Adventure Travel Meets Luxury, In The Arctic

adventure travelThe idea of “adventure travel” is hot and those who sell travel know it. Travelers who lead an active lifestyle as a big part of their everyday life want to continue that focus when traveling. Local adventurers who might camp, hike, hunt, ski or bike around where they live, want the thrill of doing that in an amazing place somewhere else on the planet. Even travelers once satisfied with a pre-packaged land tour or the standard fare on a Caribbean cruise want more. Only one problem: not everyone who likes the idea of adventure travel is equipped to handle it. But they still want it.

Enter land tour operator Abercrombie and Kent, known for safe and luxurious safari-like travel packages with a hefty price tag.

Offering more than a lazy man’s adventure, Abercrombie and Kent (A&K) recently announced a 2014 lineup of cruises to the Arctic. These luxury versions of the frigid expedition sailings for hearty explorers, normally associated with that part of the world, might very well be just what the pseudo-adventure traveler has in mind too.

On their July 29, 2014, sailing – Arctic Cruise Norway: Polar Bears & Midnight Sun – A&K guides take their guests to see polar bears, walrus and reindeer from the northern shores of Norway to the Svalbard Archipelago and Spitsbergen (AKA the last stop before the North pole), setting foot on the coastal city of Tromsø and the polar bear stomping grounds of Nordaustlandet. The 12-day adventure starts at $8,995.Another choice – A&K’s Arctic Cruise Adventure: Norway, Greenland & Iceland (Aug 7-21, 2014) – boasts stunning wildlife, geological features and history on an intense 15-day Arctic voyage from Norway and Spitsbergen to the region’s most remote and magnificent islands.

Visiting polar bears on the Svalbard archipelago, Kejser Franz Joseph Fjords and Scoresby Sound in Greenland along with Iceland’s extinct Snaefellsjokull volcano among other stops is not a cheap swing around the Caribbean. This one will run you $11,995.

Think that sounds like a lot to pay? Not everyone does: A&K’s 2013 Arctic offerings sold out 10 months in advance. This video gives us an idea of why they might be so popular:

[Photo credit – Abercrombie and Kent]

Svalbard, Norway On A Budget

svalbard on a budget

It’s impossible to travel to Svalbard on a budget according to an orthodox definition of budget travel. The standard shoestring repertoire (student train passes, cheap fast food or street food, sleeping in train stations or parks) is next to impossible to carry out in this arctic Norwegian territory.

You could come to Svalbard with your own gear and attempt to camp in the wilderness, but the supplies you’d need to survive would exceed your garden-variety tent and basic provisioning by a mile. You’d need to shell out a lot of money in advance to obtain the appropriate gear, and you’d also need to rent a rifle on the island as protection against a possible polar bear attack.

In short, Svalbard is simply too expensive to be a budget destination. It’s a territory, after all, of Norway, a rich country with high taxes. In addition, Svalbard is very remote, and consumer goods have to be shipped in at great cost. That relatively cheap supermarket yogurt on the mainland? Not quite so cheap on Svalbard.

While there is no question that the territory is not a budget destination, it can be finessed at a fraction of the average daily tourist spend. Here are five tips for keeping costs reasonable.1. First of all, don’t discount the truly exotic, exciting things that are absolutely free to observe: the landscape; wandering reindeer, wary but clearly not terrified of humans; the cultural center Kulturhuset; the gallery and art and handicrafts center in Nybyen; and the remains of earlier mining activities strewn about Longyearbyen.

2. Stay at Gjestehuset 102 in Nybyen, just up the hill from Longyearbyen. Double rooms begin at 750 NOK ($125) October-February and 890 NOK ($149) the rest of the year; dorm rooms begin at 300 NOK ($50) per bed in low season and 320 NOK ($54) in high season. The guesthouse is a lively place, with an interesting smattering of guests – extreme skiers, wildlife photographers, scientists, friends and family of residents and average tourists. The nightly rate includes breakfast. Another inexpensive option is Mary Ann’s Polarigg, with rates comparable to 102’s rates. There’s also a campsite, Longyearbyen Camping, open March through September. It charges between 100 NOK ($17) and 150 NOK ($25) per night per person.

3. Shop at the supermarket for food. Barring that, eat dinner early. Huset, the territory’s top restaurant, operates a casual cafe that offers an early-bird special. It costs just 96 NOK ($16), a mind-bogglingly inexpensive amount in these parts. It’s an all-you-can-eat situation to boot, which makes it an even better deal.

4. Book a relatively inexpensive tour. An informative city tour by taxi takes in most of Longyearbyen’s highlights. Booked through 102’s tour arm Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions, it costs 275 NOK ($46). Before winter and well into the spring there’s the thrilling option of an ice cave tour for 730 NOK ($122), also booked through Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions. The tour involves climbing a glacier in snowshoes and rappelling into a narrow ice cave.

5. Drink beer. This won’t actually save you money, but it’s surprising and noteworthy how cheap alcoholic drinks are on Svalbard. Norway’s sky-high alcohol taxes don’t apply here. As a result a single beer in Longyearbyen is about half the price of a single beer in Oslo.

Svalbard: The World’s Northernmost Inhabited Place*

svalbard

For bragging rights, few places can match the Norwegian Arctic territory of Svalbard. It’s far north. Really, really far north. How far, you ask? The northernmost piece of Alaska is at a latitude of 71 degrees north; Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, can be found at 78 degrees north.

After years, possibly decades of looking at Svalbard on maps, pricing flights, and perusing websites, I finally visited the territory in late April. I felt as if I was shooting into the unknown, despite my advance research and my knowledge of the territory’s tourist infrastructure. I felt a bolt of uncertainty as the plane landed, in a snowstorm no less, and then a sense of wonder as I spied enormous mountains. It was more beautiful than I’d imagined, and far quieter. The silence was a constant presence. Even the abrasive sound of a snowmobile didn’t really disturb it, not for more than a few seconds.

Administered by Norway since 1925, Svalbard has around 2,500 residents. Most live in Longyearbyen, a little valley town with a cultural and retail infrastructure typical of far larger towns: a mall, a well-stocked supermarket, an Arctic Museum, a cultural center, hotels, restaurants and bars. During my visit in late April, all were pretty lively, tourists more rare than residents.

Though a Norwegian territory, Svalbard does not belong to Norway proper. Before boarding flights from Oslo or Tromsø–and after disembarking on return to the mainland–passengers have to go through passport control. The territory is governed under the terms of the Svalbard Treaty, which allows citizens of all signatory nations to commercially exploit the land and waters around and take employment in the territory. This explains the existence of Russian mining towns in Svalbard – Pyramiden (closed in 1998) and Barentsburg, which had 380 inhabitants at last count.

As befits a place commercially open to the world, Svalbard is a rather diverse place. While most residents are Norwegian, the territory is impressively international, with tourists adding to the linguistic melee. During a short midday stroll in the center of town, I heard Norwegian, Swedish, Tagalog, Swiss German, German, English, Thai, Portuguese, French, Flemish and Polish.

%Gallery-155819%svalbard

During my visit, I used the world’s northernmost ATM and had a coffee at Fruene Kaffe & Vinbar, a café that bills itself as the world’s northernmost coffeehouse. I saw a handbill advertising a forthcoming Thai restaurant, which will surely be the northernmost restaurant of its kind in the world. I bought a magazine and a hot dog at the world’s northernmost convenience store. And then I sort of lost count of northernmost claims or projections. Almost everything in the territory, with the exception of snowmobiles, scientists, polar bears, and the odd research camp, is the most northerly example of its kind on earth.

What is there to do in Svalbard? The adventurous have many choices. There are all sorts of extreme skiing and mountaineering tours on offer for those interested in heading off into the wilderness with an expedition leader, gear, rifles (as protection against polar bears) and other necessities.

Many tourists overnight in Longyearbyen and take exploratory day trips. The most popular winter day tours include dogsledding, snowmobile journeys to Barentsburg (eight hours) or the east coast of Spitsbergen (ten hours), glacier hiking, and ice caving. During the summer, there are glacier hiking tours, fossil hunting trips, dogsledding (on wheels) and journeys by boat along the coast.

For the less adventurous, there is an informative two-hour taxi tour, and there is the Arctic Museum, a truly fantastic resource, devoted to Svalbard and the wider Arctic region. The museum addresses climate change, the flora and fauna of the region, the impact of human activity on the territory, and various implications of technology. Its library is wide-ranging and multilingual, with books on a huge number of Arctic topics.

*There are in fact a few inhabited places farther north than Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost settlement on Svalbard, though none of these are towns. These are Russian meteorological stations on Sredny Island and in Franz Josef Land; a Danish military base in northeastern Greenland; Alert, a Canadian military and science station; and Barneo, a seasonal Russian ice camp housed on the Arctic Ocean ice sheet.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]