There’s never been a better time to travel to the Arctic — at least when it comes to getting there in comfort and style.
The last few years have brought a stunning new crop of small “expedition” cruise vessels specifically designed for Arctic sailings that are far more upscale and elegant than anything seen before.
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Built by longtime leaders in polar cruising such as Ponant, Lindblad Expeditions and Hurtigruten Expeditions, as well as a few newcomers to the niche, vessels are more spacious, more amenity-filled and more stable than Arctic cruise ships of old. They’re also fundamentally changing the way travelers experience the destination.
The best Arctic cruise ships: Then and now
Tourists have been traveling to the Arctic by ship in small numbers for more than a century, ever since Norwegian company Hurtigruten began operating ferries to take passengers (and freight) up the coast of Norway in 1893. The ferries, which still operate, traveled to the northernmost points of Norway, well above the Arctic Circle.
Hurtigruten was also the first company to take tourists by ship to Svalbard, one of the Arctic’s most scenic destinations. Just 800 miles from the North Pole, the Norway-controlled archipelago is known for its rugged mountains, glaciers, fjords and large numbers of polar bears.
In more recent decades, expedition cruise operators such as Hurtigruten, Ponant, Lindblad and Hapag-Lloyd Cruises have added trips to a far wider array of Arctic destinations, from the icy water routing through the Canadian Arctic known as the Northwest Passage to glacier-carved Franz Josef Land above Russia.
Still, until relatively recently, most of the vessels that explored such areas have been relatively spartan. In some cases, they have been small, tough-built government or scientific ships that were designed with navigating icy areas but not necessarily comfort in mind.
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One of my first trips to a polar region, more than two decades ago, for instance, was on Akademik Ioffe — a hardy, 199-passenger ice-class Russian oceanographic research vessel that was often chartered by adventure tour companies in those days for polar trips. I slept in a no-frills cabin originally designed for Russian oceanography researchers and ate with my fellow tourgoers in a cafeteria-like dining space. The crew mostly spoke Russian.
A lot has changed since then — mostly in the last couple of years.
New vessels being built for polar sailings feature all the creature comforts that travelers have come to expect on cruise vessels in other parts of the world, including spacious and upscale cabins, often with balconies; elegant eateries with diverse menus; spas and fitness centers; and even pools and deck-top hot tubs.
Some of the fanciest of the newcomers also have such over-the-top amenities as helicopters for sightseeing from above and submarines for seeing what lurks just under the water. At the very high end, some ships feature all-suite accommodations with butler service.
Still, as with all vessels built for polar travel, these new ships also are made to be tough.
In all cases, these are ships specifically built for “expedition cruising” — a type of cruising that involves traveling to remote, hard-to-reach places on small, hardy vessels that carry their own landing craft. All of them sail with a large number of rigid inflatable Zodiac boats for landings and have strengthened hulls and other design features that let them operate in icy areas.
I’ve sailed on nearly all of these new vessels, many in polar regions, and have been consistently amazed by just how much of an upgrade they really are.
Here are my picks for the 18 best new expedition cruise ships sailing to the Arctic.
National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution
Operator: Lindblad Expeditions
These Lindblad Expeditions ships may be my favorite all-around picks for an Arctic cruise. Sailing since July and November 2021, respectively, National Geographic Endurance and National Geographic Resolution are designed to hold no more than 126 passengers — a notably low number that allows for an intimate experience when exploring polar areas.
They’re also very stable ships, thanks to an unusual new sloping bow design — something that can make a big difference when sailing in the sometimes rough waters in parts of the Arctic.
Lindblad was one of the pioneers of expedition-style ship travel, and it has years of experience in polar regions that has helped shape the way it designed these nearly identical vessels, both specifically built for polar travel.
Each of the ships has a polar class rating of PC 5 Category A (a notch above many expedition cruise vessels), allowing them to travel through icy areas with ease. They’re also loaded with observation areas for viewing the passing scenery. They carry kayaks, snowshoes and cross-country skis for polar exploring in addition to Zodiac boats for landings, and they have remotely operated underwater vehicles — just in case you want to see what’s going on down below.
In addition, each vessel has two glass-walled “igloos” on its top deck where passengers can spend the night under the stars. Comfortable, state-of-the-art rooms with balconies; stylish restaurants and lounges with upscale, Scandinavian-inspired decor; a spa and a yoga studio with wall-to-wall windows round out the onboard experience.
World Navigator, World Traveller and World Voyager
Operator: Atlas Ocean Voyages
Unveiled in just the last three years, World Navigator, World Traveller and World Voyager are the first vessels for Atlas Ocean Voyages, an all-new “expedition yachting” cruise operator that’s already high on my list of favorite brands for polar exploring.
Like the Lindblad vessels, the three Atlas ships (two now sailing, the third debuting in November) are designed to carry relatively few passengers (up to 184 on polar sailings) and are loaded with indoor and outdoor observation areas, including an innovative, close-to-the-waterline outside deck area with heated seating called The Water’s Edge. High-tech touches include GPS systems that let them hover in sensitive areas without dropping anchor.
Built tough for polar exploring (all three vessels have a PC 6 rating, one notch below the Lindblad vessels), they also are designed to be upscale with elegant, 1940s-influenced decor, such pampering touches as a L’Occitane spa (the first at sea) and butler service in the top cabins.
All three of the vessels are scheduled to sail regularly in the Arctic in the coming years, as well as Antarctica.
Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen
Operator: Hurtigruten Expeditions
As noted above, Hurtigruten Expeditions has a long and storied history in Arctic travel. It’s thus perhaps no surprise that the company broke new ground in the polar cruising niche when it unveiled the 528-passenger Roald Amundsen and sister ship Fridtjof Nansen in 2019 and 2021, respectively.
Named after famous Norwegian polar explorers, the ships were the cruise industry’s first to run on electric hybrid engines. This not only saves fuel but also allows for noiseless operation in sensitive polar areas where silence can make all the difference (near a calving glacier, for instance).
Other unusual features include a full-blown science center with state-of-the-art gadgets and underwater drones for passenger use.
Both of these vessels sail with around 500 passengers when operating in the Arctic, which is on the high side for an expedition-type vessel. If you’re eager to make a lot of landings during an Arctic trip, Hurtigruten’s newest ships may not be the best choice. Given the relatively large number of people on these ships and regulations in some polar areas that limit landing party sizes, they sometimes can only land a fraction of their passengers at any given time.
For that reason, I am partial to the older but more intimate Hurtigruten polar vessel Fram, which carries just 200 passengers when operating in polar areas. Still, Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen have one big advantage over that ship and many others operating in polar regions: Their starting rates for trips to the region are lower. As bigger ships, they also may feel more stable at times.
Scenic Eclipse and Scenic Eclipse II
Operator: Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours
Unveiled in 2019 and 2023, respectively, these super-swanky, 228-passenger “discovery yachts” were the first oceangoing vessels for luxury purveyor Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours — a brand better known for upscale river cruises.
Like Scenic river ships, Scenic Eclipse and Scenic Eclipse II are high-end vessels with all-suite accommodations (and we’re talking real suites, with separate living rooms), butler service for all and a wide range of onboard dining options, including sushi restaurants. Similar to each other in design, they both also have a whiskey bar stocked with more than 110 whiskies and other high-end liquors, plus a spa and a yoga studio.
Scenic Eclipse was also the first polar vessel to boast helicopters to take passengers on epic (and pricey) excursions — and it has a submarine for underwater exploring, too. Its sister ship Scenic Eclipse II also boasts both helicopters and a submarine.
Having experienced a helicopter excursion from the original Scenic Eclipse, I can say that it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On the downside, the helicopter pad and hangars on both of these ships eat up a lot of space on their top decks, as do the suites along their sharply sloping fronts. The combination leaves less available room for observation areas.
The result is ships with less outdoor space for viewing scenery than is typical for small vessels operating polar trips.
Le Soleal, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial and L’Austral
Launched between 2010 and 2015, these four sister ships are regular visitors to the Arctic as well as Antarctica — both under the banner of Ponant, a French brand, and as vessels chartered to high-end, U.S.-based tour companies Tauck and Abercrombie & Kent.
A pioneer in polar travel, Ponant has a long tradition of operating voyages to polar regions, and this series of ships was specially designed for such trips. They all are hardy (with 1C ice class ratings from Lloyd’s Register) but also stylish, with contemporary interiors and comfortable rooms.
Note that the onboard ambience of these vessels sometimes can be significantly different depending on whether they are sailing on a trip marketed by Ponant (where announcements and onboard programming will be in both French and English, with many of the passengers being French-speakers) or by Tauck or Abercrombie & Kent (where the onboard experience will have a much more distinctly American vibe).
If long announcements in multiple languages bother you, or if you might find it odd to be on a ship without a large number of English speakers, which can sometimes be the case for Ponant sailings, you might want to gravitate to one of the voyages on these ships organized by Tauck or Abercrombie & Kent (or simply pick a different ship).
Le Commandant Charcot
Looking to get really off the path in the Arctic? Le Commandant Charcot is probably your ship, if only because it’s the only expedition vessel that is built tough enough to go to some of the most remote and hard-to-reach parts of the region, including all the way to the North Pole.
Unveiled in late 2021, the 245-passenger ship is a true icebreaker, something we haven’t seen before in the world of expedition cruise ships. Some expedition travel companies such as Quark Expeditions have chartered space on working Russian icebreakers in the past to offer trips to the North Pole and other heavily iced-in parts of the Arctic. However, no expedition company has ever built one.
Designed specifically for high-end polar cruising, Le Commandant Charcot carries a polar class rating of PC 2 — the highest ever for a ship designed for cruise travel. This means it’s certified to smash through some of the world’s thickest ice — specifically the moderate, multiyear ice found in polar ice caps.
Until the arrival of Le Commandant Charcot, no expedition cruise ship had a polar class rating above PC 5; ships in the PC 5 category of polar hardiness can travel year-round in medium first-year ice, which isn’t as thick as multiyear ice. Most expedition cruise ships are rated even lower at PC 6 (the lower the number, the tougher the ship).
In addition to being hardy, Le Commandant Charcot was designed to be elegant and upscale. It features spacious suites and cabins, each of which has a balcony — something relatively rare for expedition ships. It also offers a main restaurant with dishes created by famed French chef Alain Ducasse, a wellness center with an indoor saltwater pool, a gym and a decktop area with a super-heated wading pool.
As with the other Ponant vessels mentioned above, Le Commandant Charcot often draws French-speaking travelers, given the company’s French origins. Announcements on board are made in both French and English.
Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris
Unveiled in 2022, Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris are fast-growing Viking’s first-ever expedition cruise ships, and they boast some unusual features that make them some of the best cruise ships for exploring the Arctic as well as Antarctica.
Most notable is The Hangar, an enclosed marina on both of the vessels that allows passengers to transfer to small boats for water exploration while still in the protected interior of the ship. It’s a first for an expedition cruise ship and something that will appeal to travelers with mobility issues (a market that Viking caters to with its ships, which are specifically aimed at a 55-plus crowd).
Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris also have what may be the most stunning lecture halls ever at sea. At the back of each of the vessels, the high-tech rooms have sliding walls behind the spot where lecturers stand that can open to reveal the surrounding scenery through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Identical in almost every way, Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris are both designed to carry 378 passengers, which is on the high side for expedition cruise ships that go to the Arctic. Like Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, that means they won’t be able to land all their passengers at once in some polar locations.
Like Scenic’s two expedition ships, Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris each carry submarines for underwater exploring, as well as kayaks, though they don’t have helicopters.
In a first for polar expedition cruise vessels, every cabin on both of these ships has floor-to-ceiling glass walls that slide partially open from the top to create a balcony-like feel. Public areas feature the same elegant Scandinavian design found on Viking’s traditional ocean ships and river ships, as well as such familiar Viking venues as Italian restaurant Manfredi’s and a top-of-the-ship, glass-walled Explorers’ Lounge.
Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit
Unveiled in 2022 and 2023, respectively, Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit are the first expedition ships ever built for Seabourn, the Seattle-based luxury line.
Considerably smaller than the other vessels in the Seabourn fleet — they carry just 264 passengers apiece — they’re specifically designed to travel to polar regions with extra-thick hulls and other features that allow them to bump through ice.
As is typical for expedition ships, they also carry Zodiac boats for landings in remote areas that have no infrastructure and sail with expedition guides to lead you on the landings and explain the wildlife and scenery.
Still, more than most expedition ships and in keeping with Seabourn’s luxury profile, Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit are distinctly luxurious vessels, with many of the upscale venues and amenities found on Seabourn’s bigger, more traditional luxury ships. If you know the bigger ships, you’ll feel right at home on the expedition ships.
For instance, both vessels have Seabourn’s signature Seabourn Square area that offers snacks, coffee and a guest services desk. Each offers a version of the main restaurant called The Restaurant and the more casual The Colonnade eatery, as well as smaller versions of Seabourn’s spa and wellness center.
In addition, suites on these vessels are especially swanky, with bright bathrooms that all feature bathtubs (if bathtubs are a must, this is your ship). Walk-in closets provide ample storage, even for long sailings, and every room has a small drying closet for outdoor adventure clothing.
Like the Scenic and Viking ships, Seabourn Venture and Seabourn Pursuit also sail with a pair of submarines that are available for extra-fee underwater excursions.
There has never been a better time to travel to the Arctic by ship, thanks to the arrival of a large new crop of hardy vessels specifically designed for polar exploration. These new vessels are more elegant and comfortable than most polar exploration ships of the past while still offering the sort of toughness that you want in a ship that will take you into icy waters.
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