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Exploring the Arctic with Hurtigruten

Written by  Monique Burns

EUROPE NORWAY
With snow-covered peaks, iceberg-dappled seas and dramatic wildlife, the Arctic has lured adventurers for centuries. On a Hurtigruten Explorer Voyage to Spitsbergen, midway between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole, modern-day adventurers thrill to the same pristine landscapes that inspired early Norwegian explorers, see polar bears, walruses and beluga whales cavort in their natural habitats, and kayak alongside glaciers and historic coastal villages.

Several companies cruise the Arctic, but for many travelers, Hurtigruten tops the list. Offering easy-going Norwegian hospitality, cuisine and decor, Hurtigruten has cruised northerly waters since 1893.
On its Arctic Explorer Voyages, Hurtigruten’s sleek but sturdy vessels feature such high-tech instruments as forward-sounding sonar to detect icebergs. In the rare event of heavy weather - like the hurricane that blew in halfway through my voyage - experienced captains and crews can safely navigate icy Arctic waters.

Exploring Spitsbergen
From Oslo, Norway’s capital, a three-hour Norwegian Air (www.norwegian.com) shuttle flight took me northwest to Spitsbergen, largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. The world’s northernmost settlement, the Svalbard islands lie at the Arctic Ocean’s southern edge, 600 miles north of the Norwegian mainland and 600 miles south of the North Pole. To the west, their nearest neighbor is Greenland, 1,200 miles away.
With roughly 2,075 residents and 3,000 polar bears, Spitsbergen has more polar bears than people. In Longyearbyen, the island’s largest town, a huge stuffed polar bear greets guests at the 95-room Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen (www.radissonblu.com), with stylish wood-paneled rooms, free Wi-Fi, and two restaurants: tony Restaurant Nansen for Arctic-inspired dishes like reindeer and whale, and lively Barentz Pub & Spiseri for pizza, steak and burgers.
Longyearbyen looks like a frontier outpost, but it’s actually quite cosmopolitan. Alongside The University Centre in Svalbard, the contemporary-style Svalbard Museum (www.svalbardmuseum.no) has stunning displays of Arctic birds and mammals, plus exhibits on the islands’ early whaling and coal-mining days. Just uphill, there’s a pedestrian mall with a post office, bank and cultural center as well as gift shops, bars and eateries. Trendy Fruene (www.fruene.com), world’s northernmost chocolatier, is renowned for its white-chocolate polar bears.
Longyearbyen has over a dozen restaurants. But its top table is Huset (www.huset.com), in a big white Art Deco-style mansion across the Longyearbyen River. Reserve ahead, and dine in the elegant restaurant. Or enjoy the bistro’s homey dishes like reindeer stew with mashed potatoes, pickled lingonberries and sweet gherkins, washed down with craft beer from the world’s northernmost brewery, Longyearbyen’s new Svalbard Bryggeri (www.svalbardbryggeri.com).

Cruising the Arctic
Bound for the Arctic, I headed to Longyearbyen Harbor the next afternoon and boarded the MS Fram, named after the original polar vessel of famed Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen. Shipshape in Hurtigruten’s gleaming red, black and white livery, the 374-foot-long Fram has eight decks, with 128 cabins for 318 passengers. Along with cozy standard cabins, you’ll find spacious, well-appointed suites, some
with balconies.
Passengers enjoy buffet breakfasts and lunches, and casual sit-down dinners, in the multilevel Imaq restaurant. Afternoon tea and cocktails are served in the Qilak Observation Lounge with floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows. Several lecture rooms provide comfortable settings for films and talks by Expedition Team members. Also on board: a boutique, fitness room, two saunas and two outdoor Jacuzzis.
Adventurers can choose from over two dozen Hurtigruten Arctic Explorer Voyages, including a 9-day Spitsbergen circumnavigation, and cruises to Spitsbergen, Greenland and Iceland. My 13-day “Spitsbergen and Norway: Polar Bears, Islets and Fjords” trip paired a 5-day Arctic expedition with an 8-day cruise down Norway’s incomparable coast.
On our first day at sea, we steamed north to Svalbard’s rugged northwest corner. The next morning, we crossed the 80th parallel, a major Arctic milestone. Several groups boarded Zodiac-like Polarcirkel boats for a two-hour cruise to the Magdalenefjord from Virgohamna, the same bay that Swedish explorer S.A. Andrée left on his ill-fated 1897 balloon expedition to the North Pole. En route, passengers sighted white beluga whales and short-legged Svalbard reindeer.
Aboard the Fram, the rest of us continued south, our intrepid vessel crunching its way through a minefield of ice as we neared the Fram Glacier, where Fridtjof Nansen’s original Fram, the first vessel to drift across the North Pole, landed in 1896. After anchoring in Trinity Bay, on the Magdalenefjord’s south shore, Polarcirkel boats sped us to the Gravneset headland.
There, surrounded by glaciers and sawtooth mountains, was one of Spitsbergen’s most historic graveyards, a large burial mound with about 130 unmarked graves of English and Dutch whalers from the early 1600s to the late 1700s. Strewn across the beach were the rusty remnants of metal ovens used to melt whale blubber for oil. Several passengers marked our first landfall with a polar-bear plunge into frigid surrounding waters. Later, we celebrated again with a fine shipboard dinner of scallop carpaccio, salmon with puréed potatoes and peas, and golden cloudberries in fresh cream.
The next morning found us in Hornsund, near Svalbard’s southern tip, at Austre Burgerbukta, a splendid bay shadowed by the mist-encircled, 4,695-foot-high Hornsundtind and other craggy peaks. Scree-covered slopes are a favorite habitat of the Little Auk, a small black-and-white seabird. Hornsund is also a popular haunt for polar bears, and we were thrilled to see a giant paw print in the sand.
We reached tiny Bjørnøya, the Svalbard archipelago’s southernmost isle, the following morning. Cruising around the island’s precipitous cliffs, I photographed Sylen and Stappen, two dolomite pillars rising from the sea; a shipwrecked Russian freighter from the ‘80s, and scores of glaucous gulls, northern fulmars and black-legged kittiwakes. A midnight stroll on the Fram’s decks yielded another intriguing sight: the deep-orange “Blood Moon” of a total lunar eclipse.
By noon the next day, the Fram was cruising down the Norwegian coast. In Tromsø, “Gateway to the Arctic,” we hiked up 1,916-foot-high Mt. Fløya and toured the memorabilia-filled Polar Museum. On Langøya Island in the Vesterålen archipelago, tiny Nyksund’s bohemian cafés and galleries enchanted us.
Visiting the idyllic Lofoten Islands, we cruised through the narrow Trollfjord, home to giant sea eagles with eight-foot wingspans. In tiny Å, the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum beckoned, and in Svolvær, we discovered the Lofoten War Museum’s rich cache of Allied and Nazi memorabilia. The stunning, contemporary-style Knut Hamsun Centre in Hamarøy, designed by American Steven Holl, introduced us to one of Norway’s most famous novelists, winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature.
At Kjerringøy, we toured the 19th-century trading post, with its boathouse and well-stocked general store, and kayaked through surrounding waters. Farther south, the Fram threaded its way through a maze of islands: Lovund, home to a large puffin colony. Frøya, with its ultramodern salmon farm and 18th-century trading post. Tiny Værlandet and the Bulandet archipelago.
Finally, we dropped anchor in Bergen. Some passengers were headed home. Others would spend a few days visiting the colorful Hanseatic warehouses along Bryggen wharf, the lively Fishmarket and composer Edvard Grieg’s splendid country estate.
Wherever we roamed, we would never forget the Arctic’s stark beauty, the glorious, fjord-indented Norwegian coast or our seagoing home away from home, the sleek but stalwart MS Fram.
To book Hurtigruten Explorer Voyages, as well as Classic Coastal Voyages, Northern Lights Cruises and new Cultural Voyages, call (866) 552-0371, or visit www.hurtigruten.com

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