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The thrill of exploring the far corners of our planet is an unmatched experience in travel. They might be difficult to access, have extreme weather conditions, and require a fair bit of budget allocation. But travelling has taught me is that to get a great experience in life, it’s okay sometimes to exceed the planned budget and take a leap of faith.
Our leap down to Patagonia in winter did two things for us – it showed us there was no “wrong season” to be anywhere, and got us hooked onto these larger than life splendours of nature.
As we started looking for how far could the Indian passport take us in the Northern hemisphere, the name “Spitsbergen” came up prominently. It is “the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway”, Wikipedia told us. That made sure Spitsbergen had our attention.
We are big advocates of letting serendipity lead our way in travels, but we are also big believers in common sense. If you’re spending the kind of time, effort and money that’s required to get to these places, it makes sense to know what your options are.
There are multiple Arctic cruise companies out there, and generally speaking, they’ll offer more than one kind of cruise in the Spitsbergen region. How do you choose which cruise is the right one for you?
These were the pointers that can help you narrow down your options to the perfect cruise for you.
Figure out what you want to see
The most important step in picking the right Spitsbergen cruise is making a list of what you most want to see and experience. Are you most interested in whale watching? Experiencing the Aurora Borealis? Playing tag with a polar bear? Bird-watching? Visiting historical relics from the whaling period? Participating in activities like kayaking, mountaineering, diving, or hiking?
Identifying your must-do activities versus stuff that would be nice but isn’t quite at the level of make-it-or-break-it can make a big difference in your choice of cruise.
Identify the time of year you want to go
Some of the experiences mentioned from the first point will be time-sensitive.
For example, if your number one item on your to-do list is to see the Northern Lights then you’re going to be limited to cruises on the far ends of the season because during the middle of the season (during the summer) the sun doesn’t set, making the Lights impossible to see.
The same can go for wildlife. Whales, for example, migrate throughout the year and certain times of the year are better for seeing certain species.
Choose the size, style, and state of luxury of a ship
Different sizes and styles of ships have their own pros and cons.
Bigger cruise ships are quite often rated to be able to move through ice, meaning they can venture further north.
Smaller ships (some lines offer cruises on sailboats) are able to dip into smaller bays and fjords, meaning they can explore further inland than the bigger ships.
Some cruise ships are more vacation-oriented, offering a variety of luxuries like onboard spas and hot-tubs. Other cruise lines are more oriented towards exploration and learning and won’t offer as many luxuries, but they make a greater effort to get you ashore.
The size of a ship also makes a difference. Sailboats can’t offer as many activities like kayaking and diving. Also, if your goal is to get in on as many activities as possible you should look for cruise ships that have fewer than two hundred passengers. Any more than that and your chances of participating in your preferred activities will be diminished.
Choose your location
Some experiences are location-specific. This obviously goes for historic spots, but can also include the better locations for viewing certain species of wildlife like walruses, musk oxen, or polar bears.
Investigate your options for activities
Not all Spitsbergen cruises will offer every activity, so if you’ve got mountaineering on your mind make sure you hook up with the right cruise.
You should also note that not all activities are open to beginners. For example, cruises with diving or mountaineering may very well require you to have proof of health and a minimum number of logged hours.
Different activities can also have varying costs.
If you do want to get out of the ship and experience as much of Spitsbergen as possible but you’re not sure which activities you want to participate in then look for cruise companies that offer basecamp cruises. Basecamp cruises allow you to participate in a whole list of activities that are all covered under one price.
So which Spitsbergen cruise is right for you? If you’re still having trouble picking just one cruise then start looking up reviews and see what the majority of past passengers have to say.
Most importantly, don’t be overwhelmed by the range of options there are. Don’t get caught in FOMO!
Remember, you can always go back for more.
Photographs are a copyright of Markus Eichenberger, Rinie Van Meurs, Erwin Vermeulen, Christophe Gouraud, Majanda Hamelink, Josh Harrison, Arjen Drost, Leica Akademie (Oceanwide Expeditions).