(Photos still to come.)
The tour in and around Svalbard was concentrated on the island of Spitsbergen. We were on a small ship, the M/S Expedition, owned by the tour group known simply as G. Capable of carrying 100 passengers, this is the sort of small boat I like because it has a shallow draft and get get into shallow waters, and it doesn’t have the mass of people of larger ships. The atmosphere is far more casual as well.
The tour was called the Realm of the Polar Bear. It should have been called the Polar Experience. The name implies we’d see a large number of polar bears; we saw just five and the cruise before us only one. It certainly did not compare favorably with the up close and personal experience of our Kaktovik, Alaska, trip in October 2010 when we were within feet of yearling polar bears and a short distance for the adults, with large numbers nearby. We had no idea just how special an experience that was.
That’s not to say Spitsbergen wasn’t worth going-it was. But we quickly had to adjust expectations. Seeing the polar bears in the ice park environment was special. We saw one bear chowing down on a kill and two bear walking the ice pack, testing the ice as they went. The Expedition’s skipper put the put into the ice pack to get closer to the bear, a procedure that also was interesting to watch. (We also overnighted with an ice pack where it was too deep to anchor. Getting out was also an interesting experience.)
Perhaps more interesting was getting close to beached walruses doing what they do best: sleeping. Although ‘action’ was a walrus yawning or stretching (sort of like the saying, Watching grass grow), being within 25 yards of this huge, gentle beasts was a thrill. One of the tour guides ‘barked’ at incoming walruses (sort of a walrus whisperer), which further attracted them. Lumbering on land, they are graceful in the water.
Birds, birds, birds. In addition to what we saw in the course of being in nature, we went to a series of cliffs where 100,000 birds nest and congregate. The comparison with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds immediately came to mind, though strictly from quantity and not from aggression. The guide did caution, however, against looking up with an open mouth to say ‘wow.’ Photos will have to illustrate-words cannot.
One of the more interesting stops was visiting a closed Russian minining operation. Once populated by 1,000, there are now just 22 living there dismantling the site. At the pace they are going, a few generations will pass before it’s is dismantled. I’ll have more about this when I post photos. This was one of two ghost towns we visited, the other being the marble mining site I previously referenced.
This is my third trip to the polar region. Antarctic is on the Bucket List as well.
Given the over-sold hype about polar bears, am I glad I went? You bet, especially given the opportunity to be in the ice cap and see the bear there. But Svalbard falls within the category, been there, done that, while we want to go back to Kaktovik for another polar bear fix.
Getting to Svalbard isn’t easy. Fly into Oslo and take SAS to Longyearbyen. There are limited flights and only one is non-stop: an 8:40pm departure that gets to Longyearbyen at 11:30pm, if on time (ours was an hour late). Otherwise you have to route via Tromso. For reasons that defy logic, even though Svalbard is part of Norway, it is treated as an international destination with all the hassles that go into that: passport control, customs check. If you’re on the non-stop, this is all handled at Oslo. If you go through Tromso, you have to deplane and go through all this there. Coming back was a real pain in the ass. We returned through Tromso (the non-stop is in the 4am hour to make international connections out of Oslo). We had to deplane at Tromso through ground-level ramp boarding, walk through and wait in the open air and the rain as the passport control line backed up. We had to reclaim our luggage and go through the Nothing to Declare/Declare lines (what in the world can you get in Longyearbyen that you would have to declare???) and then go outside security to recheck the backs and be rescreened prior to reboarding.
This all followed disembarking the ship at 8am and being deposited at the Raddison Blu hotel in Longyearbyen until our 1pm pick up to the airport. The Raddison has few chairs for the 100 people waiting and ‘downtown’ Longyearbyen can be ‘experienced’ in about five minutes. This last day of the excursion was easily, as several remarked, an ‘ordeal.’ Really took the edge off the trip.
The food on the Expedition was plentiful and the staff superb. But Norwegian food (both there and in Oslo) has no flavor–it’s totally bland. I kidded some new British friends that the Norwegians must be taking Bland cooking lessons from the British, but this does the Brits a disservice. The food on our first day in Stockholm had flavor. What a concept.
And the food on SAS. I’ll never complain about buy-on-board on US airlines again. We all know US airline cuisine is really bad. SAS charged 20 dollars for one-half sandwich consisting of one slice of cheese and one lettuce leaf, plus a small can of Pringles. Awful doesn’t describe it.
More to come.