During my flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, I realised that this trip was going to be unlike anything I had experienced before. The sun was blistering through the windows and the sky a brilliant blue, at what should be the black of night; you felt like you were rapidly reaching the end of the earth!
As we approached the Svalbard archipelago, magic happened. The clouds cleared and this alien land of beautiful white mountains and glaciers arose from the sea. The sun danced across them as it broke through the clouds and there was not a sign of life to be seen. It was truly breathtaking.
After a night in lovely Longyearbyen (the largest settlement in Svalbard with around 2000 inhabitants - where no one ever locks their doors - even when they go on holiday!), we embarked MS Nordstjeren and the adventure far away from humanity began.
Going out of service later this year, MS Nordstjeren was quite unlike any other ship I have seen before. Having only sailed on Silversea previously, I must admit, that I walked on rather snootily. But by the end of my stay, I was completely converted.
When we returned to civilization in Ny Alesund (approx. 150 inhabitants in the summer) after exploring all the way up to 80° north, there was another ship docked in port (the first we had seen the whole time!), and therefore we had to tender in our Polarcirkels. As we whizzed up to shore; we had snobbery about us, but this time I was arrogant because our ship was more adventurous and authentic! When ashore we spoke to a few of the guest and they told us this was the furthest north they were going and that they had seen no wildlife (they did not have any zodiacs)…Shamefully, my snobbery increased. So what did we see and do…
Within a couple of hours of being onboard, the bells rang and Heiko, our Expedition Leader, told us they had just spotted a Minke whale! Excitement buzzed around the deck as we all tried to spot it and within a few minutes out it popped to everyone's delight! This set the scene for the rest of our expedition.
We spotted the elusive polar bear in Liefdefjorden hunting a reindeer and breeching Minke whales in Mollerfjorden. We reached 80° north and saw those comical creatures, the walrus in groups lying lazily in the sun on Moffen Island. With bearded seals, arctic foxes and arctic turns all sprinkled in.
The really fantastic thing was that the captain navigated around the fjords for us to be able to see as much of the action as possible. Turning around to go back to chase the wildlife.
The scenery was incomparable, with mountains and glaciers spilling into the sea. At the colossal Lilliehook glacier we got up close and personal to the glacier on our zodiacs and even got to hear the ice snap, crackle and pop!
Of course, the expedition team had to adhere to strict AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators) guidelines and during all of our wet/dry landings they had to carry guns (because of the polar bear threat).
The real triumph for Hurtigruten, which, for me, sets them apart from all other cruise lines who feature itineraries in Spitsbergen, is that they own Spitsbergen Travel. Your onboard expedition team all work for Spitsbergen Travel and are based there year round meaning they are truly 'experts' in this area.
For those looking for an authentic experience, tired of the pomp & ceremony of 'traditional' cruising to 'traditional' destinations - this trip would be perfect. The atmosphere onboard was relaxed and homely with your fellow passengers quickly becoming like family. There was no time to dress up for dinner!
Along with Antarctica and The Galapagos, I often considered the Arctic as a 'once' in a lifetime destination, to be crossed of a list and as a notch on my 'where I have been' tally. But in reality it is quite the opposite. The anticipation, followed by the buzz of spotting a Polar Bear, is really rather addictive. Perhaps, as was asked by our expedition leader, I am related to the great Arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry and have expedition cruising in my blood!
But, unlike visiting a museum/gallery/cultural heritage destination, (once you have done it - you don't want to go back!) what you will see is ever changing. You may be lucky enough to spot a family of Polar Bears or, as we were, that rare moment when a starving polar bear hunts a reindeer in desperation…who knows!
Expedition cruising is not for everyone and of course it can be expensive. But a saying has stuck with me since I returned, which I feel justifies my cravings to return: Travel is the only thing you buy, that makes you richer.
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