Crystal Serenity Northwest Passage

(2:30 p.m. EDT) -- Early this morning, Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity sailed into New York City to a spectacular sunrise welcome, completing its historic 32-day Northwest Passage journey. The ship became the largest passenger vessel to sail the icy Arctic waters of Canada.

The trip from Anchorage to New York, via the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, had been considered controversial by some, given that the route has traditionally been blocked with ice (a fear that has lessened due to global warming). Canada's version of the Coast Guard, along the U.S., held safety drills and ran through emergency scenarios, in case the 1,070-passenger ship would have to be evacuated.  

Passengers and crew agree that the journey went off without a hitch. "The voyage was very successful, and there were no surprises," says Captain Birger J. Vorland. "There was actually less ice than we anticipated." He credited the three years of intense planning that went into the trip, and the expertise of the expedition team on the Ernest Shackleton, an ice-class vessel that accompanied the cruise ship.

"Crystal thought of everything and it couldn't have been better," agreed Nancy Morris, a seasoned world cruiser from Sarasota, Florida.

Inuit Dancers from Ulukhaktok

An Incredible Trip of Firsts

At Pier 88 in New York, travelers spoke of the air of excitement that permeated the entire cruise, from the first day to the last. Both passengers and crew felt they were part of something special, a voyage of firsts.

 "I never felt the enthusiasm wane," said Vorland. "Everything clicked. I never experienced an atmosphere like this before in my 38 years at sea." Passengers checked everything off their Arctic wish lists: polar bears, ice, the Northern Lights.

The Zodiac outings were a particular highlight. Jeff Fischer from San Jose, California, said the ship ran Zodiac tours for seven hours the first day the ship encountered polar bears. With 1,000 passengers onboard and Zodiacs that carry 10, the ship made the effort to get everyone out to see the sights. "On one excursion, we were surrounded by humpback whales, spouting and blowing -- it was wonderful," he said. A Zodiac of crewmembers would pull up alongside to offer hot chocolate and coffee

Another highlight were the community visits -- and bringing villagers onboard. Morris enjoyed learning about the locals' way of life, how they got food, oil and clothing from hunted seals and only got one shipment of supplies per year. To prepare, Crystal outlined a code of conduct for passengers as to how to behave in the villages: no photos without asking, no buying of staples from the limited local supply. Crystal donated money and supplies to the local communities, and invited residents onboard. According to Morris, local children got to eat in the Lido buffet and sample the Ben and Jerry's ice cream bar -- their first-ever ice cream.

In addition, Crystal had geologists, biologists, naturalists and professional photographers onboard to give lectures, accompany tours and interact with passengers.

Arctic Ice in Victoria Strait

Safety First

Safety was clearly the first priority on this trip. "My number one job is to keep everyone safe," said Captain Vorland. He said the toughest challenge was actually uncertainty. He knew it was supposed to be a "good" ice year (i.e. little ice), but the concern remained until the ship was actually sailing the Northwest Passage and finding not much ice at all. Still, "we always had to keep our guard up," he said, "and I was very happy when we docked here at Pier 88 [in New York]."

Passengers felt safe, as well. Fischer described how the Ernest Shackleton had sailed in from the east, checking the passages ahead of Serenity's transit. His wife Peggy said, "When I looked out our veranda, I felt like the Shackleton was our guide dog because it's such a little ship and we were so big. It made me feel safe." She spoke of a day when kayaking got canceled because the conditions were not safe. "The crew watched out for us," she said.

Morris agreed. "We never felt nervous," she said. "Crystal was prepared for everything."

Only one stop was rendered impossible by ice, and that was in Greenland. Captain Vorland said he stopped the ship at the edge of the ice floes and ran a few Zodiac scenic cruises instead, but when the wind picked up, he had to call those back and cancel the rest of the outings. "No matter how exciting it gets, we have to keep safety in mind," he said.

Polar Bear along Northwest Passage

Lessons Learned

Crystal Serenity will sail the Northwest Passage again in summer 2017. According to Captain Vorland, "next year, the basics are exactly the same. We have a minor list of lessons learned" because the team was so well prepared for this year's cruise.

The Fischers applauded Crystal's packing list, and were "overwhelmed" by the many things Crystal provided, like binoculars, a warm parka and hat (that passengers can take home). They also mentioned the recommended reading list, and said that reading up on the area and being prepared really enhanced the voyage. Even with the packing list, Morris wished she had brought some warmer socks.

Both couples commended Crystal on all they did for passengers with mobility issues who did not or could not get off the ship. A video camera onboard the ship broadcast the images of the villages, the ice and the animal sightings on large-screen TVs in the Palm Court, as well as inside cabins, so onboard passengers could share in the off-ship experiences. The line also brought locals onboard to speak and to perform, so everyone could experience the communities of the Northwest Passage.

Now that Crystal Serenity has successfully -- and safely -- sailed the Northwest Passage, the remaining cabins on the 2017 voyage are likely to fill up quickly. For all those who are tempted, Morris says, "Make your reservations right away." Jeff Fischer says, "I would do it again in a heartbeat."

--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor