Polar bears, playful seals and flocks of birds you’ll only see in the land of frost are set against intensely blue water, sparkling ice and vast expanses of green and floral tundra.
Brilliant afternoons, lingering golden dusks and the chance to see the Northern Lights make every day sailing through the Northwest Passage unforgettable.
Add to that the adventure of sailing from ocean to ocean on a fabled Arctic exploration route and it’s clear why a Northwest Passage journey is high on a lot of cruise wish lists.
Crystal Cruises’ top-of-the-market Crystal Serenity made it clear that you no longer have to give up luxury to go adventuring. Let’s not get into a discussion of global warming, but the fact is that much of Serenity’s journey was in ice-free water. That seems to open the possibility of regular cruises across the Arctic by large ships.
Don’t jump to conclusions, though, because the experience of Crystal and other cruise lines is proving that it’s not as simple as just setting a course when the ice melts enough to sail through.
In fact, it’s becoming clear that the future of luxury cruising in the Arctic isn’t likely to be with big ships.
1) Our ship is so big….
Crystal Serenity is much larger than any other ship that has ever visited the Arctic hamlet of Cambridge Bay, one of its first stops. The long-awaited arrival of a 14-deck floating palace at a settlement with nothing taller than a flagpole was as exciting to the locals as it was to the visitors.
With over 1,000 guests on board, a quota system had to be set up to keep from overwhelming a community that only has about 1,400 inhabitants and only a handful of shops. Only 150 guests were allowed ashore at a time to explore in two-hour shifts.
In return, Inuit entertainers, artists and curious townspeople had the opportunity to come on board Serenity and see a luxury they’ve only heard tales about.
2) You mean that’s illegal?
The Arctic communities are known for their art and local handicrafts. Unfortunately, a hope that the cruise visitors would result in a windfall for local shops and artists was dampened by the fact that many of the artworks and crafts are made of ivory or seal skin. U.S. customs regulations prohibit importing ivory or seal products and that meant Crystal’s mostly American guests couldn’t bring their finds home with them.
So sales were disappointing, but the artists learned to substitute. Sealskin mitts on dolls were given knit replacements. Stone carvings and paintings are also worry-free souvenirs.
3) Care for the environment
Bloggers among the guests of Crystal Serenity have praised the crew and guides for their attention to the environment, but a number of activists continue to raise concerns.
“This voyage symbolizes the risk of large-scale cruise ships operating in the Arctic. The unique wildlife is already stressed by a warming climate and the loss of sea ice, and the arrival of mega-cruise ships in this part of the world could push it further towards the edge,” said Rod Downie, WWF-UK Polar Program manager.
“We recognize the positive steps that Crystal Cruises have taken to minimize their impact, working with local communities and in particular choosing not to burn heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, which is more persistent and damaging to wildlife if spilled. But if tourism is not sustainable, we risk ruining the very thing that tourists would come to see,” he said sagely.
It’s an issue, and Crystal worked diligently to be as eco-friendly as possible, with monitoring of emissions and experienced guides keeping shore teams on approved paths. Serenity was accompanied by an icebreaker, the chartered British Royal Research ship Ernest Shackleton. Its crew included two ice pilots and equipment included two helicopters, damage control equipment, oil pollution containment equipment, and survival rations for emergency use.
4. A narrow window of opportunity
Crystal has already built on the success of Serenity’s trip–which sold out within days—by opening bookings for a repeat voyage in 2017. However, another luxury line had cold feet about a passage in 2017 and backed out.
The decision to cancel a scheduled Grand Northwest Passage voyage scheduled in July, 2017 was “extremely difficult,” Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ public relations director Jason Lasecki said. “The climate variance this summer caused large Artic ice packs to flow southerly during the month of July causing transit delays. To avoid these delays next year, our Northwest Passage navigational experts strongly recommended postponing the cruise to mid-August. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to the impact it would have on all subsequent itineraries offered on Seven Seas Navigator.”
Crystal Serenity’s passage is scheduled once again in August, 2017 and there is still space available for the 32-day trip that stars in Anchorage Aug.15. It travels north through the Bering Strait and across the Canadian Arctic, then makes stops in Greenland and the northeastern United States before docking in New York City. Prices start at $21,855 a guest, plus required insurance coverage of at least $50,000 in case emergency evacuation is required.
5) The future will be small, and luxurious
With the issues facing larger ships, there’s definitely a rush to build new, small Polar expedition ships for the luxury market.
Due in late August, 2018, Scenic Eclipse’s pioneering season will include Antarctica, the Norwegian Fjords and the Arctic. Designed for 228 guests but carrying only 200 for the Polar regions per voyage, it’s got a hull with the highest ice rating and would not need an icebreaker backup. It’s a new venture for Scenic, that made its reputation in European river cruising and the company claims the globe-trotting ship will set a standard for luxury.
There’s no itinerary yet, but Crystal’s new expedition ship due in 2018 is a prime candidate to do the Arctic passage. At 200 guests, Crystal Endeavor will offer extreme adventures by air, sea and land with a range of “toys” including two helicopters and two landing pads for flightseeing expeditions, as well as two, seven- person submarines and eight electric amphibious zodiacs, For warmer climes, there are also jet skis, wave runners, kayaks, fishing facilities, paddle boards, snorkeling and scuba equipment.
Hapag Lloyd’s 2 new Polar ships
Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises has been a regular visitor to the Arctic. In September, 2016 , its expedition ship Hanseatic completed a journey from Tromsø, Norsay to Nome, Alaska.
Now Hapag-Lloyd is building two new expedition vessels scheduled for launch in 2019. One will focus entirely on the German-speaking market but the other will be aimed at North America and the U.K.
The two ships will be built at the Norwegian Vard shipyard will be rated PC6, the highest Polar Class designation for passenger ships. Itineraries will include not only the Arctic and Antarctica but also in warm water destinations such as the Amazon.
Silversea Cruises’ 132-guest Silver Explorer has already done the Northwest Passage. With a polar ice strengthened hull, Explorer managed to cover the 3,5000 nautical mile route in 23 days in 2014.
But Silversea has no immediate plan to do the crossing again, according to a spokesperson. Instead its coming ice itineraries feature more-focused voyages in northern Canada, Greenland, and Arctic Norway. Of special note in 2017 is a 15-day from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to St John’s, starting Aug. 31. The voyage features a rare visit to Canada’s remote Torngat Mountains National Park
“Sailing the Northwest Passage is an experience reserved for true adventurers and dedicated explorers,” commented Conrad Combrink, Silversea’s director of expedition planning and strategic development.
With high-end Polar ice rated ships making it more comfortable to explore, though, the fabled passage is destined to be on wish lists of a lot of adventurers in the future.