Question: Can a grumpy, neurotic older person who hates traveling travel? the wilds of the Norwegian Arctic, observe polar bears, go dog sledding, climb mountains, eat reindeer hearts and really enjoy it?
Answer: absolutely not. At least that’s what I would have said before leaving for Norway. I’m more of a Noël Coward type of guy than a Bear Grylls survivalist type. I was so ignorant of the great outdoors that I thought a frozen tundra was a curry you took out of the freezer.
So why go there? I desperately needed to escape the claustrophobia of my comfort zone, the treadmill of daily routines and domestic rituals. My life was falling apart, day after day, indiscriminately. So I decided to pack up, get up and head north.
Where did you go? I took a plane from Oslo to the small Norwegian town of Longyearbyen. I spent three days there before boarding the MS Trollfjord heading to Tromso to experience the Svalbard Express voyage.
Is there no bra? I beg your pardon?
Eyes wide open for polar bears: people walk around with guns in case they encounter the animal
That’s Norwegian for “Was it good?” » It was stralande – that’s the Norwegian word for brilliant!
Stop bragging – and give us the facts. Longyearbyen is the most populated northernmost locality in the world. It is in the Svalbard archipelago in the North Atlantic. Next stop: the Arctic wilderness.
So it was cold? It was so hot we couldn’t go sledding because the dogs would overheat.
Curious facts about Longyearbyen? No cats are allowed. No trees may be planted. There are no flowers. No one is buried in the city – the permafrost prevents that. Alcohol is rationed. And people walk around with guns in case a polar bear comes by.
What? Yes, everywhere we went we were warned of the presence of polar bears. The funny thing is that there are 2,000 to 3,000 polar bears in the Svalbard archipelago and I haven’t seen any!
It seems a little dark. No way. Everywhere you look, beauty beckons. As soon as your plane arrives, you will be able to see landscapes of snow-capped peaks and magnificent glaciers.
It’s like watching the Ice Age. Longyearbyen is adorable, embroidered with mountain ranges topped with fog and snow.
What is it to love? Almost everything. The daylight (in summer, when we visited, the sun doesn’t set) is so pure that it doesn’t seem real, like at the Truman Show. And the air can be so cold and crisp that it’s like licking a block of ice with your nose and giving your lungs a cold shower.
Then there are arctic glaciers everywhere. The only ice cream I normally care about is floating in my gin and tonic, but this was something else. Imagine the White Cliffs of Dover made of ice.
Besides, just like you can’t swim in the ocean without thinking of sharks thanks to Jaws, you can’t see glaciers from a boat without hearing the Titanic theme song, “My Heart Will Go On,” playing constantly in your head!
OK, what’s not to like? Many Norwegian specialties – Arctic sea urchin soup (disgusting), dried Svalbard seal (disgusting game) and reindeer heart (sorry, Rudolph) – were not to my taste. We had a few Nordic food and drink tasting sessions – the kind where you get 14 dishes and still be hungry. (It is undoubtedly a paradise for gourmets with a passion for good wine.)
I took a plane from Oslo to the small Norwegian town of Longyearbyen (photo)
But the meals at my hotel, the Funken Lodge, and on board the MS Trollfjord, were delicious. The burger I had at funky Funken was the best burger I’ve ever had.
Worst moment of the trip? Take a speedboat across the Isfjorden to Borebukta, to visit a walrus colony, see the glacier fronts and admire the magnificent fjord.
Looks like fun! It was a nightmare. The choppy waves meant I was bouncing vigorously on my butt and sometimes my balls for over an hour. My back hurt, my wet hands were starting to freeze, my clothes were soaked, and I was struggling to keep from getting seasick.
Did you get up? No, I begged the captain to take us back but no one else supported me. Honestly, I can’t wait to never do that again.
Favorite moment? Quad biking along the Advent Valley, whizzing along like an easy pilot. In fact, it was like driving one of those sit-down lawn mowers, but that didn’t stop me from singing “Born to be Wild” at the top of my lungs as the wind blew in my face.
Oddly, every time I was in the bathroom, someone spotted a beluga whale.
Was the wildlife amazing? Yes, absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of it, but many of my travel companions did. Not only did I not spot a single grumpy polar bear, but I also didn’t see any dolphins or whales. (It’s funny, but every time I went to the bathroom, someone else would notice a beluga whale or a pod of dancing dolphins.)
I saw four gulls, two arctic terns, a puffin, a few snow buntings and a few walruses. I shouldn’t say this, but they look better on TV.
So, was it disappointing? No. What it lacked in wildlife it made up for in scenery. Sailing near the Kongsfjorden, in the middle of the mountains, it was so calm that I felt this transcendental unity with it all. It may sound silly, but all the voices and noises in my head fell silent as I was swept away by a wave of serenity.
What was life like on the MS Trollfjord? My last cruise, in 2015, was on one of those soulless multi-story ships where you get lost on the way to your cabin. But it was easy to get around, while the staff were friendly – and not in that fake have a good day way.
OK, so what did you learn? I used to say that traveling only enlarges the belly, but that’s not true. I need to get out of my comfort zone more often. Truly, the biggest compliment I can pay to Norway is that I can’t wait to go back.
- Hurtigruten Norway has selected ten-day Svalbard Express itineraries between May and September 2024 from £3,016 per person; the price includes all meals, alcohol and accommodation before the cruise; international flights extra, from £818; blessigruten.com