Whilst the seed vault had maintained my interest in Svalbard over the years, on researching the trip another curiosity caught my interest – the (officially) abandoned Russian mining settlement of Pyramiden. Although express services have since launched, back when I was booking the only option to reach it was to commit most of twelve hours to a cruise. That meant it didn’t make the cut for my original three day itinerary, but when the planned Finnair flights fell through and I extended the trip, it became viable again.
Despite the motto of this blog, I’d seen the voyage as simply a means to the end of getting to Pyramiden; although a detour to a glacier sounded interesting, I’d assumed it was mostly padding. Had the fast boats been available, I might even have skipped it in favour of an extra destination (combined Barentsberg and Pyramiden itineraries are now possible) or another on-land activity. Thankfully I did not; whilst it’s impossible to pick an individual highlight from my time in the Arctic, I think I can commit to this being the best day of the trip!
The cruise is run by Henningsen Transport & Guiding, who offer daily sailings to both Pyramiden (via the Nordenskiöld glacier) and Barentsburg (via the Esmark glacier). Service alternates between their two vessels; for my chosen date, I was on the smaller of the two, MS Langøysund.
My first morning on Svalbard started bright and early, for what was clearly going to be a beautiful day – although the claims of 22C from the thermometer outside my window seemed rather optimistic for 6:30am in the arctic! At 8:50 the ‘coach’ (of a similar breed to the ancient but reliable airport transfer I’d used the previous day) arrived at the Radisson to pick up for both trips, with guides for each checking they had their desired passengers. Once we’d completed the rounds of Longyearbyen’s other hotels and lodgings, they explained how to identify each boat, stressed that we should not board the wrong one, and requested we assemble on the front deck for a safety briefing.
Within ten minutes we were aboard (the harbour is between the airport and town centre), and getting up to speed on the lifeboats, use of a dry suit – a bit more involved than a life jacket! – and rules regarding movement around the ship. Our guide also explained that there would be short talks about various locations of interest; these would be announced five minutes before. In practice, with beautiful weather and a light passenger load, I was usually on deck already for these- plus the views were continuously interesting, and the guide happy to share insights at any time.
We passed a few hours in that fashion, admiring views both narrated and unremarked upon, as we worked our way north to Brucebyen. By this point a wonderful smell had begun to emanate from the kitchen, which I couldn’t reconcile with anything on the café menu… They had advertised a barbecue lunch, but rather than rely entirely on open-air arctic cooking, they prefer to ensure the meat is cooked through in the ship’s kitchen first. Out on deck, the barbecue added the warmth and spectacle of flames, as well as searing in more flavour via an industrial vat of marinade. Our options today were ribs, salmon and/or whale steak, with sides of rice and salad, plus a locally-cooked bread supplied only to Henningsen’s ships. Obviously whale-meat is the must-try – I was surprised by the tenderness, with plastic cutlery being up to the task of dissecting a steak – but found the taste hard to pin down. Other guests compared it to liver, but I’ve never tried that. Novelty meat aside, the salmon was my highlight – wonderfully cooked, and huge portions – and the bread was pretty great too.
The meal was cleverly timed, as most guests headed to the interior cabins to claim a table to eat at (there’s enough to go around, but for solo travellers such as myself you’ll have to make friends). Unbeknownst to most of us, whilst we dined the ship begun its approach to Nordenskiöld, and thus emerging back onto deck we were rewarded with an impressive first view of the glacier rather than a distance glimpse.
Having sailed as closes as we could, the crew cut the engines and let us slowly drift through scattered ice. The resulting peace was almost a tangible thing, the only sounds a gentle lapping of waves, and the strange creaking of the towering ice wall, contorting itself under massive forces. The occasional boom would punctuate at moments when the stresses and strains proved too much for some portion of ice and sent it tumbling into the water. Even if my photos could do justice to the view, they cannot capture those sounds, but they’ll stay with me for a long time – truly a remarkable experience.
Some much more adventurous folks than I were spending their Svalbard holidays camping by the glacier, so we launched a rib boat to restock them with supplies. Whilst some of the crew were busy with that, others started fishing – for ice! A suitably tiny iceberg was hoisted aboard in a plastic crate, and a small child helped the crew break it up with a hammer. Its purpose became clear once a bottle of whisky was also produced – the world’s northernmost tiple?
Eventually we had to turn our backs on the glacier, and set off at last for Pyramiden. From the glacier it takes about 30 minutes, and I make sure to stash my cameras for some of that to just enjoy the views from the quieter upper deck- an amazing play of light on the mountains, and beautiful colours to the sea. We arrived at the dock around 2pm, to be welcomed by our guide (and guard), Sasha.
I’ve covered the settlement in a separate post; all told, our visit was about two hours long. Whilst on land I hadn’t needed to do up my jacket or fleece, after a short time back aboard the clouds begun to roll in and temperatures dropped to gloves-and-hat levels. The trip back to Longyearbyen was a leisurely 3.5 hours, taking a slightly different route to the outbound in order to collect a few more sights: beautifully striated mountains; a reindeer playing in water near a shipwreck; Svalbard’s oldest house, the Svenskhuset where 17 perished in 1872. My waffle-cravings got the better of me around 6pm: at 25NOK the pricing was better than on the Norwegian flights, and although it wasn’t as tasty, the warmth was much more appreciated on a boat! As the day wore on, we were treated to a not-quite-sunset, the light fading as it dipped to (but never quite under) the horizon. Shortly before seven we returned to civilisation, at least electronically – with phone and data signals back in reach, it was time for most to settle up the tabs they’d been running at the cafe/bar whilst out in the wilderness.
By half seven we arrived physically, and I discovered that whilst the water had seemed smooth as glass, with no discomfort at all during our extended sailing, back on land I had a serious case of sea-legs! It took me over a day to correct those – it turns out you should take the same measures as for sea-sickness, i.e., get outdoors and stare at the horizon, rather than hunching over an ipad in your hotel room. That inconvenience is honestly the only downside I can think of – although (at NOK1850, about £160) this was the most expensive excursion on my trip by a considerable margin, I think it was entirely worth it, especially when you consider it fills a day.
The full gallery can be found in the next post.