Editor’s note: TPG’s Ashley Kosciolek was hosted by Seabourn Cruises for an Arctic expedition sailing on Seabourn Venture. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren’t subject to review by the line.
Imagine a cruise that’s a bit of a mystery. You know the general region you’ll be visiting and where the voyage will begin and end, but everything else is up in the air. Would you book it? If your answer is yes, would you still roll the dice if you knew it would cost you $30,000?
I recently embarked on two different expedition voyages — a 10-nighter on Scenic Eclipse and a 14-night sailing on Seabourn Venture. Both were Arctic sailings, with the former focusing on the Norwegian island of Svalbard and the latter visiting Greenland and Arctic Canada. Besides the region, what they have in common is their price point — starting from roughly $15,000 per person or $1,300 per night — and a slew of changing daily plans that keep passengers on their toes.
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So, what’s with the ambiguity?
Expedition cruises sail to remote regions of the world, often where larger ships can’t go. The seas can be rough, and the weather often changes at a moment’s notice, particularly in locations like the Arctic and Antarctica. Because many stops in these remote regions don’t have docks, ships are forced to tender passengers ashore with inflatable boats called Zodiacs. When conditions are unsafe for Zodiacs to operate, the captain can decide to delay port calls, shore landings and shore excursions or cancel them completely.
As the expedition team says on Seabourn Venture, if you’re going to book, the name of the game is “flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.” Here’s what I experienced on my two recent cruises so you can be better prepared to roll with the punches if you’re thinking of setting sail.
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In This Post
What was planned
Scenic Eclipse floats behind a hunk of blue ice just off of Svalbard. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY
Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours, which is known for its upscale river cruises and land-based tours, entered the expedition cruise scene in 2019 with Scenic Eclipse, its first expedition vessel. For its first stint in the Arctic following the industry’s 2020 shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it relied on feedback from its first year of sailing to offer a less structured itinerary and to make sure it had backup plans in place for any changes that arose.
For this sailing, there was no pre-cruise signup for excursions, landings, hikes or Zodiac cruises, which meant that there was less disappointment over missed events because activities weren’t announced until the day before, when it was clearer what the conditions would be.
Note the largely undefined schedule, which allowed for built-in flexibility:
Day 1: Longyearbyen, Svalbard (embarkation).
Days 2-10: Svalbard archipelago.
Day 11: Longyearbyen, Svalbard (disembarkation).
ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY
Seabourn Cruises, which is even newer to the expedition market than Scenic, attempted to offer a more concrete itinerary pre-cruise. However, it led to disappointment among some of the passengers on my sailing. Many of them are loyal repeat customers of the line who opted to try a cruise on Seabourn Venture, perhaps not realizing it was more open to last-minute pivots than the ocean cruises for which the line is largely known.
Because the area Seabourn Venture was sailing allows submarine dives and has actual towns that can be toured, the ship offered more excursion options than Scenic Eclipse did, and they were able to be booked prior to embarkation. They included hikes, town tours, kayaking, submarine dives, visits to dog sled camps and other activities. Because people were able to select what they wanted to sign up for ahead of time and get excited about the options they booked, they understandably were disappointed when plans had to change.
Note the rather specific schedule:
Day 1: Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (embarkation).
Day 2: Sisimiut, Greenland.
Day 3: Ilulissat, Greenland.
Day 4: Eqi Glacier, Greenland.
Day 5: Uummannaq, Greenland.
Day 6: Upernavik, Greenland.
Day 7: Pond Inlet, Canada.
Day 8: Dundas Harbor/Croker Bay, Canada.
Day 9: Beechy Island, Canada.
Day 10: sea day.
Day 11: sea day.
Day 12: Lady Franklin Island/Monumental Island, Canada.
Day 13: sea day.
Day 14: sea day.
Day 15: St. John’s, Canada.
What actually happened
The former hunting cabin of Wanny Wolstad, the first female trapper in the Arctic. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY
Thankfully, by pure luck, the weather was uncharacteristically sunny during our voyage. Because the ship only revealed where we’d be going about a day in advance, after the crew had a better idea of what the conditions would be like, there were only a handful of changes, most of which occurred due to local wildlife sightings. At times, we avoided planned stops because polar bears were nearby, and it either wasn’t safe or we didn’t want to disturb them. In other instances, we diverted to observe several pods of whales as they fed.
On one day, we skipped a planned landing and moved on to plans B, C and D before the expedition team finally gave up and called it a sea day, complete with additional trivia and lectures to keep us busy. I was impressed that the team had contingency plans for its contingency plans’ contingency plans.
Whenever possible, alternative outdoor activities were scheduled if we had to skip the ones that were originally on offer. Most often, they included Zodiac rides to view glacier ice, waterfalls or local animals like seals or polar bears.
ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY
My Seabourn expedition was a different story. Most days, it was cloudy and cold with somewhat rough seas, making most of the planned submarine dives, kayak excursions and Zodiac sailings impossible for the expedition team to execute. It even affected the availability of certain land-based activities like hiking.
For example, in Ilulissat, Greenland — which I was eager to visit after hearing about the amazing glaciers there — a hike I signed up for was canceled. When I tried to take a Zodiac into town later in the day, the craft only made it halfway before the bridge radioed for all Zodiacs to return due to worsening conditions. On several days, including that one, the ship was forced to depart early in order to avoid bad weather.
Later in the voyage, we skipped three stops completely because of rough water and ice that was rapidly forming, increasing the risk that the ship would get stuck if we didn’t keep moving. (Although the ship’s hull is rated as PC-6, meaning it can break through first-year ice during the summer and fall months, my sailing was near the end of the season, when thicker ice had begun to form.) The timing was unfortunate, as the canceled calls were mixed in with four planned sea days, meaning we unexpectedly spent seven straight days — half of the cruise — confined to the ship.
ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY
Seabourn fell a little short when it came to filling the unused time created by the cancellations. On scheduled sea days, the expedition team planned for downtime with submarine tours and lectures. But on unexpected sea days, the team did not put on additional activities to fill the time that would otherwise have been spent exploring ashore. Passengers had to find their own fun with puzzles and board games, in-cabin movies, reading, workouts in the small fitness center or trips to the main lounge for scoops of gelato.
The saving grace was the wildlife we saw along the way, including a herd of musk oxen, three polar bears and several whales. The expedition team made announcements to alert passengers, and the captain maneuvered the ship for ideal viewing. However, there were no Zodiac sailings offered to get us closer.
The “discovery team” on Scenic Eclipse — which includes expedition guides, naturalists, geologists, botanists, animal experts, kayak leaders, bear scouts, photographers and more — numbers nearly 30 people. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY
It’s important to note that changes are dependent on conditions; favorable ones are often dumb luck and can’t be predicted in advance. One of my sailings had excellent conditions nearly the whole time, while one had far more clouds, fog and wind than it did sunshine. The presence or lack of animals can also make or break a sailing, particularly if there’s extra time to kill due to schedule changes.
Because weather in the polar regions can be unpredictable, you should always expect that changes will occur. You might also consider booking in the middle of the season, rather than at the beginning or end, when your ship could be more likely to encounter rough weather or ice.
Any expedition cruise ship worth its salt will employ a stellar expedition team packed with experts in subjects that range from flora and fauna to geology and technology. When plans are canceled, they will likely find a different place to visit, replace more iffy activities — like submarine dives and kayaking — with less risky ones like Zodiac sailings, make an extra effort to spot animals for viewing or offer lectures on their areas of expertise.
Your ship will also house an entertainment staff that can offer impromptu trivia competitions or late-night dance parties, which help to pass the time.
If you’re planning to sail, bring a sense of adventure and some activities like reading materials, playing cards or an iPad with pre-downloaded TV shows or movies you’ve been meaning to watch.
If you have your heart set on a specific port visit, landing site or excursion, an expedition cruise to the polar regions might not be for you. But if you’re able to take changes as they happen and enjoy whatever comes your way, one of these voyages can provide an exciting, enriching and once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity.
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