Exploring the Arctic or Antarctic by boat is an experience like no other, as these secluded regions deliver opportunities to explore some of the last untouched frontiers on earth. Of course, the characteristics that keep these destinations so special are the same ones that pose a challenge to explorers – from long open-ocean crossings and ever-shifting sea ice, to powerful and unpredictable weather fronts.

For this reason, many polar expedition vessels are behemoths, capable of cracking through thick ice and carrying hundreds of passengers at a time. But, travelling to the world’s most isolated wildernesses as one amongst many, many other guests, is unlikely to offer the rewarding experiences and cherished memories you’d hoped for.

Thankfully, there is now a selection of smaller polar expedition ships that are ideal for a more intimate, polar expedition cruise experience. These smaller vessels are often rich in historical charm and unique characteristics, creating highly personal experiences with just a handful of guests on board.

We’ve selected and reviewed a few of the very best small polar expedition cruise ships below, so keep reading to find your favourite.

Stockholm

Built in 1953, Stockholm is a classic vessel that has been extensively refurbished to meet the desires of discerning modern explorers. Thankfully, this capable vessel has kept much of its original character and evokes memories of a bygone era, with rich wooden panelling, brass furnishings, and unique features including a crow’s nest. Stockholm measures in at 40-metres long and welcomes small expedition groups of just 12 guests. Passengers are accommodated in six ensuite cabins which are warmly furnished with comfortable wooden bunk beds.

After more than 20 years spent navigating the waters of Svalbard, Stockholm and its first-class crew are about as experienced as they come – boasting a track record of being able to reach remote sites that are often inaccessible to other ships. The team is also unquestionably passionate about the unspoiled nature and unique wildlife of the polar regions, and their curiosity and excitement is palpable. Each of Stockholm’s two zodiacs accommodates just six guests per guide, meaning plenty of personalised attention. Even between excursions, several observation decks around the vessel ensure guests never miss a moment of excitement, and the opportunity to climb into the 10-metre-high crow’s nest alongside the expedition leader is an experience not to be missed. 

The Stockholm navigating through ice in Svalbard. Image courtesy of PolarQuest.
The Stockholm navigating through ice in Svalbard. Image courtesy of PolarQuest.

Sjøveien

Sjøveien is a capable ship constructed in 1964 and utilised by the Norwegian Government and coast guard, among other roles. Following substantial renovations in 2017, this vessel now offers premium passenger comfort among its many other attributes. At 41-metres long, Sjøveien is a similar size to other similar vessels, and also accommodates a total of just 12 guests. The ship’s eight cabins are spread out over three separate decks, and offer a choice of twin or double bed sleeping configurations, catering to differing budgets and preferences.

Interior spaces aboard Sjøveien are surprisingly modern, combining nautical and Scandinavian aesthetics through light-coloured wooden furniture, plush, neutral upholstery, and simple linens. As a result, Sjøveien provides a warm and inviting space to return to after an Arctic adventure, ensuring guests are well-rested and thoroughly refreshed at the start of each day. And, to top it off, guests can spend their evenings soaking in an open-air wood-fired hot tub situated on Sjøveien’s top deck!

With an ice-class rating of 1C, Sjøveien can comfortably deal with ice up to 40-cm thick, making it strong enough to explore the Svalbard Archipelago. And, this vessel’s modest size makes it nimble enough to navigate through narrow openings to reach some of the more isolated destinations. Daily excursions are offered throughout each voyage, facilitated by two onboard zodiacs, while talks and presentations are also provided by the guides – keeping guests fully immersed in their unique surroundings.

Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn is an ex-herring lugger constructed in 1947, lending an air of authenticity to its adventurous expeditions in the far north. With its flourish of sails and rigging, this stunning three-masted schooner oozes old-world charm from the outside, while its internal areas have benefitted from several refurbishments. Social spaces are adorned with golden wood panelling and colourful upholstery while ambient lighting creates a casual and inviting atmosphere. At 50-metres long, Rembrandt van Rijn can accommodate 33 guests in 16 ensuite cabins which come in a variety of bunk-style sleeping configurations. These cabins reflect the sleek and simple style found elsewhere aboard this vessel, and offer plenty of welcoming warmth and comfort.

With the opportunity to travel under sail, a polar expedition voyage aboard Rembrandt van Rijn is a unique experience. And, while this vessel may appear less robust than others, travellers can rest assured that Rembrandt van Rijn has been retrofitted for operations in some of the world’s most challenging conditions. Among these modifications, the vessel’s bow was reinforced to allow deeper penetration into the world’s polar regions and all communication and navigation equipment updated. Voyages use two inflatable onboard zodiacs to dedicate as much time as possible to shore and coastal exploration, while the main vessel also offers ample above-deck observation areas, even when under sail. 

Balto

When it comes to intimate expeditions in the Arctic, Balto truly is in a class of its own. At 40-metres in length and with three decks, this outstanding vessel accommodates a maximum of just 12 guests, ensuring plenty of room and personalised service onboard. Its master cabin situated towards the aft of the main deck is one of the most spacious currently on offer in the polar regions, measuring in at around 30-square-metres.

Despite being one of the smaller vessels to explore these remote destinations, guests can rest assured that Balto is well-equipped to handle almost anything that comes its way. Constructed from high-grade corten steel which reinforces the length of its hull, and double-bottomed with ballast tanks, this ship boasts an ice-class of 1A, enabling it to navigate to some of the more isolated regions throughout the season. What’s more, Balto’s electric diesel propulsion ensures smooth manoeuvring without vibration, making it the perfect platform for film and photo production. Certain spaces aboard this boat can also be used as workshops, while onboard cranes make light work of heavy lifting, and zodiacs facilitate shore landings and coastal exploration.

But, perhaps the most impressive aspect of this ship is how it manages to balance these superb expedition capabilities with genuinely-outstanding comfort. Interior spaces aboard Balto are both sophisticated and stylish, featuring rich mahogany finishes with beautiful brass details. And, no matter how cold and uncompromising the surroundings, guests can always curl up beside the warm stove or relax in the cedar-lined sauna for a truly Scandinavian-style experience.

Balto sailing the coast of Greenland. Image courtesy of PolarQuest.
Balto sailing the coast of Greenland. Image courtesy of PolarQuest.

Quest

The sturdy Quest was originally built to serve as a ferry on Greenland’s western coast. In 2005, it underwent extensive renovations to transform it into the impressive ice-class expedition vessel it is today, while additional refurbishments in 2018 focussed on adding extra comfort and style to the guest cabins and social spaces. And, while it may be a little less charming than some of the other vessels in this list, what Quest lacks in charisma, it more than makes up for in convenience and comfort.

Measuring 49.65m, Quest is still quite modest compared to most other polar cruise ships, but boasts a little extra deck space, with room for a few extra passengers. Quest comfortably accommodates a maximum of 53 guests in 26 cabins which come in double, twin and triple sleeping configurations.

When it comes to the adventure itself, Quest offers several spacious observation decks which deliver panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes and wildlife. Plus, passengers are welcome to visit the bridge around the clock for a chat with the captain or to make use of this special vantage point. Of course, daily excursions are also organised, utilising Quest’s fleet of five zodiacs to cruise the coastline and land on shore.


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