Want to feel on top of the world? That's easy to do on a Russian Arctic cruise. Also called the Russian Far North, this off-the-radar voyage delivers goose bump adventures on a daily basis -- everything from sighting whales and eagles to hiking the Arctic tundra and meeting villagers who rarely see outsiders.
The Russian Arctic is in Russia's extreme northwest, west of Siberia. Russian Arctic cruises usually sail round trip from Tromso, Norway, the gateway to many Arctic cruises. However, instead of heading north to Svalbard, Norway, Russian Arctic cruises turn east into the Barents Sea and its inlet, the White Sea, before returning to Norway.
Unfortunately, cruises sailing here are difficult to find. Our cruise was on Silversea's Silver Explorer, which offers a 12-night itinerary about every two years. Look also for smaller expedition companies, like Poseidon Expeditions or Expeditions Online, to score a sail. (Note that routes might be different.)
Cruises run from June to August, during the midnight sun. The weather is cold -- ships like Silver Explorer provide detailed packing lists -- but the temperatures stay above freezing and often climb into the 50s. Unlike on most Arctic cruises, you will not see ice floes and polar bears. But you will spot hundreds to thousands of birds, and minke and beluga whales. And count on reindeer in Norwegian ports. The only ice you'll see are small patches on mountainsides.
Instead of weather conditions, it's the gargantuan, relentless mosquitoes that bother cruisers most. They somehow find a way inside parkas and thick socks. Insect repellant should be your BFF on a Russian Arctic cruise. That's the bad news. The good news is that this cruise is so enlightening and such a rare opportunity, a mosquito bite or two is a small price to pay. Click through our slideshow to learn more about this hugely ignored yet compelling region.
Tromso, Norway, was the embarkation and debarkation port for our Russian Arctic cruise. Most passengers fly to Oslo and overnight first, before flying on to Tromso as a group. They do the reverse in return if flight connections are difficult. Tromso is a small city, with old wooden houses, charming boutiques, simple restaurants and a striking cathedral.
Tip: If you want time to explore Tromso and the surrounding area, fly in earlier or spend a night or two post-cruise. The Radisson Blu Hotel is a cruiser's favorite. Hiking, fishing, biking and even jogging in the midnight sun are popular activities.
Our first port, these grassy Norwegian islands are explored via Zodiac only. Visitors are not allowed on land between June 15 and August 15, tourist season. The islands are home to Norway's largest colony of seabirds -- such as puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots and cormorants -- and have been designated a nature reserve since 1983.
We circled around Storstappen, the biggest island and home to the largest bird colonies, then lingered near a steep cliff where the seabirds nest to view hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of birds. Occasionally, a grey seal popped out of the water, eying us curiously. The biggest thrill came when white-tailed sea eagles flew overhead.
Tip: Bring waterproof bags for your smartphone and cameras. Silver Explorer provides water-resistant backpacks, but that might not be fully protective if it rains hard.
The world's largest city north of the Arctic Circle, Murmansk is an important Russian naval base as its waters stay ice-free due to the relatively warm Gulf Stream. The city retains its Soviet-era architecture.
Murmansk was nearly destroyed in World War II. A city tour includes a visit to Alyosha monument, featuring a 116-foot-high statue of a soldier. With its dramatic height and a nearby eternal flame, the monument movingly pays tribute to soldiers who fiercely protected the Arctic from the Germans.
Touring the Lenin, the world's first nuclear-powered icebreaker, is a highlight. Dubbed a technological wonder back in 1959 and decommissioned in 1989, the Lenin is now a floating museum preserved as it was in its heyday. It's eerie, peeking into the past and eying long-outdated equipment and furnishings. Tour guides work hard to bring stories of the icebreaker to life, making it easy to imagine the crew's daily routine decades ago.
Tip: When touring the Lenin, wear flat comfortable shoes; you'll be doing a lot of walking, including climbing up and down many steep stairways.
If you've seen the movie "Leviathan" -- which won the Golden Globe for best foreign film in 2015 -- you've seen Teriberka. The movie, about Russian provincial life, was filmed here. This remote village of about 1,000 residents on the Barents Sea looks like an abandoned movie set, with old wooden homes and concrete apartments, many in need of repair. The shoreline is littered with rotting fishing boats.
The only way out for locals is either by boat, or usually, by a desolate drive to Murmansk that's treacherous in the winter. The only way in for cruisers is by Zodiac, in a wet landing on an empty sandy beach. We arrived in the morning and walked around the town. We saw a couple of general stores and a few elderly women and little else. But the bleakness has its own beauty. The unspoiled Arctic tundra surrounding Teriberka stuns. Bright-hued wildflowers grow in unkempt grass, and the shoreline is long and peaceful. Depending upon where you glance and what you seek, Teriberka is forsaken or fabulous. Or both.
Tip: Carry Russian rubles in case you wish to buy a memento -- even if just a Russian candy bar -- in a store.
After a morning in Teriberka, we spent the afternoon in nearby Dvorovaya Bay. Bobbing in zodiacs, we ogled thousands of seabirds, circling and nesting on jagged pink granite cliffs. Dvorovaya Bay is the only place in Russia to see shags. We also saw kittiwakes, common and black guillemots, razorbills and herring gulls. The expedition team member guiding our Zodiac got a radio call from another team member, who had just spotted a minke whale, so we zoomed to that location. Soon we were overjoyed to hear the blow and see a grey dorsal fin just a few yards away.
Tip: Zodiacs can't get too close to shore or wildlife, so bring a good telephoto zoom lens for your camera. Think about bringing a lens rain sleeve or camera cover.
Only 30 to 40 full time residents live in this isolated Russian village on the White Sea. They only received round-the-clock electricity in 2016. On our visit, many villagers came out of their small but well-kept homes to greet us. Blonde blue-eyed children, playing gleefully in the warm sunlight, happily posed for pictures.
When a Silver Explorer guest admired one woman's garden, she was invited inside to "chat" -- never mind that neither woman spoke the other's language. The guest waved me inside as I passed by, and I found myself seated in the Russian woman's kitchen, spreading homemade preserves on freshly made blinis. It was a wonderful moment, when conversing takes on new meaning and has nothing to do with language.
Tip: Friendly villagers might invite you indoors. Offer a small gift, even if just chocolates or other ship treats, and they will be overjoyed. American or European visitors are next to none, and most locals have little personal knowledge of the outside world.
Solovetsky Island belongs to a remote island chain in the western White Sea. This island is home to the Solovetsky Monastery, founded in 1436, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The imposing monastery is also a fortress, and consists of gold-filled churches and cathedrals, but also formidable turrets and watchtowers, replete with cannons. The meandering structure was built between the 16th and 19th centuries and is now both a historical and architectural museum, with some 70 monks in residence.
The monastery is infamous for its history as a forced labor camp during Josef Stalin's era between 1923 and 1939, and as an early prototype for other gulags -- and later, German concentration camps. Reportedly, more than 80,000 Soviet prisoners endured horrific cruelties here and about half died in the camp. However, there are no official records of prisoner counts or deaths. This gulag is documented only in a small museum at the end of the monastery tour. We saw only Russians visiting; they come for the beauty of the gardens, lake and surrounding forests, but also for religious pilgrimages.
Tip: Taking pictures of the shaggy-bearded monks in flowing black robes is tempting, but prohibited. Although it's disappointing that the information within the gulag museum is written only in Russian, the photographs speak volumes. You might have to coax information from your guide; ours made clear that older generations do not like to discuss the subject and it seemed, neither did our guides.
This tiny mysterious White Sea island is known for its Neolithic stone labyrinths, perhaps 1,000 to 4,000 years old. According to our guide, no one knows why or when they were built. Many speculate they had spiritual significance to indigenous people long ago. Led by the guide, we walked around the labyrinths on a modern boardwalk.
We also peeked inside the old wooden Church of St. Andrew, which was erected in 1702. Of the two permanent residents of this island, one is the church caretaker, and the other, a groundskeeper. During the summer, guides live on Zayatsky to handle visiting groups, but during the long, dark, harsh winter, these two men are alone -- with no electricity.
Tip: Don't walk inside the labyrinth unless invited by a guide.
Our ship traveled up the Dvina River to reach the city Arkhangelsk. There, we boarded Gogol, a paddle steamer built in 1911, for a morning tour of the city by river. Sitting on the top open deck, we listened to a most knowledgeable guide providing commentary. We saw a new onion-dome cathedral under construction, and 18th- and 19th-century buildings dating back to the times when this city was most prosperous. Our guide also shared historical facts on the part Arkhangelsk played during World War II.
Tip: It's easy to explore the city on your own, using the ship as a landmark. People are friendly (even if most don't speak English) and the wide avenues near the port are lined with shops and restaurants.
After a sea day, we returned to Norway. Kirkenes is a small town close to both the Russian and Finnish borders, so you can see three countries in one afternoon. From Height 96, a Norwegian military watchtower, we could look into Nikel, Russia, though we were dismayed to see heavy pollution streaming from nickel factory chimneys. We also viewed Russia from across a riverbank; there's an actual border marker in the river. Our trip to Finland was pretty quick; we just crossed the Norwegian-Finnish border to visit a few stores selling everything from hunting knives to reindeer meat and hide. The highlight was spotting a bunch of live reindeer by a stream.
Tip: Although signs told us not to take pictures across the border to Russia, most of us did, anyway. According to our guide, the guard in the Russian watchtower on the riverbank is likely just a dummy propped up.
Our last port, North Cape, Norway, heralded our return to civilization. Tourists visit here from all over the world because North Cape is a bucket-list destination for travelers who wish to stand at the northernmost point in Europe. Technically, that point is not right at North Cape, but the real marker is not easily reached. So this geographic landmark is celebrated at North Cape, and is heralded by a giant globe at the cliff's edge.
Tip: Bring a ship postcard or buy one at the souvenir shop to mail from the post office here, so it will bear the coveted North Cape postmark. If seeking souvenirs, you'll find plenty, including toy trolls and Christmas ornaments.