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Traveler's Guide to the Arctic

13 min read

Guest post by Miranda Miller            

It’s a bucket list destination for many, with the power to reshape your perspective and make lifelong adventure travel dreams come true. So what makes the Arctic so spectacular?

Passengers zodiac cruising in Burgerbukta, Spitsbergen. Photo: Acacia Johnson

In this comprehensive Arctic travel guide, we’ll explore the regions that make up the Arctic, and outline the exciting, fulfilling things you can see, do and experience in this northern destination. We’ll check out the highlights of this vast northern polar region, and see how you can experience the Arctic with Quark Expeditions. Along the way, you’ll have access to additional resources to help you plan your ideal Arctic expedition.

Keep reading, or click on one of the sub-heads in the list below to navigate directly to the information that corresponds to your questions about Arctic expedition travel.

“To be able to go in person, up close, to the Arctic--to what has been a very difficult part of the world to explore… I think it’s important as the climate is changing, technology changes and our access to places evolves and changes over time.” 

- Astronaut Chris Hadfield

Why visit the Arctic?

Some combined Canadian Arctic and Greenland voyages enable guests to kayak in both destinations.
Kayaking in Greenland. Photo: Keith Perry

A polar expedition is a great, big deal, and people go for all kinds of reasons. Maybe you’ve heard that the polar regions are must-visit, bucket list places to explore at some point in your life. In that case, read Polar Travel is Good for the Soul and 5 Reasons an Arctic Expedition Is Totally Worth Your Vacation Time to see why people travel to the ends of the earth, often returning again and again.

Some of the people interested in Arctic travel already have an idea of what they want to see or do there—they want to do a polar plunge, or see polar bears in their natural habitat, or cruise amongst icebergs under towering fjords—and they just aren’t sure where to go or how to make it happen. Home to unique species like polar bears, muskox and endemic foxes and hares, the Arctic region is a popular destination for wildlife lovers and photographers.

Others may be just discovering the Arctic and starting to think that it could be a place they’d like to visit. In that case, you can get a taste of the things you can see and do there in Top 10 Reasons to Visit the Arctic

Explore destinations and download free Arctic Expedition brochures

How is the Arctic different from Antarctica?

Some people who want to visit the Arctic have already traveled to Antarctica and are curious about how the northern polar region differs. One of the main differences is the Arctic’s fascinating history and culture, as it’s been inhabited for thousands of years. Culture & People of the Far North, Top Shipwrecks of the Arctic and Franklin’s Expedition: Myths, Mystery & Modern Day Relics are all great reads to help you get familiar with the opportunities to explore the Arctic’s history and culture on expedition.

While Antarctica is one large land mass surrounded by water, the Arctic is a huge region that spans ⅙ the earth’s area and includes everything north of the Arctic Circle. It’s not one country or destination, but rather spans regions belonging to eight countries:

  • Canada
  • the Kingdom of Denmark (which includes Greenland)
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Norway (Svalbard),
  • Russia
  • Sweden
  • The United States

Often, our travelers have heard or read a lot about a specific Arctic destination and know that’s where they want to go, but they aren’t quite sure what that’s going to look like in reality. If you already have your heart set on visiting Greenland, Spitsbergen, or the Canadian High Arctic, keep reading to see what makes each Arctic destination so magical.

Where should I go in the Arctic?

Arctic Regions overview Map
Arctic Overview Map

Unlike the single land mass that is Antarctica, the Arctic is mostly made up of water, with islands and land masses belonging to several countries. The Arctic accounts for about one-sixth of the planet’s area and to give you an idea of just how empty and vast this is, consider that the entire Arctic is home to just four million people--its population is about the same as that of Los Angeles! You can learn more in Where is the Arctic and how can I get there.

The top places to visit in the Arctic are:

  • Greenland
  • Spitsbergen
  • Canadian Arctic: Nunavut (Baffin Island)
  • North Pole

Where to go: Greenland

Visit Greenland to explore massive fjords, go hiking in vast wilderness spaces, witness the midnight sun, explore by helicopter, maybe even see a spectacular Northern Lights display. Start exploring with this collection of Greenland posts:

Check out this quick clip on modern and traditional Greenlandic people:

“I think it’s very important for people to go to places that are very different from where they live, in order to understand the variety of economies, culture, priorities and challenges of different regions. There is only so much you can do by showing a film or by showing pictures or by telling stories. It’s a very different experience when you’re actually in the Arctic and have the opportunity to see it, touch it, feel it, smell it, and experience it yourself.” 

- Fran Ulmer, Chair of U.S. Arctic Research Commission; North Pole Summit speaker

Where to go: Spitsbergen

If you’re looking for opportunities to see and photograph a variety of Arctic animals in beautiful, natural surroundings, you should consider traveling to Spitsbergen, the Norwegian Arctic territory known as the “realm of the polar bear”.

See what a day on expedition in Spitsbergen can be like:

Where to go: Baffin Island

If you’re looking for a diverse range of Arctic experiences from Inuit culture and exploration history, to Arctic wildlife and incredibly spectacular remote landscapes, Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic is the place for you. Baffin Island is a massive island spanning much of Eastern Canada, with many small communities, wildlife sanctuaries, and national and territorial parks.

Check out this first-hand account of what it’s like exploring the Canadian High Arctic and Baffin Island area, then learn more in these posts:

Where to go: North Pole

It’s the iconic exploration dream come true, to stand at the one place on the planet where a look in any direction is a look south. Celebrate with a champagne toast at the North Pole and then walk on the ice, or even take in the scene from high above in a hot air balloon.

Read more about what it takes to get to the North Pole

What can I see in the Arctic?

Whether you're a naturalist, an avid wildlife photographer, a hiker in search of stunning scenery or just want to check "see a polar bear in its natural habitat" off your bucket list, the Arctic can deliver.

If you want to see wildlife:

Spitsbergen offers your best chance to spot polar bears and is also home to walrus, whales, seabird colonies, reindeer and arctic fox.

Greenland is where you might see muskoxen, and possibly whales and seals.

Baffin Island is home to walrus, whales, muskoxen, lemmings, wolves and other unique species.

And en route to the North Pole, you might catch a glimpse of a polar bear hunting on the sea ice, or whales breaching in open water.

If you want to see spectacular Arctic landscapes:

Depending on where you go, you could see big-walled fjords, massive icebergs and glaciers, flowering summer tundra, volcanoes and ancient rock formations, or spectacular waterfalls and all kinds of natural wonders. If your ideal Arctic expedition includes seeing something in specific:

What can I do in the Arctic?

If you’re looking to encounter wildlife and follow in the footsteps of famous explorers, or experience Inuit culture in one of the world’s last pristine wilderness areas, the Arctic is just the destination for you. So what can you do while on expedition?

On every Arctic expedition with Quark, you can:

  • Go Zodiac cruising and hiking.
  • Take in expert lectures from onboard marine biologists, geologists, ornithologists, historians and other guests and guides.
  • Spot wildlife and take photos from the deck and the open bridge, where you can also observe how the Captain and officers sail and navigate the ship.
  • Take part in classes, special events and activities offered onboard.
  • Depending on your ship and how it's equipped, you could enjoy, in the case of Quark Expeditions' Ultramarine, a robust portfolio of helicopter-supported adventures such as flightseeing, the Greenland Ice Sheet experience, or heli-hikig.
  • Trade travel stories in the lounge, relax and enjoy creature comforts and panoramic views, stretch your legs in the gym or feed your thirst for polar knowledge in the Polar Library.
  • Push your limits with incredible rites of passage like the Polar Plunge.
A passenger takes the Polar Plunge in Arctic Waters
Take part in the Polar Plunge… if you dare!

Outside of these activities, what you can do depends on where you want to go. Here are a few ideas:

What to Do: Greenland

“Nature is still champion in this land, but beyond its natural richness, there’s also a focus on the history of inhabitants and their culture. Quark Expeditions reaches places that are off the beaten track; all the secret hideaways are known by their expedition crew.”

- Lynsey Devon, Greenland Explorer passenger

Hike the tundra, exploring colorful valleys and powering your way up rocky inclines to enjoy stunning vistas. Visit incredible bird cliffs, explore infrequently visited and remote landing sites, and leave the stress of your everyday life behind.

Explore by kayak, getting excellent views of the pristine Arctic environment and its inhabitants from the surface of the water. Read this first-hand account of what it’s like to kayak in the Arctic, then check it out for yourself:

Visit historic sites and immerse yourself in Thule and Viking history. Meet Inuit people in authentic Greenlandic villages; peruse their art, hear their songs and get to know their way of life.

What to Do: Spitsbergen

“Anyone passionate about wildlife should put Spitsbergen and Svalbard at the top of their list of places to visit.” 

- Dale Templar, Spitsbergen passenger 

Venture into natural polar bear habitat and capture incredible photos of Arctic wildlife. 

Exercise your polar passion by getting involved and taking action with environmental sustainability activities like Clean Up Svalbard.

Kayak Spitsbergen’s sheltered inlets and glass-still bays. How awesome is it? Check it out in 360° virtual reality:

Go Zodiac cruising with expert guides in small groups for exciting encounters with nature, fantastic photo opportunities and a completely immersive environmental education.

What to Do: Baffin Island

“On the western side of the strait, we follow the Baffin Island coastline, stopping to explore islands where we see more polar bears (I spotted nine in all on the trip, most of them in the distance) and plenty of birdlife, particularly the thick-billed murre.” 

- Steve Meacham, on Baffin Island

Experience Inuit culture and hospitality in small towns and villages like Kimmirut, Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet. In these communities, artisans carry on the centuries-old tradition of crafting incredible jewelry and sculpture from serpentine, soapstone, marble and semi-precious gems.

Visit breathtaking landing sites and explore the island’s diverse coastal areas by Zodiac cruise and, possibly, by helicopter.

Explore rugged shorelines and striking tundra on foot ashore in the Cumberland Peninsula and Frobisher Bay. If you’re lucky, you may see caribou, lemmings or arctic hare.

Watch for polar bears on the sea ice:

What to Do: North Pole

Passengers at the North Pole. Photo: Sam Crimmin
Passengers at the North Pole. Photo: Sam Crimmin

Experience life onboard the world’s most powerful nuclear icebreaker. Watch from the deck or bridge as you crush your way through thick, multi-year sea ice in true exploration style.

Soar high overhead in a hot air balloon for a truly once in a lifetime experience and view (optional and weather permitting).

Celebrate your travel achievement with music, merriment, great company and a unique celebration at the top of the world!

Engage and learn from onboard experts at mealtimes, during shore landings, in their lectures and presentations, and as you spend time together onboard.

When should I go to the Arctic?

When to Visit: Greenland

Darkness improves the visibility of the Northern Lights later in the year, so if that’s important to you, head to Greenland in September or October.  Conditions are darker and cooler nearer the end of the season. Rest assured, that earlier summer voyages to Greenland offer a completely different experience.

Learn all about Greenland, how and when to explore, what activities to choose and how to maximize your adventure in this short guide.

A Quark Expeditions guest is mesmerized by the emotional experience of witnessing the Northern Lights in Greenland.
Visit Greenland for spectacular Northern Lights shows. Photo: Nicky Souness

When to Visit: Baffin Island

Visit Baffin Island in late August and September, when conditions are best for photography, wildlife viewing, Zodiac cruising and hiking. The further north we go, the longer it stays light out and typically, there are only a few hours of twilight each evening, with no actual darkness.

Learn all about Baffin Island, how and when to explore, what activities to choose and how to make the most of your adventure in this short guide.

When to Visit: Spitsbergen

If you want to see polar bears, go to Spitsbergen in May, June or July. There more ice earlier in the year, and more polar bears are typically out hunting. If you’re hoping to have a shot at circumnavigating the island, there’s more chance of achieving it later in the season, when the pack ice has had a chance to break up and recede.

Learn all about Spitsbergen, how and when to explore, what activities to choose and more in this brief guide.

When to Visit: North Pole

There’s a relatively brief window in July and early August each year when ice conditions allow for passage to the North Pole. This makes your achievement that much more memorable!

Learn more about crushing your way to the North Pole aboard 50 Years of Victory, the most powerful nuclear icebreaker in the world, in this brief guide.

Why choose a small expedition ship for your Arctic adventure?

Journeying to the Arctic on a small expedition ship gives you access to more remote regions than large cruise ships can reach. Each day on board a small ship is unique, and no two trips are ever the same. Traveling with dozens instead of hundreds or even thousands of people gives you:

  • more time to Zodiac cruise and explore landing sites;
  • more face time with expert guides and special guests;
  • plenty of opportunity to get to know your fellow passengers;
  • access to smaller communities, more remote beaches, narrower fjords and channels, and more.
  • with fewer guests, it's easier to get everyone off the ship and into Zodiacs when perfect weather conditions or wildlife are spotted.

Your ship is your home base for the duration of your trip and while each vessel has its own character, you’ll be comfortable and well taken care of whether you’re cruising the Northwest Passage or exploring Spitsbergen.  

Scoresby Sound in East Greenland is the largest fjord system in the world.

Each of Quark Expeditions' small polar ships is equipped with:

  • Zodiacs
  • outside cabins with exterior views and ensuite facilities
  • a dining room with unreserved seating serving chef-prepared meals
  • a presentation room or lounge for expert lectures and presentations
  • a bar staffed by professional bartenders
  • a polar library
  • a polar boutique
  • a gym or exercise room
  • a small clinic with an onboard doctor
  • open decks for wildlife viewing and photography
  • an open bridge policy, at the Captain’s discretion

Ocean Adventurer giving it a more contemporary interior, brand new bathrooms and soft furnishings, and major technical improvements you can read about here.

The Ultramarine offers two twin-engine helicopters, a fleet of 20 quick-deploy Zodiacs, advanced sustainability systems, superb onboard amenities including a spa, and the largest portfolio of off-ship adventure options in the Polar Regions—many of them supported by helicopter.

How can I get to the Arctic Circle?

Quark Expeditions guests kayak in Ilulissat Icefjord in West Greenland.
Kayaking in the Arctic

Want to learn more about planning your own epic journey to the Arctic? 

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