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The Arctic is an otherworldly land of boundless vistas, perpetual daylight in summer, glistening ice floes and abundant wildlife. No wonder that taking a North Pole cruise is becoming a growth industry in once rarely visited realms.
One caveat: Unlike Antarctica, which is on a solid land mass, the North Pole has no true fixed location. It lies on a mass of always-shifting ice chunks in the Arctic Ocean. Consequently, few ships actually sail to the pole. But many do get close, venturing within the Arctic Circle, above 66 degrees latitude.
These are truly remote areas, so it's not surprising that Arctic trips to the North Pole tend to attract seasoned travelers looking to tick off one more spot on their bucket list. The expansive region takes in northern parts of Norway and the Svalbard archipelago, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, Norway and Russia.
Here's a breakdown of popular areas, and some lines and outfitters that'll take you there. But first, some general guidance.
Remote villages, icy fjords and rare wildlife make the world's Arctic region a compelling destination for cruisers looking for a little adventure. Encompassing Greenland, Iceland, the North Pole and the northern reaches of Norway, Russia and Canada, the Arctic is mostly traversed by small-ship expedition and luxury lines.
On many such cruises, you won't experience traditional shore excursions. Because the ships are small and landings occur in isolated areas, hikes, nature walks or Zodiac trips with the expedition staff are typically the only activity options -- and they're usually included in the cruise price. (For more information on Arctic cruising, check out Arctic Cruise Tips.)
However, in larger or more developed Arctic ports, cruisers can choose from a wider variety of activities. We've rounded up a few of our favorite excursions across the Arctic region.
The Arctic is one of those destinations that invariably scores highly on most people's travel wish lists. Pristine landscapes, bountiful wildlife, indigenous tribes and natural phenomena give the Arctic a unique appeal, while its proximity to Europe and the northern reaches of Canada and the United States make it more accessible than other wilderness areas. Plus, it has much to offer travelers wanting to follow in the footsteps of explorers to discover a region that is rich in natural experiences and, in parts, still relatively untouched by the 21st century.
Unlike Antarctica, which is a continent in its own right, the Arctic is generally defined as the area contained within the Arctic Circle, which spans the top of the earth at a latitude of 66.5622 degrees. Stretching across the North Pole, it encompasses the northern regions of Norway plus the Svalbard archipelago, Sweden, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Canada, Russia and the U.S. (Alaska) -- accounting for 6 percent of the earth's surface.
Such a vast area is home to a rich array of wildlife. Polar bears, the so-called "Kings of the Arctic," roam the icy wastes and are the top attraction for many visitors. Other species to be seen include whales, seals, walruses, Arctic foxes, musk oxen, reindeer and numerous birds.
Inuit tribes have lived in settlements in Greenland, Russia and Canada's far north for centuries. More recently, this harsh wilderness has attracted the attention of explorers like Briton Sir John Franklin, who disappeared during a disastrous expedition to chart a section of the elusive North West Passage in 1845, and Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who in 1903 to 1906, was first to sail this legendary channel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
While still overshadowed by the popularity of Mediterranean sailings, cruises on the Baltic Sea through Northern Europe and Scandinavia have charms of their own. The region boasts a kaleidoscope of cultures, languages, artistic traditions and ancient histories -- and cruising is the ideal way to see it all at a reasonable price. (Sweden, Finland and Denmark are traditionally more expensive than other parts of Europe.)
St. Petersburg, Russia, is the marquee attraction for Baltic cruises. Most lines offer two full days (and one night) in the city; some stay for two nights (and offer 2.5 days in the port of call). St. Petersburg is not only a beautiful and intriguing city; it can be one of the trickiest in Europe to visit, not just because of the language barriers but also due to its visa restrictions. That's another reason why cruising this region of the world can make sense from a logistical standpoint.
Besides Russia and Scandinavia, your port stops on a Baltic cruise will expand awareness of this region beyond its well-known fjords and capitals. Estonia's Tallinn is a staple of itineraries now, and Latvia's Riga is enjoying increasing popularity. Other ports that are often included on a Baltic cruise are Poland's Gdansk and Germany's Warnemunde, which provides easy access to Berlin.
Note: Although some Baltic Sea cruises include Oslo, Norway, as a port of call, cruises to the Norwegian Fjords have become popular enough that we discuss them in a separate story. For information on other Northern Europe destinations, see our articles on Arctic cruising and river cruises in Russia.