We have been on a cruise to Spitzbergen, in the Svalbard Archipelago! The Great North has been on our bucket list for a long time. We really wanted to observe the icebergs, the giant glaciers, the fjords, the midnight sun and the polar bears. In short, everything that embodies the polar landscapes threatened by global warming.
To discover this remote and extreme land, we went on a 5-day cruise to Spitzbergen this summer, onboard the MS Nordstjernen, exploration ship of Hurtigruten, the Norvegian company. We sailed along the west coast of Spitsbergen up to the 80th parallel and then returned back to Longyearbyen.
This post of our travel blog Heulys features our arctic adventure.
Table of Contents
A bonus, the video : Svalbard/Spitzbergen | Crossing the 80th parallel north
Svalbard, the icy pearl of the Arctic
First, a few words on Svalbard in order to appreciate the interest of a cruise to Spitzbergen. Its name means “cold coast” in Old Norse. Svalbard is an archipelago of islands under the Norvegian’s sovereignty. Located in the Arctic Ocean, this land is the closest to the North Pole. It is made up of mountains with sharp peaks and glaciers of breathtaking beauty. Svalbard was discovered in 1596 by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. He named the main island “Spitzberg” (sharp mountains) for good reasons…
Spitzbergen being the largest land of the archipalgo, in common language, “Spitzbergen” and “Svalbard” designate about the same territory.
Spitzbergen is famous for having been a hotspot for whaling from 1600 to 1720, a period that has left vestiges in many parts of the island.
For two centuries (18th to 20th) this inhospitable territory was also the playground for many trappers, explorers and adventurers in search of glory. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the Italian Umberto Nobile died in 1928 while attempting to join the North Pole.
Today, the splendor of its landscapes and the historical interest of its old settlements attract many visitors for a Spitzbergen cruise.
Here is the description, day after day, of our discoveries on this polar land.
D1. Arrival in the archipelago of Svalbard
The arctic adventure begins in Longyearbyen, capital of Svalbard and the northernmost city on the planet. From the plane porthole, we contemplate, excited, the frozen and mountainous Hiorthfjellet overlooking Longyearbyen.
The polar dream has finally come true: despite the late arrival, we are watching our first midnight sun!
D2. Longyearbyen, the city closest to the North Pole
As a polar city of 2100 inhabitants, Longyearbyen now devotes its activity to tourism, research and education. But it was not always so. After being occupied by whalers, trappers and conquerors of the North Pole, it was the first mining town in Svalbard. Our Spitzbergen cruise begins with a visit of Longyearbyen.
Late in the morning, we embark onboard the MS Nordstjernen, elegant vessel with a “vintage” look. The exploratory cruise begins after having taken possession of our cabin (spartan, but we have not come to stay indoor) and having listened to the Commander’s instructions. Then we head to the deck and enjoy the scenery.
We sail in the beautiful Isfjord, one of Spitsbergen’s most beautiful fjords. It reveals the first glaciers of our cruise to Spitzbergen. A few Dwarf Auks fly in the wake of the boat.
Barentsburg, Russian mining town in Svalbard
Barentsburg, named after the explorer Barents, is the first stop on this Svalbard cruise. Its economic activity is the extraction of coal. It counts about 500 inhabitants, mostly of Russian and Ukrainian nationalities, working for the mining Russian company.
From the ship, Barentsburg does not seem attractive, with its Soviet-era architecture buildings and power station that contrast sharply with the surrounding nature.
We embark on land for a visit of the city. The austere apartment buildings, the statue of Lenin and the communist propaganda slogans on the walls are evidence of the city’s occupation by the Russians since the beginning of the 20th century. This tour in the heart of the Russian mining community is a journey in time and space.
In the evening, we attend a cheerful folk show, danced by miners and their wives.
D3. Polar exploration in the Spitsbergen’s fjords
The journey continues towards Albert 1st Land north of the archipelago. Our Arctic cruise to Spitzbergen takes us to the wilderness of the Nordvest-Spitsbergen National Park (northwest of Svalbard). Then we will cross the 80th parallel north.
On this cruise to Spitzbergen, we just don’t see things from afar. We use speed boats to land on inaccessible areas and walk with our expedition guides to discover the cultural heritage of Svalbard history.
Magdelenefjord: Star of Spitsbergen
After sailing along the west coast of Prince Charles Island, the ship enters the beautiful Magdelenefjord. The impressive glaciers flanked by mountains with sharp peaks offer a spectacular scenery. They produce blocks of ice that float on the surface of the turquoise waters.
No wonder that Magdelenefjord is renowned for the breathtaking beauty of its landscapes! It is also famous for having been a whaling spot from the 17th century until the beginning of the 18th: during this period, unfortunately, tens of thousands of whales were slaughtered in Svalbard.
Gravneset: the Mecca of whaling
The ship drops its anchor at Gravneset, a small beach at the foot of the glaciers. Then we leave the vessel in small boats to explore the place. Cultural remains such as whale fat furnaces and also a cemetery of whalers are preserved and can be observed. Our guide tells us fascinating stories about Spitzbergen, how much this land was inhospitable for these men who, at the time, died of cold and illness (including scurvy). Today, this fragile polar land is completely protected.
Although the environment in which we hike is very mineral, there are areas of bright green vegetation from where we observe banks of white luzules.
Waggonwaybreen: Magdelenefjord’s most beautiful glacier
Waggonwaybreen is recognizable by its fine black trails that mark the meeting between two glaciers. It is one of Spitzbergen’s most spectacular glaciers. But unfortunately, like most of them, it has shrunk a lot in recent decades due to global warming (see proof image). This Spitsbergen cruise has reinforce our conviction that our ecosystem is so vulnerable.
From the ship’s railing, we watch a whale swimming furtively between the small icebergs.
Smeerenburgfjord: Old whaling station
We leave the breathtaking scenary of Magdelenefjord and reach Smeerenburg fjord, also one of Spitzbergen’s most spectacular fjords. During the 17th century, this place was an important whaling station.
Gradually, Smeerenburg Glacier appears with its thick tongue of blue ice that flows into the sea. In some places, the ice gives way to waves and thus forms azure caves.
On a small sandy beach the remains of a whale fat melter are still visible. We hike in a breathtaking landscape. From the heights of the moraines, the view of the fjord and its glaciers is striking. Below, our boat, patiently is waiting for our return.
80th parallel: We are very close to the North Pole!
Now the vessel navigates towards the Great North, and more exactly beyond the 80th parallel, above the Arctic Circle. This is the highlight of our Spitzbergen cruise!
At precisely 21:50, the boat crosses this invisible line that delineates the last lands of the globe in the northern hemisphere. We are located in the middle of nowhere, only about 600 miles from the North Pole and les than 200 miles from the pack ice. Actually, we are not quite alone since small whales swim among the boat for a few minutes.
A party is organized on the boat to celebrate the milestone of this trip: orange juice and champagne to share this moment of intense emotion. It’s not the North Pole but it is just like it.
A half hour further north, and in a surprisingly mild and sunny weather, we are approaching Moffen Island, inhabited by a colony of walruses lazily basking.
D4. In the footpath of the adventurers of the Far North
On our way back to Longyearbyen, the MS Nordstjernen sets sail for the west coast of Spitsbergen and reaches Kongsfjord (King’s Bay), one of the most beautiful fjords in Svalbard. Around the ship bearded seals enjoy the sun on blocks of ice.
The boat navigates close to a cliff where millions of birds nest, attracted by the rich marine life of Svalbard. It is also home to a small reindeers colony.
The arctic landscape that unfolds before our eyes is a wonderful sight constantly renewed.
Several boat landings allow us to admire the breathtaking scenery. Thus, at sea and on land we explore the coastline and discover the old trappers and whalers settlements.First, deep in Krossfjord, we have a walk at Camp Zoe, where the trapper Henry Rudy built a hut in 1911.
Then, on the banks of Kongsfjord, in Ny-London, we discover the ruins of a marble exploitation owned by Ernest Manfield. It later proved to be unsuccessful because of the fragility of the marble. Finally, the vessel MS Nordstjernen sails to Ny-Alesund, in Kongsfjord. This small community of 30 to 150 people, depending on the season, is considered to be the northernmost human settlement in the world. Originally a mining station, Ny Alesund has become a world-class concentration of international polar research stations. It was also from Ny Alesund that Roald Amundsen flew over the North Pole in an airship and Umberto Nobile attempted the same feat.
The visit of the small community does not last long. Indeed, a scorching wind burns our face and on the way, we are attacked by sterns protecting their broods.
Polar bear watching, King of Svalbard
Suddenly, the commander announces that two polar bears are resting on an island close to where the ship is sailing. Although there are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, we have not seen any yet. We observe from afar a mother and the cub. Wonderful!
D5. Back to Longyearbyen
Our trip in the arctic lands ends in Longyearbyen, after unforgettable moments of wonder!
This cruise to Spitzbergen was an unforgettable adventure. We discovered a unique world of mountains and ice. This vast wilderness of the Far North is home to an exceptional wildlife composed of large marine mammals and polar birds.
We hope that this story of our cruise to Spitzbergen has been inspiring.
After having left Svalbard, we start another fascinating journey through Norway (more adventures to come).