While there is a lot of pleasure to be had, it is not strictly a pleasure cruise it is an expedition into the great unknown to the edge of this wild and uncontrolled part of our planet.
Getaway circumnavigated the tiny island of Spitsbergen some time ago and everyone has been anxious to return to this amazing part of the world. The nearby east coast of Greenland is so remote and vast; many of its fjord systems remain uncharted.
We journeyed through this remote part of the planet on an 11-day Aurora Expeditions cruise out of the frontier town of Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Spitsbergen-Svalbard. It lies about half-way between Norway and the North Pole. While there is a lot of pleasure to be had, it is not strictly a pleasure cruise it is an expedition into the great unknown to the edge of this wild and uncontrolled part of our planet.
Greenland is a 500km journey, and the snow and mountains of ice bid farewell as you head into uncharted waters aboard the comfortable and very solid Polar Pioneer.
The ship was built in Finland in 1985 as an ice-strengthened research ship and spent years in the treacherous waters of the USSR's northern coast. It was refurbished in St Petersburg in 2000 and provides comfortable accommodation for 54 passengers.
On the first day out you can be sure to see herds of reindeer and breeding colonies of auklets penguin-like birds which can withstand wind, waves and cold weather. Then you head to the Greenland Sea and cross the Denmark Strait. Constantly changing weather patterns and currents caused by the Arctic ice meeting the water can create rough seas. There are lectures on natural history which prepare you for the wildlife once you reach Greenland.
By the fourth day you should encounter pack ice flowing from the North Pole. It comes from the Bering Strait, crosses the Pole and comes out the other side where you see it. It moves quite quickly and can be anything up to two metres thick.
The moment is a powerful one to remember all you can see on one side of the ship is ice, so white it reflects blue. You will track alongside the edge of the ice until there is a break in it and there is not way of knowing until you find it and this is the route to Greenland.
This is most likely where you will see the magnificent polar bear. They travel around the ice floes hunting seals, their main source of food.
On the fifth day you will see more ice and will reach the Greenland coast. It is less charted and less inhabited, so there is more wildlife. You should spot caribou large elk-like creatures with enormous concave hoofs which spread to aid walking and are perfect for digging snow. They are strong swimmers and their unique hair gives them excellent buoyancy and insulation.
Musk oxen are usually seen here as well. The large, long-haired, horned herbivores travel in herds and thrive in the north of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Siberia and some Arctic islands.
Today or tomorrow you will see Scoresby Sund, the world's largest fjord. It flows straight into the sea and is flanked by large mountains, and comprehension of its sheer size takes some time.
On the northern side of the fjord's entrance is an Inuit village where you will spend a day, communicating with locals and kayaking with the people who actually invented it! They rarely receive visitors because of remoteness, but occasionally someone might fly in, and the odd mountaineer or kayaker drops by, but that is unusual.
Around day seven at the southern entrance and edge of the fjord, there is much wildlife, particularly musk oxen. You are able to get close aboard a Zodiac and once ashore the perspective is easier to understand. Lots of open tundra climbs the mountains, and you will see the immensity of the world's second largest icecap after Antarctica.
This is where you are likely to see the narwhal, or unicorn of the sea, which travels in the water in groups of up to 25. Males have a long twisted tusk which is actually a left tooth and the three metre extension is handy for fighting off unwanted aggressors.
The crew gingerly explores its way through these waters and you are likely to see remains of villages long abandoned. It is exciting to come across Viking remnants their civilisation rose there around 750 to 1050 to the demise of the land colonies around 1500. They left there to be the first Europeans to discover North America, settling in Newfoundland.
You will see glaciers producing huge icebergs. It is less common here than in the Antarctic as it is much flatter and more spread out.
Then it's time to head for the more populated south-east coast, 320 nautical miles south to the Inuit town of Tasiilaq on Ammassalik Island. There is a population nearing 3000, and they lead traditional lives, hunting and fishing for food. It has interesting stores and handicrafts even a tourist office. The pentagonal church blends old and new cultures and the old church is the official Tasiilaq museum. For something new to do, passengers from the ship can hire kayaks, fish, snowmobile or dogsled.
On the eleventh day you leave Ammassalik Island for the final crossing of the Denmark Strait towards Iceland. You will dip below the Arctic Circle and will notice increased warmth, caused by the Gulf Stream which keeps Iceland temperatures quite friendly year round, compared with other places on the same latitude.
On the final day you dock at the port of Keflavik in Iceland where a bus takes you to Reykjavik.
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, appear year round, but are most impressive in autumn. Another phenomenon is the midnight sun. North of the Arctic Circle from May 16 to July 28 it is light right around the clock.
Check out our Part I special.
The Arctic Circle from Spitsbergen.
Aurora Expeditions runs the Arctic Cruise, leaving Spitsbergen, 2000km north of Oslo. The eleven-day cruise starts at $4850 per person. There are two departures in August, 2003.
Qantas flies daily to London with connections to Oslo. Return economy airfares start from $2354 per person ex Adelaide, $2356 ex Melbourne, $2365 ex Darwin, $2366 ex Perth, $2368 ex Brisbane and $2374 ex Sydney. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of recording but may vary at time of booking. Seasonal surcharges and conditions apply.
Braathens flies daily from Oslo to Spitsbergen starting at about $1360 per person.
Please note that prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowlegde are inclusive of GST.
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