I Went on a $20,000 Arctic Cruise and It Was Worth Every Penny

The trip with Abercrombie & Kent was life-changing

Snow covered mountains in Greenland and sea ice photographed on a clear day reflected in still water.

Sherri Gardner

When my team at TripSavvy was offered an invite on an Arctic expedition cruise with Abercrombie & Kent, I volunteered myself before even reading the entire pitch. I knew I was getting a rare opportunity and needed to be on that ship. When I shared my plans with my friends, my family, my therapist, my doctors, and anyone who would listen, the primary response was a benevolent kind of envy—the type where I couldn’t help but acknowledge how lucky I was to spend two weeks on a luxury cruise. Once I learned the expedition cost (more than $20,000), my expectations soared even higher.

That’s not to say that experience was without challenges. Patience, perseverance, and flexibility were the three guiding principles given to the group during our orientation, and boy, were they necessary. While some guests lost luggage, others dealt with delayed flights, inclement weather, long hikes, and an everchanging itinerary—we were in the Arctic, after all.

While I’m usually anxious if I don’t know what’s going to happen, my expectation of these constant changes made me a much more mellow traveler. (When my pinky nail that I’d been growing out for over eight months snapped off during a Zodiac cruise, I was only sad about it for an hour—which is incredible by my standards.)

Overall, the experience with Abercrombie & Kent was so good it may have ruined me for most other cruises.

Sherri, a light skinned Black woman, standing in front of a mossy volcanic hill. She is smiling and wearing all black with a red a coat

Sherri Gardner

Getting Ready for the Expedition

As a lifelong city kid, I don’t have a wardrobe for outdoor adventure, especially not one for polar excursions. When I saw the three-page recommended packing list before departure, panic started to rise. Did I need thermal underwear? Would a cropped sweater keep me warm? Where on Earth would I find glove liners? My worry was for naught, and I did not need most of the new things I bought.

Other than packing and booking flights, Abercrombie & Kent takes care of the rest—but that’s not to say there were no hiccups. The company requires a COVID-19 test to board the ship,  but this requirement was not included in the cruise fare, nor was it obvious in the pre-departure briefing. Now, in A&K’s defense, there is a line on page 21 of the 31-page final documentation packet saying that a 110 euro test was required to board L’Austral. And while travelers should read every page of pretravel documents, burying the lede that much and then waiting 14 days later to charge guests for it created a lot of confusion.

Additionally, dozens of passengers (and some of the staff) lost their luggage. Losing luggage sucks on any trip, but losing luggage before a specialized cold-weather trip in the middle of summer can ruin the entire vacation—at least one passenger considered hopping back on a flight home. While this disaster was entirely out of A&K’s control, the team did a great job soothing distraught travelers. (One woman I met on board gushed about how seen she felt by the staff when explaining her distress.)  

Life On Board

Having never been on a cruise before, I had no idea what to expect from L’Austral. I knew it was a small ship but didn’t have a real sense of what that meant. The vessel has a maximum capacity of 264 guests, although there were only 144 on my sailing.

The small size made the trip feel more akin to summer camp. Most passengers found at least one other person to spend time with, and even I—a notorious introvert who’s terrible at meeting people—found a lovely group of people to share meals with. My four dining companions, a gregarious woman traveling alone and a family of three celebrating the son’s high school graduation, became my ship family and were more welcoming than I could have hoped.

Dining Options

L'Austral has two restaurants: Le Coromandel with waiter service and Le Rodrigues, a buffet with a carving station. Both restaurants shared a menu, but since I like little bites of everything, I ate most of my meals in Le Rodrigues.

The food was impressively good, and the menu changed daily, so there was no chance of getting bored. I was also surprised by the diversity of dishes. As a French ship, I expected French cuisine to dominate the menu, but there were days with Filipino pork adobo, Indian-style cauliflower, and even a crispy roast suckling pig.

Given the ship's small size, restaurants were only open 90 minutes at a time. If you wanted to eat outside this time, the only option was a limited room service menu. My only other minor complaint was that buffet options were often served barely warm, not hot.

Small boat with 10 passengers passing in front of a large iceberg

Sherri Gardner

Staying Entertained

Despite having two excursions on most days, there was plenty of downtime. Still, life on board the ship was anything but boring.

The ship hosted numerous enrichment lectures led by a group of scientists, cultural experts, and masters of their fields, like celebrated photographer Michelle Valberg and Commander Susan Kilrain, a groundbreaking Navy test pilot and astronaut. Each day, expedition leaders would give a presentation connected to their specialty unless a wildlife sighting forced a schedule change. The lectures were informative, vastly entertaining, and could be watched from the comfort of your stateroom—an option I always took.

Beyond lectures, passengers could enjoy live musical performances at least once a day in addition to several dance performances. Plenty of guests took full advantage of the open bar, which stayed open into the wee hours of the morning, while the spa and sauna provided some rest and relaxation. A decently stocked library, fitness center, selection of games, and small heated pool rounded out the shared amenities.

Unfortunately—and perhaps to be expected—the ship did not offer a reliable Internet connection. Most days, we’d be lucky to get 20 minutes of Internet a day, but I found that I didn’t miss being online.

While the ship had a lot to offer, I often opted for the comfort of my stateroom, where I could lounge in my pajamas, read a book or play a game, and drink tea. 

What the Rooms Are Like

Staterooms for the cruise are divided into eight categories, with the least expensive costing around $20,500 per person.

I stayed in a category two room and was impressed by its size. Covering 200 square feet, the room was spacious and the large sliding glass door compensated nicely for the low ceilings. The door let in so much light that I only needed to turn on the lights when the curtains were drawn. A large balcony with panoramic views of scenery so beautiful I could barely believe it was real made it easy to spend plenty of time relaxing and taking in the views. The bathroom was equally spacious, with a large shower featuring a partitioned glass window that allowed you to look out onto the balcony. The in-room amenities were similar to a luxury hotel, with Diptyque toiletries and daily fresh fruit. 

View of a mountain in the Arctic ocean on a bright day. Photographed from the water

Sherri Gardner

Excursions

Excursions ranged from one to three hours in the morning and afternoon. Each was either a landing or a Zodiac cruise. Despite the long packing list mentioned above, Abercrombie & Kent gave everyone an expedition parka, backpack, water bottle, rainboots, and waterproof pants. I’d wear a thin baselayer, a pullover, leggings, and two pairs of socks on most excursions. I ditched the pullover on warmer days but always kept a hat and gloves on hand, just in case.

Landings ranged from a short walk around a former trapper residence to stunning eight-mile hikes on rarely-visited portions of the volcanic island, Jan Mayen. Early into the trip, landings were quite structured with clearly defined areas and plenty of expedition staff keeping an eye on the group and any potentially dangerous wildlife. However, as the trip progressed and we were in less danger of a bear attack guests could roam quite freely.

The announcements could get a little excessive if you were trying to take a nap, but when choosing between sleep and a polar bear, the polar bear wins. Every time

Zodiac cruises gave unique landscape views and allowed us to explore areas where walking wasn't possible. I loved every second we spent on the small boats. With the wind in my hair and the feel of the light ship skipping over waves, I felt so exhilarated. One day, while I was sitting on a Zodiac staring at glacier-topped cliffs with thousands of birds flying overhead, my mind raced, imagining the kinds of stories that could take place there. At the trip's end, we intentionally bumped against the eastern coast of Greenland to enjoy a glass of Champagne among the glaciers and icebergs.

Both excursion options offered an incredible diversity of landscape, wildlife, and even weather conditions. I often marveled at how quickly an hour or two or three would pass because there was just so much to observe.

The unpredictable weather did make some days gloomier than others, like our land tour in Húsavík, Iceland. The plan was to visit three scenic spots in the area and finish up with a visit to the Húsavík Whale Museum, but the weather made outdoor walks cold and miserable and put everyone in a slightly sour mood.

Bearded seal laying down on a piece of sea ice. There is a cruise ship and small boat of people in the background

Sherri Gardner

Wildlife Spotting

Considering the trip was called "In Search of the Polar Bear," wildlife spotting was the primary goal. Over two weeks, we saw seven polar bears, two separate walrus groups, an Arctic fox, a blue fox, pods of whales and dolphins, a bearded seal, reindeer, and countless seabirds (including puffins). Since the cruise was operating under Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) guidelines, the crew ensured that our presence didn't negatively impact the animals or the environment.

When an animal sighting happened from the ship—all the bears, whales, and dolphins—expedition staff would make frequent announcements directing passengers where to go. The reports could get a little excessive if you were trying to nap, but when choosing between sleep and a polar bear, the polar bear wins. Every time. 

Lone polar bear in an icy ocean, standing on a piece of floating ice

Sherri Gardner

Final Thoughts

Back in New York City, one of my friends asked me who I’d recommend take such a trip. After considering it, I think that a bucket-list trip like this is ideal for people who love nature and the outdoors but have a taste for luxury.

The quality of the accommodations, the expertise of the staff, and the experience as a whole was a 10 out of 10. The lofty price tag means this is a trip to plan for well in advance, but don’t let the price scare you off!

Considering that you’ll get an unparalleled cruise experience through some of the most remote regions on the planet and seeing endangered animals with your own eyes, I think it’s worth the money—and most of that value comes from Abercrombie & Kent’s sheer organizational skill. Despite lost bags, changing schedules, and all the hiccups accompanying being away for so long, the passengers I spoke with only had positive things to say. In fact, the cruise went so well for one of my new friends that she booked her spot on an A&K Antarctic cruise before we even got off the ship.

Article Sources
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  1. AECO. "Members." Accessed August 2, 2022.

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