When I visited the North Pole, in July, there was slush on the ice cap. Those who’d like to see it should best go soon, and not only due to global warming—there are only two commercial icebreakers that can access the Arctic, and one of them is Russian.

Fortunately, the French option, Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot, is as good as it gets. Along with 140 other travelers from 33 countries, my husband, Bruno, and I boarded the ship at the Port of Longyearbyen, on the remote, barren Norwegian island of Svalbard. Upon arrival, the atmosphere was predictably festive, but the following day, as we settled into the auditorium’s dove-gray velvet chairs, we had some sobering news. “In less than seven years, there will be no more sea ice in the Arctic region,” declared Ana Lefevre, a French naturalist who gave a series of lectures over the course of our 17-day excursion. At least all 493 sumptuous feet of Le Commandant Charcot was powered by electric batteries and liquefied natural gas.

But then Etienne Garcia, our very suave captain, took the microphone. “Mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen, bienvenue, welcome,” he intoned in a baritone voice that would soon animate every day. “We’ll be going places that no other cruise ships can go.” Indeed, it’s estimated that fewer than 5,000 tourists have ever made this journey. The Charcot was launched in 2021, and its sole competitor, the Russian vessel Fifty Years of Victory, is not exactly open for business to Americans and Europeans these days.

The ice may be melting, but what’s left remains majestic.

(Nine days later, we crossed paths with the boxy, barn-red, Soviet-built ship. We observed its passengers peering back at us over the deck, and when they saw the Charcot, a floating cocoon of French luxury and elegance, at least a few of the passengers became slack-jawed.)

After orientation, it was time for champagne and canapés. At the bar, I encountered a chatty banker from Geneva who was wearing a spectacular jade silk sheath and matching Christian Louboutin heels. “Last year, we flew to the South Pole,” she said, sipping a cocktail. “We spent a night in a tent, and we loved it, so we thought we’d do the North Pole this summer.”

“Would it be rude of me to ask you what it cost?,” I blurted out.

“Not at all—it was $100,000 each for me and my husband,” she replied, and then smiled apologetically. “But I think there’s a waiting list.” “Of course there is,” I replied, excusing myself.

(Starting at $38,190 per person for a 17-day journey, the Ponant experience looks relatively economical. Bruno and I were fortunate to have been invited along by a close friend from New York.)

Don’t worry—the pool is heated.

Threading my way through the crowd, I overheard three people declare that their next trip would be to Mongolia. A fourth enthused that she’d just been there.

In search of some fresh air, if not exactly normalcy, I exited onto the fifth-floor deck, walked to the bow, and admired the view from my heated bench. At eight p.m., the sun was still shining—at these latitudes, it never fully sets during the summer. Until I returned home to France, I wouldn’t know any real darkness but my own.

Cruises are usually sold as a form of luxurious escapism—low-effort trips that are carefully composed scores of shore visits interspersed with indulgent, lazy days at sea. This experience was different, and unnervingly so. We didn’t step foot on terra firma for more than two weeks; the long days at sea were punctuated only by the crashing of ice cap after ice cap.

That first night, unaware of what lay before me, I was protective of my wonderment. It’s a serious privilege to travel beyond the boundaries of imagination.

Despite the squishy surface, it’s solid underneath. For now.

Growing up in suburban Connecticut, I spent many nighttime hours staring at the illuminated globe my grandmother, an inveterate traveler, had given me for my ninth birthday. She sent me postcards from around the globe, which broke the dulling crust of daily life by suggesting that the world was much larger than the one I knew. Slowly spinning the sphere with my index finger, I yearned for all of the places I knew I’d never go. Peru, Uruguay, Angola, Mozambique, Oman, Burma, and Japan—to say nothing of the North Pole, because that was explorer territory, nothing more.

But while I grew up, the world shrank, and as a food-and-travel writer, I’ve now visited so many of those places that I never thought I’d see. But it never occurred to me to go someplace that was no place at all, really—just a compass point on a map. I certainly couldn’t see myself joining a dogsled expedition that ran on canned goods, because, among other reasons, I just love French cheese too much.

Until I returned home to France, I wouldn’t know any real darkness but my own.

As it turned out, Le Commandant Charcot was the answer. Not only did we travel in the most cosseting comfort imaginable, but I tucked into many superb fromages from Saint-Malo’s dairy maestro Jean-Yves Bordier, who also produces some of the best butter in France. (Along with freshly baked bread, it was served at every meal on the ship.)

Putting traditional cruise ships to shame.

Le Commandant Charcot has two restaurants, Sila, which serves three meals a day from generously stocked buffets, and Nuna, which is run by Alain Ducasse Entreprise. Nuna’s lunches and dinners, presided over by chef Florent Delfortrie and his team of 32, would easily win a Michelin star if it were on solid ground. The outstanding service in this handsome restaurant is overseen by French maître d’hôtels; like everywhere on the ship, the staff-to-guest ratio is nearly one to one.

My favorite dish arrived at the table in a white porcelain soup tureen that was sealed by a delicate golden cap of pastry. It concealed a sublime sauté of sweetbreads in a luscious port-wine sauce, garnished with thick slices of black truffle.

Twenty-four hours after departure, all of this luxury—the indoor pool, the gym with picture-window walls overlooking the sea, the 24-7 room-service menu, the Diptyque amenities, our beautiful cabin with a slate-paved entryway—started to seem normal.

There aren’t many opportunities to leave the ship, but kayaking around Storo Island is among the excursions.

And so I turned my attentions outward, spending endless hours staring out at the vast, frozen world. Mile after nautical mile, its topography revealed itself as a craggy lattice of sapphire fissures. The ice was usually between five and seven feet thick; the bright, aquamarine cairns almost seemed to glow. The horizon line was never visible, and there was little to occupy the mind except for deep introspection, punctuated by the occasional flash of frightening, existential confusion. It’s disorienting to spend weeks without so much as a glimpse at a tree, flower, or blade of grass.

But the experience ended up rightsizing me. When considered against the frozen enormity of the Arctic, the frantic busyness of my life seemed pretty silly. What did I most want to do with the years I might have left? The question made me squirm.

Happily, back inside the ship, many distractions awaited. Each day included at least one fascinating lecture by the onboard naturalists and the cruise’s two guests of honor, astrophysicist and climatologist François Forget and astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. I ultimately found the good-humored ability of these two men to discuss the most serious and complicated subjects—space travel, climate change, even the future of humanity—comforting for being so bracingly honest. “One way or another, the Earth will continue to live its life, even if humanity is no longer part of it,” concluded Clervoy in one of his talks.

Most cabins have private terraces—a few even have a Jacuzzi.

A week out of port from Longyearbyen, the sudden shuddering, quaking, and rocking of the ship as it began a passage through pack ice awoke us in the middle of the night. At first alarming and then uncomfortable, it was also an oddly authentic experience of travel in the Arctic. Some passengers complained about the noise, but surely even this crowd wouldn’t expect a whisper-quiet experience on an icebreaker?

For days, it seemed like we were alone in the world. But then one night Captain Garcia made a sudden announcement over the P.A. system during dinner: “Polar bears on the starboard side of the boat!” The dining room emptied as we rushed outside to observe these beautiful mammals. I’d seen them only once before, as sad captives at New York City’s Central Park Zoo. Elegant, graceful, and curious, the bears leapt from floe to floe, pausing occasionally to return our stares.

Greeting the locals.

On a sunny July morning, after one week at sea, sirens blared and music played when we reached the North Pole. Wearing our standard-issue orange parkas, we took to the deck with flutes of champagne and porcelain spoons of glossy, gray-green caviar. Many passengers wiped away tears, but the moment didn’t last. It became an occasion for nationalism, of all things, with the Chinese passengers pulling out small flags, covering themselves in stickers, and posing in front of a large, unfurled symbol of Xi’s government.

Later in the day, we briefly disembarked to take photos in front of a large sign marked North Pole. Bundled up in knee-high green rubber boots and my Ponant parka, I was shocked to slide into the slushy surface of the world’s most northerly ice cap. All that chatter about the melting North Pole? It’s true.

Once our mission had been accomplished, we took several hikes on the ice cap. Those with a doctor’s note attesting to their physical fitness were allowed to take a cold plunge in the Arctic Ocean. (I was not among them.) Eventually returning to Svalbard, we boarded smaller Zodiac boats to spot walruses, birds, and Arctic foxes along the coastline, which was alarmingly free of snow.

The closest thing to terra firma.

Global warming was the subject of the final lecture I attended, and the young French naturalist’s presentation of how and why the Arctic regions are changing was chillingly lucid. When the lights went up in the auditorium, she took questions, many of which were tinged with alarm and panic.

But despite the reality of what’s happening in the Arctic today, she still concluded her lecture with optimism. “When we decide to react, amazing things are possible,” she said. “When we understood that certain industrially produced gases were creating holes in the ozone, we banned them and now the Earth’s atmosphere is healing. With the technology we have today, we can stabilize and hopefully reverse global warming. What we need is a sense of urgency and the willpower to accomplish this.”

The last night on the ship, in the bar after dinner, a German publishing executive was overheard chatting with an Australian couple. “We’ve been everywhere, but this cruise was the best of all of them—just a truly remarkable experience,” the wife gushed. (After 17 days in close quarters, everyone was aware that the couple had done almost 40 cruises with Ponant.)

But she was right. This extraordinary adventure reset the way that I see just about everything. Including myself.

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Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, is out now