It is a real joy when a ship and an expedition team (the hardware and the software) exceed one’s expectations. And that is exactly the case with my experience on Quark Expedition’s Ultramarine!
First, here are my prior articles about my expedition, cultural, and culinary experiences on Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine:
Reflecting on this expedition, it affected me more than I expected. While the ship and expedition team were impressive, it was the culture of the Inuit and their personal warmth that grabbed me and make me want to engage more.
The Inuit live in a harsh world with virtually no ability to grow crops as they live in a tiny band of land on the edge of the Greenland Ice Cap (or the Canadian coast), essentially on granite and basalt when not snow-covered, in darkness for months, and with ice impacting their lives year-round. While there are issues with alcoholism (as there are in any country with so much darkness and ice – like Norway), overall, I found the people to be soft-spoken (even slow speaking…what is the rush), kind and thoughtful, but also with ways so similar to folks that live a more “normal” lifestyle.
I admit I was naively judgmental about their hunting whales and seals. I now understand that it is a necessity – and not just from a cultural point of view, but a nutritional one. (When one understands better why the European explorers died, both in the Arctic and Antarctic, and how some survived eating whale, seal, penguin, etc., it becomes pretty obvious…and you don’t need to be a dietician or chemist to figure it out!)
My cultural journey, from that wonderfully talented young Inuit man in Qaanaaq, Greenland, who verbally painted pictures of the hunt in kayaks, supplementing them with haunting sounds, to seeing a beluga whale head next to is freshly stripped skeleton with its meat being dried on a rack nearby, was quite emotional for me.
The Tundra to Table Culinary Experience was a wonderful supplement to it. This was the first time Quark Expeditions had done it, and the Inuit chefs, Peter Berthelsen and Miki Siegstad, did a fantastic job not only with their culinary skills, but with their stories, explanations, and charm.
But for me, it was more hanging out with them, late at night at the Panorama Lounge bar getting to know them as people, and learning from their perspectives and experiences. Magic!
And then there is the contrast between the harshness of the seemingly ever-present ice juxtaposed to the autumnal colors of the Arctic tundra. It is a beauty that really can’t be described and a grandeur that photographs can’t really capture.
To be sure, there was wildlife to be seen, including the amazing Beluga whale experience on Beechy Island, where we saw about 100 of them playing right near the shore.
But this expedition was not really about wildlife. Though I was excited to see fin whales, I never did see a musk ox…even though I saw a footprint, some hair, some poop, and a foot plus a delicious musk ox dinner.
What is exciting is that Quark Expeditions, with its new ownership, is going through a transformation while also keeping to its highly respected expedition roots. I wrote about this earlier: Quark Expeditions: This Polar Expedition Specialist Has Evolved.
Ultramarine is the first ship Quark Expeditions actually owns, as its other ships have all been/are chartered; be it the World Explorer (a modern, more cruise ship, expedition vessel), the 128 guest expedition workhorse Ocean Adventurer, or the Ocean Diamond. Although Ultramarine’s debut was repeatedly delayed due to Covid…and my invitations to sail on her twice canceled as a result…the wait was well worth it.
Ultramarine is a 199 guest expedition ship that has all the expedition bells and whistles, including dynamic positioning, a PC6 ice-hardened hull, more than enough zodiacs stored in a highly effective garage (which gets you out on the water quickly), lockers for all guests in its two ready rooms (splitting the guests up makes for less congestion), multiple loading points including a stern marina that can load two zodiacs at the same time plus port and starboard), a theater with multimedia abilities for lectures, a station in the lounge/bar that mimics the bridge (to an extent), and more.
It also has two seven-passenger helicopters. And these are beasts…in a good way. They are actually rescue helicopters that were purchased new. (If you look carefully, you will see that the yellow doesn’t exactly match Quark’s yellow.) These are used not only for flightseeing, but – uniquely – for landings, as well. As this is a new arrow in Quark Expeditions’ quiver, exactly how they will be used (or limited) in the future is a work in progress. While I am not a fan of helicopters for noise and environmental reasons, there are those that feel it adds real experiential value.
The suites, however, really shocked me with how beautiful they are and how well they are designed. I stayed in the lowest category balcony suite and I could not have asked for more room, more storage, or a better design. There are so many little touches that let you know you are on an expedition ship, including every door and drawer having a locking mechanism (so in high seas they won’t open), the glass holders in the bathroom have silicon inserts to hold the glasses in place, there is plenty of hooks to hang clothes, hats, bags, etc. But there are also little niceties that are expected nowadays, including bedside outlets, USB ports, effective lighting, etc.
However, for me, the bathroom wins as the best overall bathroom on any ship I have ever been on. Yes, you read that correctly. It is not the largest, but it is the best designed. More cabinetry and drawers than you can fill, a properly lighted medicine cabinet/mirror with a makeup mirror inside (and railing to keep your items from falling out), and a large shower with a usable seat plus a combination rainfall showerhead with two settings (soft and strong) and a standard showerhead that can also be handheld.
But the highlight for me was the heated floors that you can temperature adjust. I kept my floor at about 95-100 degrees and had the lighting on a warm dim color. After being out in the cold, walking into that was magic. Then add the hot shower and: Instant in-suite steam bath!
There are a variety of suites ranging from Solo Panoramic, Oceanview (Explorer and Explorer Triple – popular for those that are willing to share with other passengers) and which are actually larger than the interior space of Balcony Suite (capturing that balcony space within it), Deluxe Balcony, Penthouse, Terrace, Owner’s and Ultra Suites.
You need to be in a Penthouse or higher to have what I would think should be expected amenities such as a stocked refrigerator, in-suite coffee maker, and room service. Why expected? Because the quality of the suites is so high that they give you the expectation they would be included. (A niggly point: Q-tips, cotton buds, and soft drinks should be provided in all suites. They are small, essentially no cost, items that are frustratingly omitted.)
Ultramarine has a small, but very nice, spa with one of the best saunas at sea. It is quite large with two floor-to-ceiling picture windows. There is also a steam bath and relaxation area, along with massage rooms. (I had two massages and they were quite good.). There is also a small, but sufficiently equipped, fitness center.
The Ultramarine has two dining venues. One is the expected restaurant, Balena, which has a buffet breakfast and lunch with plated dinner service. Even with the unavoidable issues with provisioning the ship the quality and variety of offerings were impressive. There is an omelet and pasta or lunch special station as well.
While most of the food was of good quality, it is not, nor does it pretend to be, luxury cuisine. That said, most of the dinner main courses were excellent by any standard (though sometimes a little heavy on the sauces…Get those on the side.).
Service was always friendly and accommodating. While it appeared there was a bit of short-staffing, its impact was minimal and, of course, always being met by servers with a charm and smile made the dining experience enjoyable.
The second, more casual, dining venue Bisto 487 – which has an al fresco option – was closed to the guests due to Covid protocols. (Those protocols have now ended so it is open, masks are optional, etc.)
The Expedition Team was excellent. Their loyalty to Quark Expeditions is very much a source of pride for both Quark and the individuals. There was a feeling of more than a team, but of a family. That warmth and personal engagement flowed through to the guest experience. And that really played out to the advantage of the passengers in onshore, zodiac, and on-ship experiences, as well as safety.
As this was very much a cultural expedition (Finding the Northwest Passage), the historian was smart, engaging, enthusiastic, and willingly added lectures on topics the passengers asked him about. From marine biology, to ornithology, to glaciology, to geology, the topics were covered well with positive energy and in ways that made them, overall, easy to digest.
My only criticism is that I wish there were more lectures on the history and culture of the Inuit. I understand some folks do not like being made uncomfortable about the abuses their forefathers visited upon the Inuit, but it is a very important part of both the history and present-day existence of these native people.
One thing that did make me shake my head a bit was the passenger mix; brought on by two things: The esoteric itinerary; and, many passengers that had had multiple expeditions canceled over an almost three-year period who probably didn’t book this one initially and were a bit more spry pre-Covid. With Quark Expedition’s excellent “expedition” reputation, I expected a more youthful mix; not necessarily meaning chronological age. Between quite a few that had serious physical limitations which could have put themselves, the expedition staff, and other guests at risk (I’d be pretty upset if our expedition had to be cut short due to it…and I think they should not have been permitted to embark), to “box checkers” that were only interested in saying they have been there, to post-Covid loss of social skills/complainers, at times keeping up my optimistic manner was challenging.
Adding to that two things that most – book it directly – passengers didn’t appreciate is that Greenland is HUGE, so distances between stops are long (thus, twice-a-day activities are not the norm) and that just because you are up north doesn’t mean you will see polar bears and walrus. This is not the prime area or time for them, so those National Geographic photos that they mistakenly expected were more of “geography” than “wildlife”.
Knowing that passenger mix is not the norm, as confirmed by Quark Expeditions and the expedition team, how well Quark handled all of the passengers, emotionally and physically, was impressive. There is an overall philosophy of caring; caring for the passengers, caring for product, and caring for each other, that just makes you feel good.
In summary, I could not have been more impressed with Quark Expeditions’ Ultramarine, its expedition team, and the overall experience. If “Your Luxury” is not amazing wine lists, caviar, etc., but truly having an expedition experience in an upscale setting, you need to – not should – consider Ultramarine!
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