Text by Rebecca Marshall
Big, bad, beautiful Svalbard isn’t the easiest place in the world to get around. There’s just one solitary road, running from Longyearbyen airport to the Mine 7, on the other side of the world’s northernmost town. So the only easy way to get a wider sense of the archipelago is to take a boat trip round it.
MS Fram is the newest ship and jewel in the crown of the iconic Norwegian ferry company Hurtigruten's fleet. Completed in 2007, she may not be an ice-breaker, but Fram was designed specifically for polar waters. Cruising around the west coast of Svalbard in August, the warmest month, sea ice is still plentiful and you feel glad to be on board a ship boasting extra-thick steel ice plates in the hull and special ice-worthy propellor blades. Inside the ship, 128 roomy cabins, an Italian-designed interior - complete with artworks commissioned by Arctic artists -, a jacuzzi on deck and an attentive, professional crew ensure this is definitely not a hair-shirt kind of polar expedition.
In fact you could, if you wanted to, spend the nine days of your cruise in a comfortable chaise longue on the upper observation deck, sipping a Prince of Norway cocktail (a refreshing mix of vodka, lime and apricot brandy) and leisurely admiring glaciers through a telescope. The only interruption to your reverie might be a tannoy announcement to inform you of a Finn whale, polar bear or walrus sighting, and then you might decide to venture out on deck to watch, and listen to the ice cracking all around as the ship slows and changes her course to follow the creatures (at a discrete distance). But you'd be missing out on M.S. Fram's biggest attraction: she is the only Hurtigruten vessel with an expedition tender operation. A specially equipped fleet of Polar cirkel boats ferry passengers safely from the ship to the shore once or twice a day and it is during these landings that you really start to discover Svalbard.
Despite the apparent emptiness of the frozen ground, there are a wealth of natural wonders and clues to Svalbard's history hidden, if you know where to look. One of the great strengths of the cruise is the expedition team. Handpicked, these ornithologists/zoologists/geologists/historians take a few weeks off their professional research schedules, and their enthusiasm and knowledge brings bleak Svalbard alive. Trees may not be obvious, but they are there if you look – reaching only a height of a few centimetres. Puffins circle overhead amongst the gulls, recognisable by their fast, jerky flight. And if you're lucky, you might get a sighting of a reindeer melting into the snowscape, or the flash of a passing Arctic fox. Other landings take passengers to see the traces of 17th century whaling beaches, where graveyards of whalers mix with piles of bleached whale bone, a sinister reminder of a gruesome past, or active settlements like the scientific research station of Ny-Ålesund or the eerie Russian mining town of Barentsburg.
If action appeals, you can also join a hike up a glacier, try your luck fishing for dinner with the ship's officers or get into a kayak and paddle through the cracking ice up to the face of a glacier (or as near as is safe). True sensation-seekers might go for a quick dip in the sea too at the beautiful Magdalena fjord, where a crew member dressed in a balaclava and muffler waits for you on the snowy beach with a towel – and a certificate to prove your bravery.
Admittedly, Svalbard is no place to come for sunshine, but mist and the occasional snow shower add to the drama of the spectacular scenery. Whether you are checking off a list of '101 places to see before you die', fancy crossing the 80th parallel, are eager to catch a glimpse of polar bears in their natural habitat, want to pay respect to the retreating glaciers, see birds or plants that you will see nowhere else - or simply be out of range of your email and phone for 9 days, being aboard M.S. Fram is an experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.
Author, Rebecca Marshall travelled on 'In the Realm of the Polar Bar' in August, a trip around the main island of Spitsbergen. See hurtigruten.no for more information.
For our May issue, the entire N by Norwegian team visited Svalbard. See more of our coverage from Svalbard here
Norwegian flies to Longyearbyen from Oslo. Book flights and a hotel at norwegian.com