Tully Luxury Travel’s Kit Neil shares her National Geographic Expeditions experience in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. Our Senior Travel Designer Kit Neil answers a few questions about her week-long April 2022 sailing with Lindblad’s National Geographic Resolution to Spitsbergen Island and Svalbard, the most northerly archipelago in the world.
How often do you get to head to the airport?
I travel between three and four times a year. My travel schedule fluctuates – sometimes four trips a year, sometimes only one – depending on how busy I am with work. I have such a huge volume of clients, sometimes there’s no opportunity to leave the office. About 80% of my trips are cruises, with the rest being land-based – a week in the Caribbean or a big city trip. When I’m in a city like London, I’m walking around scouting out the destination for my customers, seeing the major attractions, doing things I can suggest to them later.
How do you get to the Island of Svalbard?
We started by flying three hours north from Oslo to Longyearbyen, a small town of about 400 on Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard Archipelago. We arrived at 10 a.m., but couldn’t board the Resolution until 3 p.m., so Lindblad put together some interesting things for us to do before we boarded. We got to see a husky dog camp and the rustic Camp Barentz in the tundra.
Can you describe some of the shore excursions?
The activities were optional, and you could go at your own pace. I traveled in April 2022, at the beginning of the season, where everything is completely snow-covered, every day a crystal-clear blue. Most of our mornings were early, but not a strenuous itinerary. Meaning jam-packed with activities. After breakfast, we would typically do a hike, viewing various wildlife – reindeer, seals, and many different exotic birds. Then, we’d go back to the ship for lunch. An afternoon excursion might be a Zodiac cruise through the ice sculptures of an inlet. One day we sailed close to sleeping walruses that you could reach out and touch them. On our first full day, we gingerly walked on solid ice for a couple of hours in the morning. Even though the temperatures were – 25º C (– 13º F), there was always a hot drink waiting back on board to warm us up.
What about the rest of the time?
The vibe was very low-key. People chilled and relaxed after the spectacular lunches. One lunch offered outdoor dining in the brilliant sunshine, with heat lamps keeping us warm, the glistening, snow-capped mountains in the background as we carved through the ice. It was amazing!
Cocktail hour began with a Drink of the Day and an expedition staff presenting photos of what we saw that day, then briefly outlining where we were headed the following day.
After dinner, there would be lectures by onboard experts, and the crew would review what we saw that day and where we were going to try to land the next day. This particular sailing was photography focused, with pros on board to help you with your cameras and your photography techniques, even showing you what you could do with just your iPhone. Even if you were a novice photographer with a new camera and want to try it out, it was the perfect opportunity to learn. That is how amazing the staff were! These things were all optional, too.
Some people had mobility issues, maybe getting off the ship only once, but they could still see the amazing scenery and had the best time. Each day, we were all in total awe of the vastness of the Arctic, the majestic beauty. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
What was the highlight for you?
The main attraction is polar-bear sightings. Svalbard is known to have the highest population of polar bears in the world. In this early season in April, the bears were coming out of their dens with their cubs. One night, I went up on the bridge at about 11 at night – there had been a polar bear sighting earlier and I was hoping for another. And with the help of the midnight sun, we saw a mother and a cub playing with each other, having fun – but it was really a male and female, and five minutes later, guess what they were doing?
The crew had a camera trained on the bears, with the feed coming into a monitor, magnified, so we could see clearly. It was fascinating! I was so wired, that I couldn’t sleep, staying on the bridge. At about 1 a.m., the female came toward the ship. Apparently, the bears do this often, coming up to the ship, sniffing, and looking for food. It was the most amazing thing to have a polar bear standing maybe 100 yards in front of you.
Tell us about the new Resolution ship?
The ship is gorgeous, so luxurious, and everything is delicious. This was its inaugural season in the Arctic. It has about 70 cabins, all facing the amazing landscape with either big windows or balconies. There’s a lounge and bar, a gym and yoga studio, plus a full spa and outdoor hot tubs with great views. There are two restaurants, one with a chef’s table for a more personal dining experience. There is a fleet of Zodiac boats, plus kayaks, snowshoes, and cross-country skis. I even had the chance to sleep in one of two manmade igloo-style tents at the stern of the ship.
The staff was extremely attentive. And every time we were on land, there were staff members with rifles hovering in the background, so we felt very safe. Other services include a full-time doctor, a wellness specialist, a laundry service, and an internet café.
What about activities?
There is a fleet of Zodiac boats, plus kayaks, snowshoes and cross-country skis. I even had the chance to sleep in one of two manmade igloo-style tents in the stern of the ship – a huge highlight. To be able to sleep outside in –26º C weather in the middle of the Arctic is a once in a lifetime experience. Lindblad does not advertise it, so it’s something most guests don’t know about and you need to book it immediately upon boarding.
One thing to note is that the igloo is NOT heated. The mattress has a bearskin blanket, with four hot-water bottles to stay warm. The ship recommends you go to the sauna, then run outside, hit the whirlpool and repeat three or four times to warm up your body. Then, with layered blankets and layered pajamas, you’re all set. Of course, you will be warmer if you have a companion with you!
What were the other passengers like?
My trip was originally just for travel agents, but Lindblad opened it up to repeat guests and promoted it on Travel Zoo, which gave an added value. It was really nice to be able to sit down at dinner and talk to industry people and also hear the perspective of regular passengers. In Svalbard, you’re in an area that’s just so breathtakingly beautiful, you’re always conversing with people, so it’s very social. Many people make new friendships and keep them up. It’s all about the bonds you make while you’re travelling, everybody experiencing this incredible place at the same time.
Is expedition cruising gaining in popularity?
Expeditions are becoming like river cruising was 10 years ago. It’s all the rage – but it is not a small-ticket item. This is a voyage for people who are not afraid to splurge. People who have done the Mediterranean enough times will go to the Arctic eventually. It’s popular right now because people want to see it before global warming alters the whole region.
Arctic cruises are for the explorers – well-traveled people who have perhaps already been to the Antarctic – the Arctic is the next step. It’s good for people who don’t want to cruise on a big ship, with dress codes and planned agendas. This cruise was great for people who wanted to learn something about the experience of National Geographic/Lindblad with regard to the wildlife and the geography. It was my most relaxing cruise experience ever, and I can’t wait to do it again.