An Arctic adventure cruise with Hurtigruten's MS Nordstjernen
2020 update: MS Nordstjernen has been modernized to meet current international standards, and it remains in Hurtigruten's fleet as a charter vessel. However, the company's scheduled Svalbard or Spitsbergen cruises are now mostly aboard newer ships. For current cruise listings, visit the Hurtigruten Web site.
S is the largest island in Svalbard, an archipelago that lies directly between Norway and the North Pole. Longyearbyen, the administrative center of the territory, is closer to the Pole than to the Arctic Circle--and the northernmost reaches of Svalbard lie above the 80th parallel, the last tiny circle before the dot on the top of your world globe.
Svalbard is the last frontier of Europe. It's a mountainous region covered in glaciers (60% of the land mass is beneath an icecap), with more polar bears than people and a profusion of other wildlife such as whales, seals, walruses, Svalbard reindeer, seabirds of various kinds, and Arctic foxes. It's so wild that the law requires locals and visitors to carry weapons for self-defense against polar bears when venturing beyond the handful of human settlements.
Unless you're a wilderness trekker or snowmobiler, the easiest way to explore Svalbard--and Spitsbergen--is by cruise ship. And while large ships such as the QE2 and Deutschland often pay brief visits to Spitsbergen during Norwegian North Cape itineraries, passengers on such cruises get only the tiniest taste of the Svalbard experience. A far better option is an Arctic adventure cruise on a small expedition ship with an ice-rated hull and boats that can land in remote fjords.
The main operator of such cruises in Svalbard is Hurtigruten (formerly Norwegian Coastal Voyage in the U.S. market), which operates two ships in Spitsbergen during the summer: the vintage coastal steamer MS Nordstjernen, with 3- and 4-night adventure cruises, and the modern expedition ship MV Polar Star, which offers 7-day expedition cruises. Both ships provide an "up close and personal" view of Spitsbergen. When ice conditions permit, they'll also take you north of the 80th Parallel where there's nothing between you and the North Pole but the Arctic Ocean.
In June, 2006, I sampled a three-night Spitsbergen adventure cruise aboard the MS Nordstjernen. This article, which is accompanied by a day-by-day photo diary, shows what you're likely to experience if you take your own adventure cruise amid the fjords, glaciers, and mountains of Svalbard.
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