The world’s most elusive sea route: Cruise to traverse The Northwest Passage

  • Polar Bears in Bellot Strait between Gulf of Bothia and Beaufort sea.

    Polar Bears in Bellot Strait between Gulf of Bothia and Beaufort sea.  (Capt. Etienne Garcia/Compagnie Du Ponant)

  • Gjoa Haven, the Amundsen Cairn.

    Gjoa Haven, the Amundsen Cairn.  (Abercrombie & Kent)

  • Beaufort Sea; Smoking Hills.

    Beaufort Sea; Smoking Hills.  (Abercrombie & Kent)

If you’ve got lots of adventurous spirit and the big bucks to support it, here’s a once-in-a-lifetime voyage you’ll never forget:

The luxury and adventure travel company Abercrombie and Kent is offering a cruise through the Northwest Passage.


This French luxury ship Le Boreal will sail once, and only once, for 23 days in August 2015 from Greenland, through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, above Alaska, through the Bering Strait and on to the northeastern shore of Russia.

It’s the least-sailed major sea route in the world, and it offers ample opportunities for wildlife sightings, including polar bears and exotic species of whales.

But let’s get one thing clear: This isn’t for the faint of heart.

This voyage runs north of the Arctic Circle, known for its freezing winds, and there are no developed ports until you reach Russia. If you get soaked in 32-degree seawater in 30-mile-per-hour winds on a Zodiac that won’t return to the cruise ship for hours, you may find yourself wishing you’d picked a cruise to the Bahamas. 

Bob Simpson, Abercrombie & Kent's polar expedition specialist for 16 years, said being prepared for everything makes all the difference.

“First of all,” he said, “Le Boreal is a beautiful ship, especially for an expedition, that we chose for its amenities but also because its sister ship, Le Soleal, crossed the Passage in 2012, proving its qualification."

“We insisted on having the same captain for our charter, Etienne Garcia,” he added.

Wild life is a big draw

The itinerary begins with a charter flight from Montreal to Greenland. After boarding the ship, passengers will visit five Greenland ports in seven days on Baffin Bay, one of the most active glacial regions in the world.

“We then cross Baffin Bay to enter the Northwest Passage through Lancaster Sound, teeming with deep-water cod that draw several species of whales,” Simpson said. “One is the narwhal, known for its twisted, unicorn-like tusk.” It is believed that Norsemen sold these tusks as unicorn horns for centuries.

Hershel Island is “a rare spot where you might see moose, grizzly and black bears and polar bears, all in the same locale,” Simpson said. Then it’s on to Point Barrow, known for its all-white beluga whales.

But there’s another all-white animal that everyone wants to see.

“Polar bears are always at the top of most people’s lists,” Simpson said. “The Soleal had a few sightings, so we asked Captain Garcia to adjust the itinerary and hopefully we will see more.” 

Simpson said there’s flexibility in the schedule, so they’ll maneuver the ship to try to get the best views. But he noted that wildlife sightings can never be guaranteed.

The Elusive Northwest Passage History

The challenge of crossing the Northwest Passage has attracted explorers and adventure-seekers for decades.

In 1906, Roald Amundsen completed the first passage by boat, but it took him three years. It wasn’t until 1944 that Henry Larsen, sailing from Halifax to Vancouver, completed the first passage by boat in a single season. It still took him 86 days.

Why is the Passage so elusive? There are over 36,000 islands in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and ice patterns change the passable route every year. The short two-month window when the polar ice clears adds to the challenge. “When charting this cruise, it is vital to have a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C,” Simpson said.

The most populated stops on the cruise will be remote Inuit villages where natives still survive by hunting.

“Gjoa-Haven, where Amundsen spent two full years, is still the region’s largest village at just over 1,000 people,” Simpson said.

The cruise will cover rare ground for a leisure vessel. Many cruises end near Banks Island, part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and miss the Smoking Hills of Cape Bathurst, where veins of carbon-rich shale in the sea cliffs have been self-igniting for centuries.

Emmy-award winning filmmaker Sprague Theobald will be on board the ship as guest historian and lecturer. In 2008, he made an 8,500-mile crossing in his own 57-foot boat with a small crew, including his children. He wrote a book, The Other Side of The Ice: One Family’s Treacherous Journey Negotiating the Northwest Passage, about that voyage, which was made into a film.

The Right Cruise for the Right People

If you’re considering this voyage, then consider this: All planned landings and excursions from the ship are made in rubber pontoon Zodiac boats that are fully exposed to the elements, so head-to-toe waterproof clothing is mandatory. It’s also worth noting that a medical emergency could require an airlift to a hospital in Canada.

But you won’t be roughing it aboard the Le Boreal, which has 132 comfortable staterooms, two gourmet dining rooms and a state-of-the-art media center. In addition to Theobald, there will be a team of highly experienced scientists and naturalists to guide passengers on excursions, give lectures and answer questions all day.

The cruise sails Aug. 20, 2015, and starts at $27,995 per person, depending on the stateroom category.

For extensive details, go to Abercrombie and Kent.

Paul Motter is the editor of, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.