Northern Exposure: An Arctic Expedition

The first ship of its kind, Le Commandant Charcot is built to take passengers to the ends of the earth.

Photo: Konrad Kasiske

Konrad Kasiske, Olivier Blaud and Gilles Trillard

It’s a wake-up call like no other. As we luxuriate in the warmth and comfort of our stateroom, grateful for the blackout blinds that shut out the perma-daylight of June in the Arctic Circle, the dulcet French tones of our commandant, Captain Patrick Marchesseau, take over our room. “Good morning passengers,” he croons, a little after eight o’clock. “So, we have made good progress overnight and we will soon be entering the ice.” On any other ship, those words should rightfully spark fear and panic. But this is no Titanic.

This is Le Commandant Charcot and the very reason we are here – on the world’s first Polar Class 2 passenger icebreaker – is to travel further north than any passenger ship before us. By comparison, every other passenger expedition ship is a Polar Class 5, designed to cruise among small icebergs but unable to enter the Arctic ice floe where the pristine wonder can be experienced up close.

Which is exactly what we do just moments later. The ship rumbles and groans, setting the soundtrack for the day ahead, as she begins to glide through the pack ice. We rush outside to our private balcony (every room has one) and marvel as huge slabs of snow-covered ice turn blue as they lift out of the water and tumble over. Nearly half a metre thick, this ice is child’s play for Le Commandant Charcot, which is built to cut through ice up to five-times thicker. “It’s like butter for the vessel,” says the captain with pride. “It’s very easy for her.”

Le Commandant Charcot;

(Photo: Olivier Blaud)

Today is a crisp 2 degrees Celsius in peak summer, and the wind chill means few passengers can withstand more than a short burst of photo-taking on deck, before retreating inside to the ever-civilised warmth of the Observatory Lounge. Ponant’s signature orange parkas – which are complimentary for every guest to keep – litter the lounge, as passengers sit poised and ready for the next announcement.

Occasional booms of bass shake the tables, causing coffees to spill and hearts to race. It feels like Christmas morning, before adolescence stripped the day of its magic. Just quite what we’re all waiting for, we’re not sure. But it’s exciting! We are intrepid explorers, cosseted in the luxury of a floating five-star resort.

By three o’clock in the afternoon, the captain and expedition leader are satisfied we’ve reached a safe disembarkation point. The ice is thick enough for the 150-plus passengers to stomp around for a while – and there are no hungry polar bears on the horizon. For now. To be sure, they station armed scouts around the perimeter, as they do for every landing throughout our 10-day expedition. Out we march onto the ice, laughing and stumbling as we fall into knee-deep snow drifts. Champagne is served in snow-filled ice buckets and we cheers our fellow explorers as the captain tells us we are at 81 degrees latitude, around 800 kilometres from the North Pole. “We are the northernmost people in the world right now,” he says.

An hour later, we are back on the ship and heading to the fjords of Svalbard when an announcement comes over the loudspeaker. There is a polar bear on the ice, port side. We don our parkas and rush to the promenade deck, as the captain changes course for a closer look.

In the distance, we can see the bear lumbering away from us, before he disappears behind a snow drift. A minute later, he’s back, with something dark in his mouth. A trail of red paints the snow. Though impossible to see with the naked eye, those with binoculars and telescopic photo lenses confirm the bear has caught a small seal, dragging its limp body away until he disappears into the snowy horizon.

Polar bear sighting;

(Photo: Konrad Kasiske)

Despite the slightly gruesome nature of this sighting, we are thrilled. It’s only the second polar bear sighting of the trip – the first came the previous evening as a bear swam alongside the ship – and the novelty is far from over. An hour later, we’re in our room when we spot another bear through the window. By the time the alert is sounded, the bear has run away. Expedition leader Steinar Aksnes has warned this might happen. Every polar bear is different, he explains. Some are curious and inquisitive, while others are more fearful. Some come closer, while others flee. As if to prove this point, later that evening, we are treated to a special double sighting, as a mother and her baby wander right up along-side the ship. The mother runs towards us, fascinated by this vast floating mountain, while her cub hangs back, roaring for her to return. They are close enough that we can hear his wild cries.

For half an hour, we stand in silence, mesmerised by their every move. We delight as the cub stands on his hind legs and tumbles in the snow. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff and no one is going to miss a moment. It’s the perfect end to an extraordinary day.

For Aksnes and his team, it’s also a huge relief. While the cruise is sold as a “polar immersion” experience, with no guarantee of any specific sightings, the pressure to deliver les ours is enormous. Aksnes has been guiding tours and film crews around Svalbard for more than 20 years. He knows every bird cliff and walrus colony in the archipelago. But even he can’t guarantee polar bears. With four sightings in a single day, the pressure is off and Aksnes can safely progress with the rest of our Arctic safari.

Aboard a small passenger vessel;

(Photo: Konrad Kasiske)

By the end of our 10-day tour, we have seen everything from orca whales, dolphins, and a mighty blue whale to Arctic foxes, reindeer and an entire beach of fat, stinking walruses. When and where these creatures will appear can be a guessing game and is one of the reasons there’s no fixed itinerary for the cruise. The other is the weather and trying to dodge the impenetrable fog that so often shrouds the islands and makes onshore landings impossible.

Instead of following a set route and agenda, the team responds to the latest information and updates from fellow expedition groups to map out the best plan for the day ahead. Something made even trickier by the intermittent internet access as the ship regularly sails out of satellite range. Those thinking they might sneak in some remote work along the way should think again. But all the more excuse to lean in to the luxury of Le Commandant Charcot and the serenity of the Arctic Circle.

Le Commandant Charcot pool;

(Photo: Gilles Trillard)

Whether its lounging by the (indoor, heated) pool or a warming sauna session (followed by a quick blast in the onboard snow room), any activity or indulgence is improved by the slow-moving panorama that unfolds at every window. The ever-changing colours of passing icebergs and glaciers are a constant source of wonder, turning moments of nothing into something special.

Most days, there is at least one excursion, whether its exploring one of the shingle-crusted islands, barren but for the occasional trapper’s hut, or a guided cruise in the Zodiacs for a closer look at the surrounding glaciers and rock formations. Anyone who thinks rocks aren’t very interesting has never seen the gothic majesty of Alkefjellet up close.

Bedroom suite;

(Photo: Gilles Trillard)

Those who require more active mental stimulation are welcome to join a variety of lectures and briefings, hosted by the expedition team, who each specialise in different areas of expertise. Though this is where the experience can prove a little less welcoming for English speakers, as French is the primary language on board. While many of the crew are multilingual, some are not. Or they simply forget to speak English.

Of course, there are benefits to being aboard a French ship, particularly when it comes to dinner (…and lunch…and breakfast…and apéritif). The wine, the cheese, the pastries; all are magnifique. And that’s before you delve into the tome of cellar offerings, where you will find exceptional drops from some of France’s most famed vineyards.

Le Commandant Charcot lounge area;

(Photo: Gilles Trillard)

With a culinary program overseen by legendary chef Alain Ducasse, it’s little wonder the dining is world-class. Meals are served in two restaurants: Sila on deck nine, which offers a selection of international flavours, diverse enough to ensure you don’t get bored yet mild enough to appease the French aversion to spice. While deck five is home to Nuna, which serves up delicate dishes of haute cuisine, such as white cocoa bean velouté or veal sweetbread with potato millefeuille. It’s fancy and very French.

But no culinary wizardry can outshine the performances that unfold around us each night. A farewell gala dinner sees us dine on a buttery feast of sea bream, caviar, guinea fowl and lobster, as the chefs pull out all the stops to create a final meal to remember. Of course, they should know better. As the first course is served, a pod of dolphins arrives and starts to dance in and out of the waves beside us. One final show in the greatest theatre of them all.

Le Commandant Charcot;

(Photo: Konrad Kasiske)

The Ship

As the first luxury cruise ship powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), Le Commandant Charcot is touted as one of the cleanest and most technologically advanced ships sailing in the world today. In addition to LNG, which results in significantly reduced emissions compared to traditional diesel-powered boats, the ship is also equipped with electric batteries to enable hybrid operation. All waste water is treated on board ensuring no effluent emissions and there are no plastic bottles on board, with all water sourced from the surrounding ocean and treated in the onboard desalination and sanitisation plant.

At 150 metres long, Le Commandant Charcot is small by most cruise liner standards, with just 123 staterooms and suites on board, catering to a maximum of 270 passengers. An exterior promenade deck, which wraps around the entire ship, allows passengers unique outdoor access, as well as heated bench seats to sit and warm themselves (cleverly powered by recovered energy from the engine exhaust fumes). In addition, the ship has two dedicated science laboratories on board as part of an ongoing research programme, which sees scientists from around the world invited aboard to collect data and conduct polar research in areas that were previously inaccessible. Guests are welcome to visit the labs and participate in science sessions with researchers during their cruise.

How to book

The 2023 Arctic season aboard Le Commandant Charcot is priced from $24,160 per person for 10 nights, departing from Reykjavik or Longyearbyen. Arctic voyages take place from June through to September.

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