Cruising in colder climes may seem like it defeats the purpose of taking a ship vacation. You can't swim in the ocean, your go-to drink becomes hot tea instead of margaritas, and conga lines seem strangely out of place. But there are other rewards: a chance to get up close and personal with breaching whales, polar bears and the cotton-candy-blue edge of mighty glaciers.
Northern cruising was pioneered along the Inside Passage that runs from Vancouver and Seattle northward along the British Columbia and Alaska shores to Juneau and Anchorage. Dozens of ships both large and small make the journey each summer, with shore excursions like helicopter flights over Glacier Bay, wildlife viewing tours in Tongass National Forest, the Native American and Russian colonial influences of Sitka or the Klondike Gold Rush heritage in Skagway.
One of the more luxurious ships plying the Inside Passage is the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator, a posh Regent craft featured in the 2004 movie "After the Sunset." Among the smaller ships that cruise this same route, one carries no more than 100 guests on weeklong voyages from Juneau, Alaska's capital, tucked into a lush valley surrounded by towering mountains and endless waterscapes.
European lines recently started offering cruises in the Baltic and north Atlantic. Baltic cruises, many of them departing from Copenhagen, offer a smorgasbord of Scandinavian and Slavic cultures. Among the more popular stops are Stockholm, Helsinki and St. Petersburg.
Yet some of the lesser-known ports are the most rewarding: Sweden's Visby, an amazingly well-preserved medieval town; Tallinn, Estonia's largest city, featuring storybook castles and modern skyscrapers; and the old Hanseatic port of Lübeck in northern Germany, known for its brick Gothic architecture and marzipan.
The route up Norway's fjord-filled west coast has been navigated since 1893. In those days, passengers bunked in spare rooms on coastal mail boats. Today these rugged, narrow channels are plied in small modern cruise ships.
Over the past decade, Spitsbergen Island in the Norwegian Arctic has become the new frontier of European cruising. The farthest north that cruise ships travel on a regular basis, Spitsbergen is lush with wildlife (polar bears, reindeer, walruses) and dramatic polar landscapes. Book a cruise aboard Hurtigruten's MS Fram, named after Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen's famed polar exploration ship.
Starting in the summer of 2015, travelers can tour Iceland and Greenland aboard the Iceland Pro's 224-passenger Ocean Diamond. One of its scheduled itineraries is a circumnavigation of Iceland that includes shore excursions to see the island's fabled glaciers, geysers and iceberg-filled lakes. Another is an adventurous journey from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Nuuk, Greenland, that includes a crossing of the Greenland Strait.
Eastern Canada's picturesque Maritime Coast is another growing cruise destination. Ships cruise between Portland, Maine, and Quebec City with an itinerary that includes Victorian charm in St. John's and the majestic seaside monoliths of Torngat Mountains National Park.
By Joe Yogerst, Brand Publishing Writer
For more great summer travel options, go to latimes.com/summertravelseries.