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This unusual new cruise vessel just took passengers all the way to the North Pole

July 15, 2022
5 min read
Le Commandant Charcot at North Pole
This unusual new cruise vessel just took passengers all the way to the North Pole
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You now can travel all the way to the North Pole on a luxury cruise ship.

France-based cruise operator Ponant this week proved it was possible by taking dozens of paying passengers to the ice-bound destination on its new luxury icebreaker, Le Commandant Charcot.

Named after a famous French explorer, the super-hardy, 245-passenger vessel is the first upscale cruise ship to make it all the way to the North Pole with paying passengers.

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The 31,757-ton vessel reached the North Pole on Wednesday after breaking its way north through hundreds of miles of polar ice for several days. The vessel set off for the North Pole from the small town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard — a glacier-covered archipelago located far above the Arctic Circle. Longyearbyen is the world's northernmost settlement.

Le Commandant Charcot was on a 15-night expedition from Longyearbyen with a specific focus on bringing its passengers to the North Pole.

The ship had traveled to the North Pole once before but only as a test ride without paying customers.

Le Commandant Charcot at North Pole. (Photo courtesy of Ponant)

Ship-based tourist trips to the North Pole have occurred in small numbers for more than 20 years, but until now they only have taken place on relatively spartan Russian icebreakers chartered by expedition cruise companies such as Quark Expeditions and Poseidon Expeditions.

The trips are relatively rare, with just a handful of departures in any given year. Typically the vessels carry just 100 or fewer people to the North Pole as part of Arctic trips that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

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Unveiled in late 2021, Le Commandant Charcot is the first purpose-built icebreaker for a cruise company. Designed specifically for high-end polar cruising, the ship is built to be extremely tough so it can operate year-round in some of the world's thickest floating ice.

Le Commandant Charcot carries a polar class rating of PC2 — the highest ever for a ship designed for cruise travel. This means it's certified to smash through some of the world's thickest ice — specifically the moderate, multiyear ice found in polar ice caps.

Le Commandant Charcot passengers at North Pole. (Photo courtesy of Ponant)

Le Commandant Charcot is the toughest ship built yet for expedition cruising — a type of cruising that involves traveling to remote, far-flung destinations on small, sturdy vessels outfitted with their own landing craft. Expedition cruising is one of the fastest-growing segments of cruising.

Until the arrival of Le Commandant Charcot, no expedition cruise ship had a polar class rating above PC5; ships in the PC5 category of polar hardiness can travel year-round in medium first-year ice, which isn't as thick as multiyear ice. Most expedition cruise ships are rated even lower at PC6 (the lower the number, the tougher the ship).

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In addition to being hardy, Le Commandant Charcot was designed to be elegant and upscale. It features spacious suites and cabins, each of which has a balcony — something relatively rare for expedition ships. It also offers two restaurants with dishes created by famed chef Alain Ducasse as well as a wellness center with an indoor saltwater pool, a gym and a decktop area with a super-heated wading pool.

The 1,937-square-foot owner's suite is another standout amenity: It features a terrace with a hot tub, heated “rocks” for additional seating and a telescope.

The vessel is equipped with a battery system that allows it to operate emission-free for up to eight hours at a time in sensitive polar areas. It also has a research center with dedicated laboratories used by visiting scientific teams doing polar research.

Off-ship excursions available to passengers include ice fishing, snowshoeing and polar diving.

There is a very small window during the summers when North Pole trips are practical. Ponant has three more voyages to the North Pole on Le Commandant Charcot scheduled this summer and four departures set for the summer 2023. Fares start at $35,960 per person, including flights between Paris and Longyearbyen.

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Featured image by UCORP
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