Cruising The Winter Wonderlands

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Think of cruising and you could be forgiven for believing it’s all about the sun, deck barbecues, and sipping cocktails around the pool. For travellers with a sense of adventure, however, there are destinations offering a different experience from the cruising norm, with rugged scenery, ice, and snowcapped mountains, coupled with wildlife encounters, and memorable events powered by nature. Here’s three.  


She is a creamy Alaskan husky with dreamy eyes, and as she slips her nose affectionately into the palm of my hand, I know the effort of getting up at dawn to fly to the top of a glacier and be towed by sled dogs would be the two hours of pure magic the brochure promised. Welcome to Alaska, a last frontier with over 76,000 kilometres of rugged shoreline and four million acres of national parklands fusing dramatic scenery with wildlife. It’s one of the world’s most popular cruising regions offering a dizzying array of experiences; glaciers and wildlife are two, with a third being a chance to get up-close-and-personal with Alaskan sled dogs and a cuteness factor off the scale. This “don’t miss” experience begins with an exhilarating chopper flight between glaciers, through carved peaks and over lush rainforest, before swooping down to land at a dogsled camp, a bizarre world of blinding white ice, echoing with the sound of overexcited barking. You’re assigned to a musher and a set of 12 dogs, and before you know it you’re off on a fast and bumpy ride. There’s no crowds, just the wind in your face, and the sound of panting dogs in your ears, and at the end a “meet and cuddle” with husky puppies in the ultimate photo op. 

The season: May to September.

Who cruises there: Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania Cruises, APT, Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, Scenic Tours.

Where you'll go: Alaska’s capital, Juneau, is a small city on the Gastineau Channel, while Ketchikan is famous for being the salmon capital of the world. Skagway was born during the Klondike gold rush, Seward is surrounded by national parks and forests, and Haines is home of the largest population of American bald eagles. Popular jumping on and off ports include San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. 

What you'll see and do: Go orca whale watching, ride the tramway to the summit of Mount Roberts, or visit the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau; sightsee by floatplane, go bear watching, or take a Deadliest Catch crab fisherman’s tour in Ketchikan; ride the White Pass Railroad or hike Tongass National Forest in Skagway; cruise the Kenai Fjords, hike Exit Glacier, or go fishing in Seward; get up close and personal with bald eagles at the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, or learn about indigenous culture in Haines.

Hot tips: May and September are coolest with cheaper fares, while in July and August temperatures can hit 30C, with mosquitoes and more ships in port. Some cruise lines offer extended land-based cruise tours pre or post-cruise.


As our inflatable zodiac boat heads into the morning sunshine, someone spots a pod of orca whales in the distance, their dorsal fins rising and falling gently in the indigo water. It’s a mere distraction for what lies ahead, however; the chance to tick chinstrap penguins off our wildlife sighting list. As we step on to Half Moon Island the ice crunches underfoot, and the ruckus of thousands of these black and white birds calling out to their newly hatched fluffy chicks rings in our ears. More than 100 years after Douglas Mawson’s historic expeditions, Antarctica remains an enigma, a wilderness of “other world” quality which can only be reached by ship. During a short cruise season expedition vessels from basic to luxury push through ice floes with ease. Itineraries are flexible thanks to fickle weather and moving icebergs, but each day exploring this unique part of the world affords a new discovery, whether you’re cruising through an ice-choked channel, or exploring penguin rookeries. 

The season: November to March.

Who cruises there: Lindblad Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, Abercrombie & Kent, APT, Seabourn Cruise Line, Scenic Tours, Ponant, Aurora Expeditions.

Where you'll go: The Falkland Islands are home to large colonies of king penguins, while South Georgia is where the famous explorer, Sir Earnest Shackelton, is buried. Deception Island is an active volcano and popular landing spot, Elephant Island is the habitat of chinstrap and gentoo penguins, and Port Lockroy is a British Station on Wienke Island where you can buy souvenirs. Many cruises also start and end in Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina.

What you'll see and do: Hiking on Deception Island, sending a postcard from Port Lockroy, spotting fur and elephant seals on Half Moon Island, walking up to Deacon Peak on Penguin Island, scenic cruising of the Lemaire Channel, dubbed the “Kodak Gap”, swimming in hot and cold water off the South Shetland Islands, Polar snorkelling.

Hot tips: Early season cruises are cheaper but have fewer daylight hours, while peak season has calmer seas, and the best wildlife activity including penguin chicks. Longer South America itineraries can include a detour to Antarctica.

The Arctic

Suddenly a dramatic ballet of dancing colours appears in the dark sky in a mad swirl of fluorescent pale green and pink; it’s mesmerising, like watching a heavenly lava lamp. What’s got us out of our cozy beds, and out on deck in the middle of a freezing winter night, is the aurora borealis or northern lights, and it’s living up to its reputation as one of earth’s most stunning natural shows. For some there’s no better way to see it all than on an Arctic cruise, a voyage with a difference across the North Pole, to popular destinations including Iceland, Greenland or Norway. Viewing the northern lights from the high seas is just one good reason to cruise here, as in the warmer months there are other alluring experiences on offer, such as cruising the dramatic Norwegian Fjords, and wildlife encounters with the mighty “kings of the arctic”, polar bears. 

The season: The main season is May to September, however, there are some itineraries during the northern hemisphere winter months specifically for the lights.

Who cruises there: Lindblad Expeditions, Azamara Club Cruises, P&O World Cruises, Hurtigruten, Aurora Expeditions, Quark Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, Abercrombie & Kent, Fred. Olsen Cruises (note to sub: there is a dot and gap between Fred and Olsen), Compagnie du Ponant.

Where you'll go: Longyearbyen is the capital of Spitsbergen in the dramatic Svalbard archipelago, while Russia’s Wrangel Island is believed to have the world’s highest number of polar bear dens. Iluslissat Icefjord on Greenland’s west is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Norway’s fjord-carved coastline stretches from the Hanseatic town of Bergen past the North Cape, and Svalbard lies north of the Arctic Circle where the midnight sun never sets. Tromso is a popular departure point, however, some longer cruises depart from further flung destinations including Copenhagen.

What you'll see and do: Glacier walking, dog sledding and hiking in Longyearbyen, polar bear watching in Wrangel, viewing the magnificent Jakobshavn Glacier, scenic cruising in Norway’s Sognefjord, Naeroyfjord or Geirangerfjord, wildlife spotting in Svalbard, visiting the Arctic Cathedral and Polar Museum in Tromso.

Hot tips: The best time to see the northern lights is during the northern hemisphere winter, however, summer cruises offer 24-hour daylight, with the chance to see more animals including polar bears rearing their young.


Joanna Hall