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I didn't think I'd like my 1st Arctic expedition cruise; here's what proved me wrong

Aug. 15, 2022
16 min read
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Editor's note: TPG's Ashley Kosciolek was hosted by Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours for an Arctic expedition sailing on Scenic Eclipse. The opinions expressed below are entirely hers and weren't subject to review by the line.

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A loud gasp flew from my mouth before I could stop it, drowning out the hum of the automatic blackout shade that was uncovering 24 hours of daylight outside my balcony window. It was the fourth day of my first expedition cruise to the Arctic, and I woke to find myself in the middle of an ice field.

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I rushed out onto my balcony in disbelief, momentarily forgetting the nearly freezing temperatures, and was blinded by glimmering water and thousands of frozen chunks floating around the ship for as far as I could see. The landscape was eerily calm and silent, except for the gentle cracks and pops that danced from the melting ice in a hissing cadence of white noise that mimicked a soft rainfall.

It was just one of many experiences on the 10-night voyage aboard Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours' Scenic Eclipse where I was truly impressed by the Arctic's natural wonders.

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An ice field with shards that spread for miles. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Full disclosure: My feelings about this assignment were lukewarm at first. I'm fairly active and fit, but my idea of a cruise is one where you sleep in and choose from a variety of sedentary onboard activities or laze on the beach all day. Ever a night owl, I wasn't exactly thrilled by the prospect of 7 a.m. wake-up calls and a limited battery of daily excursions, which I feared would be repetitive after the first few.

I have never been so happy to be wrong. As it turns out, the voyage around Svalbard, one of the world's northernmost clusters of islands, was one of the best sailings I've ever done.

The schedule was unpredictable

One of seven polar bears we saw during our Arctic sailing on Scenic Eclipse. (Photo courtesy of Melissa McGibbon)

So much for boredom. Never before had I been on a cruise where there was no set itinerary. Sure, the bridge officers always had a rough idea in mind, but plans often were scrapped in favor of diverting to investigate reports of polar bears or whales.

With such a free-spirited approach, the ship — which, at just 200 passengers, is tiny enough to navigate small inlets and fjords and break through ice with its specially designed hull -- offered a flexibility that kept us on our toes. In fact, on one day of the voyage, we were forced to scrap our originally scheduled excursions to avoid disturbing polar bears. We sailed on to three more locations but also bailed on plans B, C and D in favor of watching walruses and other wildlife from afar.

Admittedly, the unplanned midcruise sea day came at a great time for exhausted passengers who seemed to relish the opportunity for some scenic viewing from the vessel's expansive observation decks.

In terms of excursions, all were included in the price, and there were usually two offered per day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — with a break in between for lunch back on board the ship.

Outings generally consisted of three types: Zodiac (small, inflatable boat) cruises that got us close to things like glaciers; Zodiac landings, which allowed us to go ashore in Svalbard for hiking and plant viewing; and kayaking. (The ship also has bikes and stand-up paddleboards available for passenger use. The latter aren't allowed in the Arctic due to polar bears' ability to swim.)

The animals were everywhere

A reindeer munches on some lichen in Svalbard. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

"Good morning, passengers of the Scenic Eclipse," a quiet but cheery voice sang over the ship's public address system, rousing me from sleep at 6:30 a.m. "This is Ross, your expedition leader, coming to you from the bridge. Apologies for the early announcement, but we've just spotted some polar bears off the bow -- a mother and two cubs."

Announcements like this one were common during the sailing, with the captain often changing our route or schedule to accommodate viewing opportunities. By the end of the voyage, we also spotted whale spouts, leaping dolphins, grazing reindeer, seals sunning themselves on icebergs and walruses crowding together on the beach to stay warm.

We even spent a day positioned near a bird colony, where thousands of Arctic guillemots make their homes, creating a cacophony of constant chatter. And where there are birds, there are Arctic foxes, which are almost too adorable for words.

But, despite passengers' desire to pet all the cute critters, visits to the Arctic region require travelers to keep safe distances between themselves and the local fauna. With that in mind, it's key to set your expectations ahead of time. (And you won't have to worry about being tempted to pet any penguins because there aren't any in the Arctic. You'll have to travel to Antarctica to see them.)

Although animal sightings vary from sailing to sailing and can't always be guaranteed, the captain does an excellent job of navigating the ship near where they're likely to be, based on recommendations from the wildlife experts on board.

The scenery was spectacular

The view from the top of the hill on our first hike. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

On the second day, we went on a leisurely hike. It was a nice way for us to adjust to the layering of clothing, which is essential in an Arctic climate, particularly when you're active.

The staff promised us breathtaking photos, but I was skeptical as we made our way up a slow grade of spongy earth, our Gore-Tex outerwear swishing in unison. All I could see were a few desolate-looking hills where armed orange-clad scouts positioned themselves as a precaution against polar bears.

Just as I was feeling somewhat unimpressed, Laurence, one of our expedition guides, pointed out some rusted artifacts from a former Russian outpost used during World War II. The building was completely gone, but ghosts remained in the form of old pulleys, barrels and jugs, which are now considered historic items to be left alone, rather than trash to be picked up and carted back to the ship for disposal.

On the way back to the Zodiacs, we trudged a bit out of our way to climb a hill for jaw-dropping views of the ship below, waiting in turquoise waters for our return.

On the fifth day, we embarked on what the expedition guides referred to as the "survival of the fittest" hike. It was definitely more strenuous than the second-day hike, but it was much easier than they made it sound.

The roughly 4-mile trek allowed us to spot glaciers, reindeer and local flora from up high. On the way back down, I discovered a patch of fur, bird feathers and some eggshells, indicating that a fox had recently found its dinner.

Additional vistas throughout the trip included cliffs that doubled as bird dwellings, fractured ice fields, swirling tide pools, bright-blue glaciers with multiple waterfalls spewing over the sides, and isolated hundred-year-old wooden shacks that are still used by scientists and intrepid explorers today. (Don't expect showers or indoor toilets, though.)

All of these made for unparalleled photo opportunities.

The staff was knowledgeable

Jason, who heads up the entire expedition team on Scenic Eclipse, gives a presentation about the ship. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

It's rare that I get to know employees well when I sail. Not only is fraternizing forbidden, but it's nearly impossible to chat in-depth when they're catering to so many cruisers on mainstream megaships.

On Scenic Eclipse, it's a totally different ballgame. With such an excellent crew-to-passenger ratio, it's easy to strike up conversations with waiters, room stewards and butlers who cater to your every whim and entertainment staff members who go the extra mile to help you "make up" trivia you missed due to an excursion. (Thanks, Pablo and Amy!)

But it didn't stop with the crew. On Scenic Eclipse, members of the expedition staff are allowed to join passengers for dinner if invited, creating additional opportunities for chitchat on a more personalized level -- an excellent option for passengers who want to go more in-depth about the topics on which the expedition team gives lectures throughout each voyage.

The ship's expedition guides, all of whom are experts on everything from wildlife to rocks found in the region, are well-read and quick to share their knowledge. They all have interesting backgrounds and fun stories to tell while they educate passengers.

Among the members of the nearly 30-person team were Katie, a guidance counselor who works as one of the ship's kayak guides during her summers off; Boris, an animal aficionado and the brains behind Scenic's "Critter Club" daily discussion group; Jenn, a geologist from Florida, who, ironically, can talk for hours about ice; Andy, from Argentina, who put on a different hat to help us win trivia with his football expertise; and Jack, a polar bear scout and naturalist who graciously accepted the nickname "Jackie Flowers" when it was discovered he couldn't tell a buttercup from a moss campion. (Don't worry; he's learning.)

Overall, everyone I encountered in every department was friendly, accommodating and insightful, dispensing facts about what makes glaciers blue, why walruses turn pink when they leave the water and the difference between "winter poo" and "summer poo."

The weather was warm(ish)

A jumper's view of Scenic Eclipse's marina deck just before the polar plunge. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Deciding what to bring for an Arctic sailing might seem daunting, but with the packing lists provided by the cruise line, the most difficult part was finding cold-weather gear in the middle of summer. (Try explaining to some high-school-age associate at the local outdoor retailer that you need fleece pants in July, and watch the confusion set in.)

Layering is key, and Scenic provides waterproof jackets (to keep) and Muck boots (to borrow) for all passengers.

"Oh my gosh, I'm sweating already," I griped as I struggled to remove my outer and middle layers before the "survival of the fittest" hike. I learned my lesson a couple of days prior when I was down to my Under Armour within minutes of our very first Zodiac landing.

What threw me for the biggest loop was just how warm it was. When we arrived in Svalbard on embarkation day, it was 52 degrees, and we didn't have a day colder than 32 the entire trip. That's chilly by most summer standards, of course, but it was still far more temperate than the coldest winter days at my home back in Pennsylvania.

The only time I felt truly frigid was the 38-degree day we did a polar plunge off the back of the ship into 28-degree water. The sting had me temporarily at a loss for words.

The climate is also extremely dry, despite all the water. Be prepared to use copious amounts of lip balm and lotion. (The Arctic is a desert, after all.)

The ship was stunning

One of Scenic Eclipse's two onboard helicopters. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Scenic Eclipse is what you'd get if you crossed an upscale hotel with a private yacht and the comfiest lounge spaces you can dream up. The sleek, shiny exterior is pristine, with the exception of a few scratches and scrapes near the water line — battle scars befitting a ship that cuts through first-year ice like it's warm butter.

The inside keeps up appearances and then some, featuring a theater with swiveling leather recliners for seating, a central bar serving 130 types of complimentary whiskey, a spa with a battery of swanky relaxation rooms and top-deck outdoor hot tubs that allow you to soak in warmth as you float past glaciers at, quite literally, the top of the world.

My favorite spot was the Deck 5 observation lounge, which boasts plenty of comfortable seating for reading, a high-top bar and a long table, which I found perfect for doing work while gazing out at the scenery (which, unfortunately, is somewhat blocked by the ship's bow). The space also offers a wall of high-end Kusmi loose teas and a self-service coffee machine. (The machine was empty more often than not and made weak drinks even when it was full.) The space also serves as the vessel's small library, with books on topics ranging from Roald Amundsen's Antarctica trip to less germane subjects like model Kate Moss.

Although there were some cabin niggles, such as sinks with no counter space and hidden TVs that can't face the beds, my room was spacious and laden with top-of-the-line features like a Dyson hair dryer, rainfall shower head, Illy coffee machine, Bushnell binoculars, and life jackets that don't make passengers look like construction workers when they wear them for excursions.

And, of course, I can't talk about the ship without mentioning its submarine and pair of helicopters, each of which can hold up to six passengers plus a pilot or driver. Unfortunately, they can't be used on Arctic sailings due to government restrictions, but they're impressive (and expensive) toys to have on any vessel. On sailings outside of the Arctic, cruisers can book them for an additional per-person fee.

The food was phenomenal

A beef stick made to look like a cigar at the chef's table. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

I'm just going to say it: I'm a hugely picky eater. Historically, I've struggled to find food I enjoy on small ships with limited options, but Scenic Eclipse is a total outlier.

Equipped with a small buffet; a main restaurant (which also houses a chef's table experience); an Asian eatery with sushi (all fish is brought in from Japan), Asian fusion and teppanyaki; an upscale French restaurant; a tiny cafe; and room service, the choices are impressive for a ship of Scenic Eclipse's size but still few for each two-week sailing. However, this is a clear case of quality over quantity.

Every item I tried was simply delicious. At upscale venues on other vessels, I often find I don't eat about half of what they serve. But on this ship, I opted for vegetarian selections from the fancy French menu, and a quick phone call to the front desk meant a candied foie gras lollipop was graciously swapped out for a candied date during the chef's table experience.

Accommodations were made just as easily for a vegetarian travel companion. When I asked her how the offerings stacked up against options from her other travels, she gushed about the creativity and flavor, thankful that she wasn't handed plates of steamed vegetables and French fries for each meal.

My list of favorite food items from this trip stars a plant-based steak from the French restaurant; a tuna taco and falafel with beetroot and yogurt from the teppanyaki venue; a beef stick made to look like a cigar at the chef's table and chicken tikka masala from the buffet.

Other standouts included Swedish pancakes with lingonberries from the room service breakfast menu; cookies, fruit Pavlovas and Margherita pizza from the cafe; and truffle fries and daily risotto creations in the main restaurant. Oh, and whatever you do, don't miss the out-of-this-world grape cotton candy from the Asian eatery.

As for drinks, pro tip: While on a Zodiac ride near a glacier, ask your expedition guide if you can grab a chunk of ice to take back to the ship. The bar staff will rinse it for you and break it up for use in your favorite tipples. (You can hear it snap, crackle and pop as it melts in your glass.)

Bottom line

A victorious kayaking excursion in Arctic waters. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

I spent a lot of time before the cruise worrying that the expedition cruise experience in the Arctic could be lost on me. I thought the scenery might be too boring. I was anxious that I'd be plagued by FOMO, forcing myself to do every excursion and subsequently being too tired to actually have fun on any of them. And I lamented that I'd have to buy cold-weather gear I didn't expect to use again.

But, to my surprise, it was easily one of my favorite cruises to date (and I've been on more than 60). In fact, I loved the region so much that I'm already itching to return, which means I'll be able to bust out my waterproof clothing at least one more time for good measure ... and, perhaps, undertake a second polar plunge. Stay tuned.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by Scenic Eclipse in an ice field in the Arctic. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases