Our little family of four (Jim/I and our kids Andrew, 14 and Abby, 11) just returned from one of the most fascinating and unique expeditions we could ever hope for – an Expedition Cruise in the Arctic.
We started our journey by flying direct from Minneapolis to Amsterdam (less than eight hours) and then onto Oslo, Norway. I always chuckle when the kids ask us how many hours the flight is going to be when we travel. Ever since our trip to Africa, they think anything less than 16 hours “isn’t bad.” Thank goodness!
Unfortunately, we only had one day in Oslo, which was a shame because we wanted to explore this cute little city more. We made the most of our time by walking down to the harbor, taking a boat out to the Viking Ship Museum (a favorite of Jim’s given his love of the MN Vikings) and enjoying the shops and restaurants. The grounds of the City Hall, the Nobel Peace Building and seeing the Akershus Fortress were other highlights. The Hotel Continental, a Virtuoso property, was in a perfect location to walk everywhere and the rooms and public spaces were beautiful.
The next day we flew up to Longyearbyen. This quaint town is on the island of Spitsbergen and is part of the Svalbard region of Norway (an archipelago of islands located halfway between mainland Europe and the North Pole). We checked into the Spitsbergen Hotel and watched as three reindeer ate flora outside our window. Our first Arctic wildlife sighting! After about 24 hours in Longyearbyen we boarded the Ocean Atlantic expedition ship where we would spend the next 11 days in the hands of the Quark Expeditions team.
We were in constant awe of our surroundings. The landscapes, ice formations and shades of blue were beautiful. In my mind, I was anticipating a lot of gray skies, cloud cover and cold. But we were lucky to have crystal blue waters, clear skies and sunshine nearly every day of the voyage (it made picture taking joyous!).
Of course, a highlight of our entire family was the wildlife viewing. Within the first two days we had already seen bearded seals, harbor seals, walrus, minke whales, reindeer, Arctic fox, puffins and the elusive polar bear. We ended up having amazing viewings of the polar bears several times, including a mom and her cub climbing on a sheer rock island and a male following a female as they took turns feasting on a fresh seal kill. These spectacular marine mammals are even more fascinating when you get a chance to observe their behavior in their natural habitat. We could have (and did) watch them for hours!
Each day we would enjoy a couple of excursions – either by zodiac raft to get onto the water, or a landing onto a coastline beach where we could hike. The experiences brought something new every day. Hiking allowed us to get on land to see the terrain and vegetation (or lack thereof…it’s amazing anything can even grow in those conditions, but the flora was simple yet beautiful). The zodiac rides were unique as it usually meant navigating ice formations, brash ice and getting closer to the massive glaciers we admired from afar on the ship.
While we loved experiencing the various wildlife and breathtaking scenery, just as with most of our trips, the highlight was watching Andrew and Abby absorb it all. They are always on the heels of the lead guide during our hikes asking questions, taking photos of the special things they see through their eyes and interacting with people from countries around the world (this expedition included people from the US, China, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, India, the UK, Iceland, Germany and more).
I asked them what some of their favorite things were about the trip or specific facts they learned. Here are a few (written in their words):
- Walrus make the most awesome sounds and they’re my new favorite animal (Abby!)
- There are more polar bears in Svalbard than people (3,000 versus 2,500)
- Five countries have land and waters within the Arctic Circle – the US, Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland) and Norway
- I couldn’t believe I was holding a rock they said was two billion years old and licking a chuck of ice that fell from a glacier millions of years old
- Global warming is melting the ice in the Arctic a lot so it’s harder for polar bears to find food and they’re starving (they rely heavily on the ice for hunting)
- I loved doing the Polar Plunge that the ship staff coordinated. It was so cold, but so worth it. (All four of us jumped into the frigid waters as a monumental moment of our journey. Immediately after Andrew jumped in he asked if he could do it again)
- Polar bear hair is actually hollow and translucent. It makes them look cream-colored against the bright white ice sheets.
- I liked it when all the guides spoke in the evening telling us more about what we saw that day. There were presentations on the glaciers, different types of ice, the rocks we saw, all the different flowers and how they survive in the Arctic, and of course all the marine mammals.
If you’d like to hear more about our expedition to the Arctic or how you might experience this magical region, we’d love to share more photos and tell more stories. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.