(3:45 p.m. BST) -- Our voyage has a name: The Ultimate Fjord Expedition in the Arctic. And of course our ship has one too: MS Fram, after the original ship used by Norway's pioneering polar explorers, Amundsen and Nansen, in the early 1900s. We felt like explorers ourselves as we sailed out of Reykjavik and turned north.
After one Icelandic port-call we crossed the Arctic Circle and sailed to Greenland's east coast, visited the little township of Scoresbysund, spent days exploring its vast fjord system, then headed for tiny volcanic Jan Mayen Island, where we hoped to go ashore.
Next, on our way to Northern Norway, we spent a full day at sea with white-capped waves racing across the endless steel-blue ocean, and countless fulmars swooping, diving and wheeling alongside our ship. By morning, land was in sight.
We sailed to Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands through the narrow Raftsundet Strait to in calm and shallow water under a clear and bright blue sky. There is again a backdrop of high mountains, but now the lower slopes are clothed with trees -- the first we've seen for over a week -- and they are tinged with autumnal gold.
Journeys to remote parts of our planet aren't only about what you'll see there, but also what you won't see: not many, if any, signs of civilisation. Their absence puts landscapes and wildlife into wonderfully clear focus.
1. For Meeting People From Other Cultures
Life is different in Iceland, in Greenland and in Norway, and spending time in each of these countries, meeting and mixing with locals (albeit very few in polar regions), experiencing their environment, seeing their homes, tasting their food and learning more about their history, and how they live, opens your eyes to how people find ways to survive and thrive in different parts of the world, making the most of what's available to them.
As well, you'll meet with other nationalities on board, be they members of crew, the expedition team, guest lecturers or your fellow passengers. On my sailing, there were passengers from 15 countries (Austria, Australia, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA). Our expedition team and lecturers hail from Norway, Germany, France, the USA and Chile.
2. For All That You'll Learn
As well having their on-the-spot guidance when you go ashore, the expedition team -- which includes geologists and biologists -- can help you understand and appreciate what you see and find there through the talks that they give on board.
There also some guest speakers whose words well-crafted words and wide-ranging knowledge will enhance your Fram experience. We heard about the world of the Vikings and later about the creation of Norway's cultural identity from a Norwegian-born Professor of Scandinavian History at the University of Washington in Seattle; and about life at Camp Century, America's "secret" underground Arctic research base in northwest Greenland, from an American geologist who was based there with the US Army in the 1960s.
Other equally fascinating talks were on subjects ranging from the Northern Lights to the story of the original Fram. All were fascinating, but the most riveting of all was given by Hurtigruten's Environmental Agent Helga Baardsdatter, who spoke about the problem of discarded plastic, which gathers in huge garbage patches in the world's oceans, and is ingested by seabirds and marine mammals with fatal consequences.
More light-hearted events on board included a Fashion Show in which staff modelled items sold in Fram's shop; a demonstration of fruit and ice carving by ship chefs and a lesson, from the deck crew, in tying nautical knots.
3. For the Mother Ship's Many Comforts
On an Expedition voyage, you may sometimes have to rough it ashore, but back on board conditions are much kinder. Fram features cosy en suite cabins, good food and wine and an excellent bar serving all your favourite cocktails, liqueurs and spirits.
Going hungry isn't an option on this ship. Most meals are buffet-style with a wide range of hot and cold options, including themed buffets, as well as stir-frys, pastas and burgers; as well as roasts, hearty casseroles and, of course, plenty of fish. Bread is freshly baked on board, desserts are always tempting and a good selection of cheeses is available.
Facilities include a Promenade deck and a well-equipped gym, two saunas, two hot tubs and a library with an array of jigsaw puzzles and board games.
There is also a gorgeous Observation Lounge and Bar, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows all the way round, as well as two floor-mounted adjustable-focus telescopes.
4. For the Places You Go To
Let's start with the places with names. Your first port call is Isafjordur, the main town in Iceland's Westfjords, with a busy working harbour where cruise ships call -- some with more passengers than the town's population numbers. You can stroll through the streets and shop here, or choose to go hiking, horse riding or, as I did, Savour the Flavour of Sudureyri, a smaller fishing village on the next fjord. Getting to it means taking a road tunnel through a mountain. Once there, a local guide takes you through the village and tells you about life there. You stop to taste fish in various forms and finish with a delicious ceviche which he prepares for you.
Scoresbysund is a small community of 450 souls. You can visit the charming little wooden church and the Tourist Office and souvenir, after asking permission, perhaps photograph locals in traditional outfits. Jan Mayen Island also welcomes visitors in the Meteorology Station's social area, where you can by souvenirs and postcards, which you can also post there.
The next named port is Svolvaer in Norway's Lofoten islands. From here, Fram sails into the narrow dramatic Trollfjord, which few big ships can access. Waterfalls lace its steep near-vertical sides and sea eagles are often seen here. Do take the excursion, by coach, to Henningsvaer, a picturesque and characterful fishing village with welcoming eateries and taverns. The following day, your sail-by sight is Norway's landmark mountain with a hole through the middle: Torghatten. You can hike up to it and hear the legend behind it sitting in a cave, or view it from the ship and hear the story told on board.
Next day you arrive at the island of Froya, one in an archipelago of over 5,000. It has pier but not one big enough for Fram so you will tender ashore and find plenty to explore. Then it's on to Andalsnes, and from here you can take another coach trip, this time via a series of hairpin bends, to see the Vermasfossen Waterfall. It's a show-stopping sight, at the end of a heart-stopping drive, and not one for the faint-hearted.
5. To Boldly Go Where None Have Been Before
In many ports, when you go ashore there's no evidence that people have set foot where you are before -- which is an incredible thought -- how many other places in the world can you say that?
Fram will anchor off and you will go ashore by tender. Before that can happen the expedition team must first find a safe landing place; if their initial choice doesn't pass muster, they'll look for another. If and when one's found, they'll go ashore to check that the area's safe. All being well, they'll find and mark a walking path for you to follow, and set a time for returning to the landing point so you can be tendered back to the ship.
What will you see as you walk? A few shells, bones and feathers and possibly some driftwood near the water's edge. As you move on, boggy ground; little streams and pools; small stones with strange marks, written by time and tide; rocky outcrops, usually getting bigger the further inland you go; moss, moss and more moss. And, in even the most inhospitable surroundings, defiant clusters of jewel-bright wildflowers.
In a few places, some signs of life have been found: hunters' cabins, older structures thought to have been dwellings.
6. For the Wildlife You May See
There are no guarantees with wildlife, but any you see will be truly wild, not captive, and living in their natural environment. In Greenland you could see musk ox, which are usually in groups. I spotted a group of five using the on-board telescope. They are massively large, standing 4 to 5 feet tall at the shoulder, six to eight feet long, weighing 400-900 lbs, and dress for a Polar region: each has an inner coat of wool, and an outer one of long hair. We didn't see any of the other animals found here, such as all-white Arctic hares, Arctic foxes and the rare Arctic wolves, a white Greenland falcon, or a snowy owl. But as well as our feathered escort of fulmars, we see seagulls and, in Trollfjord, a white-tailed Sea Eagle.
We didn't see any whales either, although blue whales, humpbacks, orca and narwhales are seen in these waters, so be on the lookout for a tell-tale spout -- if one does appear the Captain will make an announcement to alert you.
7. For the Icebergs
These may not be on your current list of must-see sights. (They weren't on mine.) Or maybe you've taken an Alaska cruise, and seen and heard one or two icebergs calved by glaciers there? (Me, too.) But if you haven't seen them in a Polar region, such as the area this expedition voyage takes you to, then believe me: you ain't seen nothing yet! They may well be for you, as they were for me, the highlight of this trip.
First and foremost, there are so many – you will see hundreds of icebergs. And every one is different. I was transfixed by these strange forms, which vary enormously in size, and even more in shape and form, but are usually grouped together, like a flotilla of ghost ships.
When we go by landing craft to see icebergs up close and personal, we find that all are beautiful. Some have repetitive, precision-cut markings made by waves or ripples; others bear precisely parallel dark lines written in glacier-borne dirt. And many have a stunning turquoise tint.
8. For the Scenery
In Greenland, expect the spectacular: long chains of mountains dusted with snow or draped with sagging glaciers; deep, mysterious fjords, some laced with pack ice or icebergs, or both.
Remote Jan Mayen Island is home not only to one of the Northern Hemisphere's most important meteorology stations, but also the world's most northerly active volcano. On the day of our visit, the volcano is sleeping under a blanket of snow; nevertheless it has left its mark on this small island's surface, which is coated with black lava fragments.
In Norway, the coastline is gouged by fjords and dotted with myriad islands. Farms, villages and towns add paint-box bright splashes of colours to a canvas of green fields and lush forest. It is picture-postcard pretty and man has made his mark with confidence, but Nature remains the dominant force even here, as she signifies with the endlessly stretch of the ocean, the ruggedness of the rocks and the majesty of the mountains.
--By Pat Richardson, Cruise Critic contributor