We stood between a sentinel of Inuit guides armed with rifles on Akpatok Island, an uninhabited outcropping of 700-foot-high cliffs seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
We arrived here at the edge of the Canadian boreal forest, a few hundred miles below the North Pole, aboard a small vessel operated by Cruise North Expeditions, an Inuit-owned cruise line. The lure: to experience the grandeur of nature in this desolate, frozen land near the top of the world.
On Akpatok, the guides' eyes fixed on the horizon, watching beds of lingering snow for polar bears. Meanwhile, our eyes peered skyward. Above us, on a sheer cliff as straight as a Marine's back, half a million breeding pairs of thick-billed murres keened in high-pitched voices.
A day later, we approached another outcropping of rocks by Zodiac boat, these stones shaved clean by glaciers 11,000 years ago. We came within 60 feet of a majestic polar bear hunting seal.
This definitely was not your grandmother's cruise.
Most people think the only thing extreme about cruising is the pampering and the excess of food. But you certainly can find voyages that will take you where few dare to tread. A growing cadre of vacationers seeks more extreme opportunities for travel aboard ship, and cruise lines are listening.
If you're looking for unusual cruises, look toward the poles, says Jennifer Gregoire, spokeswoman for Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com), a renowned name in globe-trotting adventure travel. Though Arctic and Antarctic cruises abound, Lindblad and other cruise lines offer adventure vacations in Greenland, Patagonia and other parts of the less-traveled world.
You can dive to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland, for example, to see the remains of the Titanic. The Great Canadian Adventure Co. (www.adventures.ca) is looking to offer these expeditions aboard the Akademik Keldysh, a Russian research vessel, on 11-day excursions next summer. In a submersible capable of descending nearly 2.5 miles, the curious and intrepid can reach the resting place of the doomed liner 12,460 feet below the surface. You'll have to lighten your pockets by about $40,000-plus to do so, company spokeswoman Vicki Storey says.
If you're willing to spend most of your time on land, you could join Wild Lapland Safaris (www.wildlaplandsafaris.fi) for an icebreaker weekend and mini-cruise for about $1,200 (depending on currency rates). You begin your adventure with a dogsled ride through snowy forests, before departing for Kemi, in southern Finnish Lapland, where you board the Sampo, an icebreaker that operates in the Baltic's northern Gulf of Bothnia.
After four hours breaking ice at sea, you don special suits to swim in the frigid waters.
Perhaps you want adventure on a small vessel but don't want to give up any pampering. Silversea Cruises (www.silversea.com), a mainstay in luxury travel for nearly 14 years, has entered its own uncharted waters with the introduction of the 132-passenger Prince Albert II, Silversea's first foray into expedition cruising.
Among the far-reaching itineraries on the fully renovated vessel: a four-month season of cruises in Antarctica, beginning at $7,590 per person (cruise only) for an 11-day Chilean fiords voyage departing Ushuaia, Argentina, in November.
If, however, you want your adventure on a big ship with a grand casino, gourmet dining, Broadway shows and Vegas revues, plus penthouse digs to die for, think Crystal Cruises (www.crystalcruises.com) for an extreme excursion instead of an extreme location.
On one Crystal overnight adventure costing $38,500 per person, you can don a helmet, signal thumbs up, and zoom over Russia's landscape at twice the speed of sound in a MiG fighter jet.
For more robust sailing adventures, you could join Odysseys Unlimited's 18-day Patagonian Frontiers adventure by land and sea, starting at $5,695. The company (www.odysseys-unlimited.com) offers 12 departures from next month through April. The all-inclusive holiday includes a three-night cruise through the majestic fjords and glaciers of Southern Patagonia aboard the 236-foot-long M/V Via Australis; a three-night stay in Torres del Paine National Park; plus stops in Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile. By Zodiac, you'll get up close and personal with the Piloto and Nena glaciers and visit Magdalena Island, home to more than 120,000 Magellanic penguins.
The hard-core adventure company Fathom Expeditions (www.fathomexpeditions.com) takes you to the top and bottom of the world on two unique, customized cruises "in the spirit of the great polar explorers," says David German, Fathom's president.
July 3-13, the line will sail a 10-night circumnavigation of Svalbard at 80 degrees north in the high Arctic (serious polar bear country). Fares are $6,000 to $7,500 per person.
Then, Oct. 3-17, the company will run a rare 14-night cruise aboard the M/V Ushuaia from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island, known as the Galapagos of the South. Passengers can count on seeing extensive colonies of king, macaroni, rockhopper and gentoo penguins, battling masses of elephant and fur seals, and wandering albatrosses, German says. Fares are $6,995 to $9,995 per person, not including flights.
Lindblad will host four cruises to the White Continent next year, plus trips to South America and Africa, aboard two 148-passenger sister ships, National Geographic Endeavour and National Geographic Explorer, with fares starting at $10,250 per person. The schedule:
Antarctica for 15 days in January through February and October through December.
Antarctica, Falklands and South Georgia for 25 days in January through February and again in December.
Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope for 28 days in February.
South Georgia and the Falklands for 20 days in October.
For those whose hearts are set on out-of-the-way adventures - extreme or not - visit www.smallshipcruises.com for intimate vessels that will take you to faraway places.