'Flightseeing': Get a helicopter tour right from your cruise

SKJOLJUNGEN FJORD, Greenland – Zodiac rides, kayaks, paddleboards and e-bikes have long been part of the activities on expedition cruise ships.

But passengers on high-end ships are now asking for more expensive toys to play with – namely onboard submarines and helicopters.

Seabourn, Viking and Scenic are three cruise lines that recently added submarines to some of their expedition ships. The latter also has onboard helicopters complete with helipads on its two “ultra-luxury yachts” – Scenic Eclipse I and Eclipse II.

Watching the scenery in a remote polar region slowly glide by from a ship’s deck can be captivating. Experiencing it at speeds exceeding 100 mph from the skies above is downright exhilarating.

Indeed, a 30-minute “flightseeing” helicopter ride over a glacier and remote ice sheet in eastern Greenland was one of the highlights of my recent 12-day Arctic cruise on the Scenic Eclipse II, a 220-passenger ship that made its inaugural voyage in April.

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The Eclipse II’s sister ship, Scenic Eclipse I, debuted in 2019. It has a sub and two helicopters. The Eclipse II also has two helicopters – a sub will be brought on board in October, in time for its Antarctica sailings that begin in early December. The oceangoing ships are two of the newest additions to the Australia-based cruise line’s fleet, which also includes 15 riverboats.

Scenic bills itself as offering its passengers “all-inclusive luxury.” Sightseeing tours, all specialty restaurants, drinks, gratuities and airport transfers are included in the fare, which can exceed $1,000 per person per day, depending on the itinerary and choice of cabin.

Submarine and helicopter rides are optional add-ons that cost more. A lot more.

A half-hour helicopter ride costs $795 per person. Sub rides cost $350-$795, depending on the region and if it’s a 20- or 40-minute dive.

Despite the hefty price tag, Jason Flesher, Scenic’s director of Discovery Operations, says the helicopters and subs have proven to be “extremely popular” with passengers.

“We have many guests fly and dive multiple times during their voyage,” he says, adding that the excursions “give our guests the full perspective of their surroundings.”

Over half of the ship’s 140 passengers signed up for helicopter rides on my sailing. Our pilot, Pascal Fischer, told me that on Antarctic sailings, the percentage of passengers taking helicopter rides usually hovers around 80%.

“You can go 20 miles from the ship, and the world looks totally different, especially in places we go like the Arctic and Antarctica,” says Fischer. “You may even see places that no human ever saw before because we are in such remote areas.”

Exploring Greenland by cruise ship and helicopter

Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a semiautonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. It’s three times the size of Texas, yet its population is only 56,000, making it the least densely populated territory in the world.

You can’t get much more remote than eastern Greenland, where few cruise ships go, and there are only a handful of tiny fishing settlements. We saw no other signs of human civilization during our four days exploring that region. However, we did see plenty of blue and humpback whales, seals and other marine life.

On the gloriously sunny 50-degree day of my helicopter ride, the Eclipse II was anchored in the Skjoljungen Fjord in southeastern Greenland. I walked up to the ship’s helipad at the stern on Deck 8 – one floor above where I had eaten breakfast that morning in the Yacht Club restaurant – for a 10-minute safety briefing.

Three fellow passengers and I were fitted with lifejackets and given noise-canceling headphones so we could hear Fischer’s descriptions of what we would be seeing during the flight. We were then escorted to one of the Eclipse II’s two $3.5 million Airbus H130 helicopters. Each helicopter can carry a maximum of six passengers and a pilot. I was in the middle seat but still enjoyed unobstructed views of the remote landscape.

We flew over the magnificent Thrym Glacier and then banked west between jagged peaks for a look at Greenland’s pristine ice sheet, which covers about 80 percent of the territory. With the noise-canceling headphones, the 40-mile trip was surprisingly tranquil and smooth. Never have 30 minutes passed by so quickly.

As we landed back on the ship’s helipad, I wondered why the Eclipse II needs two helicopters instead of just one. Fischer explained it’s primarily for safety reasons.

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“It could be you get a warning light that tells you you have to land now. And then you land. So we have a second helicopter that can pick up the passengers and bring them back to the ship,” says Fischer, who has been flying helicopters for 25 years, including seven years as an air ambulance pilot in Arizona.

Additionally, the second helicopter helps ensure that every passenger who wants to fly has the opportunity. On a busy day – when the weather conditions are ideal for flying – Fischer says the two choppers can carry up to 96 people.

“Normally, we are able to fly everyone who wants to go, unless we have a cruise that lasts 10 days, and we just have 10 days of bad weather,” says Fischer. “It’s not often that we aren’t able to fly everyone who wants to fly.”

As helicopters are so new on ships, the cruise lines are still figuring out how best to integrate them with on-land activities. For instance, Scenic recently started offering excursions that take passengers on helicopter rides to go skiing, hiking, fishing, or – in Mediterranean ports – play a round of golf.

A helicopter excursion in Antarctica takes passengers to see 5,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island – a spot only accessible by helicopter.

Some cruises also offer submarine rides

Scenic’s two submarines, named Neptune I and Neptune II, carry six to eight passengers plus a pilot. The U-Boat Worx sub on the Eclipse I is capable of submerging 984 feet, although it typically dives only about one-third of that depth for safety reasons and a better viewing experience.

The Eclipse II will have a Triton sub, capable of submerging 600 feet. The cruise line says the battery-powered subs don’t emit hazardous substances and pose no danger to aquatic life.

Fittingly, the Eclipse II was christened in June by Kathy Sullivan, a geologist and oceanographer who was the first American woman to complete a spacewalk for NASA. She’s also traveled to the deepest depths of the ocean, earning her the title “World’s Most Vertical Person.”

We started the cruise in Reykjavik, Iceland, the world’s northernmost capital city, before sailing across the Denmark Strait to the southeastern coast of Greenland.

Four days were spent exploring the region’s many fjords, glaciers and icebergs up close on eight-passenger Zodiacs driven by members of the ship’s 17-person expedition team, consisting of naturalists, botanists, marine biologists and a historian. The Eclipse II then transited the Prince Christian Sound in southern Greenland before cruising along the territory’s west coast. There, we visited Nuuk, Greenland’s largest town (population 20,000).

All told, we covered 2,600 miles during the voyage.

It’s not easy to get to Greenland as there are no direct flights to/from North America. To get home at the end of the cruise, we took a four-hour Air Greenland flight from Kangerlussuaq Airport to Copenhagen for an overnight hotel stay before flying home to the U.S. the following day.

Needless to say, while the jets that took us home flew much higher and faster, they couldn’t come close to matching the thrill and excitement of a helicopter ride over one of the most remote places on the planet.

Cruising Greenland and Iceland

Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours: www.scenicusa.com.

Visit Greenland: www.visitgreenland.com.

Dan Fellner of Scottsdale is a freelance travel writer. Contact him at dan.fellner@asu.edu or visit his website at DanFellner.com.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Helicopters let cruise passengers get a new perspective on scenery