The Ghosts of the Arctic
Saturday, July 11, 2015
It’s difficult to believe, but today is to be our last full day of adventure aboard Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer as our 10-night Arctic Svalbard cruise sadly comes to a close. Fortunately, the Expedition Team has developed one last, active day for us to go out with a bang.
Ny London (pronounced nee London), our first “port” of call, was established in 1911 as a marble mining quarry by the Northern Exploration Company based in England. Things apparently didn’t work out too well in the ol’ marble business: by 1920, the site had been abandoned, leaving behind plenty of Victorian-era infrastructure like steam cranes, winches, locomotives, boilers…you name it.
This morning, we made a nicely sized walk of the area to study the ruins, the geology, and the geography of Ny London. Led by Expedition Team member Daniel, we were able to study some of the ruinous equipment up-close. Silversea practices responsible tourism, and asks that guests not touch or interfere with these so that future visitors can enjoy the same sights.
In the 93 years since its abandonment, Mother Nature has done a good job of reclaiming her land. The remaining wooden structures are, for the most part, dilapidated, worn down by the endless polar winters and the ceaseless glare of the Midnight Sun. Humans have also left their mark, too: the small hut at the base of the island is still used by visitors and researchers, some of whom come over from nearby Ny Alesund (which is, I should mention, extraordinarily different from Alesund on the western coast of Norway.)
Some photos of our great morning ashore:
What is truly remarkable about life here in the Arctic is how quickly and dramatically the weather changed. This morning, I needed sunscreen and only a light jacket which I unzipped shortly after getting off the Zodiac raft. Temperatures hovered around 10°C. For the Arctic, it was positively balmy.
During lunch, we abruptly found ourselves surrounded by thick fog as we made our way to the 14th of July Glacier – named in recognition of Bastille Day in France.
Fog, as we’ve now come to know, is the enemy of expedition cruising in Antarctica due to its ability conceal polar bears. So it was not really much of a surprise when Expedition Team Leader Juan came over the public address to announce that’d we’d be changing our plans slighty.
Once again, the flexible nature of expedition cruising with Silversea revealed itself to be a huge advantage. The consensus from Juan and the other Expedition Team members: we’d wait it out to see if the fog dispersed.
And within an hour, it had – just enough for the team aboard Silver Explorer to begin conducting shore operations.
I have to be honest: I really didn’t think that fog was going to lift. Yet it did, and by 3:00 p.m., the first boat with guests was headed ashore.
Our options for this afternoon: take part in a very active hike up to the 14th of July Glacier to admire the ice up-close; or do a smaller, more accessible Arctic Tundra Walk. I elected to do the hike to the glacier – and I wasn’t disappointed!
First of all, Silversea is being very genuine when they describe this as “moderate to strenuous.” It is. The total distance is probably about two miles or so, with steep uphill sections and plenty of loose rock and earth. But I was impressed at how many guests rose to the challenge and participated in this hike; I’d love to see Silversea offer a bit more on-shore activities in the Arctic that are like this.
Our reward for our steady-paced hike to the top: being able to stand on the glacier (within the flagged area that had already been designated as safe by the Expedition Team) and watch as massive slabs of the 14th of July Glacier calved into the sea.
Some photos of our exciting afternoon that nearly wasn’t:
The general consensus among guests was that this was the perfect ending to this voyage. I didn’t make that up; half a dozen people have said that very thing to me since I came back onboard shortly after 4:30 p.m.
Of course, it’s relaxing to know that we have one last evening here onboard the beautiful Silver Explorer. Tomorrow, we’ll arrive in Longyearbyen, Svalbard where we will sadly disembark our floating expedition ship that has been our home for the past 10 days. But even here, the adventure continues: we’ll be taken on a guided tour of Longyearbyen and given entrance to the town museum before we head to the postage-stamp-sized airport for our charter flight on Scandinavian Airlines to Oslo.
That in itself is important to note: all guests doing embarking or disembarking in Longyearbyen have to purchase Silversea’s Air Charter Package that includes a flight from Longyearbyen to Oslo, or reverse. You can still book your own flights independently, but the fact remains that charter air is essential here in Longyearbyen.
Because our charter flight arrives at 4:25pm tomorrow afternoon in Oslo, most guests are spending the evening at the Radisson Blu Oslo Airport hotel, which is utilised by Silversea for these return journeys.
I myself will board a KLM jet a few hours later, bound for Amsterdam and my next adventure. Still, after 10 days in the beautiful solitude of the Arctic, I’m not sure how I will adjust to the lights, sounds, smells and people that will no doubt assault my senses once I land at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
Maybe that’s the best thing about Silversea’s expedition cruises: they lure you out of your familiar world and drop you into one that’s wholly different.
Seven years ago, Silversea took a chance when they purchased the vessel that would become Silver Explorer. It was their first foray into luxury expedition cruising and aside from Hapag-Lloyd (which catered primarily to the German-speaking market), Silversea was one of the only lines in the world to offer luxury expedition cruises on a year-round basis.
Now, in 2015, Silversea has three luxury expedition ships: Silver Explorer, Silver Discoverer, and Silver Galapagos. I’ve sailed on all three. All three are good in their own right – even Silver Galapagos, which is currently doing a decent job of matching the need for Silversea’s little luxuries with the strict regulations and rules that govern operations in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.
There is, however, something really special about Silver Explorer. She’s not cold and impersonal, nor is she overly glitzy and ostentatious. Her accommodations are wonderful, her public rooms understated. Guests onboard literally want for nothing, from fine wines to excellent food.
The other thing I love about Silversea’s expedition voyages: the guests. They’re just so darn nice and interesting – and, like me, interested in the world. I’ve never heard so many people talk about expeditions in my life. People are talking about their trips to Antarctica – the first, the second, the third. Their voyages through Greenland. Their journeys along Franz Josef Land. That time they explored the west coast of Africa. Pardon the crass reference, but that’s a huge travelling turn-on.
What’s more, guests seem to be booking their next ones right here onboard in droves – and for many who are experiencing their first polar voyage, the next one can only be one thing: Antarctica. For me, this is the perfect complement to my first polar voyage in Antarctica back in January. I’ll take a look at both destinations tomorrow and outline the pros and cons of each.
Silversea’s true strength, however, is the people they employ. Without the Expedition Team and the fabulous crew, Silver Explorer would just be a rugged, well-built ship. But it’s the crew that bring her to life. People don’t say to me that they sail with Silversea because they like the marble bathrooms and the Ferragamo toiletries. They do, of course, but they don’t say so. Ditto for the nine different types of pillows, or the well-stocked library or the multitude of premium beverages that are included in the cost of your voyage.
The one thing people do mention to me all the time? The crew. The Expedition Team. How good they both are at their jobs. How well this ship runs. How effortless it all looks.
I couldn’t agree more.