I found myself alone inside a small regional airport just outside Buffalo, New York. I had never seen an airport completely empty and felt like I was in a bad apocalypse movie.
“This feels … wrong” my friend Peter said who was now regretting accepting my offer to visit the Arctic on a two week cruise. I didn’t disagree however, this was strange. Then, like someone flipped a switch, a bubbling battalion of about 100 travelers marched through the doorway all wearing bright yellow parkas chattering with excitement.
“Dear God … adult minions.” Peter said, backing up slowly.
We joined the yellow tidal wave and marched out to the airstrip where our chartered 737 waited for us gleaming in the sun to take us to Greenland, where we would start our adventure with Quark Expeditions.
Quark is a remarkable adventure company that specializes in luxury polar expeditions. For the next two weeks the newest member of their fleet, the exploratory vessel Ultramarine, would be our floating home. I didn’t know what to expect being a cruise novice, and Peter, pretty much a permanently caged New Yorker in a 400 square foot apartment, has never even seen open ocean before.
“Where are we? Is this … safe?” Peter gasped as we transverse the largest Fjord in Greenland to the ship’s port. Riding on the razor’s edge of a silt embankment gave him worry, but upon seeing our floating castle rising majestically 8 stories out of the ocean, his fear turned to pure excitement.
The Ultramarine is perhaps the only thing that could out-perform the beauty of the Arctic. 7 floors of modern luxury, the ship has ever conceivable comfort while being surrounded by a hostile environment that wants to kill you. The rooms are all suites; well appointed, spacious, with flat screens loaded with movies, WIFI, and modern steam showers and tubs. There is a state of the art gym, steam rooms, and a huge sauna with floor to ceiling windows so you can watch 20 ton icebergs sail by as you sweat in Sahara like heat. There is a full spa that offers any type of restorative treatment you might need and a ultra-modern digital media amphitheater where lectures and briefings are held nightly. Exploring the top of the ship you’ll find the lounge and bar that offers a panoramic view of the sea ahead, with mixologists onboard to concoct any type of libation you could desire. There is of course not one, but two restaurants that offer a wide variety of global tastes that change daily. In short, no matter what your setup is like back home, the Ultramarine has you beat.
“Oh wait!” Peter said, finally looking out the large window of our cabin, “we’re moving!” he finished with a little shake in his voice, confused by not feeling or hearing the vessel start its voyage. “I need a drink.” he punctuated while passing as I followed him to the lounge.
Up top we sipped 50/50 martini’s in tall frosted coupes as we let Baffin Bay engulf us. Immediately we saw ice; large, angular and pure white, they looked like early computer graphics set adrift on an electric deep-blue sea. A few martini’s later Peter was no longer a live wire of classic New York tension; the cold, crisp natural beauty of the arctic had already started to sooth his soul.
The next two weeks were a whirlwind of firsts. We visited high Arctic villages where each house was painted a bright primary color which popped against the cold, dark granite base. Sled dogs chattered and let us rub their bellies, as locals brought us into their house for coffee rituals and to share some treats. We took zodiacs to land on vast empty beaches then hiked up mountains to get vistas from the top of the earth. We saw all sorts of strange and wonderful wildlife, arctic birds, narwhal and belugas, and even a polar bear with her cubs dining on seal, adrift a wayward iceberg. Sunsets were magnificent and the aurora even came out one night to put on a stunner of a show.
Every day was a new adventure, either exploring the wilds of the north, or traveling to our next destination and enjoying the ship. Between breakfast, lunch and dinner, a daily trip to the gym was necessary just so we would fit into our yellow parkas. It was almost too much food. That’s when the envelope slipped under the door.
“What is it? We’re being evicted?” Peter asked. You can take the kid out of New York…
“No. We’re being … invited.” Just when we thought we couldn’t eat any more there was a special invitation to a “Tundra to Table” dinner, where our resident local chefs were going to prepare for us a very special meal using locally sourced ingredients and cooking classic arctic fare.
Unable to turn down such an experience was definitely a good forced decision. The meal was otherworldly. Muskox risotto with locally foraged mushrooms. Reindeer tartare served on glacier ice. Deep Disco Bay seared Scallops in a verdant herb sauce. These were flavors that I had never encountered, and in a way brought the arctic into me in a way deeper than just seeing it could ever.
At this point Peter and I were beyond blown away and thought we couldn’t get much higher. That’s when we discover the Helicopters. Plural. Here is one attribute that sets the Ultramarine way apart from any other cruise. Equipped with two, H145 choppers that seat 7, they offer views that you simply can’t get any other way than up in the sky. What’s even more impressive is that given the right conditions they will land right on a glacier and let you out to explore. The feeling of stepping literally where no one has ever stepped before is something usually reserved for astronauts, and is simply amazing.
Landing back aboard the top deck of the Ultramarine we were buzzing from adrenaline, which was a good thing because there was one more first that required a certain amount of stupid bravery to complete; the polar plunge. For some reason we agreed to jump off the back of this floating city into the Arctic Ocean which maintains a consistent 2 degrees Celsius temperature. Surprisingly most of the ship’s passengers were lining up to do the same, dancing and singing and cheering each other on. Before we realized we were up, and with our lifelines strapped around our waste and not wearing much more we took the ultimate dip into the ocean.
There are no human words for what this feels like; electrocution, shock, a spearmint backslap from God, I don’t know. All I can say is that once you’re back on ship and given an obligatory shot of Vodka to start up your engine again, you are basically invincible and feel 15 to 20 years younger. Oh, they also give you a cool patch.
The last hours on board were spent much like the first hours, sipping martinis in the lounge watching the bay slip away behind us. We didn’t say much to each other; there wasn’t much to say. A trip like this is unexpected in the best way possible. While you can read about it, or watch a video perhaps, or even listen to a friend tell you first hand what it is like, trust me, you still will not understand. As a writer I would normally struggle with this, to try to put in words this experience, as that is my job, but to do it well, or even at all, I would require supernatural vocabulary at the very least. I just don’t see a way to put into words the immense force that is the Arctic, especially when framed in luxury as only Quark can do. It’s the perfect type of travel experience where you don’t only find yourself in a new place, but you feel a new place inside of you. For this I just say go, go see, and feel for yourself, the indescribable.
Quark Expeditions https://www.quarkexpeditions.com/
Various Arctic Expeditions are offered each year from 7 to 20 day journeys. Prices range 5,311.00 USD to $19,804 USD
Chartered Flights leave from Toronto or Buffalo on chartered planes with ground transportation and overnight hotel included in package price.
In the know:
Quark offers some extra experiences that can be booked outside of their packages, like special chef led dinners, sea kayaking, and onboard art courses. Every trip is different so inquire about them before you leave to reserve your space.