Pack your spirit of adventure for an extraordinary expedition like no other in Canada’s Remote Arctic!
Overall Score: Outstanding 98/100
In Summary: By now you know I had an outstanding experience despite the changes to the itinerary. I am already considering other polar destinations like Svalbard, East Greenland, Antarctic, and Labrador. If reading my story has tweaked your adventurous spirit and you are interested in booking a Quark Expedition Cruise, contact Cruise Compete.
In mid-August I had the opportunity to board the Quark Expeditions Ultramarine in Iqaluit, Nunavut, for an expedition in the Canadian High Arctic.
I have been on many polar expedition vessels; however, this was my first time with Quark Expeditions, and it did not disappoint. Unlike some other expedition ships, the Ultramarine has all the bells and whistles including two helicopters for flightseeing, a spa for wellness treatments, comfortable cabins, a diverse and knowledgeable expedition team, and adrenalin pumping Zodiac excursions.
Quark Expeditions specializes in the polar regions and their ships are specifically designed with ice-class ratings suitable for operation in places like Antarctica, Arctic Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and even the North Pole, operating 3 ice-class ships (Ocean Adventurer, Ultramarine and World Explorer).
If you have never experienced a small ship expedition, be prepared for itinerary changes and be ready to go with the flow. Mother Nature, winds, weather, ice, and wildlife rule!
Our entire itinerary changed after large wildfires in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories prevented our charter flight from departing from Calgary. Instead of the 12-day “Canada’s Remote Arctic Nunavut featuring Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands” itinerary, our departure date was delayed, and we instead did a 9-day itinerary renamed “Northwest Passage: A Journey along Baffin Island and Lancaster Sound”, that turned out to be equally exciting and adventurous.
Quark paid for all guests to stay in Calgary at the Westin Airport Hotel including meals for three nights while we waited to depart. Guests were also reimbursed for the missed three days and were offered a voucher for another expedition of their choosing if they decided not to come on this expedition. Most guests chose to carry on with the expedition and we enjoyed every moment aboard Ultramarine in Nunavut.
The only way to visit the High Arctic is by ship and the Ultramarine was the perfect vessel to experience it by sea, land, and air. I have been to the Arctic in Russia, Iceland, and Greenland; however, I always wanted to visit the Canadian Arctic and traverse the Northwest Passage.
Boarding and Disembarking: Once our charter flight arrived in Iqaluit, we were promptly transferred by yellow school bus to the water for a short 15-minute Zodiac ride to the ship. The stylish waterproof parkas distributed at the hotel prior to the flight were a must for the cold, wet Zodiac transfer. I also learned why bringing our waterproof pants and dry sacs was necessary. Once aboard, we were welcomed and shown to our cabins before going to a mandatory safety briefing, followed by dinner. My luggage was inside my cabin by the time the safety briefing ended.
On disembarkation in Resolute, Zodiacs were used to take us ashore and transfer to a social hall that we used as our base in the small hamlet prior to going to the airport. Everything went swimmingly!
Outstanding process! Rating: 10/10.
Ship Design: The 199-guest Ultramarine was designed and built specifically for polar travel with a PC6 Ice Class and state of the art stabilizers. All the passenger decks from Deck 2 to Deck 7 can be accessed via stairs and elevator. The Ambassadors Theater and the Balena Restaurant on Deck 5 are designed with panoramic windows. Located on Deck 7 are Bistro 487 with a large outdoor deck, and the Panorama Lounge and Bar with floor to ceiling windows, modern comfortable furniture, and a library, as well as a large outdoor observation deck. A second bridge is built into the lounge area for redundancy in the event of a fire or malfunction in the Deck 6 Bridge. Rating: 10/10
Lectures and Entertainment: The program included interesting and engaging speakers, in the Ambassadors main theater and lounge, on topics including ornithology, geology, biology, wildlife, polar expedition history and culture. Nightly debriefings included highlights of the day’s sightings and activities with detailed information about key species and landforms. Evening entertainment, in the Observation Lounge with Library and Bar included interactive singing and dancing with fun whimsical themes such as Sea Shanties and Name that Tune Bingo. I would, have liked to have seen more lectures on the history of the Inuit and most notably their recent experience since 1953. Rating: 9/10
Expedition Team, Zodiacs, Kayaks and Helicopters and the Polar Plunge: The 42-member Expedition Team aboard experts in polar exploration history, geology, archaeology, biology, ornithology as well as helicopter pilots, kayak guides, and adventure staff. The expedition leader Jake demonstrated his passion and leadership every day as the itinerary evolved.
It was enriching to spend time with team members from all over the world interacting at lectures, on excursions and even during meals. Every night, team members kept us entertained in the Panorama Lounge and had us dancing and participating in fun games and other shenanigans.
Helicopter operations were top-notch with two experienced pilots, Steve and Simon sharing their knowledge about the terrain during our flight-seeing days. I was fascinated to watch Ethan, who oversees helicopter operations move the helicopter for the helipad into a garage with great precision.
The Zodiac operators and crew assisting guests were very helpful and considerate, offering a hand or a strong arm to make it possible for those with mobility challenges to be able to join Zodiac excursions. (In case you’re not familiar, a Zodiac is a rigid inflatable open-air boat that is used to take around 10 passengers from the ship to rugged shorelines for hikes or to just for a slow cruise.) Some of the expedition team members were trained in the use of firearms and acted as bear guards on landings and in Zodiacs.
The Sea Kayaking program and paddle excursions are available at an extra charge.
The infamous polar plunge is considered a rite of passage for guests on polar expeditions. While I couldn’t muster the courage to jump into the icy Arctic waters, I had fun watching and snapping photos as about 25 brave souls jumped in and promptly climbed back onto the ship shivering.
Hotel Staff & Officers: From the cabin steward to all the staff on the ship, the staff could not have done more for guests and were always smiling and welcoming. The Bridge, however, did not welcome guests although I requested to visit several times. Rating: 9/10.
My Cabin: Upon first entering my cabin, there was a new backpack containing a water bottle – an extremely nice touch. I was fortunate to have a Balcony Suite, which was impressive. The balcony had 2 chairs and a small side table. The closet space was well thought out, with more space than I even needed. There is a refrigerator in the cabin that I did not need to use.
Dining Options: Balena Restaurant, the ship’s contemporary restaurant featured panoramic views from the front of the ship. The restaurant accommodates all guests and staff in one seating. Breakfast and Lunch were served buffet style with abundant selections of salads, fresh fruit, warm breads and pastries, eggs (any style) in the morning, and multiple international cuisine specials daily, soup, salads, and desserts at lunch. Dinner was served French style with several menu options. Wine and beer were included with dinner. I always reserved space for delicious fruit crumbles, ice cream, and pastry selections. The food was the best I have had on an expedition ship.
The Tundra Spa and Fitness Center
I treated myself to a 55-minute Greenlandic facial with natural products made by the Inuit in Greenland at the Tundra Spa. My skin was glowing afterwards. Massages and other services are also available in the spa along with a sauna with a sea view.
The fitness center adjacent to the spa was thoroughly equipped with free weights, cardiovascular machines and a studio with views that would make anyone forget they were working out.
Spectacular Views from the Helicopters
Having the opportunity to helicopter, not once, but twice, enjoying the expansive view from the sky of the ice caps, ice flows, glaciers and winding fjords was spectacular.
While polar landscapes are spectacular from the sea, they’re even more so from the air, a view you can enjoy while seated in one of the two twin-engine helicopters stationed on the top deck of Ultramarine. A 15-minute flightseeing excursion was included. The weather cooperated and we fortunately were able to do two flightseeing excursions, one at Cambridge Bay over Devon Island, at no additional cost.
Taking off and landing on the top deck of the ship on a small helipad was done effortlessly by the experienced helicopter pilots.
Exhilarating Zodiac Excursions: Polar Bears, Icebergs and Glaciers
The combination of Zodiac cruises to safely view massive icebergs and wildlife, combined with Zodiac landings for hiking or beach combing made almost every day a physically challenging and enriching experience.
The Zodiac excursions along the coast of Baffin Island, Cumming Bay, Radstock Bay, Isabella Bay and Devon Island were exhilarating. You just can’t beat the WOW of seeing Polar Bears lumbering on the shore, majestic blue icebergs floating by effortlessly, and navigating crackling sea ice on the lookout for seals, walruses, and whales.
Exploration history: Sir John Franklin in the Northwest Passage on Beechey Island
Although there weren’t very many landings due to the weather, we eventually made it to Beechey Island where Sir John Franklin’s team wintered in 1845 to 1846 during their ill-fated quest to find the Northwest Passage and claim it for the British Empire. The graves of three crewmen from the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus who died that winter was emotionally overwhelming for many guests as our Historian, Ross, read a passage from the mother of one the young crewmen buried on Beechey Island. Walking to the remains of Northumberland House, a supply depot and the emergency shelter built by the Belcher expedition in 1852, with Ross as our interpreter made the history of the Franklin expedition very real and raw. After many expeditions to uncover the mystery of the loss of lives and ships, in 2014 one of the ships from the Franklin expedition was discovered after 170 years.
A unique Inuit Fusion Dining Experience – Tundra to Table
Quark offered “Tundra to Table” a one-of-a-kind culinary experience at an additional cost. Using the culinary traditions of the Inuit in Greenland and Nunavut, our chefs Miki and Peter (experts in Greenlandic Inuit cuisine) meticulously prepared four courses of Inuit fusion cuisine. They explained the origins of the food and the techniques used for our meal. Following dinner, we all stayed for Inuit cultural storytelling with Miki and Peter. The entire experience was unique and culturally enriching. Tip: Sign up early: space is limited.
Exploring the isolated hamlet of Resolute
On our last day, we were fortunate that the sea ice cleared, and we had the opportunity to walk in the hamlet of Resolute with a population of just 140. Polar bears were sighted in the area and the RCMP were on watch in case any came too close to the centre. It didn’t take much convincing when we were asked not to wander outside the hamlet.
There were Polar Bear skins drying and animal skulls on display in front of the modest homes Inuit children played on the dusty pathways and gravel roads. I found a lovely Inuit blue crochet Pang-style wool hat in the Coop store, while others purchased reindeer horn and soapstone Inuit carvings. As is one of my customs, I sent postcards to my children from the Resolute post office.
I tried to imagine living in 24-hour darkness for four months of the year in such a barren, cold and isolated community.
Areas for Possible Improvement:
I’ve always enjoyed going up to the Bridge to meet the officers, and an effort should be made in the future to allow guests up to the Bridge.
By now you know I had an outstanding experience despite the changes to the itinerary. I am already considering other polar destinations like Svalbard, East Greenland, Antarctic, and Labrador. If reading my story has tweaked your adventurous spirit and you are interested in booking a Quark Expedition Cruise, contact Cruise Compete.
Overall Score: Outstanding 98/100
About Quark Expeditions: The global leader in polar adventures for more than 30 years. The most passionate and seasoned team in the industry, taking explorers to the ends of the earth. Going where few ever dream, and walking where few ever will. Delivering extraordinary experiences and enriching lives through travel, Quark Expeditions is a Travelopia specialist company.
Cover photo: Approaching Ultramarine at night by zodiac in Iqaluit, Nunavut – Photo Judi Cohen
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