Tuesday, January 17, 2017

a cruise through the Northwest Passage

For centuries, a navigable route linking the Atlantic and Pacific through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago was a holy grail for explorers. Roald Amundsen finally conquered the Northwest Passage in 1906, but since then only 254 transits have been made – of which just 53 were by ships carrying passengers. So this is a voyage on which the ordinary traveller can still feel like a pioneer, says Peter Hughes in the FT. It has become more straightforward over the years, owing to the dwindling of Arctic sea ice – but that is another reason it remains “at the top of bucket lists”: once the ice has gone, it won’t be much of an adventure.

The easiest way to reach the Northwest Passage is on an “expedition cruise” on a  strengthened ship such as the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a polar-class icebreaker built in 1981. Carrying up to 90 guests, she has “compact” and “functional” interiors, but the atmosphere on board is “sociable”, the food is “homely and copious”, and there are lectures on everything from Inuit culture to Arctic birds. With a rounded hull and no stabilisers, the ship rolls “like a bathtub toy” in stormy weather (take plenty of seasickness pills), and shudders and bangs dramatically as she smashes through pack ice up to three metres thick. Border formalities can also create long delays, so scheduled landings (in Zodiac inflatables, or on one of the ship’s helicopters) are far from guaranteed.

However, you may get a chance to visit Beechey Island, where you can see the lonely graves of three of explorer Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated crew. There are also trips to indigenous settlements, and in search of the wonderful local wildlife, including whales, polar bears and the walruses that gather in their hundreds on the island of Big Diomede. But the spectacular sea and landscape, as the ship smashes its way across the top of the world, is often distraction enough.

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