Polar bears, ice fields: New cruises across Russian Arctic bring rare adventure

BOLSHEVIK ISLAND, Russian Arctic – As vacation destinations go, Baranov Station is a bit bleak. Located on a remote, ice-covered island deep in the Russian Arctic, the small research outpost offers such attractions as a view of weathered meteorological huts and a walk past rusted oil drums. 

But Alan Shenkin, 74, of Glasgow, Scotland, and his companions from the expedition ship Bremen aren’t complaining. Just setting foot on this spot – halfway along the little-traveled Arctic sea route known as the Northeast Passage – is a feat of off-the-beaten-path travel. More people get to the North Pole each year than get here. 

“There’s something special about traveling to a place that has been so rarely explored,” says Shenkin, gazing across an ice-clogged coastline that wasn’t even known to the world until a 1913 polar expedition. “I’ve been to many out-of-the-way places, but never something like this.” 

Operated by Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, the 155-passenger Bremen is one of the first western cruise ships to carry travelers such as Shenkin across the Northeast Passage, which connects Europe to the Far East by way of the icy Arctic seas at the top of Russia.

Until just the last decade or so, traveling across the waterway meant a trip in a Russian icebreaker – or a ship following one. But rapidly shrinking ice coverage across the Arctic, driven by climate change, is making it more accessible to traditional cruise vessels – at least those that are “ice-strengthened” to operate in such regions. In addition to Hapag-Lloyd, at least three more western cruise lines with expedition ships plan to offer voyages across the Northeast Passage in the coming years. 

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Not that the route ever will be mainstream. Even as it becomes more accessible, it’s just too far off the grid. Setting off from Tromso, Norway, long a hub for Arctic exploration, Bremen travels for four weeks and more than 4,000 miles without passing a single town where it can resupply. The “port calls” are forlorn, wind-swept islands that as often as not are covered in thick glaciers. Bundled up is the dress code.

Still, the passengers on board are far from mainstream cruisers. Coming from 12 countries including Germany, the United States, South Africa and China, they are that rarer subset of travelers willing to endure sometimes harsh conditions including freezing temperatures to experience one of the world’s most unusual environments.   

This is why we came here,” says Hal Osteen, 75, of Boulder, Colorado, as Bremen plows through a field of floating ice in the East Siberian Sea. 

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