Houston--London--Oslo--Longyearbyen--Barneo (camp on polar ice cap)--North Pole
When I booked my trip to the North Pole, I must admit I looked at the tiny town of Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, as merely a required stopover en route to the main attraction.
I knew that adventure travelers and nature lovers visit the island from June to September to look for polar bears and whales and to climb the snowcapped mountains and kayak the deep-blue fjords. Vacations To Go offers Arctic cruises and tours with the island as the main attraction.
But at this time of year, so far above the Arctic Circle, I expected to find the world's northernmost town would be a frozen outpost hunkered down against the cold. I couldn't have been more wrong.
Not that it isn't cold -- temperatures have ranged from 20 to -11 F during our visit -- it just doesn't seem to matter to anyone. The wide, pedestrian street of shops, restaurants and bars is open for business, and the best restaurants are booked to capacity every night. Tourists bound for cross-country skiing, camping and snowmobiling vacations fill the few arriving flights each day.
We landed two days ago in a snowstorm, swooping down on the runway with steep mountains on one side and a fjord on the other. We were met by Rick Sweitzer of Polar Explorers and taken to the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, a comfortable property with an excellent restaurant and a lively bar scene.
We explored the village on foot, finding colorfully painted homes and businesses a pleasing contrast to the white roads, sky, mountains and countryside.
Of course, there are a few aspects of Longyearbyen that remind you you're not in Kansas anymore.
There are majestic mountains in every direction. The locals mostly use snowmobiles instead of cars for transportation. The sun is up 22 hours a day (at this time of year) with two hours of twilight. Restaurants offer whale, seal, reindeer, ptarmigan and cod tongue along with more common options. And residents are required by law to carry a rifle whenever they leave town, for their own protection from polar bears. Residents pack rifles on their snowmobiles, carry them down the streets and even into restaurants and bars.
Our first night in town, we were upside-down from the time change and had no problem closing down the Radisson bar at 2am. The storm had cleared out and the sun had just set but there was plenty of light outside. We decided to climb one of the nearby mountains, known to locals as the mountain of Mine 2b, which we completed (sort of) at 5am, an hour after sunrise.
That climb delayed our acclimation to the local time zone a bit but bonded us to the place in a way a good night's sleep could not have.
After a few hours of sleep, we headed into the wilderness on a guided snowmobile tour that took us to spectacular mountain vistas and past reindeer digging in the snow for a bit of grass or moss.
Tonight, we received a briefing on conditions at Barneo, the floating ice camp 50 miles from the North Pole, our next stop. Barneo exists for less than three weeks every April, just after the sun rises at the pole and before the polar ice cap splinters into pieces, as it does by the end of the month.
There is a new crack in the ice between the tents and the runway, but there is no plan to relocate the camp unless it gets bigger.
Cracks have destroyed the ice runway numerous times in prior years and once forced the emergency relocation of the camp. The weather has turned considerably colder at the pole, and the forecast for our arrival is -50 F. Hopefully the colder weather will delay the breakup of the ice floe.
Tomorrow we will board a Ukrainian-made Antonov 74, piloted by a Russian crew, for the flight to Barneo. One year the plane shattered the ice runway as it touched down, but the pilots managed to take off again and return to Spitsbergen instead of sinking into the Arctic Ocean. I'm sure the adrenaline will be flowing when we hit that sheet of ice about 5-6 feet thick.
If all goes according to plan, I'll be there and back in time to report on my trip to the pole in next week's newsletter. Of course, on this trip, plans are only as stable as the ice.
To see Spitsbergen's position relative to the North Pole on a map, or to look for cruises that visit Spitsbergen, click here.
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Vacations To Go