The specific ship and itinerary you select for your European Arctic expedition cruise will determine which destinations you visit.
This section contains descriptions of the various locations included in the selected journeys we offer. Please consult your specific ship's itinerary, listed on the Ships page, to find out which locations are included on your northern polar bear cruise.
Svalbard, the northernmost tip of Europe, is a group of arctic islands that lies 600 miles from the North Pole and 350 miles directly north of Norway, with which it has been politically integrated since 1920. Svalbard’s geography is exceptionally rugged, a jumble of high, jagged mountains, massive glaciers and iceberg-choked fjords. The only vegetation is hardy moss and the arctic flowers that bloom on the tundra during the perpetual light of the short summer. Yet Svalbard is an exciting destination for wildlife watchers, who are likely to see polar bears, reindeer, arctic foxes, whales, seals, walrus and multitudes of sea birds, including arctic terns, arctic fulmar and puffins. A flexible itinerary allows us to pursue the best weather and ice conditions as we explore the coast by Zodiac, kayak and walks ashore. Svalbard’s few settlements are located on its largest island, Spitsbergen, and are the most northerly permanently inhabited places on the planet. Located between 76° and 81° north latitude, they are far higher than Alaska and all but a few of Canada's Arctic islands, but the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream keeps them habitable. Svalbard’s population is less than 3,000, located primarily in the two largest towns of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s administrative center, and Barentsburg.
Located just 600 miles from the North Pole, Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago north of Norway. Farther north than most of Greenland, this high Arctic landscape is among the most remote wild realms in the world. Dominated by rugged mountains, more than half the island is perpetually encased in ice. Massive glaciers flow in winding frozen rivers into the sea. Tundra appears during the short summer, and a carpet of wildflowers adds a burst of color to the white and blue landscape. The bowhead whale, reindeer, arctic fox and seabird colonies call Spitsbergen home. See them in their natural habitat on expedition cruises that circumnavigate this Arctic island wilderness, where the wildlife is as magnificent as the scenery.
Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, is the largest settlement and administrative capital of Svalbard. The most northerly major town in the world, it has a population of approximately 2,000. Spitsbergen is Dutch for “jagged mountains,” an apt name bestowed by the island’s discoverer, Dutch seafarer William Barents, who documented the existence of whales here in 1596. His announcment sparked an international hunting frenzy that decimated the population. Now protected, whales flourish in these frigid waters. Norway has administered Spitsbergen via Longyearbyen since 1920, after a treaty to determine the fate of the islands. In 1925 the archipelago was named Svalbard, an Old Norse name that means “cold edge.”
Fjords of Norway
Norway’s fjords are so spectacular that they have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The west coast of Norway is a crenellated maze of steep peaks and narrow saltwater inlets, perhaps the most beautiful cruising destination on earth. Glaciers cap the alpine summits while waterfalls flow in silver ribbons down the sheer walls. National Geographic Traveler has rated Norway’s fjords the world’s best travel destination, and anyone who has explored this marine and mountain wonderland is likely to concur. Our vantage points are many as we cruise along vertical rock faces by Zodiac, paddle the serene waters of a narrow channel hemmed in by high granite cliffs, and venture ashore for hikes with our naturalist staff, discovering ‘secret’ spots rarely seen by visitors.
Magnificent Nordfjord is located in the heart of Norway’s western fjordlands, yet is little touristed compared to the better-known fjords farther south. Nordfjord’s icy green waters are fed by numerous glaciers including Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier in mainland Europe. Nordfjord is walled in by near-vertical mountains that rise directly out of the sea, with countless waterfalls that pour from their sheer ledges. Lush valleys separate the alpine heights, dotted with picturesque villages and sod-roofed “hytte” (mountain huts). We go ashore to explore the lovely Loen Valley with its glimmering turquoise lake. At the head of the valley we’ll walk to the tongue of Briksdal Glacier.
Like a scene from a mythical Tolkien novel, the Lofoten Islands rise in pointed spires from the sea. An enchanting place of jagged mountains and picturesque, brightly painted villages, the Lofotens are also home to myriad seabirds. A Zodiac excursion gets us up close to nesting Atlantic puffins, razorbills and guillemots. We go ashore on the island of Aa, where cod fishing is still a major part of the economy and traditional driftwood drying racks still dot the beaches. Stake a place on deck as we cruise through one of Norway’s most famous fjords, the dramatic Trollfjord, where we just might catch a glimpse of these beings that are so central in Norse folklore, as we scan the cliffs!
Tysfjorden, Norway’s second-deepest fjord, indents the mainland of Norway so deeply that it stretches inland almost to Sweden, nearly cutting the country in two. Accessible only by sea, air or foot, this is an area devoid of roads where only a few small villages cling to the shore. Exploring various side channels by Zodiac, we reach Hellemobotn, a small collection of summerhouses that was once a permanently inhabited settlement of Sami reindeer herders. We’ll also have a chance to walk into the pine forest along a trail heavily vegetated with wild raspberries, blueberries, bog bilberries, crowberries and cloudberries. Back on deck, keep an eye out for pilot whales that frequent these waters.
At a latitude of nearly 70 degrees north, Tromso is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city for such a remote location. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, it enjoys a moderate climate that belies its Arctic setting. The commercial and cultural capital of northern Norway, Tromso is known as the "Gateway to the Arctic," since so many Arctic expeditions originated here. We visit the distinctive Arctic Cathedral, whose unique architecture is evocative of icebergs. Its contemporary stained glass windows are among the largest in Europe. And we’ll visit the Polar Museum, with excellent exhibits on arctic nature and environment.
Mystical Bear Island, often shrouded in mist, is the southernmost island in Norway’s high-Arctic Svalbard archipelago, located in the remote waters of the western Barents Sea. The barren island is an extraordinary site for birdwatching, and we travel around the island by Zodiac to get close-up views of the thousands of kittwakes, fulmars, guillemots and gulls that nest on ledges on the island’s vertical cliff walls. While once the focus of whale, seal and walrus hunting, Bear Islands is now protected as a nature reserve and site for scientific research on sea birds, geography and polar climatology.
Renowned for its high quality of life, the Norwegian capital of Oslo enjoys a striking setting on the Oslofjord in southern Norway. Oslo is the country’s largest city as well as its cultural, scientific and economic capital. It is also an important center for maritime industries and trade in Europe and is home to some of the world’s largest shipping companies.
Built on seven hills, Bergen is the gateway to Norway’s renowned western fjord country. Once an important Hanseatic town, Bergen’s historic attractions include the 900-year-old Bryggen Wharf, the fish market, and the steep, narrow cobbled streets lined with colorful wooden houses. The funicular railway to the top of Mount Fløyen offers a panorama of the entire city, mountains, fjord and ocean beyond.
Scoresbysund, on Greenland's rugged east coast, is the largest, longest and arguably most spectacular fjord systems in the world. This area was named for William Scoresby, who charted the east coast of Greenland in 1822. At the start of the sound, Itoqqortoormitt is East Greenland’s most northerly community and one of the world’s last remaining examples of a living hunter society. Our time here is spent bonding with the Inuit people and gaining an appreciation of their way of life. With clear skies, we’ll also have a great opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Sailing deeper into Scoresbysund, we encounter massive icebergs and an ancient Thule settlement, keeping our eyes peeled for sightings of rare blue icebergs, which are more normally seen in the Antarctic.
Nuuk & West Greenland
Nuuk is Greenland’s cosmopolitan capital, where you can visit mummies at the national museum, experience Inuit culture at the art museum and saunter through a historic harbor that fronts a sprawling fjord filled with inlets, islands, waterfalls and marine life. The world’s smallest capital is surrounded along Greenland’s west coast by dramatic fjords that run fat with Arctic char while reindeer and musk oxen roam the land between ocean and inland ice. The Gulf Stream meanders nearby, which keeps winter seas from freezing.
The west coast of Iceland is a wild and visually spectacular realm of tall sea cliffs, green tundra and vast skies. The immense Latrabjarg cliffs are home to a huge population of razorbills, while multitudes of other sea birds nest in the region as well. Depending on your itinerary, you may visit Flatey Island, a former trading post, and Isafjordur, a remote and colorful village that is a picture postcard of traditional Icelandic life. Towering cliffs along the rugged east coast are rarely visited, making the terrain ideal for exploration via hikes, Zodiac or kayak if the weather permits.
Situated barely below the Arctic Circle, lively Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital city. A colorful historic old town and harbor includes the picturesque Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral with its 210-foot tower and Iceland’s National Museum filled with Viking treasures and artifacts, including unusual whalebone carvings. Take the waters at Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous expanse of geothermal waters, with inviting spa treatments to match the spectacular scenery.
Iceland’s most geologically active region reveals hot, bubbling mud pools at Hverarönd, an explosion crater at Viti and the the waterfall of the gods at Godafoss. Off shore, watch for whales as we sail north to the land of the midnight sun and take Zodiacs ashore to the tiny island of Grimsey, where we share the company of nesting arctic terns, fulmars and burrowing puffins.
Formed between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago by undersea volcanoes, the 14 Westman Islands and a smattering of outcroppings make up one of the the world’s youngest archipelagos—and one of Iceland’s best kept secrets. The islands are a haven for seabird watching, most famously Europe’s largest colony of puffins. In 1963, the world witnessed on film the dramatic birth of its newest island, Surtsey—now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1973, Heimaey, the only island inhabited year-round, was threatened by lava flows that nearly closed off its harbor. At the crater, the earth is still hot and we enjoy expansive views of areas that had been engulfed by lava.
On cruising days, enjoy a relaxing day aboard ship, keeping an eye out for marine mammals along the way. If conditions permit, we may search for wildlife in areas we’ve found over the years that they are likely to frequent. Inside, enjoy browsing the library’s collection of books and maps, take in a slideshow or naturalist lecture, or take advantage of the ‘open bridge’ policy for a visit the captain.