Today’s article is an expanded version of one I wrote that ran in The Province two weeks ago.  It was tremendously well-recieved, and I thought it would be worthwhile to publish the full text here on From the Deck Chair. –

Even among exotic cruise destinations known for their unique and obscure ports of call, this one is guaranteed to turn heads: the Northwest Passage.

Convinced of its value as a shipping route, the list of those who tried – and failed – to conqueror this waterway on behalf of their country is legendary:  John Ross, Sir William Parry, George Back, Sir Robert McClure, John Rae and perhaps most famous of all, Sir John Franklin.

MS Bremen is perfectly suited to traverse the deeply-mysterious Northwest Passage. Photo courtesy of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.

After claiming the lives of countless explorers, it was Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen who finally discovered the fabled passage on a three year expedition between 1903 and 1906.  He would go on to even greater fame five years later when he became the first person to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911 – beating Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition by mere weeks and claiming victory for Norway.

Despite his discovery, the pass was far from the open waterway many nations fantasised about. They had discovered a desolate, isolated maze of waterways that remain choked with shifting ice for much of the year, only opening briefly during the warmer summer months.

Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, a leader in five-star expedition and ultra-luxury cruising, has been taking advantage of this small window for the past few years by operating extremely rare Northwest Passage cruises – a decision which has proved to be very successful.

This year, the line will operate a full transit of the Northwest Passage aboard the 365-foot long, ice-strengthened MS Bremen.  A four-star expedition vessel, the Bremen is as much a working ship as she is a floating palace.  She was specifically designed to sail these notorious waters, and as such boasts the highest ice class rating available to passenger ships.

Onboard, passengers have access to multiple lounges, a library, an expansive dining room, a spa, and even a sun deck complete with a swimming pool. Each and every public room boasts plenty of windows to ensure you never miss the passing scenery. Twelve Zodiac rafts are also located onboard, and allow for passengers to be put ashore in some of the most remote areas of the world.

Staterooms feature all the amenities you’d expect from a much larger cruise ship, and even come equipped DVD players and flat panel television sets.  Not that you’re going to want to be in your cabin all that often on this cruise.

The voyage itself is incredible.  After embarking the Bremen, guests will experience a spectacular transit of the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean, eventually disembarking in Alaska.  What makes this journey so special is that the Northwest Passage is rarely transited.  Other than icebreakers and the odd cargo ship in the summer months, few vessels – and people – ever sail here.

With no official “ports” along the way, most of the journeys ashore are conducted via the ship’s Zodiac rafts.  The itinerary includes stops at notable places like Beechy Island.  This remote, barren blip in the middle of nowhere played host to one of exploration’s greatest disasters: the Franklin Expedition.  Sir John Franklin and the men of his ships Erebus and Terror wintered here in 1845-46, and it was on this desolate island that the first of his men succumbed to illness.  Preserved by the arctic climate, their graves still stand here today, along with remnants of the doomed expedition that brought them here.  Walking along the rocky shoreline, you might even find the remains of a centuries-old tin can, which modern scientists believe was poisoning the expedition due to the inadequate packaging of the time, and the putrid, rotten food contained within; the product of a shoddy Whitechapel victualing merchant looking to make a fast buck, and a Royal Navy desperate to save money.

Franklin’s men could only in their wildest dreams have imagined the comfort that passengers aboard the Bremen would have, nearly one hundred sixty-six years later.  The food onboard is some of the finest at sea, expertly prepared and presented even in the harshest arctic conditions.

Travelers looking for a true adventure would be hard pressed to top this journey.

Lengthy, ambitious and expensive, these rare voyages are also wildly popular, and sell out well in advance.  In fact, the full transit scheduled for this August is already completely sold out, and the partial transit is just weeks away from doing likewise.  As one might expect, due to the constantly-changing conditions in the Arctic, all scheduled stops – including the transit of the passage itself – are subject to change.  The safety of its passengers is more important to Hapag-Lloyd than adhering to the published schedule, so expect a good degree of flexibility in the itinerary.

Cruisers wanting to take this incredible voyage would do well to start planning now for the 2012 transit voyages, departing in August, 2012.  Full itinerary and pricing information for next year’s transit should be available this month from Hapag-Lloyd Cruises.  For more information, be sure to pay a visit to the Hapag-Lloyd Cruises website.


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