I have arrived into Oslo to begin my arctic exploration. Oslo is a beautiful city by any standards. Not destroyed by the European conflagration of WWII, it proudly displays its old and regal buildings in the central part of town. Built at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, its distinctive three to five story apartment buildings of different colored block line the streets, each with unique architecture elements. And around and in-between are new modern additions, including city hall and some distinctive museums, different but not jarring the sense of continuity over time.
The Adventures by Disney expedition cruise on which I am about to embark is an opportunity to visit Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago and the polar north at Summer Solstice, when the sun never sets. I am joined by my friend Claudia and about 117 fellow passengers for 10 days cruising on a 5-Star Ponant ship, Le Boreal, departing from the town of Longyearbyen in the heart of the Island of Svalbard to which we are flying as I write.
My stay began well in grand style with a pickup in a new Mercedes limousine from the Oslo airport to the Grand Hotel, one of the grande dames of the City near most of the historic Norwegian buildings. I caught up with Claudia at the changing of the palace guards as we watched the fine stepping soldiers march around the current king’s home which is far less isolated or protected than the royal homes in London or the heavily guarded White House.
Our first outing after we all met in Oslo was a private party at the Fram museum, in which is preserved the original ship which sailed the North seas by the Norwegian explorers Amundsen and Nansen. Filled with photographs and artifacts of earlier arctic explorations, it provided an historic backdrop of first efforts to make tracks in the frozen land near the magnetic North.
We board our ship later this afternoon and I will try to keep you updated on our search for polar bears, walrus, seals, whales and other creatures of the frozen deep. But my internet will be very very limited so communication maybe difficult. It is a very warm 80 degrees in Oslo – but we are off into the cold North!
On Board Le Boreal, Days 2 & 3
Regal and elegant, small in size but designed for rough arctic and antarctic weather and ice, our compact ship cabin is tasteful and comfortable with a private balcony. The Ponant Ships are French and the one we are on, Le Boreal, holds up to 268 passengers. We have only 119 guests on board with about 100 on staff – including 14 naturalists with different specialties from marine mammals to seaweed, polar flowers to arctic birds. The ship also has a French Executive Chef with food the pride of any fleet. Today at our tea break were crepe Suzettes; on another day Choux pastry, and caviar is in the future. There is a wide range of food including vegan, vegetarian and a great variety of seafoods. It is hard not to overeat and although there is a schedule of 2 off-boat expeditions in Zodiac boats a day, it is difficult to get enough exercise to balance the food intake and energy output — unless you are disciplined enough to make it to the beautiful gym area.
We were dressed like overstuffed bears for our first outing to St. John Fjord, in our waterproof boots handed out to us on our first day together with our bright red polar jackets, making us all easy to spot but difficult to tell apart, with many layers underneath. But we had an unusually warm day so by the time we arrived on land we were overheated, and most of us shed our outer skins on the shore and then headed for walks on the tundra landscape, with our shipboard guards with loaded rifles on our perimeters constantly checking for polar bears. Small purple and yellow flowers and tuffs of hardy green grass and moss were tucked in the crevices of the hard rocks as the main food for the land animals, reindeer, arctic foxes and even the carnivorous polar bears. Claudia and I were fortunate to walk with a naturalist around the rocky terrain crossing over rivulets of melting snow flowing into the sea.
Indeed the sun never sets. You could read a book by the outside light at 2:30 am (when unfortunately I was up). But the sailing is smooth and my shipmates enjoyable so all is well.