination of Excellence began as a trading post and fishing town in the 1550s. Today, visitors can hike the Berserker Path through lava fields; learn about the tradition of preparing hakarl, or fermented shark, at a shark farm; or enjoy a bird-watcher’s paradise on a boat ride around the nearby bay.

It’s not exactly the type of trip for shopping till you drop, but artisan crafts make a special souvenir from a port of call like Qaqortoq, the largest town in southern Greenland. A walk through this harborside community will acquaint you with its fountain, museum, sculptures, and churches. Pastoral and charming as it may seem now, Qaqortoq has been populated for thousands of years, inhabited by Norse and Inuit settlers as far back as the 10th century.