We joined Le Boreal in Longyearbyen on the A & K chartered cruise on 27 July.
We had the previous night as part of the tour at Thon Opera, Oslo as the nominated hotel at our time of booking (Hotel Bristol) was closed for renovations ... Read More
We joined Le Boreal in Longyearbyen on the A & K chartered cruise on 27 July.
We had the previous night as part of the tour at Thon Opera, Oslo as the nominated hotel at our time of booking (Hotel Bristol) was closed for renovations which was disappointing as we had booked and paid months earlier at Thon Rosenkrantz around the corner from Bristol and was, we thought, walking distance with wheelable luggage to relocate after arriving 2 nights earlier from Australia off longhaul flights. FYI we could not book Bristol – fully booked at the time, but as time went by, no bookings at all, so clearly this last minute move by A and K was known for some time!! The advice for the hotel change was only after we had paid our final amount, which was pretty disappointing and meant we had to make a change from one side of the city to the other – not insurmountable but inconvenient and had we known we probably would have booked the Opera for the whole period.
The Thon Opera is a BIG 4ish star hotel, right on the back of the station. Very convenient, nice room, however we liked the Thon Rosenkrantz better despite much smaller rooms – better central location for two days exploring Oslo major sights, not so good for a longer stay though – room is a bit tight. Rosenkrantz also has a complimentary “supper” service and included breakfast. The supper, basic and a bit sloppy (bread, salad, stew of sorts) was great on the travel weary day, not great night 2 but we were still being lazy and not much else around the hotel without a few blocks walk. Rosenkrantz has a lovely enclosed rooftop area with free water and coffee with views of the Palace – would be a good catch up location to be with a group, would make up for the tiny rooms. Breakfast was as you would expect a buffet to be without being sumptuous.
So to the ship – we attended the welcome function at the Opera – fairly basic affair and not a real tour warmer despite the calibre of A and K personnel there making the introductions and the price of the cruise. Next morning, somewhat early, we had an early private buffet breakfast back in our welcome room from the previous night and then buses to the airport. There were 3 tranches, cheapest cabins earliest call – that was us and that was fair enough in our view.
Well the airport turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. The so called charter is not a charter – it is prebooking out entire flights on small commercial aircraft – the cruise had booked out all 3 consequetive flights so when we all lined up at the ticket counters to check in we were left to the mercy of the small airline staff who could not care less – our check in lines became so long that all 3 tranches ended up together in a long snaking line despite half hour gaps between buses being planned.
The threat of no more than 23 kgs in pre tour information dissolved, although anybody with a bag over 20 kgs (and don’t forget you are going to cold climates so you have more than summer stuff and for those of us coming far this was a month long trip at least) was taken aside, mine included. In hindsight I think this is more of a threat than a cost but these “charter planes” are small – seats 2 x 2 across and no overhead racks to speak of so they are very luggage restricting. Pre tour I could not find any information re the ability to pay for extra luggage weight – this was frustrating. I took the view, pack what I needed but on the light must have side, and see what happens. Outcome was fine with no additional bag fees requested, but this was a stressor which could be easily overcome. I feel it is more of an effort to try to keep luggage down rather than allowing 32kgs for example, which would be more appropriate. Indeed many bags that were sidelined did look plenty heavy by size alone.
The next stressor at Oslo airport was when our gate was changed no less than 3 times in an hour (after we had finally got through check in with not enough A and K oversight of the check in staff – (difficult given the ticketing arrangements) with kilometres of walking/running in between. We understand this may be normal, but if normal, A and K need to manage and warn passengers much better and have more staff on watch for the roulette gate changes.
So the 2 flights we took to Longbearyen (stopover in Tromso for refuelling - but you could not get off the plane) – were seamless. We were met at Longbearyen airport where we claimed our luggage (none missing despite the “heavy bags” being sidelined ) and the ship’s personnel had it whisked away to our cabin – very smooth transition. We did a lap of the town in buses and a tour of a very good museum to set us in the Arctic mood and were given a sit down meal in a local auditorium which was strange and a little unannounced but OK. The weather was cool and rainy – weather that we thought was a sign of the cruise – we were so delighted to have been quite wrong. After lunch we were bused to the wharf to embark the ship.
My husband and I took up our residence in cabin 331 which we thought turned out to be perfect. It is midships in case the weather was poor but on our cruise there was no rough weather. Firstly, unless you are in an upmarket suite, all cabins are the same size, layout and fit out no matter what your deck, so to pay more to be on a higher deck we felt was not necessary and proved so for us. In addition we found Level 3 most convenient.
Level 3 is the disembarkation point for all zodiac activities so this was very convenient and it also has a lovely stern bar and lounge with all day coffee and drinks and a small balcony, again very convenient. Level 2 is the main dining room, two flights of stairs down – we decided to use the stairs for exercise. Level 4 is the theatre where briefings and lectures were held – two flights up. It was a bit of a hike to the Level 6 casual dining area and pool deck, but all in all Level 3 was an excellent choice.
I note there are complaints on Cruise Critic saying Level 3 has fuel smells – our group had 3 Level 3 cabins and we had no fuel smell issues, in fact no issues at all and great cabin service.
The cabin layout is practical and spacious enough with a good sized balcony which would be great in other parts of the world, but even in the Artic, it enabled you to pop out into the elements, feel the temperature, watch the scenery and it generally adds to the size of the cabin. The bed was large and comfortable. The bathroom layout was generous for a ship (and we have been on many of all sizes), there was plenty of wardrobe and drawer space and hooks to hang sometimes wet outdoor gear out of the way without it cluttering the bathroom. The desk was small but OK, there was one lounge chair and side table and a full size bar fridge that was topped up everyday with spirits, mixers, soft drink and water. All in all a very satisfactory home in our small expedition ship for 2 weeks.
Given this was an A and K charter of Le Boreal, the cruise staff were A and K contractors and the ship personnel were Ponant. They worked seamlessly together. Captain Etienne Garcia was most generous with his time with passengers and the A and K team were handpicked, highly skilled and qualified men and women who just couldn’t do enough to share information, a joke, a meal. The cruise staff team was large by other cruise comparisons. They drove zodiacs, escorted shore tours, lectured on all manner of geography, history, flora and fauna. They went above and beyond to find us the best there was to see, as did the ship’s crew, all in all a very good combination.
The initial safety briefing led by Captain Garcia and the Staff Captain was the best and most thorough of any ship safety briefing we have experienced. Unlike other waters where there are many ships available for rescue support, the Artic waters are not only remote but not that many ships are running there yet. We were told that there are 38 vessels plying the Antarctic (even though you don’t really see them as they take their slots in the various allocated stops to give the impression of wilderness), but the Arctic only has a handful of vessels around so safety is an even higher priority.
Our 14 day cruise included Spitsbergen took us along the east coast of Greenland, a planned landing at the volcano Jan Mayan and 2 days on the west coast of Iceland.
Our Jan Mayan stop was cancelled due to an emergency medical evacuation which saw us have to steam back to within 160 nautical miles of the Icelandic coast for a helicopter evacuation of a heart attack patient.
Le Boreal has no helideck so it was a ship to chopper rappelling transfer. It was carried out at around 9.30pm, off the bow of the ship, midsea, right in front of all of the other passengers watching inside from the Level 6 deck bar area – it was done with the utmost calm and precision. Two rappellers were dropped on the deck, then a back pack, then the husband, then the ill wife were lifted by harness in 3 lifts, then the crew reboarded the chopper and all were loaded and away in under 30 minutes, maybe faster. Everything about the medivac looked very practiced and it must have cost A LOT!! Le Boreal then headed back towards Greenland and resumed her course southbound.
We disembarked in Reykjavik and were taken to our pre cruise nominated hotel by a prepaid taxi as part of the trip package which was a nice closing gesture. We stayed on in Iceland for one week (2 days Rekyjavik and 5 days driving half the ring road – Akureyri to Keflavik– all fabulous and an excellent addition to the cruise, actually a must if you have the time and inclination).
So some observations – we have now cruised the Antarctic and the Arctic.
• Which is better we are asked? – well both are very different although the concept is similar. Antarctica is colder and the story is ice and penguins (all sorts) and likely rough weather. The Arctic is polar bears and ice but also interesting flora and the weather is likely to be kinder.
• If you had to choose one (yes both are extremely expensive so price is not really any decision maker), I could not choose – loved them both.
• Based on price, both can be similar, but there is more choice of vessel at present in the Antarctic so that may help the budget.
• Perhaps the opportunity for cruise extensions may make a difference for you – Antarctica and South America: Arctic and/or Iceland/Scandanavia, or anywhere in Europe – Iceland is only 5 hours flight from London and not that far from US east coast. Then again Sth America is not that far from the US either. We chose the cruise that included the Falklands and South Georgia (a must for the emperor penguins). In hindsight this was such a bonus rather than just going up and back from Uschuia.
• Another question is which one to do first? Again, one will prepare you in sorts for the other. You need to be average fitness to do both.
• Another question is which ship? We were lucky enough to be told when we went first to the Antarctic to ensure you go on a small expedition ship, not a big cruise liner. That was exactly the right advice – in Antarctica ships can only land something like 200 passengers at any one time at any one place under the Antarctic Treaty, so whilst some of the bigger ships do go a south, you won’t have the same shore access or it will take a lot longer to do it or you will just sail past with a view and you are missing out on so much plus they can’t get into some of the smaller, wonderful spots.
• Another thought is timing – Artic is July/August: Antarctic is December/January. What works best for you?
We went to the Antarctic on The Fram (Hurtigruten Line). We enjoyed it immensely and the ship rode out some very rough weather very well (we know because our husbands are merchant sea captains so they know what rough weather looks and feels like) and the Norwegian captain and officers just took it like another day in the office. The Fram is similar in passenger size to Le Boreal but is not as comfortable (cabin to main rooms and we had a high level cabin on this vessel – not suite though) compared to Le Boreal. The A and K cruise staff made for a very different level of knowledge and interaction with the passengers, but you do pay for it.
About seasickness – we used Kimite motion sick patches on both trips (definitely overkill for our Arctic trip but you need to be wearing them for 6 hours before you need the effect to kick in and hey, we had them in our bag and they have an expiry date). However they saved me from 4 plus days of rough weather on our crossing from South Georgia to the ice of the Antarctic – can totally recommend. FYI you can’t buy them in Australia – we obtain them in Hong Kong over the counter in chemist shops like Boots or Watsons (maybe able to get online?).
Finally, our memories and photos of both expeditions – all fabulous, real life experiences, so lucky to have been able to have the opportunity to see one, more to see both and as they say be Bi-Polar. Read Less