It was my son who decided where we would go on holiday. In 2013 we had gone to Tenerife, he was bored, it was too hot and there was nothing to do. As he will be 18 next year I asked him where he would like to go and in a flash he came back with Spitsbergen. I started researching and it came down to a choice between Thomson and Fred Olsen. In the end I selected Thomson Spirit’s Arctic Affair cruise as Thomson’s were family friendly (kids club essential for my nine year old) and I preferred the itinerary.
One downside of Thomson was the ship leaving from Newcastle, I don’t have any problems per se with the north-east (my Dad was born in Durham) but when you live in the South-West it is a very long journey. We left on the 11th and after a 10 hour horrendous journey finally arrived at the Washington Travelodge for an overnight stop. My family moaned continuously about the fact we hadn’t flown but as I pointed out we’d have had luggage restrictions and be tied to flight times (they didn’t accept these as valid objections!)
The next day we negotiated the Tyne Tunnel and got to the port only to join a massive queue to drop off the bags. It was hot and sticky and seemed to take ages. Eventually all booked in and finally got on board. Our cabin (4-berth) was on deck 3 (516) – we were impressed, much larger than the cabins we had before on the Island Escape and Ocean Village and it had a kettle. Bags arrived (well apart from one where the label fell off and I had to collect from reception), unpacked and we started exploring. First stop the Lido for some food – we like the informality of buffet eating and the food was varied, hot and you could take as much (or little) as you like. Set sail just after 4pm and was an enjoyable sailaway down the Tyne and out to see – finally around thirty hours from leaving home we were off!
First day was a sea day. Priority (well according to my daughter) was signing up for the kids club. I have to say that the kids club on the ship was the best I have ever come across, whether it was because there were so few children (eight in the 3-11 age range) I don’t know, but Louise, Naomi and Claire who ran it were absolutely brilliant. I really can’t fault it and my daughter loved it and was always upset when she had to miss sessions because we were off the ship.
Despite the ship being Thomson and designated as family-friendly the majority of cruisers were post-retirement. On the whole this was fine but there were some people who seemed to think the cruise should have been adult-only and were a bit iffy about the presence of children, particularly to the mother of one of the 3 year old. I don’t have any problems with cruise companies running adult-only cruises and in fact I am looking forward to the day when I can go on one, but I do think it is a bit ignorant to complain about the presence of children (who on the whole were out of the way on deck 7 in the club) on a family cruise!
Our first stop was Geiranger. This was the only tender we had as there were two other ships in port. Geiranger is not a large place and with three cruise ships it was very busy. I had thought about an excursion but in the end decided we would do the waterfall hike up the fjord centre, which we did and was very enjoyable. Beautiful scenic views over the Geirangerfjord. The sailaway to classical music down the fjord past the seven sisters and suter waterfalls was magnificent.
There was then another day at sea, son was incredibly cross at being woken up at 10 am by Richard (Cruise Director) being piped into the cabin telling him to save water and reuse towels. The entertainment team did do a good job, not the best ones I have seen but the shows they did were good, particularly enjoyed the songs from the movies show.
Next stop was Tromso, had done my homework for this port and knew we could get to the Planetarium on our own so we didn’t do the ship’s excursion but shuttled into town first for a walk around and to see the Arctic Cathedral then back and to the planetarium for the northern lights show. For all four of us to do the Thomson excursion it would have cost £124 a family ticket to the planetarium including the show was £25. We then were able to stay and go around the science centre which was excellent and very interactive and we only left when the centre shut for the night.
After Tromso it was Honningsvag. Had wondered about the North Cape Tour but didn’t sound as though it would enthuse the children, then, on google found the Artico ice bar and decided we would do this. Really great, ponchos on and into a room completely made of ice, even the glasses were, daughter loved it as it reminded her of her favourite film, Frozen. Crawling into the igloo was fun but I don’t think I’d like to live in one! Also went into the museum which gave a good overview of the region and particularly the significance during the war and the role of the heroic dog, Bamse. A definite favourite stop.
Another day at sea and we started the northwards journey to Svalbard. Lots of whales and dolphins en route, beautiful still water and apart from the odd cloud bank good visibility.
First Svalbard stop was NY Alesund, very different from anywhere else we had been and for the first time cold – needed gloves, coats, boots etc. Very scenic, ice floating in the sea and on the beach, vicious Arctic terns, polar bear warning signs – all good stuff. One shop and a massive queue but part of the experience.
The same day we cruised the Magdalena Fjord which was spectacular with glaciers and mountains. Nick Baker (from Animal Planet) apparently saw a walrus there but I think he was the only one. Not a polar bear in sight either. From next year the Norwegian government is limiting the ships which can travel to both NY Alesund and the Magdalen Fjord for environmental reasons so was very pleased to have got there this year.
Our other stop in Svalbard was Longyearbyen the main town on the island of Spitsbergen (the island group is the Svalbard islands). We did our first organised excursion here, to Camp Barentz. A scenic stop on the way out of the town and we went through the Advent Valley to the camp. At the camp we were taken into a room where we were given a drink, a waffle and a talk on polar bears. We then met the husky dogs who were very friendly and my daughter got to hug a husky puppy. Going back to town we had time to visit the museum (much more cost effective than the combined Thomson excursion to the camp and museum) and then walked back to the ship.
Another day at sea followed. Not sure when the formal evenings were (there were two of them) but we didn’t do either. In fact the only one of us who ate in the formal dining room (Compass Rose) was my daughter when she went to kids club the Lido was fine for the rest of us. A few times we went and looked at the Compass Rose menu but it never grabbed us. Other facilities on board we used included the card/games room, though during the second week one of the scrabble boards disappeared, the self-service laundy, Raffles bar and the family swimming pool (not the adults one or the hot tub). Also didn’t go to the cinema, times didn’t really fit with the kids club. We did go to Nick Baker’s lectures on weird creatures and bugs, which we enjoyed. There was another lecturer talking about cameras but didn’t go to this.
After Spitsbergen our next stop was the last one north of the Arctic Circle, the stop was at Leknes part of the Lofoten Islands. We also did a trip here, leisurely Lofoten, as my research had highlighted that there wasn’t much to do at the port or in Leknes. The tour was good we were taken to a fishing village and two beaches, my main criticism is we got no time at any of them. We just about got off the coach, took some pictures and it was time to get back on again. I would have preferred longer stops especially at the first beach they took us too which was beautiful. When we got back husband went off on the shuttle bus to Leknes, whilst children and I clambered over rocks to a little beach and went in the sea. Can’t believe I actually went in the sea north of the Arctic Circle!
The only disappointing stop of the trip happened next, Bronnoysund. We didn’t like the excursions so took the shuttle bus into town – it was incredibly boring. One large shopping centre, with a Boots in it and not much else.
Alesund was next. We had planned to take the shuttle bus to the aquarium but it wasn’t working that day. We waited for almost an hour for the local bus, then gave up and decided to explore the town (which was covered in a low cloud) so the viewpoint was not visible. We went to the fishing museum (OK but not that exciting) then did some souvenir shopping. I’d seen a jacket I liked in Lofoten but they didn’t have in my size, it was £60. The ship the night before had run a Norwegian souvenir evening, guaranteed to be cheaper than on-shore, the same jacket was £132! In Alesund I found it for £55 in the right size so got it there. Son got a jumper and husband a jacket, daughter yet another soft toy.
Final stop of the cruise was Flam, and this was a real highlight. I’d decided we had to do the Flam railway and after much deliberation had splashed out on the railway and hike tour. I’d checked that the hike was ok for a nine year old, was assured it was but not told it was 10 km! The railway journey was spectacular and we went to the penultimate stop. We then got out, were given a sandwich and a drink and with two guides started our hike back down the valley. The hike was marvellous, daughter did well and managed to do the 10 km and this really took us into the heart of Norway. Expensive but an experience to remember.
One more sea day and then back to Newcastle. Last morning, 3:30am son woke up and was violently sick. This continued and in the end spoke to reception and went to the medical centre, where he was seen by a taciturn doctor with broken English, no bedside manner who refused to accept it was norovirus and put him on a drip. It was norovirus, confirmed by our GP, after we all went down with it – daughter managed ten vomits between Newcastle and home, a journey I don’t want to repeat. I really don’t know why the doctor was so adamant it wasn’t norovirus, I know that this is a risk of cruise travel and I also know how hot the sanitising was so really can’t see any reason why he would.
Anyway even with this unfortunate end to the holiday the cruise was fantastic with amazing destinations. Loved Flam and Spitsbergen was an experience to savour. Most definitely want to go back to Norway and would go on Thomson again.