As an avid cruiser who is usually partial to warmth and sunshine, I was beyond excited and felt extremely privileged to join an Arctic sailing with AE Expeditions on board the stunning Greg Mortimer.
After a short flight from Heathrow to Oslo, I enjoyed a one-night stay at the Radisson Blu, a five-minute walk from the airport, before we set off for Longyearbyen the following day. The next morning, we headed off to catch our flight and after a short journey we arrived at Longyearbyen airport where we were transported to our hotel for an overnight stay before boarding the vessel.
Our Svalbard adventure began inside the Arctic circle at 78 degrees north, flanked by the stunning Nordenskiöld Fjellet mountains in the quaint town of Longyearbyen, which is home to just over 2000 residents from more than 50 nationalities.
This coal mining town still boasts several charming artisan shops - and a visit to The Svalbard Museum is a must! Don't forget to visit the husky café - it was just heavenly and only a short walk from most of the hotels in the vicinity - I loved being surrounded by gentle, cuddly huskies and enjoyed delighful desserts and coffee in the café.
On embarkation day, we were initially advised that we might be boarding via the Zodiacs, the unsinkable, rigid inflatable boats onboard - but, in a slightly less exciting and adventurous way to board (however much warmer on a cold Arctic day!), we simply strutted up the gangway into our beautiful warm vessel, the Greg Mortimer.
We were welcomed by an entourage of cheerful staff, armed with hot soup and an assortment of tasty treats to warm us up - a perfect start!
The Greg Mortimer was built in 2019, with a passenger capacity of 132, and although not an icebreaker, the ship does boast a unique x-bow that allows her to cut through ice. This feature creates fewer vibrations and disturbances which allows for a smoother and quicker transit through waves.
And it doesn't end there - the hydraulic viewing platform, located on deck 5, folds out for unrestricted views of marine life and seabirds (when the ship is stationary and weather permitting!) and we were delighted to get the opportunity on more than one occasion.
Departing Longyearbyen, we sailed slightly north and entered Dickson Fjord. The magnitude of the scenery here is breathtaking with the fast sea ice and I loved the refreshing, non-polluted air!
Sailing past the picturesque, snowy mountain peaks provided an imposing backdrop as we took advantage of the excellent views and bright blue sky from the observation lounge, spotting seals sunbathing on the ice, walruses dipping in and out of the water feeding and seabirds darting back and forth which kept us amused, trying to get that perfect shot.
An announcement from our expedition leader confirmed that we were about to venture out on our first landing. As we eagerly prepared, kitted out in warm thermals and waterproof gear, the vibe was exhilarating.
After the expedition team scouted the area, we were given the green light to board our Zodiacs. As we arrived on land, we were advised how to explore this fragile area safely and respectfully. As we dispersed, some ventured off to take in the sights whilst the twitchers in the group relished at the sight of Atlantic puffins, black guillemots and brant geese amongst others.
Sailing around the rugged South Cape of Svalbard, we woke up to yet another bright blue and crisp morning with a gentle wind. As we cruised around the ice-filled waters of Kapp-Lee and its frozen paradise, we could hear the calls of walruses from a distance.
Venturing a little closer, alongside an abundance of kittiwakes and fulmars, we could see dozens of walruses hauled out on the ice - a unique photo opportunity and a memory that will stay with me a lifetime.
Our expedition continued as we sailed towards Freemansundet, the sound between Barentsoya and Edgeoya. Greg Mortimer displayed her true colours and abilities here as we entered the densely packed sea ice in Freemansundet.
Seeing polar bears were on all our minds - there were visible tracks, and we were very hopeful that this majestic creature would be appearing anytime soon. However, no such luck. We weren't too disappointed though, as the sound of the crackling ice as the ship carved though the thick ice was incredible, with shimmering glaciers glowing under the Arctic summer sun.
The next day was another glorious morning and around breakfast time came an announcement with news about humpback whales being spotted off the bow. As we raced up to the observation deck, there they were - small pods of humpbacks with large flocks of kittiwakes following in their wake, and a pod of harp seals who decided to join in. It was a truly unforgettable moment.
Throughout the trip I felt mesmerized by the surrounding nature, the tranquillity and stillness of the ocean and the crisp, clear air. Such wonderful encounters with wildlife just leaves you speechless! The plan for today was to simply enjoy a sea day, or perhaps a lie in - but not on this expedition! The expedition team decided that it was safe for us to do a landing on the Arctic Sea ice, and the skillful bridge team carefully navigated our ship to the edge of an ice floe. Here, they dropped the gangway giving us an easy stroll down the gangway and onto the ice as we took in the captivating views surrounding us.
We had saved the best for last - our quest to see a polar bear finally ended! And what a fine display he put on for us. We watched him swimming before placing himself on the sea ice where we had a clear view of him rolling around; we watched him for hours well into the early morning.
We had little sleep, but everyone was walking around with great big smiles - safe to say it was the icing on the cake of a fabulous trip.
My cruise was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had - I cannot think of anything that could trump this adventure. From the amazing ship and staff to my fellow passengers, it was truly a trip of a lifetime. It was such an honour to have experienced the Arctic on such a modern ship with such a fantastic, nature-loving and enthusiastic expedition team.
There was never a dull moment - though whether polar plunging is for the brave or foolish, I am still not sure! Other highlights included an Arctic BBQ up on deck - and if you fancied, you could sleep outside, embracing the 24-hour sunlight during a slumber party! The team really did go above and beyond to make this the most memorable polar expedition.