12pt; font-family: times new roman;">The flights from Montreal to Kuujjuaq and then from Iqualuit to Churchill, Manitoba was on First Air charters. The planes were 737's, bright, clean and modern. Service was pleasant and helpful. On board meals were decent.
Check-in was quick and easy both directions. At Kuujjuaq, we were met by the ship's Expedition team, leader Jason and other members. After a brief introduction, the guests were led to school buses and driven to the port, a distance of approximately 20 minutes along a paved road with plenty of big potholes. On the return portion, guests were driven to the Churchill airport to meet the returning aircraft. Again, a small airport and an efficient check-in.
Kuujjuaq: the buses take the guests on a short tour of the town. It is raining and the temperatures are just above freezing. We are taken to the port where the zodiacs are waiting to pick up the guests and take them to the ship. This is a wet landing so guests put on rubber boots to get through the water and onto the zodiacs. We take a 20 minute ride to the waiting ship.
This Russian ice-class ship is the 33 year old Lyubov Orlova. The captain and most of the crew are Russian. The ship is a sturdy, practical but friendly ship. The ship is charted by an Inuit-owned corporation for the summer months with a mandate to introduce tourism to this beautiful, unknown part of the world and to create job opportunities for Inuit youth.
With only a maximum of 100 passengers, the ship is easy to navigate within a short time. The main deck contains all the public areas. The foyer contains a functional purser's desk and reflects the work-like attitude of the ship i.e. Practical and functional. In front of the purser's desk is the Forward Lounge at the bow of the ship. This is a pleasant room with a small bar and seating enough to seat all of the guests at one time. There is one large screen on one wall and 3 other smaller televisions places around the outer walls to ensure that everyone has a good view. This room is used for all lectures and recaps. Since entertainment is minimal here, this room is not used beyond that.
Running off the Foyer in a corridor are the Expedition Staff offices. This corridor leads onto a small, sunny library cum coffee shop. The library is not large but contains a good supply of books and magazines featuring the North, Inuit life or Hudson Bay. Passengers have left a decent supply of paperbacks for other guests to use. A small selection of games and cards are available to use as well. In the corner are large urns supplying fresh coffee, tea, hot water and a variety of herbal teas which are available 24/7.
Adjacent to the Library is the small bar and lounge. This is the preferred choice for most guests and gets a lot of usage. The lounge is comfortable but certainly not luxurious. As the cruise progresses and folks get familiar with each other, this lounge becomes the hub for meeting friends.
Beyond the library at the stern end of the ship is the dining room. Again, this seats all passengers at one time. The room is spacious, clean and bright. The tables in the dining room are all rectangular sitting groups of 4, 6 or 8. There are no tables for 2. The dining room always looks inviting with fresh linens covering the tables.
There is a small open-kitchen opening to the dining room. Breakfasts and lunches are served as buffet meals while dinners are served from a menu. The only unusual aspect to the menu selection is that diners are asked to select their entrEe choice at lunch for their dinner. This too, is extremely practical as the kitchen can then prepare the entrees almost exactly to preferences eliminating waste.
The wait staff was both Russian and Inuit. The Russians were willing but lacked English skills which lead to some rather humorous encounters. Having been trained to ask 'Meat, fish or vegetable?' if someone said 'filet', or 'curried chicken', they were completely flummoxed. The Inuit were terrific. Almost all spoke English, French and Inuit with complete ease so could converse with everyone. Guests invariably took to one or another of the staff as their personal favorites. Dinners always arrived promptly.
A word about the food. If you are expecting a functional, practical dining experience on this ship, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised! The dining was excellent. Meals were fresh, well-prepared, great tasting and beautifully presented. The ship has its own baker and she made some fantastic breads and pastries every day. Breakfast and lunch offered an excellent variety of hot and cold options. Dinners were very good indeed. Jason, the new head chef, deserves a lot of credit for this menu.
Excursions: There are excursions planned for every stop but beware that all stops may not materialize. Guests are warned on the first day that the main requirement to have a good time on this cruise is to be FLEXIBLE! Weather plays such an important part in determining whether or not a landing is possible. Our group only lost one excursion when expedition leaders determined that the seas were too rough and dangerous to disembark people onto the zodiacs.
Without going into specifics on each stop, guests will have lots of opportunity to rock climb and hike or not.. As mentioned earlier, rubber boots are essential as are good hiking boots. The group leaders offer 3 levels of hiking, ranging from 'plant-walkers, medium speed and high-speed walkers so most guests can find a comfortable range. The leaders are very safety oriented throughout.
Animals are of course, a prime attraction on this voyage and we were not disappointed. Almost immediately on the first evening, we watched whales frolic in the ship's wake. We saw polar bears on ice flows and on an island. We spotted Musk Ox and an island full of fat, brown walrus. We saw Caribou and arctic hare. We identified numerous tiny flowers and visited a research station on an isolated island. We learned more about the Arctic Mure (an Arctic bird) than we thought possible.
Expedition Team: This critical part of making a memorable voyage was simply outstanding. The Team leader, Jason was Inuit. Knowledgeable, quietly confident, friendly and helpful, he set high standards for his team and they reached them. Marine biologist, botany experts, bird experts and simply all-round experts, they made it all seem so effortless. It was a pleasure and an honour to learn from them.
Recommendation: This is an awesome experience for someone seeking an active expedition cruise with elements of surprise, discovery and wonder. Not for someone expecting luxurious surroundings, formal entertainment, televisions in-room, etc. No kids programs though one couple brought along their 8 and 10 year olds and they had a great time. Most clients were 55 plus, very well-travelled. Great for adventurous, spontaneous and informal folks.