Be informed

The arctic is vast… this is not a country nor a continent, but a region high North that is composed by an ocean surrounded by land. The arctic ocean hosts in its center the North geographic pole. All around we find the northern part of Norway, Iceland, the coast of Russia, the Bering sea, Alaska, the Northern arctic territories from Canada and Greenland. Unlike Antarctica which is unmanned, you find in the arctic several settlements, different populations and languages. Of course, there are vast areas that are just wild and human free.

Around 2 millions travelers worldwide visit the arctic each year! There are many possibilities to go there, many different ways to discover these places and to travel. This is a non exhaustive list that I present you now. You can focus a trip on the discovery of:

  • a new culture (the Icelandic, Norvegian, Inuit, Chukchi...)
  • the flora, fauna and nature (in Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, Russia, Alaska...)
  • a sport activity (kayaking, dog sledging, ski-mobiling, skiing, mountaineering, kite-surfing on the snow...)

I am going to describe here mostly the way to reach these fascinating places by ship, for focusing on learning about the nature, enjoying beautiful landscapes, and looking for wildlife. I will provide you a few tips also if you wish to organize things by yourself.

First of all, keep in mind that each destination is different and has its own challenge. The polar regions are very arid. These are cold deserts. This means that the concentration of wildlife is very low. If we know where to find penguins in Antarctica , that’s because penguins are seabird and they come back to their colony year after year. The emblematic animals from the North (walrusses, belugas, polar bears, reindeers, musk oxen, arctic foxes, etc…) are always on the move and do not make nests! This means that the strategy of traveling to spot animals in the North is very simple: this is like a safari. You go ten times to the same places, and you will have ten different experiences. For that reason you need to see a trip in the high North as an arctic safari. There is no plan, no itinerary. You need to be patient, look around for wildlife, and then after one, two, three, four of five days, the magic happens. So far I never had a trip focusing on the high arctic without being able to see a polar bear… However there is always a risk not to find one! No one on Earth can promise to spot such an animal. I had trips where I could see one bear in a distance, other many from very close! That’s the law. You must accept it, with whoever you travel.

As usual in the polar regions, you must be flexible as the entire voyage will be ice and weather dependent. In the practice, it is impossible to plan far in advance the itinerary of your trip.

The landmasses of the northern hemisphere are spread out till very far North actually. Though this is for us relatively simple, with the means of transport we have today, to reach the high arctic.

The arctic region is often defined as that area where the average temperature for the warmest month is below +10°C or +50°F (Map: Wikicommon).

Be mentally prepared

The right mentality to adopt for a voyage to the arctic is:

  • focus on what you get and not on what you want. It can be really extremely frustrating not to get what you specifically want although what you get is a thousand times better!
  • forget about the pictures in the catalog with the head of a polar bear showing up through a port hole or a bear standing in front of the ship's bow. These moments do happen, however these are exceptionally rare. (I never saw that for example, although I have seen already hundreds of polar bears in the nature, including other very rare moments.)
  • be patient: looking for the arctic wildlife is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Once again, each trip to the arctic is an arctic safari!
  • in the high arctic you will experience a permanent daylight and the midnight sun during summer time! Anything can happen at any time! Be as much as you can on the lookout.
  • no one can tell far in advance where to find bears or belugas, where the sea ice is, when storms are coming, when the fog prevents you from going ashore (because of bear danger!), when the snow conditions are not good, or when the winds are not appropriate for landing. So be mindful and respect the decisions of your leaders.

Landing by Zodiac ashore Leading a hike in polar bear country. The most useful weapons are our binoculars, as bears can be anywhere at anytime!

"Weather and ice are the masters"

Inuit proverb: Sila Sigou Tlou Nalaket

How to reach these places


This is the most popular place in the high arctic to travel by ship in the search for polar bears. Indeed, this is the only place in the North where white bears are not killed either for cultural reasons, nor for trophy hunting neither by poachers. The place is “quite” small (in comparison with others in the arctic) and to make a journey around the archipelago can be quick if necessary. As these trips are expensive, this is a way for the companies to decrease their price: a 6 days trip will be for sure much cheaper than a 12 days trip! However I do recommend to stay 9 to 10 days or longer. You will have more time to enjoy the outdoor, have time to get memorable wildlife encounters, and you will not have the feeling to run from a place to another. Finally 10 days is the minimum to have an idea of what the entire archipelago has to offer.

Svalbard is administrated by Norway. You land on the biggest island, Spitsberg, at the only town and capital of the place: Longyearbyen (the city of Longyear). That’s a place already very far North: 79°N of latitude. In winter time, the islands are known for receiving groups to observe aurora borealis. Then from March to May, when the sun comes back after the long period of darkness: the season for dog sledging, ski-mobiling and skiing starts. In summer time, when the snow melts and the fjord empty themselves from sea ice, ships can navigate around and they all depart from the unique town Longyearbyen. The summer season for expedition vessels start nowadays from mid-may to the beginning of September.

These are three GPS tracks of trips I led around Svalbard (green, orange and light blue). Just to show you how different the route can be, depending on the wildlife, weather and ice conditions.

The North East coast of Greenland

I like it a lot! A very remote area, not very well known. You do not find a lot of offers to travel that far,... fortunately! Yes, fortunately because we can still experience there a complete loneliness! This part deserves a lot of interest. Along the East cost of Greenland, you find two parts: the North and the South.

The Northern part includes the North East Greenland National Park: the largest national park in the world. This is one of my favorite playground to travel! It is very common to be alone for days: without anyone to see, nor human being, neither constructions or other ships. Scoresbysund is also one of the largest fjord system of our planet...

South of Scoresbysund along the Blosseville coast you start finding a bit more villages, and it is “greener” too!

To travel that far you have a few options:

  • by ship: you depart from Longyearbyen in Svalbard and head West. After one and a half / two days at sea you reach Greenland, and then you continue your navigation towards the South along the coast. The journey ends either in one of the harbor in Iceland, or at the airport of Nerlerit Inaat at Constable point. Other options depart from Iceland to reach Greenland and then come back to Iceland. Other trips brings you at Constable Point by plane from Iceland, and then back to Iceland by plane too. My favorite option is of course to depart from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, as this is the best way to explore the northern coats and go as far North as you can. The reverse route is also possible. You depart from Iceland, reach Greenland, sail North, and ends in Svalbard.
  • by plane: you take off from Iceland (Reykjavik or Akureyri) and reach one of the airport on the East Coast. These are mostly charter flights. Once at destination, you need to know what to do! Some airports are close to settlements, others in a distance. And there are no roads to connect the villages. You can travel from a settlement to another only by sea...

Once at destination, several options are possible. Some organize kayak trips, others cross the icecap, go hunting & fishing, hike in the nature, make a photo tour, go dog sledging...

To discover the North East Coast of Greenland by expedition ship, the season is quite short around August-September only. July is too early as there is still too much sea ice and it is very dark in October already...

These are two trips I led from Svalbard to Iceland (orange and green). The ice conditions on arrival to Greenland, as well as the weather, determines where is my first landfall. Usually I try to start as North as I can! Then the number of days during the trip plays an important role. If the trip is too short in time I cannot stretch too much our route. For that reason I like longer trips: this gives me more time to explore...

The West coast of Greenland

The west coast of Greenland is very popular. This is the place that attracts most people. There is very practical reason for that: the infrastructure. Most of the Greenlandic settlements are located on the West coast. Therefore those trips are very often focused on the local culture.

A classic trip consists in flying to Kangerlussuaq, and from there you can travel up and down along the coast. As you find more airport on the West, a lot of different options exist also.

You can fly there by your own and prepare everything in advance from home. A lots of local guides offer their service. Usual activities are in Greenland: hiking, fishing and hunting, dog sledging, skiing, etc...

All different sort of ships offer trips to the West coast, from what I call “monster-ship” (carrying up to 3000 passengers) to the smaller expedition vessels and sailing boats. Of course I will always prefer the expedition ships, more flexible, that can deviate their route to grab any good opportunity that arises.

Another GPS track from one of my trips to West Geenland

Franz Joseph Land

Ah... That Russian archipelago is a jewel in the high arctic! Few people on Earth had the privilege to approach its coastline. Fewer to land on one of its 192 islands and stay in the area a few days, a week or more to explore this fantastic scenery and history.

So... Franz Joseph Land is not a place where you go first if you have never been to the arctic before… Usually this destination attracts a more experienced public. Although those without arctic experience will find here what was the object of their fantasy or dreams when they were kids. Indeed the Franz Joseph Archipelago do represents the high arctic: a lot of ice, a rare vegetation, a lot of bare rocks, a few animals representative from the North: walrusses, polar bears, bowhead whales, and some traces of human exploration.

This place is even less visited that the Northeast coast of Greenland. The fact that the archipelago is under Russian administration does not help and pushes away a lot of tour operators who face some challenge, a complex system, and regulations that can be updated till the very last minute.

The easiest and safest way to reach this Russian National Park is to depart from Murmansk: you are already in Russia and two days and a half at sea are necessary to reach Franz Joseph land. You stay a week there before heading back.

Some other (rare) trips depart from Longyearbyen to reach Franz Joseph land. This is around one and a half or two days at sea before reaching the Russian islands. The problem in that case is consequent: you have left Norway and crossed the Russian border. The first step then is to clear immigration in Franz Joseph land. In a place without town, it is a real challenge. To solve the issue, one permanent military base will do the paperwork for you. However, you must reach the base first, if ice conditions allow… then it takes during 12 and 24 hours to complete the job. Finally you need to repeat the operation on the way out! So I do not recommend this solution.

Other than buying a trip via a tour operator, if you are not part of a film crew or a scientific team, I find it very difficult to reach this place by your own.

Two GPS tracks from a few trips I led there. Both are from Longyearbyen to Franz Joseph land and back. This destination is a difficult one to manage as the shape of the islands offer very poor protection in case of bad weather and the local regulations are not easy neither! But it is such a fascinating place!


After the eruption of the unpronounceable volcano in 2010 Iceland, everybody around the world learned that this little volcanic island (which is also a country with a national population around 300000 inhabitants) was on the map of the globe!

Since then tourism exploded... and prices too.

To my opinion the best way to explore this area is to rent a car and travel all around. Take care as some roads can be closed due to snow conditions or poor weather... Yes, weather in Iceland is very poor. You can have a lot of wind (really a lot), a lot of rain too, and it is never warm even in summer time!

The scenery is... volcanic! No trees or building will block your view as soon as you are outside of a town. It is very popular to bird and whale watch in summer time, go around some volcanoes, glaciers, geysers and see some waterfall. It is very quiet as the density of the population is very low. In winter time the place is very famous for looking at aurora borealis, as Iceland is on the polar circle and the period of darkness gets longer.

It is also possible to visit Iceland by ship and make a circumnavigation. This is a comfortable way not to have to change hotel every night while going around the island.

This is not my favorite place to be honest as the high arctic is much more exciting, but if you have never been to the arctic it can be a good start.