We have sailed the Coastal Routes with Hurtigruten several times, always in the winter months and we have been to Alaska and Antarctica twice with other cruise lines. We enjoy the magnificence of glaciers and snow-capped mountains, plus ... Read More
We have sailed the Coastal Routes with Hurtigruten several times, always in the winter months and we have been to Alaska and Antarctica twice with other cruise lines. We enjoy the magnificence of glaciers and snow-capped mountains, plus the wildlife which comes as a package in these areas. Cold is ok, so where to visit next?
The answer was found in the Hurtigruten Expedition “The Historic Sportsman’s Route to Svalbard – South”, sailing in June 2018 on MS Spitsbergen, a modern ship we have travelled on before.
The journey to Longyearbyen from Manchester is a long one and a weary band of travellers arrived in the small, but very light and rather chilly hours of May 30th. A few hours’ sleep in the very basic Radisson Blu Hotel was followed by time to explore the small town independently, before lunch and a coach trip out to Camp Barentz and the excellent Svalbard Museum.
MS Spitsbergen had been at anchor in the Adventfjorden all day, because the pier was taken up by the Aida Luna from Germany. Once she had left port, MS Spitsbergen was able to take her place and embarkation could begin. (We were at the front of the queue and had priority as Suite Passengers, but many of the other approximately 160 passengers were left literally out in the cold as the process was slow and made slower by the breakdown of the two computers.)
In the evening we had a safety briefing and also information about the experience to come. We are NOT on holiday, we were told, but on an Expedition. How right that information was!
Longyearbyen is at 78°13′N, 15°38′E. Here, at this time of year, the sun is high in the sky in the middle of the night. Our room had large windows looking out to the starboard side of the ship and we could sit on the bed, facing the windows or take advantage of the narrow balcony to take photographs for as long as we wanted. As we travelled north, enjoying the scenery continually passing us, we had to go to bed before it was time to get up again.
For most of our journey, the sea was extremely calm, offering remarkable reflections of great clarity in some places. The conditions only became rougher as we left the Svalbard coastal area and headed across the open sea on our way south. Although interesting at times, it was never uncomfortable for us.
Our first stop was at Ny Alesund, now a Science Station. Here the weather was definitely very cold and our new Hi-Viz jackets, which we could keep, were needed as well as many other layers underneath to combat the wind and light snow. We joined a guided tour of the settlement, which was well worthwhile. Afterwards it was good to return to the hot chocolate available on board ship.
En route to Magdalenafjord in the late afternoon, we were allocated sturdy rubber boots, which we kept for the duration of the expedition. They were surprisingly comfortable and essential for entering and exiting the RIBs as well as exploring the terrain we visited. We were divided into five groups for using the RIBs, which rotated in order of priority so everyone had a turn at getting off the ship first over the course of the Expedition.
The terrain at Magdalenafjorden was quite difficult, with deep, soft snow in places as well as small and larger boulders to negotiate. It was possible to go on a hike, but thankfully we had chosen not to join in, as I certainly would have struggled and there was not the option to turn back without a guard. On every landing, the Expedition Team went ashore first to ensure the site was safe and free of Polar Bears and to establish a secure area. They carried deterrents and rifles and it was not safe to be out of their sight. They also carried ashore emergency supplies of water, food and shelter in case of the unexpected, but thankfully it was never needed on our cruise.
We continued north overnight to Moffen, where we arrived at 06.00. Here we had reached just over 80° North. We were able to enjoy the sight of Walrus on or near the beach, before turning back South to Monacobreen in Liefdefjorden. There we were taken on RIB cruises of around 40 minutes. The first explorers went incredibly close to the glacier face, but our guide was not initially so adventurous and our time ran out before our desired destination was reached. Glaciers abound in Svalbard and there was nearly always one to admire as we travelled. Mushamna was our last stop of the day.
Our journey south also took us to Bruceneset, the Smeerenburg Glacier, Bamsebu, the Recherchefjorden and Gnalodden. Kayaking was available in some locations for small groups.
We finally left Svalbard to visit Bear Island on the way back to Norway. The intention had been to land on the small beach, but the sea was too rough, so we had RIB cruises once again to take us nearer to the cliffs populated by many sea birds.
We finally arrived at Honningsvag after a rough night in the open sea, where the rolling of the ship meant we occasionally felt ourselves slide down the bed, despite the use of the ship’s stabilisers. The experience overall was not particularly unpleasant however; the seas were not very big, but the ship is comparatively small and feels the movement.
The plan was to dock in Skarsvag, a small fishing village, but the weather meant that was not possible. Honninsvag suited us better and this time we found the attractive small Church was open. We were also able to visit MS Vesteralen, the ship in port as part of the Coastal Route schedule.
Our last port and destination was Tromso, followed by another very long day of delayed flights to reach home again, but the experience of Svalbard was worth every inconvenience.
The Expedition was quite hard work because we were frequently busy or preparing to be busy; dressing up for shore excursions took some time! The weather was mainly cold but dry, with some snow on occasions. Boarding and getting out of the RIBs could be strenuous, but there were plenty of staff to assist us and even some more physically limited passengers were helped efficiently and patiently. Occasionally we chose not to disembark and we enjoyed the location from the comfort of the ship instead. The days could start early and finish late; there was always something to see outside.
We were lucky enough to see Polar Bears on three occasions, two males and a mother with her two year old cub. It was surprising to see how high they climbed up the slopes; one also slid down again on his stomach and rolled in the snow. All were at quite a distance, the closest being the first, who was occupying a projected landing site. On this occasion we had decided to use the hot tub while everyone else was ashore, but we were quickly surrounded by all the other passengers viewing the bear, so we gave up, fetched our cameras and joined them. The landing was abandoned, but nobody minded.
As we left Bear Island and the continental shelf, we were told to look out for whales and we did indeed see a Humpback. On the previous expedition, we were told, a Blue Whale was seen. Walruses were ashore or in the water at two locations we visited and sea birds were frequent and numerous companions. Dolphins also made occasional appearances.
The scenery was wonderful, if repetitive, as dark mountains with snowy tops and glaciers in between followed one after another. There was almost always one more photo to take before drawing the curtains for the night.
We always have a balcony when we cruise, because of the ease of getting outside to see whatever is passing. On most Hurtigruten ships, this means a suite is required. We had already spent Christmas 2016 in the port rear suite, but this time we chose to book the starboard side suite nearest the stern because the layout of the room was better for us and it was also the cheaper option. We were very happy with our choice and the suite category offers several advantages too.
Hurtigruten ships naturally have a great many fish dishes on their menus. The evening meal is often a set meal, but if the kitchen is advised on embarkation, other options are available, so we don’t have fish on board. The only meal I thought was poor quality was a vegetarian alternative when the first alternative was a spicy meal. The cauliflower cheese was watery and unappetising and I was told that a vegetarian passenger found nearly all her meals disappointing. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with plenty of choice and on the Expedition, the first three or four evening meals were also buffets, which I prefer. Read Less