Columbus may have discovered America in 1492, but it took more than 400 years to find a route around the top of the continent that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was known as the “Arctic grail” and the explorers who failed to find it number many of the most eminent – Cabot, Frobisher and Captain Cook among them – whose numerous accounts are searing sagas of endurance, catastrophe, failure and extreme cold.
Eventually in 1909, Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who beat Scott to the South Pole found a route through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, and the Northwest Passage (officially the Canadian Northwest Passage) became an established waterway. Next year this fragile wilderness, where the summer ice may be gone in as little as four decades, becomes a cruise destination.
In August 2016, Crystal Cruises 250m, 13-deck Crystal Serenity – which accommodates 1,070 guests and 655 crew – will embark from Anchorage, Alaska on a 32-night cruise that risks criticism, given the delicate nature of this particular environment. It will head north to Kodiak, Dutch Harbor and Nome in Alaska, then into Canadian waters, to Ulukhaktok, Cambridge Bay and Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Ilulissat, Sisimiut, then on to Nuuk on Greenland, and south down the US coast, stopping at Bar Harbor in Maine, Boston and Newport, Rhode Island.
The glacial scenery – all icebergs, ice floes and islands – will, it goes without saying, be spectacular. And the excursions promise the possibility of polar-bear sightings, whale-watching, scenic helicopter flights, “Arctic safaris” involving kayaks, Zodiacs, a helicopter, fishing, hiking, climbing and all manner of “wilderness adventures” and visits to “remote communities […] often with champagne waiting at the other end”.
For those for whom a holiday is not a holiday without access to a golf course, there will even be a chance to play at the Billy Joss Golf Club in Ulukhaktok, the world’s northernmost nine-hole links (there’s a yet more northerly six-hole course in Arctic Norway), which sits where the tundra meets the Amundsen Gulf of the Beaufort Sea, at a latitude of 70° 44' North. (The fairways are shale, the greens Astroturf.)
Alternatively there’s the onboard putting green, one of a panoply of facilities that run from the expected – two swimming pools, a spa, a gym, a casino, a nightclub a “Hollywood” theatre – to the more recherché. For in addition to a programme of lectures on Arctic-themed subjects, there’s also the Crystal Creative Learning Institute, which offers courses in modern languages (for instance, Norwegian, Mandarin, Hebrew, Russian and Japanese), creative writing, grant writing, financial fitness for a successful retirement, astronomy and “celestial science”, feng shui, wine appreciation and a host of other useful and interesting subjects. Though to manage expectations, its prospectus stresses that “not all are offered on every cruise”. The curriculum for this one has yet to be finalised.
All this somehow contradicts Crystal Cruises’ assertion this is going to be “an expedition-style voyage”. Though as a concession to the remoteness and harshness of the landscape, there’ll be no black-tie dinners on this particular cruise. The menus in the ship’s eight restaurants will also have to be “modified to reflect the destination and limited ability to re-supply goods and store waste”, though they promise they’ll still be “gourmet”. As hardships go, a reliance on frozen food is a relatively minor one.
Fares start at £13,953 per person, all-inclusive, based on two sharing. For the moment booking is open only to guests who have cruised with Crystal in the past. Public booking opens September 2.
This article was written by Claire Wrathall from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.