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On Top of the World

See the starkly beautiful land of polar bears
on an Arctic expedition

By Troy Bringle

Vacations Magazine: On Top of the World
Troy Bringle
It was 10:15 p.m. when the ship stopped moving. A calm, quiet announcement aired over the public address system. I turned from the cabin window and dashed for the door. With my left hand I grabbed a warm coat, gloves and hat, and with my right I snatched my shooting equipment, fully loaded with a charged battery and empty memory card. I burst through the door, nearly ripping it from its hinges, and let out a quasi-hysterical holler: "There's been a sighting!"

Passengers gathered on deck under a bright and unrelenting sun. Off the port side, she sauntered up and down the face of a stony mountain, her white, fluffy coat glimmering in stark contrast to the reddish-orange rock behind her. She is the beast that we came to see -- the isbjorn, or ice bear, as the locals know her. We call her the polar bear.

My wife, Amanda, and I were cruising with Hurtigruten through the fjords of Spitsbergen, north of mainland Norway and just about everywhere else -- a landmass so far "up there" it's often cut off maps.

Spitsbergen is an island in the Svalbard archipelago, a sovereign state of Norway. Discovered by Dutch sailor Willem Barentsz in 1596, Spitsbergen was named for the "pointed peaks" observed in every direction. While the land appeared to offer nothing of value, below the sea's surface was a bountiful supply of whale blubber, one of the era's coveted resources. During the 17th and 18th centuries, whalers zigzagged through these waters hunting bowhead whales nearly to extinction.

Today, Spitsbergen and neighboring islands are protected by the Svalbard Treaty, which grants about 40 countries the right to conduct research, work and develop communities in Svalbard, while also preserving its pristine environment.

It's a long haul to Spitsbergen, so on the way up we stayed one night in Norway's capital, Oslo, a clean, lively city with a rich history. We toured the Viking Ship Museum, which houses three longships that circled the northern seas in the ninth and 10th centuries, and stepped aboard the original Fram. Now a museum, this masted ship carried acclaimed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to Antarctica in 1911, when he beat Englishman Robert Scott to the South Pole in a fatal race that ended triumphantly for the former and tragically for the latter.

Three days later we would embark a vessel that shares the same name -- Hurtigruten's MS Fram. For an Arctic appetizer, we flew from Oslo to Longyearbyen, the largest city on Spitsbergen with a population of roughly 2,000 people. Here we hung out with huskies on a wheeled dogsledding excursion and hiked to the summits of two mountains during three action-packed days before the cruise.

Cruises in Spitsbergen take place June through September, when the sun heats the Arctic 24 hours a day and summer high temperatures average from the upper 30s to the mid-40s. Cruises of four to six nights in length travel from Longyearbyen along Spitsbergen's western coast, in a region blessed by the warmer currents of the Gulf Stream, to Moffen Island at roughly 80 degrees north before returning via the same path.

Longer sailings of seven to 10 nights circumnavigate Spitsbergen, though icy conditions on the island's more frigid eastern side can force ships to alter itineraries and sail back along the northern and western coasts to Longyearbyen.

Our Hurtigruten package included one pre-cruise hotel night in Longyearbyen, along with dinner that evening and breakfast and lunch before embarkation. After lunch, we toured the award-winning and fact-filled Svalbard Museum. I learned that American entrepreneur John Munroe Longyear, who left the cozy coast of Massachusetts to purchase a coal-mining business here in 1904, gave the city its name.

I could have read about Svalbard's fascinating past for hours, but the sea was calling. En route to the ship, we stopped by the Global Seed Vault. Inserted in the side of a mountain, this locked-down fortress protects seed samples of plants from around the world, saving them for a rainy day that one hopes never comes.

Then it was onto the MS Fram, built in 2007 and operated by Hurtigruten, a line that also cruises the cool currents of Iceland, Greenland, Antarctica and the Norwegian coastline.

Once on board, I took a self-guided tour that led to a spacious dining room, an open-air observation deck, a lounge with panoramic windows and full-service bar, a well-equipped fitness center, two Jacuzzis and a sauna.

The Fram carries a maximum of 318 passengers, but its Spitsbergen cruises are limited to 250 guests to ensure quick and easy shore landings via Polarcirkel boats. A team of eight expedition guides joined an attentive and friendly crew.

At 9:30 on the night of embarkation, we stopped in Barentsburg, a still-functioning Russian mining settlement with a population of about 350. This was once a much larger operation, but Russia downsized its Svalbard presence after an airplane crash in 1996 claimed the lives of 141 Barentsburg friends and family.

The next morning we sailed into Magdalenefjord for a landing at Gravneset, a ghostly site where centuries before us whalers boiled bowhead blubber into more easily transported oil. Mounds of earth covered the graves of 130 whalers who perished in the unsympathetic conditions.

It's said that at one time a person could walk across the bay at Gravneset on the backs of bowhead whales. While surely exaggerated, the tale is a testament to the density of marine life that once flourished here. What a sight it must have been.

That same morning, our expedition leaders challenged passengers to take the "polar plunge." I tried to imagine telling friends and family back home how I almost went swimming in the Arctic, but the thought of such a sorry story was unbearable.

I removed my coat, hat, gloves, pants, shirt, waterproof boots and wool socks -- and then the second pairs of gloves and socks -- and waded into the water. After submerging myself in the 37-degree ocean, I turned 180 degrees and sprinted to the beach. Upon surviving, I tossed back a celebratory swig of aquavit, Scandinavia's alcoholic "water of life," to remind me that the chilly sea had not numbed all my senses.

As a cold breeze caressed my even colder shorts, I noted that some problem solvers had eliminated post-swim issues with wet clothes by removing all dry ones beforehand. My wife assured me that my decision to stay at least partially clothed was the right one.

Later that day, we called on Ytre Norskoya, a Dutch whaling station in operation during the 1600s. Polarcirkel boats carried us to a rocky beach inhabited by nesting arctic terns. A gladiator of travel, the arctic tern makes the yearly 44,000-mile, round-trip flight between the Antarctic and Arctic chasing polar summers.

The last group to return to the ship was forced to change their pickup point when a curious polar bear, perhaps pondering a meal other than seal, joined the tour.

In general, it's a good idea to avoid confrontation with anything that weighs up to 1,500 pounds, runs 25 miles per hour, swims for 60 miles without resting, and is perpetually hungry. Great care is taken to avoid nose-to-nose encounters with polar bears because, even though guides are armed with rifles at all times, the outcome of any conflict would be a sad one.

The next morning we set out in Polarcirkel boats for a half-hour tour of Liefdefjorden and an up-close view of the Monaco Glacier. In the afternoon we visited an active trapping station for the arctic fox at Mushamna in Woodfjorden. Trappers still spend long and quiet winters here.

On deck that evening was a Champagne celebration as we crossed the 80th parallel north and approached Moffen Island. The island is overseen by a pod of walruses, lying lazily in the sand only to lift a head or offer a gratuitous wave of the flipper. Each degree on the latitude scale is equal to roughly 111 kilometers, so at that moment I was just 1,110 kilometers (or about 690 miles) south of Santa's command center.

On our return to Longyearbyen, we stopped in Ny-Alesund, on of the world's northernmost settlements and the take-off point for the disputed first flight over the North Pole, completed in 1926 by Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile via an airship, or blimp.

After a short tour of the town, we were greeted by a family of arctic foxes on the path back to the ship. One crafty youngster showed off its stealth to the crowd by attacking a wooden board in the low grass. The plank never saw him coming. My wife thought the little guy would like living in our home city of Houston, and if it weren't for the ship's imminent departure, she might have found a way to make it happen.

On a summer cruise in Spitsbergen, the sun never puts its feet up, and you don't have to either. Out every window at every hour is some spectacular view. Sunlight glistens off emerald waters, clouds cuddle broad glaciers and whales glide across serene seas. If the top of the world sounds like somewhere you'd like to be, I can offer this advice:

Rest up before you go, and don't feed the bears.

Click here to see more photos from my trip.

Information: Find information on Hurtigruten expeditions online or call the cruise and tour specialists at Vacations To Go, (877) 828-4774.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2011.

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