Travelling the Arctic

Travelling The Arctic - LifeBeyondBorders
Travelling The Arctic - LifeBeyondBorders

Back in 2006, just as I was getting into the swing of  ‘adventure’ – I decided to take a trip to the Arctic.  It was to whet my appetite for all things nautical.

Travelling the Norwegian Arctic
Travelling the Norwegian Arctic

Travelling the Arctic means going with an approved company.  There are many to choose from such as Quark Expeditions, the company I went with.  It’s really recommended you choose to go with an operator who’ll look after all the practical side of things.  The Arctic is not a place you just ‘rock up’ to.

There will be affiliate links through this post, meaning that if you choose to book or buy anything through them, I will get a small amount of commission at no charge to you.

I'm really in the Arctic! It's surprisingly green - Travelling the Arctic - LifeBeyondBorders
I’m really in the Arctic! It’s surprisingly green – Travelling the Arctic – LifeBeyondBorders

No, I didn’t travel by container ship – but took a plane to Longyearbyen, the largest and only permanently inhabited town on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen / Svalbard.  There I joined my home for the next seven nights: the 100 year old Dutch schooner M/V Noorderlicht.

See here for Svalbard hotels.  There are surprisingly more than you’d think.

100 year old Dutch schooner M/V Noorderlicht - Travelling the Arctic - LifeBeyondBorders
100 year old Dutch schooner M/V Noorderlicht – Travelling the Arctic – LifeBeyondBorders

I shared a bunk cabin and wash facilities were also shared – but the ship was incredibly clean.  With a capacity for 20 passengers, she was a pretty impressive sight!

Daytimes were spent sailing and polar bear spotting (my favourite animal, aside from cats).  Alas, we never saw any on our trip – but we certainly heard the odd roar in the distance (or was that my imagination?)  We came across the “Texas Bar” – the place humorously named by the film crew that stay here for months on end filming the wildlife (and the polar bears I never got to see) – oh well, thank God for National Geographic cameramen.

Would you like this as your home for three months whilst on a filming assignment in the Arctic? - Travelling the Arctic - LifeBeyondBorders.jpg
Would you like this as your home for three months whilst on a filming assignment in the Arctic? – Travelling the Arctic – LifeBeyondBorders

Beluga whales and walrus’s were in abundance though, as were Arctic foxes – to a point where we’d get all excited, only to mumble:

Uhhh, only another Arctic fox

before heading back to the binoculars and sipping wine on deck.


Travelling the Arctic – Barentsberg

Believe it or not, there are signs of human inhabitation in the Arctic.  Barentsberg – what a depressing, yet fascinating place.  In fact, the itinerary deliberately left this place until the last day of our trip, knowing that we’d feel pulled down.  But an interesting and I feel, essential place to visit nonetheless – in the interests of understanding international destinations and coming into contact with places completely far removed from our own:

Barentsberg dock - we were warned to NOT go into the toilet - Travelling the Arctic
Barentsberg dock – we were warned to NOT go into the toilet – Travelling the Arctic

Barentsberg is the second largest inhabited place on Svalbard, is actually a Russian settlement and has approx. 500 year round inhabitants (2007), mostly Russian and Ukranian.  It has been a coal mining town since 1932.  There are no roads connecting Longyearbyen and Barentsberg: the only way to reach either one is by boat, snowmobile or helicopter. Meals are taken in the community centre building, and our guide told us no fresh dairy or vegetables are available, all canned or powdered milk (I am quoting our guide – I apologize if it’s incorrect).

Community centre - Barentsberg - Svalbard - Travelling the Arctic
Community centre – Barentsberg – Svalbard – Travelling the Arctic

Many abandoned buildings were on view: people moving out and returning to Russia or the Ukraine after their working stint, and people not occupying them.  To me, it resembled a ghost town.  In fact, I could swear I saw curtains twitching when we set foot on land (or maybe that’s my over active imagination).

Abandoned house on Barentsberg - Travelling the Arctic
Abandoned house on Barentsberg – Travelling the Arctic

Overall – WHAT an interesting trip!  Twenty-four hours of daylight is quite unnerving, but imagine the Arctic in the winter!  An amazing trip…I would love to go again and see a polar bear this time…or maybe the Antarctic which is more dramatic in its landscape (more ice).

Practicalities for Travelling the Arctic

  • Fly to Oslo, then connecting flight to Longyearbyen
  • Depending on who you book with, flights might be included
  • Pack warm thermals, ski jackets and expect 24 hour daylight in the summertime
  • Don’t go off on your own.  Polar bears roam this area and are slowly starving, therefore encroaching on human places such as the town of Longyearbyen.  Your guide has a shotgun and flare – not to kill, but to warn them away. Don’t try to be heroic and think you can do this alone.  Respect the environment and people.

PIN for later

Travelling the Norwegian Arctic - have you ever been?
Travelling the Norwegian Arctic – have you ever been?

This article was first posted in Jan 2014.  It has been completely revised and updated in Jan 2018.

 

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26 COMMENTS

    • Thanks Molly. Yes, I don’t know why I didn’t think to write about it before! It was totally different. A little spooky as well, in Barentsberg.

  1. I would love to go to the Arctic! The buildings in Barentsberg do look a bit spooky, but I suppose it would be hard to make a coal mining town look “homey”. The ice-capped scenery looks beautiful though. Thanks for sharing!
    Dallas @ OffToSeeTheWorld recently posted…The Ultimate International Travel ChecklistMy Profile

    • I’m really glad you liked the post Dallas – thanks for your comment. If you make it there – I hope you see a polar bear!

  2. I would love to take this trip! I’ve spent three summers in the near-arctic, but I’ve only been above the actual arctic circle for about 15 minutes, on a day trip up the Dalton Highway in Alaska. It’s hard enough getting fresh foods in the places I stay, which have regular supply flights from the outside world – I can hardly imagine how much harder it would be on an island like that.

    • Yes- Barentsberg was quite something else (the Russian mining town) – but the rest of the island was amazing! Longyearbyern the capital (belonging to Norway) was like a luxury ski resort!

  3. Beautiful post. It brought back some memories. I spent lots of time in Canadian Arctic working on icebreakers (shaking 30 days straight 24 hours a day) and tankers. I’m sure the crew was happy you haven’t spot any bears. They can be really dangerous – as in a search of a food they can decide to charge. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler.
    frankaboutcroatia recently posted…Did I tell you how awesome pizza in Croatia is?My Profile

    • Thanks for the comment Frank. Yes, if we’d seen polar bears – it’d have been from a distance :0)
      And check out the Overland to Hong Kong section of my site: it shares stories from my travels by container ship from Athens to Hong Kong (37 days!)
      Loved if not every, then at least a majority minute of it.

  4. What an incredible, once in a lifetime trip! I would love to go searching for polar bears too one day – I’m sad you didn’t get to see them. Will you try again?
    And your comment about the Arctic foxes made me giggle – that’s how I felt about zebras in Africa after a while!

  5. I am going to Svalbard in exactly 1 month and am super excited! The little hut you have pictured above looks a lot like the small huts mentioned about Woman in the Polar Night, memoir of the first European woman to spend the polar night in Svalbard!

    • You will have a wonderful time Alina. Be sure to spend time on an Arctic Circle cruise. And if you do, look out for the ‘Texas Bar’ (that hut) – if it’s still there.

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