Arctic Experience through the eyes of a customer

We were sent this amazing account from our customer Judith Olsen, who recently returned from an Arctic adventure.

Arctic Bound! That was the plan, thermals packed, down jacket on my back, hiking boots on the feet, woollies washed & waiting to be worn, what else did I need? Sunhat, sun cream & shorts surprisingly!

We set sail from Edinburgh, which as everyone knows, is the start of the Arctic!!!

I was travelling on the MS Expedition for a 2 week “adventure” heading for Spitsbergen, which at 78n is the starting point for Polar expeditions. Nothing quite so adventurous for us, I had a birth in a spacious cabin on board an ice breaker. I was expecting a “rufty- tufty” experience but far from it. The ship had all amenities, restaurant, Polar Bear bar, library, Discovery Lounge, gym & sauna. It even boasted a mud room, which I discovered, was not a spa facility but a place for leaving your wet gear after an outing! The food was excellent, 4 course lunch & dinner with tea and home-made cakes at 4pm each day!

There were 100 passengers, the majority from US or OZ – only 10 Brits.  I shared with 2 from the US (a 4th person didn’t turn up). Clearly they thought we might need some “help” getting on, as we were each supplied with a complimentary bottle of wine in the cabin! After 2 days when Patricia (our 4th person) had not shown up, we decided to toast her with her bottle of wine. Unfortunately she had the last laugh, as the wine, when poured, was brown & tasted vile!

Orkney was our first stop with visits to Skara Brae, dating back to 3100BC followed by Ring of Brodga, also approx 4000 years old. Travelling forward a few thousand years, to world war 11, we saw Scapa Flow, the Churchill Barriers & the beautiful Italian Chapel – 2 old Nissan Huts joined together & decorated with odds & ends the prisoners of war could find – you would never guess the lamp shades were made of old bully beef cans & the “marble” was in fact painted onto the concrete surface! Finally a quick trip to the cathedral. Although it wasn’t so quick for some of the group who got locked in the cemetery & had to climb over the fence to escape!

Our departure from Orkney was marked by a piper, who played until the ship was well on its way. A nice little touch.

Shetland was our next port of call, part of the Norwegian kingdom until 1469, it still has close cultural ties to Scandinavia.  Jarlshof is “one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles.” The site has been occupied almost continuously from 2500BC through to the modern day and shows the gradual transition from Neolithic, through the Bronze and Iron Ages and into the Viking and Scottish periods.

 The highlight of the day was a visit to Sumburgh Head. Thousands of seabirds nest on these picturesque cliffs, including Razorbills, Guillemots, Northern Fulmars and Great Skuas, but by far the number one bird of the day was the Atlantic Puffin. (For info a puffin rookery is known as a puffinery, and puffin chicks are referred to as ‘pufflings’ – so no quibbles if I use either of those words in scrabble!)

Back on board for lunch I found an invite to dinner at the Captains Table! A free afternoon in Lerwick gave me the opportunity for a hairdo, manicure & the chance to buy a new outfit. Sadly I declined all of those & made do with my tunic & leggings (packed as thermals) & a shower! (Although I did manage to buy my Saturday Guardian). It was in fact the only night the captain held a special dinner, so I was chuffed to be included. The evening was topped off by watching Whisky Galore!

That night we crossed the North Sea oilfields, dotted with rigs and service vessels, really interesting to see. I was equally pleased that the crossing was smooth & clear, in fact it was like that for the whole trip, even crossing the Arctic!

Runde Island was our first venture in zodiacs. All kitted out in our new parkas & wellies, not quite sure what to expect. We needed the hoods, not for warmth, but to stop being dive bombed! Plenty of action here, but most impressive were the sea eagles – 7 in total!

As we were now in Norway, the evening lecture centred on Norway in World War 11.  Throughout the trip we had various lectures on Polar region, geology, birds, wildlife, history, photography etc etc, all illuminating and entertaining!

A world heritage site beckoned as we awoke in Geiranger Fjord. Famed for its beauty & featured in many photoshoots. The Seven Sisters waterfall was impressive, but as we climbed (in a bus) to the 1500m viewpoint, our ship was dwarfed by the spectacular mountains. Luckily we arrived early to beat the 3 huge cruise ships which were expected later, each boasting a capacity of 2.5-3K passengers, about to invade the village of 220 inhabitants!!

The afternoon was spent cruising through the amazing fjords, sunbathing on deck with temperatures almost topping 30degrees! Ice creams were brought out to cool us down! I had never considered bringing shorts, sunhat & suncream to the Arctic but wish I had! Also basking in the sunshine, were the White beaked dolphins & hump back whales which accompanied us on our journey

The Tail Fluke of Whale taken from the the Spirit of Enderby.


There was a military theme for the next day, as we approached Monks Island (Trondheim) in the morning followed by Austratt in the afternoon, both home to military installations from 2nd World War. We found the visit to the 28cm gun instalment surprisingly interesting, as below ground we explored the living and working quarters of the 150 men who operated it. A stark reminder of Norway’s past.

Live music sounded out from the Polar Bear bar that night, with the crew band & Kathryn, resident guitarist/singer, all the old favourites, encouraging one & all to join in.

Torghatten is one of Northern Norway’s most well-known attractions and we were woken at 6:30am to experience it for ourselves. This ‘holed mountain’ is at the southeast end of the island of Torget and was formed during the Scandinavian Ice Age. The hole is 112 metres above sea level and made for an impressive hike from our landing site.

The highlight of the day was yet to come, as we reached the Arctic Circle, marked by a globe on a small island. The ship has never landed here before, so we were pleased to be allowed to do so. We were also pleased to see the crew & staff coming ashore too. It was a bit surreal to see the waiters in their bow ties & waistcoats clambering out of the zodiacs, but good that we could all toast our crossing in style! Apparently the tradition is to pour ice cubes down your back – I preferred this version

No more sunsets from here on, as it’s the realm of the midnight sun! Going to bed in bright daylight is very strange, despite being tired, your body believes its afternoon & not time to go to bed.

We all groaned at the 6 am wake-up call, but grateful in the end to have spent as much time as we could at Lofoten. This compact Archipelago is comprised of 5 main and 3 smaller islands joined by a network of tunnels, bridges and roads. Home to 24,000 people (and 24,000 sheep), it’s characterized by tidy little fishing villages with small pastel-red and yellow buildings, kittiwakes nesting on windowsills, wooden drying racks – hung with cod, sheltered inlets and pastoral farmland. Most dramatic is the backdrop of steep-faced mountains. All day long, we could see their razor-sharp profiles (some of them actual petrified trolls) against a bright blue sky. We toured the islands, visiting World Heritage Sites, museums, galleries and marvelling at the scenery, one of my favourite locations so far!

The warm weather continued & that night we had a BBQ on deck as we sailed through the beautiful but narrow Trollfjorden.

Just before breakfast the landscape was reflected in the mirror calm seas with the mountain peaks, snow fields, and the subtle colours of green from the forests to the meadows. Did you know that the human eye sees more tones of green than any other colour?

 Our destination today was a hike to the Engen Glacier. Nice to have some exercise after indulging in so much delicious food! Managed to work off a few calories, but all the effort was wasted when we returned to hot waffles and coffee at the café. However the walk was spectacular – I’m running out of superlatives!

A lazy afternoon sunbathing on deck was interspersed by watching pods of pilot whales swimming by!

All good things come to an end. We were in Tromso at a re-fuelling station, in the industrial port for 4 & half hours & not allowed to leave the ship. We were amused by various lectures & scrabble, but glad when we could finally move to our birth. Unfortunately this was 3 miles out of town & we still couldn’t get off the ship. There was almost a mutiny, by 4pm buses arrived & we were allowed ashore. First stop, the polar museum, a timely reminder that we were about to make the crossing to the distant archipelago of Svalbard. It showed how different life was for the sealers, whalers and trappers compared with the warm and comfortable ship on which we travelled.  The Arctic Cathedral was next, a masterpiece of Scandinavian architecture, with beautiful stained glass windows and a boat shaped organ. Then cable cars took us to a spectacular viewpoint 400m above the city. To help enjoy the vista, we were offered beer & reindeer burgers! All that remained was to return to the ship, bid farewell to Norway, tuck into a second dinner and look forward to seeing the remote and little-visited Bear Island tomorrow.

The chilled morning air signalled time to unpack the thermals and zip in the parka liners. There was a sense of anticipation as we headed further north into Polar Bear country. In our safety briefing we were advised that all trips ashore would be preceded by a scouting expedition, by the crew checking for polar bears. While onshore we would be protected by spotters with guns placed at vantage points. We would walk in small groups with gunmen alongside, and finally we were warned to avoid the mud! Apparently, the mud can be deep, squelchy with lots of suction, so much so that 1 man had to pulled out by the crew, leaving him naked from the waist down– quite a dangerous place!

 In the evening, we celebrated the colour of the Arctic with a “White Nights” fancy dress party. It’s amazing what can be done with sheets, towels & a lot of imagination! (I’m sure the man in the mud would have been glad of some of it!)

We awoke to our first true Arctic experience, the scenery was spectacular as we glided into the monochrome world of Hornsund fjord, following whales darting in front of the bow. We flicked away as their flukes flourished infront of us!!!

It was time to get the zodiacs out & explore the ice. We crunched over the rough surface crashing into the odd small iceberg enroute to the seals. Next Beluga whales were spotted close to shore – 5-6 of them, a rare sighting! A clap of thunder heralded a carving from the glacier as it came crashing to the sea, just feet away. Exciting stuff.

We returned to the ship and made our way along Hornsund’s northern shores to continue our quest for bears. It wasn’t long before the call came, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have spotted our first Polar Bear of the trip”. For the next hour, we watched from a safe distance (0.5km) as a lone bear strode the shoreline before venturing out onto a small stretch of fast ice. Eventually it was time to move on, satisfied that we had gazed at one of nature’s most remarkable animals.

Bellsund was the next fjord. Here we walked along the shore (after the area had been thoroughly checked).The Reindeer ignored us. As we plodded through the snow, we spotted Polar Bear poo & footprints but not the real thing.

After another BBQ on deck we explored the fjord by ship & finally spotted a bear with 2 cubs. We watched the mother and cubs rolling in the snow & playing on the hillside. Then turned our attention to the walrus huddled together in a” thermotactic” group on the shoreline. After dinner we were surprised by the announcement we could get a closer look, the zodiacs were launched again at 10.45pm –  pleased we hadn’t finished the bottle of wine!

Our last day was spent in Alkhornet trudging through the snow trying to spot Arctic foxes. By the end of the morning the ice was melting fast, much to the dismay of my shipmates, some of whom fell through the snow & ice and were stuck waist deep! They were helped out by the crew but some had to limp back barefooted, unable to retrieve their wellies! (At least it was only the wellies they lost)

In complete contrast, Barentsburg was the next and almost our last, Port of call. The ship came alongside to let us disembark, but later had to anchor in the fjord, because the pier was quite shallow, the tide was quickly dropping, the instruments belied the actual depth! This is a Russian coal mining settlement, home to around 400 Russians & Ukrainians (interesting), reminiscent of Siberia. It’s a bit bleak, there’s no tress, so posters of forests are displayed in the central square. Life isn’t too bad for miners and their families, they do have their own brewery – the world’s most northerly.

The farewell dinner was a jovial affair lots of photos and emails swapped.

We regrettably left the ship at 8am for a day in Longyearbyn. The town boasts the most northerly University, hospital, museum, art gallery etc etc as it is the last settlement before the North Pole. Cars are in the minority, as skidoos (with gun holsters) are far more practical. It is also one of the few towns with Polar bear warning signs, school children are escorted to school with armed guards! My guesthouse was 2 km outside the main town & I had to walk back………but all was fine!

My flight home was at 4.40am, I was worried about sleeping in, but no chance as I was awoken at 12.30 am with the heat of the sun on my face!

An amazing place!

Find out more about Wildfoot Travel’s trips to the Arctic Here