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Diary Of Days In The Arctic
Aboard Silversea Cruises' Silver Explorer

By Georgina Cruz

Prince Albert IIFew regions of the world have the richness of legend and lore as the Arcticfrom stories about its spectacular fauna like National Geographic’s film and book, Arctic Tale, to work by poets like Emily Dickinson who once wrote about an Arctic flower, to beloved fantasies about Santa Claus, his elves and flying reindeer.

During a 16-day expedition to the Arctic aboard Silversea’s Silver Explorer, we found out why this natural wonderland has inspired so many. “Here, Mother Nature reigns, said Conrad Combrink, expedition leader. “It is a modern-day adventure. Mother Nature dictates where we go, and we are not in complete control. Flexibility is our middle name.”

Here are some of my favorite highlights of our voyage:

* The crossing of the Arctic Circle, enroute to the Lofoten Islands from Trondheim, was simply spectacular. The Circle, at latitude 66 degrees 33 minutes north, is marked by a large globe sculpture set on a cliff, and just as we crossed, the ship’s whistle blew, and, as if on cue, a Minke whale breached four times. “It’s welcoming us to the Arctic,” a woman exclaimed. The whale was a young specimen approximately 30 feet long, said Robin Aiello, our expedition’s marine biologist. The sky was blue, the sea calm, the temperature in the mid-50s and Silversea made the crossing of the Circle an occasion: serving us a musical afternoon tea out on deck, along with such treats as finger sandwiches, delectable pastries and Arctic Circle Punch –a refreshing drink made with cranberry juice, Absolut vodka and lemonade.

* Lofoten Islands – A tour by bus with our expedition staff took us to explore this natural wonderland (on the Silver Explorer all tours and activities ashore are included in the fare). Among other places, we visited picturesque Nusfjord, one of the oldest and best preserved fishing villages in Norway and a UNESCO site. The village, in a stunning fjord setting, has bright red wood fishermen’s cabins on stilts, many dating back to the early 20th century; red wood houses, some with turf roofs; a creek; a fish landing station; cod liver oil refinery; a pier with a variety of fishing boats and other craft; plus a bakery, country store and restaurant, among other points of interest. Groups of sheep are a common sight on the town’s road, so much so that according to our guide the locals like to say that, “when you eat lamb, you can taste the asphalt.”

* Storstappen Islands – The ship anchored off these pristine islands and zodiacs were launched for a two-hour exploration of their steep cliffs that are home to large colonies of seabirds including puffins, gannets, kittiwakes, razorbills and others – even majestic, white-tailed eagles. There were thousands of puffins – they come here to breed each summer, Aiello (who was driving our zodiac) told us. At one point there were so many of these adorable marine birds in flight that a patch of the sky looked black. Like hand-painted dolls, puffins always remind me of penguins.

* Magaroya Island – We took zodiacs to the small fishing village of Skarsvag, from where the cruise line had arranged for a bus to take us to the North Cape, one of the northernmost points in Europe. Along the way we passed a native Sami family who has a souvenir shop filled with plush Santa Claus dolls, and we saw some of the estimated 4,000 reindeer that are found in this region – many agilely running in fields and in the village. At the North Cape Visitor’s Center, chilled champagne was awaiting us for a toast, and then we had time to take in the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center and explore the grounds, including opportunities for photos at the large sculpture of the globe that is a symbol of the North Cape and is located at the edge of the cliff. An option for passengers to climb up to the Cape, which rises a majestic 307 meters above the Barents Sea, was also available.

* Bear Island – En route to this island, part of the Svalbard Archipelago, a pair of humpback whales was sighted. It was the dinner hour when the announcement was heard over the loudspeaker that whales were at our port side and everyone ran to the port side windows to see these majestic animals – the delectable dinner fare forgotten till the whales were out of sight. At Bear Island, we enjoyed a two-hour zodiac cruise to see its steep cliffs, myriad sea birds and waterfalls.

* Spitsbergen – Three days were spent exploring this, the biggest and most dramatic of the Svalbard Archipelago at latitude 76 degrees north. One day was spent sailing in the ice –surrounded by beautiful blue and white icebergs, that we often heard crunched under our ice-strengthened hull. The temperatures were the coldest of the voyage –in the 24 to 32 degree range. We spotted seals, a pod of fin whales, and the king of the Arctic: a polar bear hunting on a field of ice in Hornsund fjord – a fairytale-like spot with snow-covered mountains and glaciers, In Poolepynten, where there is a resident colony of walruses, there was ice on the bay, but the ship cleared a path for the zodiacs and we were able to approach and see a half-dozen walruses sunning themselves on the point and several swimming – at one point two of them got so close to the zodiacs, it looked like they wanted to board!

Another highlight of the expedition, of course, was the ship herself. Legendary explorers like Amundsen and Peary would have been green with envy at the level of comfort and luxury of our expedition. The Silver Explorer (formerly the World Discoverer II of the now defunct Society Expeditions) acquired by Silversea in 2007, given a multi-million-dollar refit and launched in June of 2008, is a 6,072-ton expedition vessel accommodating 132 passengers.

With an ice class rating of 1A (the hightest) from Lloyd’s Register, the ship has eight zodiacs for up-close exploration and an expedition team of experts who offer lectures on the fauna, geology and other aspects of the islands of the Arctic, give briefings, and lead field studies. Each passenger receives a complimentary parka and waterproof backpack (both for us to keep). During the day, in addition to lectures, whale watches from the ship and zodiac excursions and hikes with naturalists, diversions include a spa, gym, observation lounges, two whirlpools, a cigar lounge and a well-stocked library with Internet access (there is also Wi-Fi in the accommodations).

The accommodations themselves are all ocean-view suites and staterooms with private bath –on average they are the most spacious of any expedition ship ranging from 175 square feet to 675 square feet –all with such conveniences as interactive flat-screen television with complimentary on-demand movies, marble bath, European bath amenities, plush bedding with choice of pillow, robes, slippers, and a beverage cabinet stocked and replenished to guests’ preferences as well as chilled champagne upon arrival. We had a Silver Suite, with living room, bedroom, bath with tub and separate shower, walk-in wardrobe and two narrow French balconies. Our outstanding butler, Vishal, spoiled us with, among other things, unpacking/packing service, afternoon tea with pastries, occasional wine and hors d’oeuvres and a daily chilled bowl of fresh berries. Our stewardess, Cecilia, kept things spotless and our Bvlgari soaps, lotion and shampoo replenished, as well as leaving us Godiva chocolates each evening.

When the day’s explorations are done, passengers stow away the parkas, boots, gloves, caps and other gear and don chic casual or informal attire (there are no formal nights). Most passengers usually head for the Panorama Lounge where a pianist/vocalist entertains and staff serves tapas and cocktails (cocktails and wine are complimentary, so you do not have to be signing for them). Then it is on to a gourmet dinner at the open-seating The Restaurant (where the attentive wait staff serves dishes inspired in the chefs of Relais & Chateaux) and we feasted on such delights as beef Wellington, rack of lamb and lobster.

After the impeccably served meal, some passengers generally head for the cigar lounge or the observation lounge to take in the panoramas of the Arctic (the sun never sets here in the summer) and enjoy an after-dinner drink and conversation with newfound friends. The majority of passengers are well-heeled, well-traveled couples in their 40s to 70s who often talked about “last year in Antarctica...”

Some stayed up late and were up early the next morning for another day of Arctic adventures. To enjoy more of the “summer nights’ miraculous sun,’’ as Norwegian novelist Roy Jacobsen put it, “Walk against the wind. Climb mountains. Look to the North more often.”

IF YOU GO – The Silver Explorer explores the Arctic during a series of expeditions this summer and repositions to Antarctica in the winter (summer in the southern hemisphere). Visit www.silversea.com.


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