Despite a recent surge of popularity amongst intrepid travelers and photographers, there is still so much of Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and neighboring islands like Svalbard that remain relatively unchartered. From Greenland's isolated (think only 560 hunting inhabitants) island villages to the sprawling Scoresbysund's astonishing glacier systems to Norway's Lofton islands' more remote fjord compounds to Northern Iceland’s bubbling hot ponds, the mystery that surrounds this part of the Arctic circle is still very seen (and felt)—especially when you visit on water.
With much of Eastern Greenland only accessible by boat and plane, an expedition cruise will take you deep into the heart of the small seaside enclaves and up the area's most unchartered mountain peaks. In addition, much of Iceland and Norway's coast is speckled with towns that boast just 100 (or less) full-time residents, with many only able to travel by ferry or seaplane. Plus, the Faroe Islands, polar bear haven Svalbard and the mystery-shrouded island of Jan Mayen can only be discovered via boat.
Whether you’ve visited the Arctic before or are embarking on your first adventure, these are some of the best ways to experience the depth and breadth of this biodiverse and culturally-rich region.
Weave Around Ice Fields in Kayaks
Not just an activity for thrill-seekers, kayaking has long been a primary mode of transportation along Greenland’s waterways for decades. Adjacent to the ocean and full of icebergs, Narsaq is a favorite spot for both novice and expert kayakers. Located in southern Greenland, this colorful town offers the chance to see the country’s rich fjord systems, scenic waters, and magnificent icecap up close. With the ability to maneuver closer to hundred-year-old glaciers and floating chunks of ice, you’ll have the chance to both experience the magnitude of these icebergs and marvel in their iridescent color—a mix of shimmering blue, stark white, and even black. Beyond Greenland, most Arctic expedition cruise outfitters—from Quark to Hurtigruten—offer sea kayaking directly off the ship as they traverse from Iceland through Norway’s fjords and the remote icefields around all three countries. As a bonus, the ships offer wet suits, sturdy kayaks, and dry bags to keep your stuff dry. Although local residents’ kayak 365 days a year, the best time to hit the water is from May through September when the wildlife is out in full force and the temperatures aren't as icy.
Whale Watch in Northern Iceland
There are an astounding 23 species of whales that live off the coast of Iceland, with most found around the Northern Coast. Although you’ll have ample time to watch for whales from your cruise ship, a specific whale-watching tour is key to catching a glimpse of some of the more elusive species. If you’re spending a few extra days pre or post cruise in Reykjavik, book a whale-watching tour from Husavik. From Minke and humpback whales to the blue whales (the largest in the ocean), you’ll also see dolphins, sea birds (like guillemots and gannets) as well as Iceland’s most adorable local—the puffin. During summer, the sun doesn’t set until well after 2am, so many tours go well into the evening and offer chances to relax in some of the sheltered bays off the coast, including Skjálfandi and Eyjafjörður.
Search for Polar Bears in Svalbard
Remote, rugged, and isolated, few people have the opportunity to discover the Svalbard archipelago, which sits off the Eastern coast of Greenland and is surrounded by three seas—the Greenland Sea, Norwegian Sea, and the Barents Sea. Although it’s a part of Norway, the people of Svalbard have their own distinct culture and identity, which comes from living in such a harsh environment. A tour of Longyearbyen (the capital city) is imperative for getting a glimpse of local life, but most flock to this collection of islands for a chance to witness a polar bear in the wild. Your cruise ship will navigate around the rocky enclaves and cliffs to where the polar bears favor, including Monaco Bay and Glacier, the Austofnna icecap—which spans nearly 5,000 square miles—and the norther bay of Liefdefjorden. Make sure to bring binoculars or a telephoto lens so you can capture the majestic polar bear from the safety of your ship. Svalbard is also home to a vast collection of sea birds and other wild life, like auks (diving birds), bearded seals, walruses and harbor seals.
Discover Inuit Culture
Found in Western Canada, parts of Siberia Russia and Greenland, the Inuit tribes have been residents of the Arctic for thousands of years. To see what life is like in the one of northernmost places in the world, explore Qaanaaq in Greenland—a typical port stop on most Arctic cruises—a tight-knit community with a deep-rooted history and passionate Inuit culture. The Thule people settled in Greenland's upper peninsula around the 9th century AD and formed what was formerly called Thule. They passed down traditions of fishing, kayaking, and dog sledding which can still be seen to this day. In other parts of Greenland, you'll find that most residents have a unique blend of Inuit and Danish blood, and both lineages can be seen in their crafts—from hunting to kaffemiks (a Danish inspired coffee house). More Inuit culture can be found in one of the country’s most beautiful towns, Ittoqqortoormiit, a settlement of around 400 people in the Sermersooq municipality. Here you have free reign to explore the town, visit local hunters and take in the rocky and expansive landscape.
Swim in Arctic Waters
Swimming isn’t exactly as large a part of the Arctic culture as say, ice-fishing or snowmobiling, but many intrepid travelers are taking the chance to tick this unusual and daring activity off their lifetime bucket list during an Arctic expedition. Although you can technically swim along most of Iceland, Norway, Western Canada, and Greenland’s shorelines, locals of this region wouldn’t recommend it. In Greenland, locals advise visiting the beaches of the Southern Shore, which share the same climate as the Shetland Islands. Here, you’ll find more of them sunbathing and taking in the views of the icebergs bobbing up and down in the glacial blue waters. In Norway, the temperature of both the land and water is far more moderate in the summertime, and the country’s coastlines offer miles of sandy beaches. The beaches along the Northern and Western coasts—which face the Arctic sea—are far colder (and often require a wetsuit), while the Southern coasts offer waters as warm as 70 degrees F. Regarding Iceland, it’s best to save your suit for the hot pools, since the harsh Arctic waters that crash against the iconic beaches here are far too dangerous to even consider a dip.
Tackle Epic Hikes Along Fjords, Gorges, and Glaciers
What you’ll find most alluring during your port stops in the Arctic is the sheer volume of ways to get outdoors. Most major Arctic expedition lines offer an active excursion, giving you the chance to break a sweat while taking in the sheer beauty of the unrivaled landscapes. Abercrombie & Kent’s Iceland and Greenland cruise takes it up another notch by offering rappelling and guided hikes from famed mountaineer Alex Pancoe. Hiking trails abound in Iceland, with the chance to trek through snowy passes in Snæfellsjökull National Park, hike up to the top of a volcano in the Westland Islands or a walk along Glymur, Iceland’s tallest waterfall. In Greenland, hiking isn’t reserved for just for National Parks, as there is no privately-owned land at all—meaning anywhere is free game when it comes to hiking. However, most cruise teams will lead you on guided hikes (due to the fear of unsuspecting wildlife).
In East Greenland, simply head for the icebergs in the Ammassalik area. Deep gorges, tall peaks and staggering climbs make this one of the most difficult treks in the country. Kangerlussuaq, a destination in itself for all types of travelers, is another favorite as you’re offered a chance to trek over the magnificent Greenland Icecap as the colorful village fades behind you. Norway, like Greenland, is a beacon for hiking, and most stops offer a way to explore the country’s famous Fjords by food. During a visit to Lysefjord, hike the heart-pounding trail up to Pulpit Rock—which is just a jutting chunk of granite with a sheer drop on three sides of a square plateau. The two-hour hike offers a degree of fitness, but you’ll enjoy breath-taking panoramas from the top. Some cruises even offer the chance to hike on the bue ice of the Nigardsbreen glacier in the Sognal region of Northern Norway, and even a chance to climb to the top of Mount Molden, which offers incredible views of the Fjord valley.
Sample Local Cuisine
There’s a reason Nordic cuisine is regarded as some of the best in the world—it’s comprised of almost entirely fresh, local ingredients. Seafood reigns king on most menus and the type of seafood varies slightly by country. In Iceland, organic cod, lobsters and langoustines, salmon, monkfish and even minke whale. Start with dishes like Plokkfishkur (fish mashed with potatoes), fresh scallop fish stew with bold seasonings, or seared salmon with fresh berry jam. They are also known for their grass-fed meats, like beef and lamb. Many locals also eat horse — typically as a jerky. You actually can’t visit Reykjavik without stopping at the most popular restaurant in town, the hot dog stand. Here you’ll enjoy an all lamb hot dog topped with mustard, crunchy onions, and remoulade. And if you’re feeling daring, try the fermented shark. But only do it in the company of local Icelandic’s and have a full shot of Black Death to wash it all down. The fare of Greenland is similar in the main towns, but the locals of the small villages still heavily rely on hunting and whaling for food. Don’t be shocked to see whale and seal skins hanging to dry and whale being cooked in local homes. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of local fare to savor that isn’t whale, including their famous cake—Kalaallit Kaagiat—which is served as a welcome to the village.Arctic char, muskox and the bog bilberry (or arctic blueberry) are found on most menus too. Norway’s cuisine is similar to Icelands, with a primary focus on fresh seafood. Breakfast, or frokosf, is typically a spread of open-faced sandwiches with jams and cured fish (like salmon or cod) and fresh cheeses. Lunch is similar, with a focus on fresh or dried fish and dinner is their main meal, and typically features their game meats (like lamb or minced meat) with potatoes and hearty pan-fried cakes. If you’re in Bergen, you’d be remiss not to try their famous fish stew—Bergensk fiskesuppe—which is made from a creamy and delicate broth, much like a bouillabaisse, that’s filed with haddock, cod, pollock and more.
Warm Up in Hot Springs
The weather in the Arctic is best described as unforgiving, even in the summertime, with temperatures dipping below freezing on some nights. Warm up with a dip in any of the hundreds of hot springs or ponds throughout the region. In Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is the most famous, and most expensive and touristic. Get off the beaten path and visit some of the country’s smaller hot springs, like Landmannalaugar which sit in the rhyolite mountains and come from a 15th-century lava flow. A cold spring also flows nearby, so shock your system by jumping into both. In the countryside of east Iceland is breathtaking Lake Myvatn, Grjotagja, a flooded subterranean volcanic fissure that’s filled with quite warm water. It’s lit only through a narrow entrance in a cave, so a dip here is not for the faint of heart. Snorralaug, which is located in the Western region of Reykholt, is home to one of the oldest springs in Iceland that dates back to the 12thcentury. Unlike neighboring Iceland, whose hot springs were formed by volcanic activity, Greenland’s hot pools and springs were formed from the friction in the deeper layers of the earth’s crust. Founded by Norsemen over 1,000 years ago, southern Greenland’s Uunartoq’s crystal-clear, 97-to-100-degree pools provide some of the best 360-degree views of the area’s snow-capped mountain peaks and drifting icebergs. Warmer waters are not out of possibility either, since a visit to Uunartoq’s natural created hot springs offer the chance to swim in waters that hit up to 38 degrees C.