The Arctic covers an enormous geographical area, and understanding the many different expedition cruise itineraries on offer can pose a real challenge. Thankfully, the majority of operators follow similar routes, albeit with a few unique destinations and experiences thrown in along the way. Once you know the fundamental itineraries on offer in the Arctic, the nuances of each individual voyage become far easier to understand.

To help you plan your polar trip, we’ve put together a guide to the common routes taken by expedition cruises in two iconic destinations – Greenland and Svalbard – revealing where they start and finish, and which attractions are explored along the way.

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Svalbard expedition itineraries

Svalbard circumnavigation

Departing from Longyearbyen, these itineraries circumnavigate Spitsbergen and other islands of Svalbard. The best chance of completing the voyage is in August, when the sea ice is at its weakest, with around a 50% chance of success in July. From Longyearbyen, the vessel usually heads north towards Krossfjorden’s 14th of July Glacier and Liefdefjorden’s Monaco Glacier. If conditions allow, Seven Islands mark the northernmost point of this voyage.

Most itineraries then head into the Hinlopen Strait, located between the islands of Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet. This strait is home to polar bears, seals, walruses, and whales, as well as thousands of Brünnich’s guillemots on the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet. At this point, some vessels may also opt to circumnavigate the island of Nordaustlandet, exploring the rarely visited island of Kvitøya along the way.

Once out of the Hinlopen Strait, Barents Island is a popular stop for excursions, though the presence of polar bears can rule out the possibility of a landing. The spire-like peaks of Hornsund are next on the itinerary, providing the perfect example of why early explorers named the island Spitsbergen, meaning “pointed mountains”. Back on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the large fjord system of Bellsund offers excellent insight into the region’s history and wildlife, and will likely be the final point of exploration. Piles of beluga whale skeletons can be seen at Ahlstrandhalvøya, while healthy beluga pods can still be spotted in the side fjords. At this point, the vessel will return to Longyearbyen to disembark.

The cliffs of Alkefjellet, Spitsbergen.
The cliffs of Alkefjellet, Spitsbergen.

Spitsbergen Island

When thick sea ice may rule out the complete circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, many operators simply stick to the island’s western side. Again, these itineraries will depart from Longyearbyen, before travelling up and down the coast, taking in as many highlights as possible. Krossfjorden’s 14th of July Glacier is normally the most northerly stop on the trip, though some vessels may push further north to visit Liefdefjorden’s Monaco Glacier. Other possible highlights include Ny Ålesund, the northernmost community in the world, and walrus encounters at Poolepynten, on the island of Prins Karls Forland.

The vessel will then head south, passing Isfjorden and Longyearbyen, in order to explore Spitsbergen’s southwest coast, where sites like Hornsund and Bellsund offer plenty of interest. Some trips may even venture around the island’s southern tip to visit additional spots such as the bay of Isbukta, before heading back into Longyearbyen to disembark. 

Greenland expedition itineraries

West Greenland

Embarking in Nuuk or Kangerlussuaq, these trips explore Greenland’s western coast within the Arctic Circle, visiting as many highlights as possible. The island’s second largest town, Sisimiut, is first up on the itinerary, where guests can stop at the old blue church with the gate made of whale bone, as well as explore plenty of trail walks. Disko Bay will likely follow, an area known for whale watching and several exciting destinations to explore, including the island of Qeqertarsuaq, the community of Ilulissat, and the UNESCO World Heritage Ilulissat Icefjord – home to the largest glacier outside of Antarctica.

For some, Disko Bay marks the turning point of the trip, after which the vessel will begin its return journey to port. However, some exploratory cruises will venture even further north, visiting isolated attractions such as Uummannaq and Upernavik. These remote regions are known for their natural beauty and unique culture, providing unparalleled insight into the local communities and wildlife alike. Several operators also offer trips that embark and disembark in Ilulissat, focusing on Disko Bay and Uummannaq.

Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland
Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

South Greenland

Often described as the Arctic Patagonia, southern Greenland is a sight to behold and should be high on the list for anyone with a sense of adventure. Vessels usually embark in the settlement of Narsarsuaq, before venturing out to explore the fjord-frayed coast. Highlights include the likes of Lindenow Fjord, Cape Farewell, and Prins Christian Sund. Tasermiut Fjord is normally a highlight for these voyages, where guests have plenty of opportunities for hiking, climbing, and camping.

This southern region is where Erik the Red chose to settle, and visitors can explore the surprisingly fertile lands. Itineraries also often make the most of relatively easy access to the Greenland Ice Sheet, giving guests the chance to become one of only a few people to step foot on this enormous body of ice. Once the trip comes to a close, the vessel will return to Narsarsuaq for disembarkation.

East Greenland

Trips to east Greenland focus on Scoresby Sund, one of the world’s largest fjord systems. Iceland is a popular point of departure for these trips, though some depart from locations in Greenland, such as Constable Point, which is within Scoresby Sund itself. Itineraries are entirely dependent on the conditions, though highlights usually include Milne Island and the surrounding Føhn Fjord, Røde Fjord and Ø Fjord. Some trips may even head deeper into Scoresby Sund, entering Greenland’s Northeast National Park on the way to areas such as Nordvestfjord. Most vessels visiting Scoresby Sund will also make a stop at the isolated settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit.

Visitors looking for something different can find itineraries that include forays into Kong Oscar Fjord, which is the northern neighbour of Scoresby Sund. Here, landings are often possible at Ella Ø, an island renowned for its rugged cliffs and ice-choked waters. Likewise, trips heading south from Scoresby Sund offer the chance to explore other less-visited areas, such as Nansen fjord, Sermilik fjord, and the town of Tasiilaq.

Evening light in Scoresby Sund, Greenland.
Evening light in Scoresby Sund, Greenland.

Combination itineraries

Greenland and Svalbard

Normally sailing in either direction between Reykjavik and Longyearbyen, these exceptional itineraries link the eastern coast of Greenland with the Svalbard Archipelago, combining two marquee Arctic destinations in a single trip. For trips embarking in Iceland, the vessel will first cross the Denmark Strait, in order to explore the beautiful Scoresby Sund and Greenland’s northernmost settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit. From here, there are two options. Some itineraries will head north and enter the remote and rarely visited fjord systems of Kong Oscar and Kaiser Franz Josef. Others, will head east into the open ocean to visit the isolated island of Jan Mayen.

Whether your itinerary explores Jan Mayen or delves deeper into Greenland’s east coast, a two-day open-ocean crossing will be required to reach the next stop – Svalbard. Once here, vessels usually embark on a thorough exploration of the archipelago, ensuring visitors see as many of the highlights as possible, particularly polar bears. Common stops include Krossfjorden’s 14th of July Glacier, Liefdefjorden’s Monaco Glacier, and the Hinlopen Strait. Vessels may also explore Barents Island and Edge Island, as well as attempting to visit the archipelago’s easternmost island of Kvitøya, before disembarking in Longyearbyen.

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