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.