The latest enthralling journey that we are covering on the WILDFOOT blog took our senior travel advisor to Spitsbergen in Norway. As the story of the third day of their trip makes clear, a tailor made Arctic adventure with us is endlessly fascinating – even when it heads indoors.
Day 3: Cultural Tour + Foodie Tour
I think most of our group were quite happy to have a break from the great outdoors today, allowing our frozen bits to thaw out properly. With a population of only 2,600 and no indigenous peoples you might not expect there to be much culture or history in Spitsbergen, but the museum at Longyearbyen where we went that morning, is well worth a visit, detailing the toils, endurance and unbelievable hardship suffered by the early settlers. It’s also got its own stuffed polar bear, which I was starting to realise is de rigueur in indoor public spaces in Longyearbyen (not forgetting the airport arrivals hall, the supermarket has one, as does the Radisson Blu and at least one of the outdoor gear shops in town). Along with the continuous darkness it’s the presence of polar bears (there are more than humans there) that actually makes Svalbard different to anywhere I’ve ever been before. When leaving the town limits, it is the law that you, or your guide, must be armed with a rifle. Polar bears are extremely big and hungry and, as the information in the museum made quite clear, we are food!
Our next stop was a gallery showcasing art inspired by the stark beauty and incredible light of Svalbard. The gallery also had an interesting display of old maps from the days of early exploration. Although some of those maps are hopelessly inaccurate, I did stop and ask myself how I would fare trying to draw up a chart of somewhere so inaccessible. Not too well I wouldn’t think!
The day finished with the unlikely sounding ‘Taste of Svalbard’ tour. Now whilst the early settlers, and indeed the majority of inhabitants until quite recently, would have had a rather unadventurous diet, that’s not the case these days. In fact, the meals I had here were all outstanding. The main highlights of the gastro tour today however were Svalbard’s very own brewery, with its 5 speciality beers, the Polar Permaculture project (where they are trying to grow herbs and vegetables in a greenhouse) and a chocolaterie. Presented with a plate of chocolate samples I am extremely ashamed to say that I had eaten all mine before realising that the owner of the shop was intending to talk us through the subtle taste of each, one by one. Very embarrassing…
Arctic cruises to Svalbard and the Norwegian archipelago’s largest island of Spitsbergen have always been in high demand here at WILDFOOT, and the story of our travel advisor’s latest trip to the region helps to demonstrate precisely why. Brace yourself for her retelling of the first two days of yet another incredible journey.
When I was told that I would be travelling to Svalbard in January my first thought was ‘you can travel to Svalbard in January?!’ With the capital, Longyearbyen, having a latitude of 78.22 degrees north, during the winter months the archipelago is in the grip of the polar night, when the sun never comes near the horizon, let alone crossing it! ‘What activities could you possibly do in the dark?’ I thought. I was about to find out…
Day 1: Arrival
Our flight into Longyearbyen, the main town on Svalbard’s main island of Spitsbergen, arrived in the early hours of the morning so of course it wasn’t at all strange that it was dark! There to meet us at the luggage carousel was the first of what turned out to be many stuffed polar bears in Longyearbyen.
Stepping out of the airport the temperature was decidedly fresh but not as bitterly cold as I was expecting – perhaps because the air is so dry? Checking into our accommodation, the Coal Miner’s Cabins, my main concern was: would it be warm enough? I needn’t have worried; it was toasty!
Day 2: Snowmobiling
Following a hearty and delicious breakfast we set out on the first of our activities: snowmobiling. With the outside temperature -21 centigrade, and an approximate distance of 140kms to be covered, it was definitely a case of ‘in at the deep end’…
Once fully kitted up for the cold we had a brief introduction to snowmobile handling and then were off! Riding a snowmobile is pretty easy actually – like riding an automatic scooter but more stable – there aren’t any gears and you don’t really even need to use the brakes, just ease off the gas if you want to slow down. Our snake of snowmobiles twisted off into the darkness of the Advent Valley, a line of light in the black of the polar night. In late January, in fact there is a little light in the sky; for around an hour and a half at midday the sky turns from black to a beautiful dark blue, with just enough light to hint at the shapes of the magnificent snow covered mountains lining both sides of the valley. I can’t deny that the whole experience left me a tad chilly (multiple layers, balaclava and heated handlebars notwithstanding) however it was utterly magic to experience the wildness of such a pristine and deep-frozen landscape.
Our travel adviser’s astonishing journey to the Antarctic finally comes to an end with these last two entries in which they describe their experiences, including a fruitful trip down the Beagle Channel. Read all about what they got up to, before contacting WILDFOOT’s specialists in polar travel about how you can create similar memories of your own.
After quite a bumpy ride overnight it was good to wake up to calm seas once again. Despite the rough seas we had made good progress and we were on schedule to enter the Beagle Channel by lunch time. This morning’s schedule followed a similar pattern to yesterday, lectures interspersed with deck time. As we entered the Beagle Channel a pod of fin whales was spotted, it turned out to be one of our best whale sightings of the trip with them staying within just a few metres of our vessel for 10-15 minutes. By mid-afternoon the sun was shining bright, a sight we had become only too familiar with and nearly everyone was out on deck, when the PA crackled into life and the words “bow-riding dolphins” were uttered. A group of ten or so Peale’s Dolphins were bow-riding and stayed with us for about 20 minutes allowing us all to get some great photos. I was particularly happy with this sighting as it was a new species for me and gave me hope that we might yet see the striking Commerson dolphin which are renowned for following vessels up the Beagle Channel and if not, just another reason to come back one day.
As is protocol on such voyages the last night was dedicated to presentations, the showing of the slide show that John (the official photographer) had compiled, the Captain’s Dinner and of course the obligatory few drinks to celebrate our successful voyage.
As we opened our eyes to the sound of Michela for the final time we pulled into the port, our fantastic voyage finally over. Disembarkation was a seamless operation, they quickly ferried us by bus us to our chosen destinations, whether it be to a hotel in town or to the airport for a connecting flight, before we knew it the crew and expedition team were frantically preparing to welcome the next group on board.
Every voyage to Antarctica is different but I don’t believe this wonderful continent can ever disappoint. Undoubtedly we were very lucky with the weather and wildlife sightings but by far the biggest contributing factor to the success of this voyage was the crew and expedition team. It is for this reason that WILDFOOT place great importance on choosing the right vessel and itinerary for all our clients, depending on their individual needs and preferences. This was my first trip to the magical white continent however I hope one day to go again, it is simply the most amazing place on the planet, if it is not on your bucket list already, it should be.
Our senior travel advisor is reflecting on the imminent end of their remarkable Antarctic trip, but the fun wasn’t over just yet. In their latest journal entries on their Antarctica holidays, WILDFOOT’s intrepid traveller looks back on their final landing site and some highly inspiring lectures.
I woke to the startling fact that this was going to be a last full day of activities as tonight we would head north to start our return journey over Drake Passage. This morning’s landing was at Yankee Harbour, on the south-western side of Greenwich Island which is known for its nesting gentoo penguins. It is thought that over 4,000 pairs now call its well developed, raised–beach terraces home and as was becoming habit with this trip, we struck lucky again with many chicks already on display. Previously we had only seen very young chicks (a couple of days old) however here they seemed much further advanced with our ornithologist estimating that some might be almost a month old, which was quite surprising considering how early in the season it was. There were also some juvenile elephant seals to be seen wallowing near the water’s edge.
During lunch we sailed a short distance to Half Moon Island, which was sadly to be our last landing site. As the name suggests it is a crescent shaped island and offers wonderful views of the picturesque mountains and glaciers of nearby Livingstone Island. It is a favoured site amongst the expedition vessels as it has a large chinstrap rookery and the serrated and crevassed cliffs are also home to Antarctic terns, kelp gulls, snowy sheathbills and Wilson’s storm petrels, all of which we managed to get good looks of. As the afternoon lingered to a close and we were ushered back to the zodiacs for the last time, there was a definite sadness amongst us all. It was hard to comprehend that this wonderful adventure was rapidly drawing to a close and that we would shortly be waving this magical white continent goodbye.
By the time we woke we were well into the Drake and there was a light swell and a little wind. Much of today was spent flittering between the various lectures that were being offered and spending time out on deck looking for seabirds and cetaceans. I strongly recommend going to as many lectures as possible, the expedition teams are always a fountain of knowledge on these sorts of voyages and some of them will even do talks about their personal experiences which are just awe inspiring. For example, our assistant expedition leader, Marta, joined a sailing expedition across Drake Passage to Antarctica in 2013 whilst Jonathan overwintered in Antarctica at two different research stations. In terms of birdlife, we had an escort of Wilson’s storm petrels, black-browed albatrosses and sooty shearwaters for much of the day, on occasion they were joined by an imperial shag or a wandering albatross.
As the day progressed the waves increased and consequently the numbers at meal times decreased, but this is all a part of the experience. I genuinely believe that without a bit of ‘rock and roll’ on Drake Passage you haven’t earnt the splendour that is Antarctica, it goes hand in hand!
Check out latest cruises to Antarctica here