An Arctic Affair…That’s what the brochure called our adventure, which was in reality a two week cruise up Norway to Svalbard, an island group where-in lies the most northerly settlement in the world, less of an affair than a breath-taking foray to the top of the world.
Dilemma number one, what to pack? It’s July, going to be warm in southern Norway but Svalbard, approx. 600 miles from the North Pole, might be somewhat chillier. Luggage limit 23kgs each, it was difficult, but we managed it, packing everything from swimsuits to jumpers, beach wraps to waterproofs and flip flops to hiking boots.
We boarded in Newcastle, headed straight for the bar and immediately relaxed. We had been on this ship, the Thompson Spirit, last year and so didn’t need to do the obligatory orientation walk. The rest of that day was the sail away, dinner, and unpacking, drinking and general merriment.
I have to say, the major joy of a cruise is in not having to pack and unpack every time you go somewhere new, your hotel room goes with you to all your destinations!
We had nine stops ahead of us on this trip but a day at sea first to get properly into the holiday mood. Having the all-inclusive drinks package was going to be a major factor in this endeavour.
The first stop was a quick drop off for trippers in Hellesylt but we stayed on board for the sail through the Fjords to collect the trippers from Geiranger. Not only did we pass through magnificent scenery, on a glorious summer day, but we passed the Seven Sisters waterfall, fairly sedate in July but must be a sight to behold in spring when the melting snow is rushing down the mountain sides.
Sailing back out of the fjords on our way to our next port of call we took in yet more glorious views, all accompanied by classical music belting from the ships speakers, a truly magical experience.
And then we crossed into the Arctic Circle.
More eating, drinking, shows, quizzes, meeting new people and general fun stuff that evening (and every evening) but that evening we had our first, and forever memorable experience, of the land of the midnight sun.
We came out onto the deck at 1am in the morning to such an incredible sight, colours I’d never seen before, shimmering silvers, pinks and blues, lit by the sun hovering just above the horizon.
It was simply magical, like being on the road to heaven.
We just didn’t want to go to bed and miss any of this but we had more nights ahead.
Our next stop was in Tromso, known as the ‘Gateway to the Arctic’. A large city which has seen the start of many polar expeditions, including that of Roald Amundsen, Norway’s most famous arctic adventurer.
We took the tour going to the Northern Lights science museum, as you don’t see the real thing when the sun doesn’t go down. The film was shown in the planetarium, where you recline and watch it on the domed ceiling, and as it had all been filmed in and around Tromso we got a great idea of how phenomenal the Northern Lights are. Note to self, book a trip to Iceland in January!
The trip also did a bit of a scenic half hour around the city, the most notable view being the sight of a reindeer walking along the pavement, they run free here apparently.
We had also seen whales swimming along by the side of the ship but the pesky buggers were not happy to be photographed, hence this blurred zoomed in effort that was the best I could get.
Over the next couple of days we were at sea and made a last mainland Norway stop at Honningsvag, the home of the Northern Cape. More amazing scenery, still in delightfully warm summer weather, but we were anxious to get to the main event, Svalbard and the northernmost settlement in the world, Ny-Alesund.
We arrived on Sunday morning, the drop in temperature from mid-twenties to six degrees most notable. This is a bleak and barren place, snow on the mountains even in July and this settlement, with only 30 permanent residents, is in darkness for the best part of eight months of the year.
Ny-Alesund is in effect a hodgepodge of outbuildings, used for scientific research on global warming, arctic flora and fauna and other geographic sciency stuff. We had a walk around the settlement, phones had to be turned off, stick to the paths, don’t talk to polar bears, that sort of thing. We didn’t actually see any polar bears but on Svalbard they significantly outnumber people.
I did get dive bombed by an Arctic Tern when I got too close to her nest, we got soaked in the driving sleet but by golly it was a wonderful day.
The sail from Ny-Alesund took us into the Magdelena Fjord that evening. This is simply stunning, even in fog and damp weather the sight of the glaciers climbing over and down the mountains was amazing. These monsters were hundreds of feet high and had been moving through the land for millions of years. It’s hard to take in the magnitude of this wonder of nature and even harder to get a picture that truly puts them into perspective.
Next day found us in Longyearbyen, the largest town on Svalbard and home to the Svalbard museum and Camp Barentz.
We joined the tour, there aren’t any taxi’s here so going it alone which we normally do wasn’t possible. First stop Camp Barentz, a tourist spot in the middle of nowhere which has a replica of an explorers hut, a wigwam type structure (where we found caramel cheese waffles – delicious) and most importantly, a husky farm. I was in my element. These are real working dogs but they are so used to humans, and are handled from very early that they get very excited when we arrive. These aren’t the fluffy domesticated husky back home, these are dirty, moulting and live in wooden boxes but they were so friendly and lovable. I even got to hold a puppy – fantastic.
We then went to the museum, which houses various stuffed examples of the wildlife and a bit of history about all the polar expeditions that have gone from the island.
Another day at sea, chilly but bright before stops in Bronnysund and Leknes, where I stayed on the ship sunbathing because honestly there’s only so many Norwegian towns you can visit before you realise they are pretty much all the same!
Our penultimate stop was in Alysund, interesting because the whole place burnt down in 1904 and was rebuilt art deco style in just six years. We took the local mini train up into the mountains to see the town from above, it’s very Disney medieval village styly from up the top but great views.
Our last port of call was the truly stunning Flam, a town which sits at the end of a Fjord and from which you can get a train up through the mountains (which obviously was what we did). There are a load of wonderful pictures from that train journey, here are a few . . .
And then it was home again, so I will leave you with a final sunset and a recommendation to get there if you can because the sights and experiences of this trip will stay with you for a lifetime.
A very enjoyable article, Ali.thank you. Thanks for posting this Pete, my father was with the Northern Expeditionary forces during the war and I recognize names of places he visited albeit in very different circumstances. I have often thought of visiting Norway and this might just tempt me.
Norway and Svarlbard are certainly on my list. I have been to Norway before but only for one (very rainy) day trip across the border from Kiruna in Sweden to Narvik.
You must go, soon you won’t be able to because of global warming as the area is very protected.
Go, go, go it’s amazing and so beautiful.
Hi, Enjoyed the blog, very interesting holiday, many thanks Eiddwen
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Me, my daughter and my parents were also on to the Thomson Spirit Arctic Affair back in July! Beautiful sceneries across Norway & friendly staffs on board. A trip of a lifetime!
Thanks for the comments – sounds like you enjoyed it as much as Ali – I must make an effort to go too!
It was brilliant wasn’t it. I will always cruise with Thompson if I can as they are the best but this particular itinerary wont be available again so glad we did it when we did.