When I told friends that I was going on a Russian Arctic cruise, I always got a one-word reply: Why? Unlike the Arctic region of, say, Canada or Norway, the Russian Arctic is relatively unexplored. Yet I can count so many marvelous reasons to cruise this remote area. Alas, it's difficult to find ships cruising the Russian Arctic (also called the Russian Far North on cruise itineraries), so be on the lookout. Silver Explorer, the expedition ship I chose, cruises this route about every two years. (And don't confuse the Russian Far North with the Russian Far East, which is a completely different journey.) Some companies, like Poseidon Expeditions, Swoop Arctic and Expeditions Online, are other sources to check for this most unconventional cruise.
Hate the hordes of tourists elbowing each other over selfies, even in far-flung ports? Meet your dream cruise. Short of shipmates, you won't spy anyone but locals in most ports -- and they can be rare, too. This cruise is mostly about flora and fauna and your personal experience with nature at its pristine best.
Visit tiny Russian villages so isolated, they're only easily accessed in the short summer months via wet landings (wading from Zodiac boats into shallow water). The lifestyle there is 180-degrees from American cruisers'; many villages only obtained full time electricity in the last few years. Most have but one telephone -- for the entire town -- and only one or two stores.
Some locals peek through curtains at the unusual sight of visitors; others want to take a picture with you. In Chapoma, a more than 400-year-old Kola Peninsula fishing village with only about 80 residents, a smiling silver-haired woman invited me indoors to taste warm blinis made atop her wood-burning stove. (They were delicious.) Her warmth and hospitality transcended any language or cultural barrier. I left with a new friend and a memory for a lifetime.
When anchored in Dvorovaya Bay in Russia's extreme northwest, you can board Zodiacs to reach towering cliffs blanketed in hundreds, maybe thousands, of birds -- nesting, pecking, squawking, chirping. The Zodiacs get close enough for you to snap great photographs of kittiwakes (they make sounds like they're saying "kitty wake," hence their name), shags, herring gulls, razorbills and common and black guillemots. Bobbing in the Barents Sea, under the bluest sky, listening to the birds and their distinctive calls and cries piercing the blanket of silence, is a magical experience.
Glimpse three countries -- Norway, Russia and Finland -- on one half-day shore excursion from Kirkenes, a town in far northeast Norway, north of the Arctic Circle. (Locals regularly travel between all three to bargain-hunt; they shop for gas in Russia, and groceries -- particularly meat -- in Finland.) See one Russian border marker in an unusual place -- deep in the middle of a river. Standing on the Norwegian side of the Pasvik River, you can see a Russian watchtower across the water. Drive to Height 96, a former Norwegian military observation tower from the Cold War era, affording views into the small industrial town of Nikel, Russia. Then motor on to Finland, crossing the border at Naatamo, to browse local stores and shop for souvenirs -- everything from Finnish candy to hunting knives to reindeer hide.
Join a list of disparate iconic names -- Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi -- to visit the Lenin, the first nuclear-powered surface vessel in the world, once viewed as a technological marvel. The Lenin is now a floating museum in Murmansk, Russia, the world's largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The Lenin became operational in 1959 and was decommissioned in 1989, but everything is still intact from its glory days. Walk winding wood-lavished hallways and navigate steep stairs to peer into the past. Standouts include the retro buttons, screens and dials of then cutting-edge communication devices, a crude operating room and a crew mess hall, with its prominent sculpture of Vladimir Lenin. You can even see the defueled nuclear reactors through thick-paned windows.
There's North Cape (Nordkapp), widely recognized as Europe's northernmost point, and a popular bucket list destination for Norway's visitors. And then there's Knivskjellodden, the real northernmost point (excluding Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago much further north) nearby, on the same island of Mageroya as North Cape. Its status is largely ignored as Knivskjellodden lacks bus access and is only reachable by an arduous hike in often-unpredictable weather. So the landmark locale is celebrated at North Cape, instead.
North Cape is a marvel; fight blustery winds to stand at the edge of high cliffs, with the ocean thundering into jagged rocks below. There is little between you and the North Pole, some 1,300 miles away. You feel on the top of the world -- and you actually pretty much are. On a Russian Arctic cruise, visit North Cape and then cruise by Knivskjellodden, and be one of the few to have that end-of-the-earth, goose-bump feeling…twice.
The Solovetsky Monastery, a vast fortress founded in the 1400s, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Solovetsky Island in Russia's White Sea, about 100 miles below the Arctic Circle. The monastery is notorious for its status as one of the harshest -- if not, the harshest -- of Stalin's gulags, or political prison camps, from 1923 to 1939. Today, it's an active Russian Orthodox monastery and a popular tourist site for Russians who come for the religious history and the beauty of the botanical gardens and lake in 24-hour summer sunlight. Cruisers can tour centuries-old towers with canons and churches glittering in gold -- most buildings date between the 16th and 19th centuries -- and visit a small but emotionally gripping museum dedicated to the infamous gulag.
Only a lucky few ever take an Arctic cruise in North America or Norway, but even fewer cruise the Russian Far North. So, yes, you get big-time bragging rights, for what that's worth, at your next dinner party.