A cruise in the Arctic Circle

Cruise among the icebergs aboard a new luxury expedition ship


Early morning in the Ilulissat Icefjord, a Unesco World Heritage Site in Greenland some 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and a snow-white arctic fox is giving me the eye. This astonishing fjord is filled with gigantic glacial icebergs; another which calved off this glacier went on to sink the Titanic.

A wooden walkway snakes its way down to the fjord to protect the tundra, and with all paws firmly on wooded boards, my arctic fox is clearly a law-abiding animal.

This memorable excursion is just one of the many highlights of an epic Swan Hellenic expedition cruise aboard SH Vega around Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, then down the Labrador coast to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

And this style of luxury expedition cruising has brought an exciting new dimension to the cruise industry, retracing the routes of history’s greatest explorers accompanied by an expedition team of polar experts.

Greenland’s Disko Island is a perfect example, where legendary explorers Cabot, Franklin, and Frobisher set off on ill-fated voyages to find the fabled Northwest Passage. We perform our own homage in Disko Bay, cruising in Zodiac dinghies around a field of naturally sculpted icebergs. Nature’s unique art gallery, each one a masterpiece.

Joining the ship in Greenland was a mini adventure in itself. Anchored offshore in the Kangerlussuaq fjord, one of the longest in the world at nearly 125 miles, we had to board a fleet of Zodiac dinghies to reach her.

Kangerlussuaq is dwarfed on either side by immense three-billion-year-old rock walls, a natural guard of honour as we cruised for five hours before finally emerging onto the Davis Strait.

By now it was pitch black, and standing out on the ship’s bow, the only light we could see was Nature’s own; the Northern Lights. What a way to kick off a cruise!

SH Vega is one of a trio of cutting edge polar-class boutique ships designed from the ground up as the new fleet of the relaunched Swan Hellenic heritage brand. A cruise marque that pioneered expedition cruising in the 50s and 60s, its new owners aim to echo that spirit by taking guests to some of the remotest places on Earth.

While this is a ship built to combat extremes of weather, her sumptuous interior is quite the opposite. With just 152 guests pampered by a crew of 120, this was perhaps the nearest I got to experience life aboard a super-yacht.

It’s an all-inclusive world; all meals, soft drinks and selected alcoholic beverages any time, day or night, 24-hour room service, most expedition excursions (only on polar cruises) and crew gratuities. Swan Hellenic also includes an excellent polar parka, waterproof backpack and water bottle (to take home), plus specialist waterproof muck boots for expeditions.

The Observation Lounge is the ship’s beating heart. Giant panoramic windows and comfy sofas provide the perfect place to have a quiet read, chat with fellow shipmates over a glass or two, and enjoy impressive daily briefings, lectures and stirring tales of exploits from our expedition team.

Then if I was feeling brave, I could slip on my parka and nip up to the top deck for a bit of late-night stargazing across an ink black sky.

My balcony stateroom was spacious Scandi luxury — earthy wooden tones and textures — and more of a retreat than a cabin. Ample storage, a very comfortable lounge area, well-equipped bathroom with bath and shower, and, past the sliding floor-to-ceiling glass doors, a 12 square metre balcony.

With such an impressive staff to guest ratio, any comparison to service levels on larger ships is a fruitless exercise. One example springs to mind; on my first morning I happened to mention a breakfast avocado obsession to restaurant manager Renato, who promptly had a freshly sliced avocado materialise at my table within minutes. And every morning after that, without uttering another word.

There is flexible seating in the ship’s two restaurants as well, and no formal evenings. You can dine alone or with your new friends, and that includes the officers and expedition team, whose tales of heroic exploits on land and sea make for very engaging dining conversation.

But it’s the world outside that’s the headline act on this cruise. As the captain reminded us on day one, “Expedition cruising is all about planning. Plan A, B, C and as much of the alphabet as you can get through.”

His words proved spot on as we worked through his alphabet, changing course numerous times to avoid wind-assisted heavy seas and adding extra Zodiac outings when opportunities arose. The ship even did a U-turn to join two humpback whales, who came alongside and greeted us with perfectly synchronised arcing dives.

In Greenland, the Inuit have had to adapt, their livelihood stunted by colonisation and the collapse of whaling. Tourism is still in its infancy, but offers real hope for them, and in the town of Sisimiut, our guide Karen takes us out to see working huskies. “Many hunters now have snowmobiles instead of dogs “she says “but machines can cut out on you in the back country. Dogs will always get you home.”

After a week exploring Greenland, it’s on to Canada and we wake up at Baffin Island in Nunavut, Arctic Canada, the gateway to the Northwest Passage. We transit down the Labrador coast and enter the Torngat Mountains National Park enjoying privileged isolation. Just us, a tranquil fjord, and immense mountains.

Out on the Zodiacs once more, we spot a huge polar bear lying close to shore. It’s in that moment when you know you are witnessing something truly special. We get as close as we dare, turn the outboards off and watch him lumbering around.

Then, even the polar bear is upstaged. One of the team spots a whale blow, and we wait silent and speechless as an adult Minke whale appears next to us. It slowly swims around us, curiously checking out each Zodiac, before heading back into the depths.

I begin to wonder just how many Attenborough moments we can cope with on one trip?

We get our first real taste of Newfoundland at Red Bay, a historic whaling town of 16th century Basque whalers, where at one time over 1,000 men harvested Right and Bowhead whales on an industrial level.

Back on board we’re all made honorary Newfoundlanders in the “ancient” ceremony of codfish lip-kissing before downing a shot of screech, as the locally made rum is best known.

Our final stop before heading to Halifax is Bonne Bay, where we spot trees for the first time on the trip, all decked out in their autumn colours.

This pretty coastal town is popular as the gateway to the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park, one of only three places in the world where it’s possible to walk on Earth’s mantle; the inner soul of our planet pushed skyward from far below the Earth’s crust when the Appalachian mountains were born.

And we do just that in the company of our expedition team, each of whom is just as in awe as we are, while a visit to the wonderful Gros Morne Visitor Centre adds more scientific meaning to our experience. The whole national park merits another visit, a quite extraordinary glacial valley and a fitting finale to our expedition excursions.

It’s easy to bandy around words like “unforgettable” but this cruise truly was a very special experience. Not only to witness such remote beauty and those wildlife encounters, but to witness it all in such splendid isolation was an absolute privilege. I reckon that arctic fox would probably agree too.

Getting There

A 15-night Greenland to Nova Scotia – Exploring the Canadian Arctic cruise on board SH Vega departing September 25, 2024, costs from £18,056 per person, including regional flights to the port of embarkation and/or disembarkation, group return transfers from the airport to the cruise port, one night pre-cruise accommodation, all meals, 24-hour room service, selected drinks, lecture programmes, branded expedition parka and use of rubber boots in Polar Regions, standard Wi-Fi, and selected shore excursions/expeditions. Book at Swan Hellenic

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