Arctic cruises: how Simon Calder blew the budget on a trip to ‘North Korea on Sea’

This year Simon Calder took his family on a cruise in northern Canada. Their most expensive holiday ever didn’t go well

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The Independent Travel

Bill didn’t get a hug from me, but it was close. At 4.30am on what was supposed to be the day after the last day of an absurdly expensive trip involving the SS Kim Jong-un, he was the first person from the company to which I had paid US$18,847 (£14,500) to say “Thank you for travelling with us”, and sound as though he meant it.

To be fair, the ship wasn’t called Kim Jong-un; she was a 1982 Polish-built ferry now named the Ocean Endeavour. And while I often felt as though we were completely cut off from the outside world and discouraged from questioning the wisdom of decisions made on high, in several important respects life aboard was unlike North Korea.

We were very well-fed. And, as far as I could tell, nobody was executed for dissent by a firing squad using anti-aircraft guns – though I would have understood if some of the staff had been inclined to take such action against a mutinous British passenger. I daresay my long-suffering family would have offered to pull the trigger: they were the unwitting victims of my decision to blow the budget on the wrong holiday.

I booked the trip, which was supposed to last 12 days, because the itinerary looked enthralling. “This journey encompasses the heart of the Arctic from Greenland to Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, and finally, Nunavik in Northern Quebec,” gushed the publicity. “The chances of seeing wildlife, including polar bears, walrus, and musk ox are excellent.”

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Some of the other passengers were lucky enough to spot polar bears (Marc de Verteuil)

I did see a polar bear, but it was painted on the funnel of the ship. (Some fellow passengers were luckier, and later shared their photos with me.) I saw neither walrus nor musk ox. I saw some seals, but most of them were dead and were in the process of being “flensed” (you don’t want to know) by the Inuit hunters who had caught them. Oh, and I didn’t see Nunavik in Northern Quebec, one of several locations that fell off the itinerary.

What the Calder family and 180 other fare-paying passengers mostly saw was the inside of a 34-year-old ferry. She had been built in Szczecin to connect the icier parts of the Soviet Union, and was therefore a robust brute of a ship. She now sails for Adventure Canada, which deploys Ocean Endeavour on a series of cruises in north-eastern Canada, venturing across the Davis Strait to Greenland.

It was from the aviation hub of Greenland, the Scrabble-busting port of Kangerlussuaq, that we boarded the ship. As we set sail, all the omens looked good. The bow carved an elegant delta through water the tone and temperature of cold steel, while mountains rose magnificently from either shore. And beneath a benign Arctic sky, we started to meet our fellow inmates.

Fortunately, the vast majority were Canadian. Therefore they were the friendliest and kindest of people, as well as custodians of a vast swathe of the planet’s northern reaches. Most of the rest were American, including a party from the Road Scholar organisation, with just a handful of Europeans.

Daisy (16) and Poppy (13) did much to reduce the average age on board, and I do believe that even my wife, Charlotte, and I may have made a small arithmetic contribution.

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The Calder clan (Charlotte Hindle)

Adventure Canada had invited along some outstanding experts and guides to open our eyes to the wonders – and the people – of the north. Ree Brennin Houston is a marine mammalogist who revels in the abundance of the Arctic. The geologist Jon Dudley explains what the raw, scarred face of the earth tells us, and how all life is shaped by the ever-changing landscape. And Dr James Raffan is a proper explorer and historian of the north.

To that mix were added musicians, a quick-witted comedian/host and performers brought on board from local communities – demonstrating Arctic athletics, as well as the strange and marvellous technique of throat singing. Two people stand face to face, noses inches apart, one panting and percussing, the other uttering strange mantras.

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Looking out to sea (Simon Calder)

You don’t see that in Pyongyang. Surely anyone who complains is a curmudgeon who deserves to be despatched forthwith to the North Korean capital? Agreed. But by way of mitigation, I estimate that the price I paid for the trip for the four of us, plus air fares and extras, worked out at £1 per minute. So perhaps I was particularly sensitive to the way the itinerary started to disintegrate even before we left the coast of Greenland. 

The first call on Baffin Island was cancelled due to sea ice. I fear I will now never see Pangnirtung, “located on a narrow coastal plain against a spectacular backdrop of high mountains and a winding river valley”.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Adventure Canada stresses: “It is highly probable that weather, sea and ice conditions will not allow us to travel this exact route.” Keen to make the most of the adventure, and aware that the early cancellation freed up at least 24 hours, I suggested politely that we could visit another community in Greenland. I was thanked politely and ignored.

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Crystal clear: the view through the ice (Simon Calder)

Three days later, we finally made landfall in a place called Kimmirut, near the southern tip of Baffin Island. What many of us needed was a vigorous hike across austerely beautiful terrain, scattered with remnants of Europeans’ feeble grip on an island four times the size of England, never mind Wales.

As luck would have it, we were told that vigorous hikers should line up for the Zodiacs – inflatable boats that skim across the waves to the shore.

As a frail, elderly passenger (no, not me) was helped on to the craft, along with his walking stick, it became clear that none of the expedition staff were prepared to challenge our self-definitions of fitness. What should have been an exhilarating, exhausting yomp across the wilderness proved, instead, to be a frustrating stop-start stumble.

Back on board, day after day, I made an effort to join in the fun. For the explorers’ theme night, I insisted on the family donning Arctic-style beards that made us look like ZZ Top’s eccentric Canadian cousins. On Variety Night, I picked up a guitar for the first time in a decade and sang Tom Paxton’s wanderlust anthem, “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”. And I still recall warmly how we shivered during the Polar Plunge into the icy waters of Hudson Strait.

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Simon and family channelling ZZ Top on "Explorers' Night" (Simone Kennedy)

I’d like to show you a picture of the high-latitude swim, but I was too mean to pay the $160 necessary to get the official photographs of that event and the rest of the voyage.

Day 11 promised to be the highlight: Akpatok Island, a slab of limestone resembling a natural aircraft carrier, and prime breeding spot for thick-billed murres: plump seabirds who resemble penguins that have just about mastered the art of flying.

As we approached, the island’s crust looked crunchy and alluring. We had been given the prospect of a fossil hunt, a photography expedition and, yes, a “vigorous hike”. But like so many promises of what we would see and do on this viciously expensive holiday, it proved as empty as the Canadian North.

The morning wind was harsh. By lunchtime, though, the captain had found a location where the sea was flat calm and decorated by modest icebergs, chiselled by time and the ocean into eerily blue sculptures.

All aboard the Zodiacs for a close encounter with these fragments of winter. For more than an hour we glided through nature at her most delicate and mighty, while murres battled to launch themselves skywards, their toes scoring trails in the water. Then, despite a chorus of pleas to stay out longer, we were told that moving ice made it essential for us to be back on board the mothership.

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A Zodiac glides across the water (Charlotte Hindle)

Should you ever need a case study to exemplify customer service gone wrong, try this. All the paying passengers were shipped grudgingly back to the Ocean Endeavour. For the next hour or more, on this rare sunny afternoon, we watched forlornly from the deck as the staff went off on their own adventures. The expedition leader, her partner and son had a Zodiac all to themselves. They etched a dreamy course between the very blocks of ice that, we were assured, had cut short our meanderings. (Later, when I discussed this odd event with the company, I was told: “They might have been scouting for a landing spot”.)

By now, things were getting mutinous on deck seven. “We’re all trapped on board, and over half of the planned itinerary has been cancelled. This isn’t a cruise for the crew. Why aren’t we out there?” grumbled an American passenger. 

“I’ve been on many safaris and expeditions, and this is by far the most disappointing,” said a lady from Oxford. I was still fretting about the credit-card bill: another hour, another £60. Talk about frozen waste.

To learn that evening that the province of Quebec had been dropped from the itinerary hardly came as a surprise. We ended up instead in Iqaluit (or, for those without the Inuit edition of Scrabble, Frobisher Bay). The chartered planes that were coming from Ottawa to fetch us were redirected from Quebec to the local airport. Yet the aircraft showed up 13 hours late. While the staff were blaming bad weather, a scheduled flight from Ottawa happily landed and took off back to the Canadian capital.

We could have spent many of those hours meeting some more Inuit people – a resilient and hospitable bunch, whose language seems to be written in a code of squiggles and squares. Instead, we were ordered back to the ship to wait. And wait. And bitch to one another.

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Take a bow: the front of the 1982 Polish ferry (Simon Calder)

There happened to be a couple of dozen non-paying passengers – partners of staff, journalists – and one of them asked what the cruise had cost. “I can’t fricking believe it, there should have been champagne and caviar at the price the you paid,” she said when I told her.

By this stage, the expedition staff may have believed their own propaganda, but we didn’t. The flight times missed as many promised targets as North Korea’s last five-year agriculture plan. 

We finally escaped from the one-party state shortly after 1am and touched down in Ottawa three hours later. Bill met the night flight, apologised for our extreme delay in a Godforsaken place we were never supposed to visit, and thanked us for our custom. “You pay our wages,” he added.

And then his colleague gave me a key for the wrong room – the appropriate end to the wrong holiday.

The final reckoning for a family of four:

Luton-Copenhagen (Ryanair): £100

Copenhagen-Kangerlussuaq (Air Greenland): DKK8,680 (£1,021)

Heart of the Arctic cruise (Adventure Canada): USD18,847.62 (£14,498)

Ottawa-Gatwick (WestJet): CAD1,136 (£631)

Total: £16,755

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