A Travellerspoint blog

Introducing the Grand South East Asia Tour

View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This trip comes with the longest and most painful gestation period in the history of Howards’ Travels. Initially conceived in 2019 for travel in 2020, the year that saw unprecedented restrictions on travel as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Postponed to 2021, we found that some of the destinations had still not opened up after their lockdowns, so once again the trip was deferred for another year. 2022 was to be the year it all happened, but conditions were still far from ideal to try and put together such a complicated multi-destination trip, so the planning was once more shelved for another year.

Fast forward to 2023, and we have a delivery date of 6th September. Today. Gulp.

Here is a bit of a background story: I wanted to go to Sulawesi in Indonesia, whereas David's destination of choice was the Philippines. We decided to combine the two, to save on the long and expensive flights to the Far East and keep our carbon footprint as low as possible while still enjoying travel. The idea then snowballed, as one by one more places were added to the itinerary, until we ended up with an eight-week trip covering eight countries.

This is the outline:

3 nights in Doha
2 nights in Singapore
14 nights touring Sulawesi (Indonesia)
3 nights Bali
7 nights touring East Timor
2 nights Bali
17 nights touring the Philippines
2 nights in Brunei
2 nights in Kuala Lumpur
2 nights in Kuwait


We have never partaken in such a long and complicated journey. While we are very used to our trips being full-on, this takes it all to the next level, and I have to admit that I am a little nervous about it all – as well as incredibly excited, of course.

The planning has been a bit of a nightmare, as although we have used an agent for the bulk of the bookings, with 17 flights, 31 hotels, and eight different entry regulations (and currencies), there are still so many things to sort out and keep track of. It's not until I try to create a folder with all the paperwork in chronological order, that I realise quite how much work it has been for our agent (Undiscovered Destinations) and their local teams. I am in awe. There is no way I would have been able to put together such a complicated itinerary on my own.

We always like to take some cash when we travel, but with eight different currencies, it becomes quite a pile of bank notes!

We start the journey with a stop at our favourite service station on the way to Heathrow: Greggs at Reading.

It's a Howard tradition to stop on the way to the airport for one of Greggs' legendary sausage rolls

I am also rather partial to their caramel custard doughnuts

Today we are not going to the airport, however, but staying overnight nearby, as we have an early flight tomorrow morning.

Premier Inn, Bath Road, Heathrow

We enjoy a drink in the room while we chill before dinner. I love their signature purple light.


The bathroom features an unusual shower, out of the 50+ Premier Inns we’ve stayed in over the years, this is a first.


Thyme Bar and Grill

We pop down to the hotel restaurant, which is off the light and airy atrium, for dinner. Both David’s mixed grill and my katsu curry are very enjoyable.

Katsu curry

This may be David's last cider for eight weeks.

We chat for a while with the couple at the next table, who show great interest in our upcoming trip.

It's always nice to finish a meal with a cappuccino, and Costa does a particularly nice one

Back to the room, and it is time for bed. We have an early start tomorrow. The bed is very high, and on wheels that move much too easily on the floor, making it rather dangerous. Each time I sit down on the edge of the bed, it moves a few inches away. If I am struggling at 6’1”, I can only imagine the difficulties a short person would have. Surely it wouldn't take much to put some caster cups or something on it.



Posted by Grete Howard 14:43 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged planning heathrow doughnut cider cash currencies cappuccino pandemic trip_planning donut undiscovered_destinations premier_inn covid covid_19 grand_south_east_asia_trip greggs spending_money sausage_roll greggs_sausage_roll thyme_bar_and_grill katsu_curry bed_on_wheels Comments (3)

Cruise Day 9, disembark, then Longyearbyen - Oslo - home

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having totally crashed out last night, and not even stirred in the night, I wake up at 06:58 (two minutes before the alarm goes off) in a mad panic thinking I can't breathe and that I am drowning in mucus, followed by more panic as I can't sit up in bed (because of the upper bunk above me).

Following my morning ablutions, and getting dressed and made up, I feel some better. I take some cold and flu medicine and sit outside the overly hot cabin, but don't feel like surfacing for breakfast, partly because I am not hungry, and partly because I do not want to subject my fellow passengers to my sniffling, coughing, and nose-blowing this morning. I am never at my best first thing anyway, and having a cold does nothing to improve my early morning grumpiness.

Leiv comes by, and after asking me why I am not at breakfast, he apologises for giving me his cold and soon comes back with a hot drink containing lemon and honey. I return to bed for the rest of the morning, missing Vide's presentation on Svalbard.



After lunch (a very nice chilli), I return yet again to the cabin, for more sleep, and later, after the crew has retrieved our bags for us, we do some packing.

Today is our last full day on the ship, and no landings or zodiac excursions are planned. I hate hanging around. We arrive back in Longyearbyen and dock mid-afternoon. I would be quite happy to leave the ship right now and book into a hotel on land, but the accommodation here on the ship is paid for, and hotels on Svalbard are horrendously expensive. So we stay for the last night. Vide has gone back to his wife for the evening, as he is off on another ten-night trip tomorrow. As he says: “King-sized bed or small bunk? Hard choice!”

Longyearbyen Harbour

Last Supper

Our last dinner on the ship consists of a herring salad on dark bread to start. Many, many years ago, I was very sick after eating herring, and haven't touched it since, so I am feeling a little nervous about this, but eat it all the same. It tastes better than I remember.


The main course is roast pork with mushroom sauce, and (hopefully) my last boiled potatoes for a while.


For dessert, we are served a panacotta topped with cloudberries. I love cloudberries!


The captain comes in to say thanks to the crew and passengers, and in return, I give thanks to the Captain, crew, and guides on behalf of the passengers.

I believe most of the passengers are staying up for a 'leaving party', while David and I go to bed nursing our miserable head colds.

Disembarkation Day

I wake up at 06:15, having had a wretched night coughing, and spending a lot of time sitting on my little foldable stool in the cabin with the door wide open as the small enclosed space was unbearably hot.

We finish the packing, and Gunnar very kindly helps us up the steep steps with our luggage; as well as going off to the quayside to get a trolley. This morning it all feels like a sad anticlimax, with passengers and guides just milling about waiting to disembark. There is no formal goodbye, although Jeanette cries as she waves us off from the deck of the ship.

There is a huge cruise ship docked nearby, and we are very grateful that ours was a tiny ship, despite the obvious discomfort (bunk beds being the main drawback).


Radisson Blu Polar Hotel

As all the taxis here in Longyearbyen seem to be extra large people carriers, we are able to share a cab with Deepak and José, who are both staying in the same hotel as us.

We are able to check into our room as soon as we arrive (for a fee, of course), where we dump our bags, open the window fully (after fiddling with the window lock), and collapse into a wonderfully comfortable bed with no upper berth. Heaven.

The afternoon is spent repacking, showering, buying gifts, enjoying a can of cider in the room, and checking in online.

Baggage tags

The hotel (as well as two other places in town) has a machine where you can check your bags in and get your luggage tags printed, saving time at the airport. What a great idea!


Nansen Restaurant

This evening we are treating ourselves to a meal in Longyearbyen's best restaurant (according to a local poll). The restaurant is part of the Radisson Blu hotel, and as with so many other establishments in town, is owned by Hurtigruten (a famous Norwegian shipping line).


I start with the lobster tail, which is served with a shellfish sauce with flavours of lemongrass, chilli and galangal. The meat is quite hard to get out of the shell, even with a dedicated lobster fork, but it is very tasty once I manage to liberate it, and the sauce has a slight spicy kick to it.


David chooses the Svalbard cod, which is baked with leek ash, vichyssoise foam and fried leek.


We both select the same main course: reindeer tenderloin, smoked cream cheese, sunchoke, mushrooms and a red wine sauce. The meat is very tender, and the portion is thankfully not too big.


For dessert, David has the chocolate parfait with coffee cream and whisky caramel. It is tasty but very dense.


I, on the other hand, opt for the pavlova, a meringue with fennel white chocolate cream and sea buckthorn. A lovely combination of tart and sweet, but the dish is a little on the cold side for my liking (presumably straight out of the fridge – I don't really like any food very cold, I even put ice cream in the microwave at home)


As we are getting up very early tomorrow morning, we go to bed almost immediately after dinner. On our way through reception, we notice a sign stating that the water in all of Longyearbyen is not drinkable at the moment. Thankfully we have a couple of bottles that we already filled on the ship, so that will do us for overnight.

Sunday 6th August

I have been awake from 01:30, so am seriously sleep-deprived. It is probably a combination of eating too late (or rather trying to sleep too early), a full tummy after the lovely meal last night, and maybe the 'excitement' of going home the next day. Who knows.

Last night we booked a packed breakfast, as we are leaving before they start serving in the hotel this morning. I am sad to miss the all-you-can-eat smoked salmon at the buffet, and a triple-decker sandwich of ham, cheese and salad does not in any way make up for it.

A young German girl at the hotel asks if she can share our taxi to the airport, and tells us that the airline also didn't deliver her luggage in the three days she has been here. Shame on you, SAS.

Longyearbyen Airport

We are a little too early for the check-in desks to be open this morning, so hang around chatting to Deepak, Jeanette and Svein, who are all travelling on the same flight as us. When the check-in counters open, everything is still self-service here: we put the luggage on the scales ourselves, and use a scanner to read the baggage tags we printed off yesterday. That's it.

Stuffed polar bears are everywhere in Longyearbyen, even at the airport

I am really suffering from pain in my sacroiliac joint this morning, and even struggle to lift my legs onto the footrests of the wheelchair.

The crew arrive at the gate but are unable to open the door onto the tarmac. Eventually, someone with a key arrives and lets them out, but they have the same problem trying to get onto the plane too.

The water fountains still have signs on them apropos the non-potable drinking water at the moment. In addition, there is an announcement in the waiting area: “I would just like to inform you people that we won't be serving any food on this flight, so if you are already starving, I suggest you go and buy something”. Great. We have paid for SAS Plus seats, which include in-flight meals. We buy a bottle of water, but neither of us is at all hungry, so we don't bother buying any snacks.

When it is finally time to board, my wheelchair pusher is nowhere to be seen. As the plane is just outside the glass doors, I don't bother to wait for him, but make my own way to the aircraft.

As we taxi across the runway, every bump and pothole on the surface sends shooting pains through my back, despite a triple dose of painkillers. Not only that, but my cold has gone to my sinuses, which feel like they are about to explode as soon as we take off. This is turning out to be one of my worst flights for a very long time.

I am so glad that I did not take any notice of the earlier announcement, as passengers in the SAS Plus section are given a free choice from the snacks menu: muffins, crispbread, cashew nuts or chocolate bars, or a combination of any or all of them. The captain explains that they have recently changed catering suppliers, and are having a few teething problems.

The pressure in my sinuses eases a little once we have become airborne, so I am able to catch up on some sleep. The pain starts up again as soon as we begin our descent, however.

Oslo Gardemoen Airport

As we arrive at the domestic terminal and our onward flight is from the international terminal, the air stewardess tells me there is a private car waiting to take me across. When she says “private car”, it is just that: there is a non-marked Mercedes at the bottom of the steps, and we are driven around the apron to the correct area, then taken up what looks like goods lifts with automatic doors, and through security and X-ray.

Coming through this way confuses the police at immigration (while Norway is part of the Schengen Area, Svalbard is not, which means anyone travelling to these Norwegian islands is treated as international passengers). He asks how long we are staying, and I reply: “Oh, about three hours”, which confuses him even more. The porter then explains the situation, and that we are just transitting through Gardemoen. Shortly afterwards, we go through the same procedure to get out of Norway again.

At the Gate


The onward plane is late arriving, and the crew are trying for a quick turnaround. Everyone is ushered to leave the holding area, and then one by one they are checked back in again against their passport and boarding cards. Everyone except me, David and a couple of other Special Assistance passengers, that is. Just like at Longyearbyen, the crew arrive before the doors are opened so that they too have to queue to board the plane.

As well as arriving late, the flight has an unusual amount of passengers requiring wheelchair assistance, and while there had been some good planning in place, with a number of wheelchairs stacked at the end of the ramp, there is a shortage of porters to push, so it is very slow progress to get all the passengers off.

As soon as the doors are opened, 'my' porter wheels me down to the plane and is promptly told off as the crew are not ready to receive passengers yet.

This flight is uneventful, and thankfully they are well stocked with food – we receive the same meal as on the way over, which suits me down to the ground, as it is delicious!

Great views of London as we come in to land at Heathrow



I have never seen Heathrow this quiet, in all the years I have been coming through here (at least 200 times). Where there would normally be a long line snaking around roped-off areas at immigration, there is not one person queuing, just a handful of people at the counters waiting to be let into the country. The official who we see is extremely friendly and chatty, with a great sense of humour, which is also very unusual. I guess the fact that it is so quiet takes any pressure off what must be a very stressful job so they can have time to joke with passengers.

There are a few more people at the luggage carousel, but it is certainly not crowded. The luggage seems to be very slow to arrive, but I guess we were through immigration quicker than normal.

The luggage carousel

At customs, a very sexy black guy with long dreadlocks is just putting on plastic gloves as he starts his shift. My comment “Ooh, those gloves look scary” brings out a gorgeous smile and a belly laugh. If only travelling through Heathrow would be this easy every time.

I spoke too soon. There is a huge crowd waiting for the lifts to the car park. Not every one of the eight lifts opens its doors when they arrive at our floor, nor can many people fit into them when they do. Walking up the stairs with four large items of luggage and four pieces of hand luggage (not to mention me in a wheelchair), is not an option. After nearly ten minutes, we are still not even at the front of the queue, so the lovely young porter (female) who is pushing my wheelchair suggests we go to the other side of the lifts (the car park side, as opposed to the terminal side). Sure enough, the doors open here every time the lift stops, and we have no problem getting in. How ridiculous.

This signals the end of our adventure in Svalbard, and at this point I would just like to share the map displayed on the notice board on the ship, showing the route we took, what sightings we had, and where. If you are at all tempted by a wildlife trip to Svalbard, I cannot recommend Arctic Wildlife Tours enough.


Also, David has made an excellent 5-minute video of the highlights of the trip, which you see here:

If the video fails, you can copy and paste this URL into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrARgxLfRug

If that doesn't work either, the link is here.

Footnote: The cold I have been suffering from for the last few days, turns out to be Covis-19. Thankfully it causes no great drama beyond the symptoms of a head cold.

See you next time. x

Posted by Grete Howard 16:39 Archived in Svalbard Tagged oslo london home airport cruise packing norway bears cruise_ship polar svalbard longyearbyen heathrow immigration arctic cider wheelchair adventure_travel spitsbergen heathrow_airport last_supper radisson head_cold packed_breakfast gardemoen coronavirus covid19 covid special_assistance disembarkation radisson_blu radisson_blu_polar origo adventure_cruise ms_origo spitzbergen arctic_wildlife_tours nansen_restaurant baggage_tags lobster_tail longyearbyen_airport sinus_infection sacroliliac oslo_airport car_park Comments (5)

Cruise Day 8 - 1 polar bear, glacier, bearded seal, puffins

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I struggled to get to sleep after going to bed last night, knowing that I might only get a couple of hours sleep before getting up again. At 01:30 I hear talking outside the cabin, and fifteen minutes later Vide pops his head around our bedroom door and tells us to get ready for the Zodiacs, as there is a bear out there.

Bear No. 16 at Likodden


As they start to load the camera bags into the zodiacs, I hear some serious swearing in Norwegian and see Svein looking forlornly into the abyss between the Zodiac and the Origo. In the process of handing stuff down from the deck higher up, he somehow manages to drop the ship's radio into the water. Oh, dear. At least it wasn't someone's camera equipment.


This is a very clean bear, and initially, she is sleeping. As usual, we hang around to see what she might do, and we are rewarded with a little morning bear yoga. She is very cute and is definitely worth getting out of bed in the middle of the night for.


On the way back to the ship, we somehow end up discussing the penises of various animals with the other passengers in the zodiac, with me explaining how the female hyena has a penis (in one of the presentations I do to camera clubs, I have a section on this subject)! We have found the level of humour with some of the other passengers, creating a lot of hilarity.

The crew has kindly left out some crispbread and butter for us on our return.

We go back to bed at 04:10, so we should manage to get some 2.5-3 hours kip before it is time to get up for breakfast. There is a lot of knocking and banging from the engine tonight (this morning)... ka-chunk-a ka-chunk-a ka chunk-a. I struggle to sleep, I think I am overtired.

We get up in time for breakfast, then go back to bed for a few hours to catch up on sleep. When we later emerge for lunch, my body clock is totally confused, I don't know whether it is morning, afternoon, or middle of the night. At lunch, we continue the penis conversation over sausages and mash (see the connection?). Jackie asks if she can see my aforementioned presentation of hyena sexual organs, which I just happened to have on my laptop. As you do.

Pregnant female hyena with a penis - totally irrelevant to the trip, of course, but just in case you are interested

Zodiac drive in the Lilliehöök Glacier bay


After lunch, we head out in the rubber boats, but first, we have to overcome a small problem: one of the Zodiacs won't start. Mikel and Victor pull leavers, turn switches, change the battery, and look at it from every angle wanting it to magically work. It doesn't. Eventually, they decide to change the engines over with the one on the spare boat, a bright orange one that is kept on the top deck, away from the other two daily zodiacs.

The two main zodiacs are kept in on a deck by themselves

The spare, however, is on the upper deck

Not wishing to risk losing an engine into the abyss of the Arctic waters while swapping them over from one zodiac to the other, the crew lowers the spare onto the water. As the two main inflatables are already next to the steps leading down from the ship's deck, the spare comes down further to the rear of the ship. This means, however, that there are no steps down to access the zodiac, so Johannes climbs over the railings and scales the side of the ship to get into the inflatable boat, all while wearing Crocs. The spare boat and the one with the broken engine then get hoisted up to make the switch on the zodiac deck, which takes all but a few minutes, and soon we are on our way.

The glaciers create a 180° sheltered bay, full of growlers of every size.



The experience is like nothing I have ever encountered before. Vide switches off the engine on the zodiac, and the silence of the frozen landscape is only broken by the tinkling of the bubbles trapped in the ice as they are released from their 2000-year-old captivity.



Then the thunder-like sound of the calving – sometimes internally within the glacier, but a couple that we do see on the leading edge of the glacier. I am not quick enough to photograph either of them, unfortunately. Vide calls it Viking farts. We spend an hour or so driving through the brash, crashing into the small – and sometimes large – pieces of glacier ice broken away from its parent.


The main glacier is nearly 11 km long and up to 30 metres high. The bluest parts are the freshly exposed areas where there has been a recent calving.



This place is totally magical, what an honour to be able to experience this.


Vide gets a call from Mikel that there is a seal close to the boat, so we decide to head back. What we don't realise, is that Mikel has taken the spare boat out to test the engine after repairing it, so when he is referring to 'boat', he doesn't mean Origo. He is sitting with a few of the other crew near an ice floe complete with a bearded seal sitting on top.


We circumnavigate the seal to get some pictures from his best side and notice that he is injured on his chest (plus some older scars on the back of his head), probably from a polar bear or maybe a Greenland shark.


We return to the ship for lunch... or is it dinner? No, it is afternoon tea. The 24-hour daylight is really confusing me, especially as we went out in the middle of the night and then went back to bed after breakfast.

This last Zodiac cruise has really buggered up my back, and I struggle to lift my leg over the threshold into the ship, Gunnar literally has to physically lift my foot for me. Every time I lift my leg, it sends a shooting pain down my back, and my kneecap feels like it is bouncing around inside my leg.

Kongsfjorden Bird Cliff


Thankfully we are not going out in the Zodiacs for this one, as photography is in fact much better from the ship. As we approach the area, the cliffs tower above the boat, and it looks like we are heading straight for them. The sheer cliff face has a number of little ledges that are home to guillemots and a few puffins. It is nice to see, but being in a great deal of pain, I fail to get more than mildly excited about it.



Our evening meal is delayed by half an hour tonight, in order to accommodate the puffins. We were later than planned to leave the glaciers because we saw the seal, which then, of course, had a knock-on effect on the timings. We start with a tasty fish paté with prawns in a dill mayo, and the main course is chicken in a curry sauce with rice (which makes a pleasant change from boiled potatoes), accompanied by a very nice bottle of Chablis. Dessert is yet again Ellen's famous chocolate orange balls. Not that I am complaining - they're delicious.


From here we have a three-hour cruise to a fjord where we will be landing on the beach to look for foxes. I have already decided that I won't be going; partly because as I am still in a lot of pain, I really don't want to do any serious hiking, nor do I not fancy hanging around for several hours waiting for Mr. Fox to make an appearance; and partly because I don't have rubber boots for the wet landing. Seeing the weather when we arrive, it definitely confirms that decision for me: grey, dark and rain. Jeanette has also made up her mind not to go, and we are looking forward to having the ship to ourselves for a few hours. David has gone back to bed for a nap, and I tell Vide not to wake him as I know he wasn't that keen on the idea either.

The crew has lowered the zodiacs, and one by one the other photographers arrive in the saloon, all dressed up for the outside world, hanging around awaiting instructions. After some discussions, the decision is made that we will skip this stop. Apparently, the foxes can be very hard to find, and with less-than-ideal photographic conditions, it doesn't seem worth the effort. It doesn't appear to be an unpopular decision, and soon the passengers are back into indoor clothes and raiding the fridge for beers. Having been warned that it could be rough seas for the next few hours, David and I go to bed while we can still walk in a straight line. We are both feeling a little under the weather with sore throats, so bed seems to be the best place for us.

Thank you so much to Arctic Wildlife Tours for this amazing adventure - truly a trip of a lifetime.


Posted by Grete Howard 10:52 Archived in Svalbard Tagged zodiac cruise glaciers back seal norway fox bear polar svalbard pain bubbling silence crocs painful knee spitsbergen painful_knee isbjørn origo ms_origo spitzbergen wildlife_cruise arctic_wildlife_tours artcic_wildlife bear_yoga hyena_penis lilliehook lilliehøøk engine_problem glacier_ice bearded_seal painful_back Comments (6)

Cruise Day 7 - 2 polar bears, fin and blue whales

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At some stage in the night, we left the ice floes behind and headed south. We were still 'driving dodgems' as I went to bed last night, hitting a particularly large frozen block just as I was getting up from the table, jarring my back in the process.

I take advantage of a travel-only morning to wash my hair, knowing that we won't be called on to go out in the zodiacs (not good with wet hair). I can't ever remember my hair being quite so matted. Being tied up at all times, and taking my hat on and off numerous times a day has taken its toll on it, and I struggle for a long time to get my comb through it this morning, leaving a large ball of hair behind.

Bears 14 & 15

My backside is getting increasingly sore from sitting on a hard surface all the time (the only comfortable seats on this ship are in the crew saloon), and despite having a solid eight hours of sleep I feel completely knackered this morning; so after breakfast, I tell Leiv that I am going back to bed, and to be sure to wake me for polar bears. 'We'll be there in 30 minutes' he says, so I stay. Just as well, as a mere ten minutes later we get the now familiar "Polar bear, get ready for the zodiacs" call.




There are two bears on the beach near the carcass of a walrus, and they couldn't be more different: one is reasonably clean, with a cream-coloured coat, the sort of colour you'd expect a polar bear to have. The other one might as well be a brown bear, as he is covered in so much walrus blubber that his coat is dark brown in places, especially on his legs and bum.



As we reach the beach, I notice my camera is firing on manual focus, despite the lens showing as being set to automatic. I slide the AF-MF switch a few times. No difference. I dial in various focus settings on the camera, still manual focus. By now I am panicking, thinking I shall miss the whole experience. I try to take some shots while focussing manually, but that really doesn't work in a moving zodiac. Eventually, I turn the camera off and back on again, and that seems to do the trick! Phew. I later find out from Gunnat that this can happen when you take your camera from a warm place into the cold and if switching it on and off doesn't work, taking the battery out and putting it back in again should do the trick. Useful to know.

The white (ish) bear soon walks off, climbing up the hill, leaving us with the dirty one.



He is still hungry and proceeds to the remains of what once was a walrus. The stench from the carcass is so putrid that it turns my stomach, but it doesn't seem to deter the bear. We watch him for the best part of an hour, as he tries to pull out the remainder of blubber and any other tasty morsels that might be left on this rotting dead animal. No wonder they often have diarrhoea.


When the bear circles around his dining table and turns his bum to us, it is time to leave. The fog is closing in now, giving an eerie atmosphere, Apparently, the glaciers here create a circle of dry cold air, which usually results in the bay area around the bear(s) being reasonably mist-free


From here we have a long journey ahead before we reach the next planned destination, ETA some time between 22:00 and midnight, so we have some downtime now. Lots of downtime. Too much downtime. This is what I don't like about cruises, although here it is a necessity and has been worth it, but it has helped make me decide that I won't do another cruise for a very long time. With up to ten hours of just sailing, now is the time to catch up on some sleep. My back has been getting progressively worse as time has gone on here, so I retire to bed with my ice pack which the crew has kindly kept ice cold in the freezer for me.



We have an interesting combination for this evening's meal: turkey dinner, with Brussels sprouts, creamy gravy, boiled potatoes (obviously), lingonberries, and.... melon salad.


I think Ellen calls the dessert Pineapple Tosca: slices of pineapple with an almond topping, served with a really creamy and tasty vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.



We've just finished the dessert when Mikel pops in to say there is a fin whale off the starboard side of the ship. All out. I spend a great deal of time on the top deck, trying to catch the whale as it surfaces, it being rather difficult to estimate where it is likely to come up. There are three fin whales in total and they surface many, many times.

The steps to the top deck


It's as if they are performing for us, it is quite incredible to see. The captain tells us he has never seen such a display before in all his years at sea! Sometimes they are right by the boat, as you can see from David's videos:

We finally go back inside, take our coats off, sit down, and I pick up the rum and coke that I abandoned earlier, which is now very watered down with the large chunk of glacier ice that Gustav put in.

Rum and Coke with glacier ice

This time it is Leiv who interrupts the peace: three blue whales. For a different viewpoint, I go to the bow of the ship this time, and while they don't come up to blow very often, I do manage to get a picture I am happy with.


Finally, at 23:30 we stumble into bed, knowing full well that we may be woken up again in just a few hours, as we are heading to the beach where we saw a walrus carcass (but no bears) on the way up. Vide will only wake us if there are bears there, and I confess to secretly hoping there are no bears so that I can sleep through.


Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for this amazing adventure of a lifetime.


Posted by Grete Howard 10:10 Archived in Svalbard Tagged wildlife polar_bears whales dinner safari mist bears svalbard arctic isbjørn origo spitzbergen walrus_carcass ice_floes arctic_wildlife arctic_wildlife_tours tommelbreen pack_ice ice_bear zodiacs blue_whale fin_whale Comments (6)

Cruise Day 6 - 1 bear, then mama & cub + male

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

The ship is still in the same place this morning with the engine off. We learn that this is not due to any mechanical problems, but rather that the captain decided to hang around to see what the polar bear is doing, and the noises we heard last night were just routine maintenance. The bear, however, remains uncooperative, and at 06:30 we start up and move off, in search of what else nature can offer us.

I spend the morning on the top deck enjoying the sunshine and the scenery: ice as far as the eye can see. Beyond that, some several thousands of miles away is Alaska. There are a few birds, and in the distance, a bearded seal basks on the ice. I spend some time photographing the textures on the ice.




Having a bit of fun with ICM (intentional Camera Movement)

As you can see from the flag, there is no wind this morning


Mikel, the chief officer, in the hot tub

A lone seal on a distant ice floe


Bear No. 11


After lunch of leftovers from yesterday, David retires to the cabin for a siesta, and just five minutes later news comes that Freya, Origo's sister ship, has a bear close by and has invited us over. There is a lot of friendly rivalry between our guides, Vide and Svein, and the guide on Freya, Jens, who is a good friend of theirs. Twenty minutes later we pull up alongside the other ship and spot our pixel bear (Vide's name for a bear that has been seen but is so far away that he is not worth wasting many pixels on.

MS Freya, Origo's sister ship

Some nice reflections

There is a bear in this photo, trust me!


We can tell from the way the passengers on this ship do not even seem to have their cameras out, that there is not much going on.



We stay and wait. And wait. He shifts around a bit, then goes back to sleep, And repeat. Some time later he gets up, has a poop, and goes back to bed. More shifting, rolling, sniffing. I set up the tripod with Bertha (my 600mm lens) and a 1.4 ext ready for any action. Eventually, the bear gets up and starts walking around for some considerable time, giving us a lot of opportunities for photography.









The captain manages to maneuvre the ship closer to the bear, giving us better conditions for photography.







"Does my bum look big in this?"

Dinner and bears 12 and 13

The starter this evening is a very nice broccoli soup with bacon. I share a table with Svein and Jeanette, facing the back door. Gustav nips in and out of the door getting drinks for the passengers – and after the fourth time, his face pops around the door with a perplexed look on his face, and he struggles to get his words out to the point of stammering: 'Sorry to interrupt, but, but, but.... there are two bears chasing the ship...'.


Absolute chaos ensues, with sixteen people jumping up, grabbing their camera gear and coats, and heading outside. Sure enough, there is a mama and her cub running, right towards us, jumping, swimming, standing up, splashing in the water, turning to look behind them, appearing to be very scared.







Then we see him: the large male bear from earlier. He is chasing them. Oh my goodness!



Their pitiful cries really tear at our heartstrings, and the whole experience is so surreal that I hold my breath, not believing that this is really playing out in front of us.




It almost seems like the bears – the cub in particular – are looking at us to save them, the way he stares at the ship and cries. My heart cannot take any more, it is such an emotional experience.


Suddenly the male bear pops his head up from behind a mound of snow, quite close to the mother and cub. Once again I hold my breath, as they spot him and literally run for their lives!



Not every jump goes to plan, and Baby misses his landing, making an impressive bellyflop




The shape of the bear's back in this photo reminds me very much of a hyena

Run guys, run. Run like you've never run before!










We all let out a collective sigh when they manage to increase the distance between them and the male; and eventually, the big bad male bear gives up.




He hangs around near MS Freya, whose passengers are still photographing the mama and cub.




This is the time for us to return to our dinner, especially as a burnt smell emits from the kitchen. Thankfully is is just an empty pan, not our food. We get cod in a prawn sauce. With boiled potatoes, of course (a Scandivanian obsession).


Jeanette and Svein have both left the table by the time Ellen's famous chocolate orange balls arrive, leaving all the more for me and David, who has now joined me. The next table left some balls, too, and when Ellen is clearing the tab later, she brings them over. This evening has been death by polar bears and chocolate. We go to bed very satiated.

This has got to have been the most exciting day on a most exciting trip. Thank you very much to Arctic Wildlife Tours for arranging this amazing adventure and making a long-time dream of mine come true.


Posted by Grete Howard 11:13 Archived in Svalbard Tagged birds wildlife flag seal arctic polar_bear hot_tub kittiwake ms_origo ice_floes arctic_wildlife arctic_wildlife_tours pack_ice ms_freya wildlife_tours icm intentional_camera_movement running_bear Comments (7)

Cruise Day 5 - engine trouble, hot tub, polar bear, BBQ

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At 04:30, the change of engine sound stirs me out of my slumber, and the sudden sound of an alarm finishes the rude awakening. I try to remember what we were told at the initial briefing about the number of times the bell rings means. Wasn't five bells the warning call that we have to evacuate? I open the porthole hatch and look out. We are still moving. Surely if we were to abandon ship, it would stop first. I listen out for urgent human calls but hear only muffled voices, too quiet to be able to establish what they are saying. A few minutes later the bell goes again, but this time it rings three times. I surmise that it is the engineer's alarm, and go back to bed but still keep an ear out for any calls.

Two hours later the alarm goes off again with three rings, followed by a single call a few minutes later. This time I all but ignore it, and fall into a deep sleep. It doesn't seem like I have been asleep for more than a few minutes when my alarm clock goes off at 07:00. I feel groggy and a little nauseous. David feels the same and goes up on deck to get some fresh air while I get dressed.

Engine Trouble

David ascertains from the captain and engineer that cooling fluid was leaking into one of the cylinders, and the centrifuge that separates water from the oil was giving off white smoke which set off the alarm earlier. Three out of the four non-return valves are working fine, but they are unsure which one isn't. We are now heading for somewhere safe to anchor so that they can fix the problem.

We head for a calm fjord called Beverley Sound, for Origo to throw anchor. There is not a great deal to see outside, so it is time for me to catch up on blog writing.

After a couple of hours Viktor, the ship's engineer, comes along to give us the thumbs up, having replaced a part, and tells us that "it's now working but no guarantees". Apparently, he has replaced this once before, fairly recently, so if it goes again, he is threatening to sue the company.

He gives anyone interested a guided tour of the engine room, also known as The Dungeon.

The 'Dungeon' sign on the door to the engine room

Hot tub party

For the rest of the morning, we sit on the top deck, watching the ice floes, mountains, gulls, skuas, clouds, Ellen and Gustav (the kitchen/serving staff) knitting, and the hot-tubbers. Most people were not aware that there is a hot tub onboard, as it doesn't mention it in the information from AWT, but some, like me, had done a little research about the ship before we came. Both David and I chose not to bring bathing costumes, however, as we don't feel the need to go in – I am happy just to watch (and photograph) Jackie, Karen, and Ian (and later Sabrina) soak in 40 °C while watching the Arctic scenery. They certainly enjoy it though.


Despite there being a mere 2 °C outside, it feels lovely and warm up there – at least the side that faces the sun. I start by taking my gloves off, then a short while later the hat comes off, followed by the thick coat. Even then I am feeling the heat, and I end up sunning myself in a short-sleeved top. As soon as we get out from the shelter of the fjord, it doesn't feel quite so cosy anymore. On comes the fleece, followed by the reverse order of the undressing until I am back to where I started – looking like a polar explorer. Oh, wait... I guess I am a polar explorer right now.


We return to the warmth of the mess for lunch and a bit of downtime, before returning to the top deck for more photos of ice floes and birds. Again we zigzag through the ice, avoiding as many of the frozen pieces as we can; leaving behind a clear path of our journey. The displaced ice floes slowly return to take up their old place in the pattern of nature, albeit that some of them are now broken in two or more, with the ship creating an obvious straight cut in the floes it collides with, as it just crashes through the ice with the same ease as crumbling a lump of Cheddar cheese. I love watching the power of the old girl.

The sun glistening on the water

Bird chaos


Northern Fulmar

Kittiwake with fish


Glaucous Gulls

Kittiwake seemingly flying upside down

Kittiwake with fish

Bear No. 10

After some time I start to feel the cold, and the lack of sleep from last night, so we retire to the cabin for a little nap. The next thing I know is an urgent knock on the door: "Polar Bear", prepare for the zodiacs".


It was a new record for me today: from sleep to Zodiac in five minutes. I am really getting into the swing of climbing down that ladder and into the boat now. We quickly fill up the zodiacs and head off towards where the bear was last seen. By this time the bear has dived into the water, and we initially see him swimming along for quite a long distance.



Enthusiastic photographers on board

We stay just 15 to 20 minutes with this bear, as it is obvious he is not interested. Again Origo has followed us to make it easier to go back on the ship; and on the way we rescue a large orange object left floating in the sea. Not sure what it is, or where it came from, but it shouldn't be here, that's for sure.


MS Origo

The other photographers photographing us photographing them

Gustav makes us another couple of versions of Rum Sour as we sit and look at photos before dinner.


Tonight Ulf has prepared a BBQ on the top deck, with some deliciously spicy sausages, lamb chops, and chicken, plus pasta, potatoes, and salads. Gustav and Ellen have set up a small bar and serve a complimentary fruit punch too.

Ulf cooking sausages

Vide and José

Johannes, the captain, and Viktor, the ship's engineer

The bar

Even while eating sausages Svein is on the lookout for wildlife

Complimentary fruit punch

Jeanette and David looking for bears

The food so far on this cruise has been really good, and the BBQ is no exception


For dessert, there is rhubarb crumble. Yum!


Such an amazing experience to enjoy grilled food, a nice drink, and this scenery with new-found friends.



Bear Alert

We return to the saloon to warm up, and just as we are all getting cosy and thinking of going to bed, we get another bear alert. We all pile on the bow deck, but as it is the same disinterested bear as before, we decide not to pursue it.

This time we really do go to bed. We have been warned of some turbulence in the night as we hit various ice floes along the way, so I want to make sure I am in a horizontal position before that happens. When the ship stops a couple of hours later, the engineer alarm sounds, and the engine switches off, we fear the worst – what has broken now? We hear lots of knocking and banging in the night, but no more alarms.

Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for this incredible adventure.


Posted by Grete Howard 16:15 Archived in Svalbard Tagged birds wildlife zodiac ice cruise bbq icebergs gulls arctic sunbathing polar_bear sausages fulmar hot_tub kittiwake origo adventure_cruise ms_origo ice_floes arctic_wildlife arctic_wildlife_tours arctic_safari engine_trouble beverly_sound the_dungeon hot_tub_party pack_ice photographic_safari rhubarb_crumble rum_sour Comments (11)

Cruise Day 4 - birds, 2 polar bears, walrus, cocktails

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I wake at 04:00, and when I look out of the porthole, I see we are surrounded by ice floes. I feel the occasional jolt as we barge into the ice, but it certainly didn't wake me up in the night.


I'm dressed and out on the deck by 05:00, and I am not the first: Gunnar is there already. I could spend hours just watching the little mini icebergs with their fascinating patterns float past. The smaller ones just get pushed to the side, but the bigger ones split in half (or more) as they get crushed by this ice-strengthened vessel. Some of the bigger completely flat ones start moving in a circular motion as they get pushed to one side by the bow of the ship. The captain steers in a zigzag fashion, trying to avoid the larger floes. We still get stuck in the ice several times, necessitating the use of reverse thrust and sideways movement.





The bow of the ship hits an ice floe



You can see where Origo has zigzagged through the ice

Large colonies of gulls follow the ship, and each time we disturb an ice floe, we make numerous little fish homeless, which the birds take advantage of and scoop up some easy breakfast.



Northern Fulmar


Glaucous Gull


This is a truly magical place.


Polar Bear Lecture

After breakfast Vide is giving a lecture on all things polar bears, That guy is incredibly knowledgable, on par with Gaston, our guide in Argentina, and Andrej in Romania. He has a large personality and is a great speaker, accompanying his presentation with some glorious photographs.


Bear No. 8

Just as Vide is coming to the end of his presentation, Leiv (0ne of the other guides) pops his head around the corner, requesting Vide's presence on the bridge. We all assume they have spotted a bear, of course, and Vide comes back to confirm, that there is indeed a bear, but he is a very long way (3-4 kms) away.

They start the engines to see if they can get us any nearer to the polar bear. Before we have a chance to get him to within camera-shot distance, Jeanette spots another, nearer, bear, so we head for that instead. The captain manages to get to a great distance for photography, adding some beautiful surroundings, with islands and mountains in the background.



For the next hour or so, we stay on the bow of the ship, watching the ice split, buckle and push away from the hull. The gulls are out in force again, so I try to get one with a fish in its mouth, or flying straight towards me.


Kittiwake with a little fish

This kittiwake scored big time, with a cod almost as large as he is

When it becomes too uncomfortably cold out there, we head for the mess to warm up. Followed by a buffet lunch, and for me, a triple dose of painkillers.

David is feeling the cold

Photographic equipment temporarily abandoned on the deck

Down time

The afternoon is spent travelling, which for passengers means chatting, editing, reading, playing cards/games, snoozing, drinking coffee, or braving the elements to photograph the passing ice floes or distant mountains.

Afternoon tea is accompanied by semlor (plural of semla) today, a Swedish speciality that I have heard about, but never tried. These are another one of Ellen's creations: sweet buns filled with almond paste and whipped cream.


The painkillers I took earlier have completely knocked me out, and I spend some time napping sitting on the bench in the mess. There are no comfortable seats on board the ship, in fact in the cabin there is no seating at all, and the top bunk prevents me from sitting on the bed, too. The bench in the mess is not at all comfortable, so I end up with a very painful pelvis after a while. Most of the other photographers are editing their photos on their laptops, something I don't feel like doing. I find the laptop screen way too small to be able to see any details in the images, and I don't feel in control of the mouse, either (I use a trackball at home, which I so much prefer).

The crew have been out getting ice from the glaciers for pre-dinner drinks, so it seems rude not to have a cocktail to utilise it. We ask Gustav to surprise us with two different rum cocktails.


Both drinks are rum sours, just prepared differently, the one on the left has crushed lime and egg white. They are both delicious!


The camera equipment seems to have moved indoors now, on what has become known as 'The Equipment Table'.



We share a table with Jackie, Ian, Deepak and Gunnar, having a laugh-a-minute, as everyone shares a similar sense of humour, with quick-witted responses and risqué play on words.

Tonight the main course is salmon – with boiled potatoes, of course.

The dessert is amazing: merengues with ice cream, bananas, and caramel sauce.

Polar Bear No. 9

In the distance, on the pack-ice, is a lone bear. She is not very obliging - we are hoping that she will get closer, but she insists on doing her yoga far, far away: rolling over on the ice, and being super-cute in the process.



From the stern of the boat, we can see a colony of walruses, dipping in and out of the water. Again, they are rather too far away to get decent photos.


The scenery here is stunning and worth photographing in its own right. I love the orange and blue reflections.


Everyone gradually returns to the warmth of the mess to warm up. I grab a coffee and take some painkillers, although I take care not to have as many as I did earlier today, as I felt really quite out of it afterwards.

At 22:20 the sun comes out, bathing those floating blocks of ice and dark mountains with streaks of snow in a glorious light.


Having earlier switched the engine off, the captain starts moving the ship in large circles, mainly to break up the ice around it. We were starting to drift towards the shore (it is too deep to cast the anchor), which could be very dangerous, as we really don't want to be grounded.

The plan is to move around and stay here until (if) the bear moves closer (the ice is too thick for us to manoeuvre closer to her), so that we can get some beautiful backlit shots.

Most people are hanging around in the mess, but one by one they start to drift off to bed, including David. In the end, there is only me, Jeanette, and Deepark left. We call it a day, too, and Deepak kindly helps carry my gear down to the cabin.

Tonight we really do have the midnight sun, so much so that I feel the need to close the hatch on the porthole to keep the sunshine out. Neither David nor I have any problems sleeping in daylight, but direct sunshine in our eyes is likely to disturb our sleep.

Half an hour after I bunk down, they have obviously given up waiting for the polar bear to cooperate, and we start moving through the pack ice. The experience is exhilarating and irritating at the same time, a little bit like trying to sleep in a Dodgem car. Each time we hit an ice floe, we get buffeted to the side. That plus the gentle normal swaying of the ship makes for an interesting experience. Someone else likens it to the feeling of turbulence in an aircraft. I struggle to get off to sleep this evening, the first time on this trip.

Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for making this amazing dream come true.


Posted by Grete Howard 15:22 Archived in Svalbard Tagged landscape scenery norway bear svalbard iceberg gulls arctic polar_bear fulmar walrus painkillers isbjørn origo ms_origo spitzbergen bjørn ice_floes arctic_wildlife arctic_wildlife_tours kittwake Comments (5)

Cruise Day 3 - bird cliff, fighting birds, 5 polar bears

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

According to the daily itinerary on the board in the mess, we are going out in Zodiacs at 09:30 (which may change, according to what is spotted by the guides and captain). As soon as we have finished breakfast, Svein wants us to go out sooner, so it is all a bit of a rush to get ready with insulation suits, life jackets, and camera gear.

Zodiac Excursion No. 3

The sea is like a mill pond this morning, making getting into the inflatable much easier. I employ my new trick with the ropes helping me descend the steps and into the zodiac, and it works well.

Guillemot colony at Alkefjellet


Freya, Origo's sister ship, saw a mama bear with two adult cubs earlier, but by the time we get there, they are gone. We decide not to hang around to wait for her to return, so we head for the Guillemot colony at Altefjellet instead.


The rocks are fascinating, with basalt pillars, some huge and looking like they are just about to tumble down 'any minute now' - in the next few hundred thousand years, I mean, which is 'any minute now' in the life of those rocks.





A number of waterfalls tumble down the side of the rugged cliffs, bouncing off shelves and splashing into the sea below.







The birds are perched on any available ledge on the cliff, they fly, either singularly, or in one long line, as if they are pulled along on a string by the leader.

Brünnich's Guillemot


The rare Black Guillemot

Black Backed Gull eating a Guillemot


Glaucous Guillemot

Common Guillemot


Glaucous Gull

There is also a serious fight between two guillemots, which goes on for several minutes until we have a winner!







On the way back to the Origo, we spot a bear sleeping on the rocks in the distance, quite high up the mountain. We stay for a short while, but Vide suggests that it would be better viewed from the ship, as it will be more eye level. Vide radios the ship, which comes to pick us up rather than us travelling back to them. David likens it to calling an Uber.



Here you can see the birds flying in a long thin line

Bear No. 3

He is right. The view from the top deck of the Origo gives a much better perspective than from the Zodiac. The captain gets as close as he can, which is not bad at all – the hillside on which the bear is sleeping drops steeply off into the ocean.


The bear shifts around a bit, looks up, then goes back to sleep. Changes position, yawns, then goes back to sleep. This goes on for a while and we are all happily clicking away until Ulf, the chef, announces that lunch is ready.


Zodiac Excursion No 4

I leave everything (camera gear, coat, and bag) on a table in the mess when I go in to have my lunch, which is just as well. Before everyone has had a chance to even finish their food, Sven rushes in to tell us to hurry up – there is a mama bear and two cubs on the move.

Bears No. 3, 4, 5, and 6 on Tommeløya



The mum and cubs are swimming, and playing in the water, initially in the middle of the fjord, then they move across to the edge of the mountain. First, mama climbs out of the water, then her babies. 'Be careful, there is another large bear around', Vide says, as if the mum and her offspring can hear and understand her. Being down on the water in a small inflatable craft has that effect on us all - we feel like we are very much part of nature, not just admiring it from afar.









Sure enough, our original family zigzags up the hillside, first to the right, then to the left. The two cubs manage to reach the top of the ridge, posing nicely for us, when the bear we saw on this island earlier appears. Depending on the bear's gender, this could spell disaster for the youngsters. It seems it must be a female, as the siblings see her off. Had this been a male, the outcome is more likely to be him chasing the cubs, and even possibly attacking and eating them. The whole experience is well beyond my wildest expectations for this trip. We are all totally in awe, including the guides.











Meanwhile mama bear is busy having a poo and rolling around in the snow.






Bear No 7 at Tommelsbreen

While we are busy getting super excited about the scene playing out in front of us, Vide gets a message from the Origo: they have seen a polar bear on the shore near the ship. Once all the bears we have been busy watching have gone over the ridge and we can no longer see them, we go off to check out the bear near Origo.



It's a lone male, who has feasted on a walrus carcass, and he now has indigestion. We follow him as he walks along the beach, obviously feeling uncomfortable. He poops, lays down, grimaces, and walks back to the area with the food supply, but doesn't seem to be interested in eating. I am guessing he has eaten too much already.


The stripe you see across the side of the bear in these pictures is not some sort of fancy barber-work, nor is it a birth defect. It is merely a tide mark, with the bottom half of the animal still wet from a recent swim, with the top half having remained dry.







We always go out in two zodiacs with six passengers and two guides in each.




Time to call it a day. Apparently, these sort of quality sightings rarely happen, so we have been exceptionally lucky so far. As Vide says, the norm is to return from a cruise such as this having seen around ten bears, of which only two have been great sightings in terms of photography. We see FIVE in one day.

Once back on board the mothership, we head north for several hours, giving me the opportunity to wash my hair without any fear of being called out for a last-minute Zodiac ride. Going out with wet hair in this cold would not be a good idea.


We have a three-course meal tonight – I guess because it is Saturday night, it's a special treat.

The starter is lefse with tuna mayonnaise and a little salad, the main course is a beef patty which I knew back in Norway as medisterkaker, which is always served with fried onion, boiled potatoes, and lingonberries. For dessert, there are Ellen's homemade chocolate orange bombs. It is all very good.



On our way down to bed, we meet Mickel, the chief officer, carrying two bottles of wine. He tells us he has a tradition of having some red wine with his meal every Saturday night. Mickel is the only crew member from Finland (all the others are Swedish), and is such a sweet guy and a delight to chat with. He has one of the nicest smiles I have seen for a very long time, his whole face lights up when he grins, including his gorgeous eyes.

Heading north, we will be hitting the pack-ice some time after midnight, and Vide warns us that it will be like sleeping in a pinball machine each time we hit an ice flow. I fall asleep just after 21:00, fully expecting to be woken up several times overnight.

Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for making this dream a reality.


Posted by Grete Howard 10:56 Archived in Svalbard Tagged waterfalls rocks zodiac glacier bear svalbard gulls polar_bear basalt pinball guillemots isbjørn origo ms_origo spitzbergen high_arctic guillemot bjørn bird_cliff artctic arctic_wildlife photography_cruise wildlife_cruise arctic_wildlife_tours alkefjellet bird_fight tommeløya tommelbreen polar_bears_swimming mama_bear Comments (8)

Cruise Day 2 - guillemot colony, polar bears, ice shelf

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I wake up at just after 04:00, having had 7½ hours of sleep, which is pretty darned good in my book! I only woke once in the night, feeling cold and getting under the quilt rather than sleeping on top of it as I had been. The team made the decision not to stop at the huge bird colony in the night as suggested, rather we'll come back this way in a few days' time. Apparently, it is 3 °C and 99% humidity out there today, and the sea is very much calmer this morning We learn that many people were seasick last night. I get up at around 05:00 and sit in the lower lounge typing up my journal.

Polar Bear No 1 & 2 at Wahlbergøya


Sabrine comes into the mess to inform us of two faraway bears. She is right, They really are far away, one on a hillside to the left, and the other on a glacier to the right. Between the two is an old whale carcass, which has obviously been buried by the snow over winter and is now exposed. We stop for a while to scout them out, then move on, being promised that we will return later.

That pale blob on the dark background is a polar bear, trust me.

Guillemot colony

Although this cliff does not have as many inhabitants as the one we didn't stop at yesterday, it is pretty impressive nonetheless. There are literally hundreds of guillemots glued to the side of the cliff. For this sighting, we all just photograph from the front of the ship. There is not a great deal of space there, as it is obviously pointed in shape, and everyone crowds into the pointy bit, so if you arrive late, you end up at the back or on the periphery.





David went down for a little snooze earlier, so Ellen once again goes down to wake him up for food. Lunch today is fish, tartare sauce and a pasta salad. Plus boiled potatoes, of course. Scandinavians have a massive thing about boiled potatoes! I miss out on the fish and just eat the potatoes and pasta with some peas and tartare sauce.

After lunch we return to the area where the two bears were earlier, and cast anchor; the plan is to wait it out and hope they get hungry again soon. Bears can easily spend up to 18 hours sleeping after a meal, and we don't know how long they have already been sleeping. David and I spend some time in the mess chatting with Jackie about travel experiences, and after a while, David goes back for another nap.

Bears 1 & 2, again

Not long after he leaves, the bear on the hill walks down to the glacier at water level, jumps in, and swims off. When David returns he notices that the bear has disappeared, and I tell him what we saw. He just smiles, not believing me until much later when I show him the photos.



This afternoon the Zodiacs are going out to get nearer the bears, but I decide it is too much swell for me to feel safe going in and out of the small inflatable, so I stay on board with Bertha and a 1.4 extender. I can see and photograph them, but the haze is causing too much lack of detail in my photos.

Big Bertha, my 600mm f/4 lens




The zodiac is nowhere near as close as it looks, the long lens creates a distorted perspective

After the others are back, Jeanette approaches me to say that Vide wants to try and take me out to see the bears this afternoon, and shortly afterwards, he comes to discuss how we can do it so that I don't panic and struggle when entering the zodiac. I suggest tying a rope to the top of the steps for me to hold on to as I climb down. He likes that idea and tells me to get ready.

Zodiac Excursion No. Two

David is asked if he wants to come along too, so the three of us, plus Mickel (the chief officer) and Marcus, the deckhand, go off. The rope, in which several knots have been tied, helps give me confidence, (it's a bit of a control thing) and instead of walking down the steps forward, I go backwards, with Vide and Mickel catching me at the bottom. It works really well, and I get in without too much trouble.

We head straight for the whale carcass. The big bear that was there earlier, has left, leaving way for the smaller rival to get some food. He is swimming across from our left, and as soon as he reaches the edge of his dining table, he walks out of the water, shakes himself, and strolls along to get a late lunch. Yet again he shakes off the water, and I am delighted to get some pictures that the others didn't. I feel so special and so well looked after, as Vide says, it is not often they do these VIP boat trips.








As this has been an 'extra' Zodiac excursion, we don't stay ,ore than about 15 minutes, but that is plenty for me to take lots of pictures before we head back to the Origo.

Power Nap

I can't wait to check out the images I got, so I get the laptop out and edit a handful. We then retire to the cabin for a snooze. With 24-hour daylight, sightings can happen at any time, so it is best to sleep when you can. I fall asleep on my back and wake up stiff and sore, struggling to get out of the lower bunk. There is not much head space, so I can't sit up in bed and I have to twist my back to get out.

Bråsvellbreen Glacier


Austfonna, which the glacier is part of, is the third largest ice shelf in the world (after Ross in Antarctica and Greenland) and it is mightily impressive. 25-30 metres high, the colour of the ice ranges from white, through grey to an icy blue. There are small veins of dirt, giving the appearance of cave drawings.



In the distance we see a waterfall tumbling down from the top of the shelf, and then another smaller one. These waterfalls are more of a concern as far as global warming goes than the bits of ice breaking off glaciers, as it means that the top layer of the ice field is melting, and at 7,800 km², just a few millimetres of surface water is a massive amount of ice loss. Every 75 metres or so along the side of the shelf is a cascade of water coming down.





Those individual waterfalls are quite something, but this ice cave with several waterfalls inside it completely blows my mind.


We hang around here for a while, with the intention of flying our drone from the top deck (the only place not obscured by masts). Each time we try to take off, it crashes to one side, with a message on the controller stating that the motor is blocked from working. Svein confirms that this is quite normal in Svalbard, and is probably because of the amount of metal on the ship. In fact, his own drone goes out of control at one stage.

Svein's drone

I stay on deck photographing the ice shelf and its waterfalls, the fulmars skimming the surface of the water, the pack ice in the distance, and the intricately formed icebergs floating past. Every now and again we hit one of them with a jolt and a crunch. The ship is ice-strengthened, and it s perfectly safe – mind you, that is what they said about the Titanic. Felicia, the ship's able seaman, joins me, and she shares my excitement as this is her first time in the Arctic as well.

Northern Fulmar



Glaucous Gull


The edge of the ice shelf - or is that the end of the world?

Eventually the cold (1 °C) gets to me, and when my face is so frozen that I can no longer speak, I reluctantly retire to our cabin at midnight.

Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for making this dream a reality.


Posted by Grete Howard 19:27 Archived in Svalbard Tagged waterfalls zodiac glacier norway bear svalbard icebergs gulls arctic bunk_beds polar_bear carcass icefield fulmar drone guillemots origo ms_origo spitzbergen walrus_carcass high_arctic guillemot icebjørn bjørn vip_boat_trip vip_treatment power_nap bråsvellbreen austfonna glacier_waterfalls icefloes ice_floes wahlbergøya bird_cliff Comments (5)

Cruise Day 1 - whales, walruses and seals

I slept surprisingly well last night, the warmth, with the gentle swaying of the ship and the noise of the engine. I wake up at 05:30, and get up a little later, sitting out in the little lounge area just outside our cabin to get my journal up together.

Breakfast is a self-serve buffet, and we wander around the ship on various levels after that. It is considerably colder than yesterday, with a low mist hanging heavily over the distant mountains. There is also a very slight drizzle.



Someone shouts 'whale' and we all gather around outside to see. A few breaches later and he's gone – a young (maybe 5-6 years old) humpback whale. I am struggling to manoeuvre Big Bertha (my 600mm lens), even on a tripod, but I do manage to get a few photos before the whale disappears.




Someone has spotted a walrus mum and her sub-adult cub on an ice floe, but by the time we get close enough to take photos, they both jump in the ocean and out of sight.

Svein and Vide lower one of the Zodiacs to go out on a recce to see what is about. They come back with reports of a walrus carcass, and spoke to some people on another boat who spent several hours last night watching a polar bear eat from the walrus remains. They haven't seen the bear for around ten hours, however.

Vide and Svein checking out the surroundings

Svein makes a plan: lunch at 12:30, and Zodiac trip with landing at 13:15 to first go and see the large walrus colony, then pop by the dead walrus to see if the polar bear has returned.

Lunch is self-serve, which suits me fine, as I really don't want too much to eat. It's pasta with a lovely – and slightly spicy – creamy chicken sauce.

Zodiac trip no 1

This is what I have been concerned about: getting in and out of the small inflatable boat. There are several people helping, and I make it down the steep steps fairly easily. I am really scared to step onto the inflated part of the boat, but both Svein and a member of the crew are there to help and reassure me.


I'm in, without any incident. Many passengers have brought their long prime lenses (400mm, 500mm, and 600mm) on this excursion, but as I am not going to go ashore, I just take my 100-400mm lens with a 1.4x attached. Big Bertha would be too heavy and unwieldy to use while bobbing up and down in a small boat.

Walrus Colony at Amsterdamøya


I decide that I do not want to do the landing, for several reasons: the problem of getting in and out of the Zodiac, it is a wet landing and my walking boots, while being completely waterproof, do not have very high sides. The actual walking would not be a problem for me, but the standing around would, as well as the fact that I cannot kneel or lie on the ground to take photos.



After leaving the others on the beach, Svein very kindly does a drive-by on the inflatable for me while the rest slowly approach the colony on foot. I get a good view from the water too, plus the added benefit that I can get close to the walruses that are swimming in the sea.



What we see today is a colony of around 30-40 males. They have a total lack of need for personal space, lying on top of each other, urinating straight up, and rolling around in each other's faecal matter.



The main function of the enormous tusks is to help the walrus move about on land. In other words: they are giant ice axes!



The drizzle comes and goes, and for a while, I take photos straight into the rain, and after just a couple of shots, the front element of the lens is covered in lots of fine droplets. I spend almost as much time wiping the rain off the lens as I do taking photos.

It's time to leave the walruses behind and see what else nature has to offer us today. Svein and I go back to pick up the others. The tide has since gone down a little, and the landing area is now very shallow, making it difficult to cast off. Svein orders Jeanette to jump off and help push the dinghy out. She has no success. Svein himself gets out, and he too is unable to get the Zodiac off the beach. Jeanette, Jose, and Peter all jump out, and between them, they have some success. The two lads get back on board, and Svein joins Jeanette for a last push. The water is now quite deep, so when both Svein and Jeanette get back in, they end up ungracefully rolling into the small craft. Jeanette is soaked through, her boots filled with water.

Harbour Seals - Virgohamna


We head for the place where the half-eaten walrus is, and while the carcass is still there, there is no sign of the polar bear. The bay is known for its large colony of harbour seals, but Svein thinks the polar bears will have scared them off, as there are only two brave souls left. This is the most northerly colony of harbour seals in Europe. It is fun watching them bounce on the rocks, almost as if they are a rubber ball – with very little agility, this is what they do when they want to move.





Trying to get that low-level shot

Two hours after leaving the mothership, we return to base, cold and wet, but happy, with many images on the memory cards. The swell is slightly higher now than when we set out, and Svein warns that it could be difficult getting out. My heart sinks. I am last out, but after a couple of abandoned attempts and a little bit of a panic, I manage to make it from the zodiac floor, to the yellow box, onto the side, and then the platform. Climbing the steps is not too bad, and the crew is very kind, looking after me all the way. By the time I reach the top, I receive a warm round of applause.

After changing out of our wet clothes, we join most of the other passengers in the mess, writing up my blog and backing up my photos, while many of the others also edit their pictures. All this fresh air and excitement has made us all very sleepy. David goes back to the cabin for a siesta, but I would prefer to stay awake in order to be able to sleep better tonight.

I am a Walrus

At 17:00, Vide gives a fascinating slide presentation on walruses. He has a commanding voice and presence, an incredible English accent and vocabulary (he grew up between Norway and Sweden, has lived in Australia and USA, and his partner of 15 years is Australian), and imparts many interesting facts about these large animals, which I have to admit that I knew very little about beforehand.


The waves are bigger now that we are continuing further north along the east coast, and the swells are making it quite difficult to walk. Yet again David returns to catch up on zzzz, while I continue with the blog.


As per Swedish tradition, we have pea soup and pancakes today, accompanied by a small glass of a sweet, hot alcoholic drink known as punch. Apparently, at least 25% of Swedes will be eating this every Thursday. I love both pea soup and pancakes so that suits me fine. We are a bit thin on the ground this evening, David has not come back up from his sleep, so Ellen (one of the crew who works on kitchen/serving/cleaning duties) goes down to knock him up (so to speak). Neither Svein nor Jeanette is here, and Deepak is missing (I learn later that he suffered from seasickness).

The plan for the next 12 hours or so (crossing the 80° latitude on the way), is to continue until we get to the north of the archipelago, then turn east for a while, and then south again into a channel between two islands. Depending on the wind, we may or may not stop at a bird cliff with thousands of guillemots half way down the channel. As this would be around 04:30, we go straight to bed after dinner to make sure we can get some decent sleep.

Towards the end of the dinner, David starts feeling a little nauseous, which quickly gets worse and worse. While I sort out all the stuff in the cabin, he goes back up again to fetch my camera which I left behind on a table in the mess. He is sick on the way back (in the toilet, I hasten to add), and by the time he returns to our room, he is feeling much better.

We settle into the bunks, hoping the voyage won't be too rough. The gentle swaying sends me to sleep fairly quickly.

Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for making this dream a reality.


Posted by Grete Howard 11:11 Archived in Svalbard Tagged zodiac cruise norway photography whale svalbard seals seasickness harbour_seals walrus origo ms_origo spitzbergen big_birtha walrus_colony walrus_carcass amsterdamøya virgohamna ships_mess walrus_presentation Comments (3)

Longyearbyen - Boarding MS Origo

Time to get acquainted with Svalbard

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Tuesday 25th July 2023

When I wake at 02:15, I pull the black-out curtains aside to see full daylight outside. This far north, the sun will not set until the 23rd August, although it is hiding behind a cloud at the moment. I take a couple of photos and go back to bed.



What an amazing spread! There are not just the usual cooked breakfast items, but a selection of various deli meals, smoked salmon, yogurts, cereals, fruits, and vegetables, and of course, the brown Norwegian cheese!


Gjetost on the right, the infamous Norwegian goat cheese that tastes more like fudge than cheese

Journal writing

For the last ten years or so, I have only typed up my blog after I returned home from the trip. Before that I would type it up, edit a few photos and publish an entry every evening, but found it was taking too much time away from enjoying our trip. I still make lots of detailed notes of everything that happens along the way, of course.

This time, because I still haven't finished the blog entries from the previous trip, and when we get back from Svalbard, we do not have a very long gap before the next one, I thought I'd bring the laptop with me and try to keep up to date with the journal. I am also thinking that there will be a fair amount of downtime on this cruise, and with such a small cabin, we are unlikely to go to the room and chill (which is what we often do on our trips), so I might as well utilise that time to get the blog entries typed up almost as and when they happened.

When I get my laptop out this morning, however, I discover that we have somehow forgotten to pack the charging lead. Oh, dear. The one time I decide to use the laptop, I am scuppered! The girl in reception suggests that the local Co-op may stock such supplies, and sure enough, they have a universal laptop charger that will fit many different brands. I am guessing we are far from the first people who have omitted packing a charger.



We return to Barentz Gastropub for lunch. Today the pub is quiet, with just a handful of patrons. We look around and try to guess if any of them are going to be on our ship. The two middle-aged Japanese men? The rather nerdy-looking chap carrying an SLR in his pocket? The lone woman we also saw in here last night? It's a fun game, we will know tomorrow evening if any of them are indeed with us on the cruise. The organisers recommended arriving at least 24 hours early in case of flight cancellations or luggage not arriving, so there is every possibility that our fellow passengers may be hanging around today, just like us.

Feeling on top of the world


David orders a Barents Burger with Cheddar, salad, caramelised onion, crispy onion, pickled cucumber, smoked aioli, and cheesy fries.


I am tempted by the cheeseburger with Cheddar, bacon mayonnaise, salad, mushroom, onion, and fries. It is the bacon mayonnaise that attracts me, although I struggle to make out its taste.


I manage to finish the burger itself, but the bun and the fries have me beaten. David, on the other hand, claims he "doesn't want to appear piggish," so he leaves three chips.

My leftovers

David did better than me

After lunch, I pop outside to take some photos of the hotel and check out how far away the shopping centre is for possible lunch tomorrow.

We make the most of the room facilities this afternoon, as tomorrow we will be homeless for the best part of the day after checking out in the morning and boarding the ship at 18:00.

Dinner at Funktionærmessen Restaurant

We order a taxi to take us to Funken Hotel to eat at their restaurant. It's another hotel and restaurant owned by Hurtigruten (a famous Norwegian Cruise company), and while it is fairly plain from the outside, as soon as we enter it looks rather posh. There are no signs of the restaurant, nor anyone around to ask, so we head for the lift. Again there is no indication on which floor the restaurant is, so we press 2 for Reception, where we approach the guy behind the counter. This is the correct floor, and he motions behind and says “Go right through”, It certainly isn't easy to find, as we end up walking through a couple of different rooms with seating areas, and a dining room with a RESERVED sign on the door before we reach the restaurant - which looks deserted.





A delightful young girl takes us to a super table by enormous panoramic windows looking out over Longyearbyen, handing us the menu and wine list We know it is going to be posh – and expensive - when we see that they have half a dozen different caviars on the menu, as well as over 200 different champagnes.


When we see the price of the wine, the cheapest bottle being £60, we also know we'll be sticking to water this evening.

While we wait to order: home made brioche with whipped brown butter and lingonberry powder

David decides on the three-course set menu, while I choose from the a la carte section:

David's starter: Hitra crab (a Norwegian crab, apparently), with green gazpacho and lobster oil crisp (that fancy red thing on top)


His main course: Rack of lamb, creamed aubergine with meat juices and herbs, olive crumbles, and grilled red pepper


My starter is King crab and lobster ravioli with lobster bisque, but somehow I manage to omit to take a photo. This is my favourite dish of the evening – as I tell the waitress: it is plate-lickingly good.

Turbot served with peas and spinach, chanterelle hollandaise sauce (yum), and crispy turbot skin.


We both have the same dessert: chocolate mousse, stratos*, and caramelised white chocolate ice cream.


  • *Stratos is a well-known Norwegian chocolate bar, and when David came to visit me in Norway in 1976, the first Norwegian phrase he learned was "en Stratos, takk".

We get a cab back to the hotel, and while David goes to bed a little earlier, I stay up to check out the midnight sun. Yet again it hides behind a cloud.

Wednesday 26th July 2023

We have managed to secure a late check-out from the room today, from 11:00 to 14:00. The plan is that we'll have a late (and big) breakfast, keep the room until 14:00, then go for lunch. That way the afternoon won't be so long until we board the ship at 18:00.


There are two different smoked salmon on the buffet this morning. I also grab some mango and melon yogurt with muesli, dried bananas, linseeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds.




Longyearbyen is a small settlement of just over 2,400 inhabitants, from 53 different nations, the largest group being Russians. The lingua franca appears to be English. It's a small settlement, and we walk from one end to the other on the main pedestrian path this morning, stopping on the way back for a hot chocolate. I have to admit that I never expected to be sitting outside in a short-sleeved shirt while I was here.


Longyearbyen is home to the most northerly... well, pretty much everything, such as this taco truck.

Stuffed polar bears seem to be everywhere



Svalbard has only 25 miles of road

Kindergarten on the left. You are not allowed to give birth on Svalbard, a few weeks before the due date, pregnant women are sent to the mainland.



There are more snowmobiles in Longyearbyen than people

Lunch at Barentzpuben

After checking out and paying the bill at 14:00, we store the luggage in the dedicated store room and head for lunch. Svalbard is so crime-free that there is not a secure storage area like there is in most hotels, this is just a large room off the entrance, behind the cloakroom, As with most of northern Scandinavia, every hotel and restaurant has a large cloakroom for coats, and also encourage patrons to leave their outdoor shoes there and change into inside shoes.

Our bags in storage


We share a Thai pizza, which leaves us room for a dessert of crème brulee with raspberry ice cream (yummy).

Minced beef, mushrooms, onion, peanut, coriander, lime and coconut dressing


We linger for a while, then just as we are enjoying a cappuccino, we receive a message from Jeanette at Arctic Wildlife Tours (the company who arranged our cruise) that the captain wants to get away early, so could we be at the quay between 16:30 and 17:00 instead of the previously agreed 18:00, leaving us around ten minutes to get sorted. This suits us fine, as all we are doing is hanging around wasting time until we leave.


We rearrange the taxi for the earlier time, collect our luggage, and head for the harbour. There is quite a walk from where the taxi drops us off to the place the Origa is moored, along fairly narrow floating pontoons. I grab a long flat trolley for all our luggage, which proves to be unwieldy and difficult to manoeuvre. As soon as we arrive at the mooring, we are greeted warmly, and the crew takes over, ferrying our luggage to our cabin and returning the trolley to its original place in the car park.

The unruly trolley

MS Origo, our home for the next eleven days

Origo is a Swedish-built ship, and sailing under the Swedish flag. As they are sailing in the Norwegian waters, they are obliged to also display a Norwegian flag. I think the size difference between the two flags on this ship clearly shows the (usually) friendly rivalry between the two nations.


While the cabin is small, as expected, there is a surprising amount of storage space, with a closet, a chest of drawers, and two huge drawers under the bottom bunk.



The cabin even has our names outside

Just outside our cabin is a small seating area, with a beautiful inlaid table and a piano. Yes, a piano. We spend the remainder of the cruise trying to work out how they got that down the stairs (we think they must have lowered it by crane through a hatch that we see evidence of in the ceiling).

From our cabin, we have to climb a series of four steps, over a high ledge, up a further steep staircase, then across another high threshold.

The first steps

The second stairs

This, the steepest threshold leading out onto the desk, proved too much for my poorly knee

We empty the large bags and leave them outside for the crew to store for the duration of the voyage, and go off to explore the ship and take some photos. Eventually, everyone gathers in the mess, while we wait for the last person to arrive. Although Deepak arrived two days ago like we did, his luggage did not (and nor did the airline bother to send it on any of the four subsequent flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen), so he has been busy trying to replenish his wardrobe.

The dining/lounge area, known as the mess in ship-speak.

The bar area, which is also used for breakfast and lunch buffet

Once we were all present and correct, the captain sets sail, heading for the refuelling station, while the passengers get a briefing about the voyage.

Refuelling ship moored off the coast near Longyearbyen


Able seaman Felicia shows us how to put on the floatation suit in case of an emergency

We are a mixed bunch, with two friends from the UK travelling together (Jackie and Ian – both in our age bracket), a mother and her 21-year-old son from the Netherlands (Karen and Pieter), a father and daughter from Norway (Bjørn And Cecilie) who are with a friend (Gunnar), another Norwegian. José from Colombia (a young chap in his 30s), Sabrine from Germany, and Deepak from Canada make up the passengers.

As dinner approaches, we are thrown out of the mess so that they can lay the tables, so we do some more exploring.



Captain Johannes on the bridge


We share a table with Sabrine, who is very pleasant company. As expected, most passengers are very well travelled, and we all share stories from various parts of the world. We are served a delicious prawn salad on bread for starters, and the main course is a pork steak with a tasty sauce, and some cute, very salty potatoes.



After dinner, I head for the top deck where I sit and enjoy the sunshine. This evening we are travelling up the west coast of the archipelago, so the scenery consists of distant mountains, a few birds darting around, and sea. Lots of sea. We chat with Vide (one of the guides) for quite a while, and he promises to look after me for getting in and out of the Zodiacs – something that is of great concern to me.



After all the excitement today I feel quite tired, so retreat to bed early. The cabins are overly warm – the crew know about it, but claim that it takes time for it to cool off after they have turned the heat down. We leave the cabin door ajar as we go to bed. David, of course, has to climb up into the top bunk, which he managed after a couple of attempts. The gentle rolling of the ship, and the noise of the engine, soon send me to sleep.

Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for arranging this amazing voyage.


Posted by Grete Howard 12:31 Archived in Svalbard Tagged harbour adventure cruise breakfast pizza svalbard longyearbyen burger arctic polar_bear midnight_sun turbot stratos breakfast_buffet smoked_salmon refuelling arctic_voyage arctic_adventure artctic_wildlife_tours radisson_blu_polar polar_region brown_cheese gjetost barentz_gastropub barentzpuben pub_lunch 24_hour_daylight funktionærmessen funken_hotel isbjørn hitra_crab luggage_storage ms_origi origo adventure_cruise Comments (5)

Bristol - Heathrow - Oslo - Longyearbyen

The start of another trip

View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.


Back in February, I was browsing through Facebook while on a ferry back from France, when I came across an advert for a photography cruise to Svalbard. By the end of the day, I had booked it. This has to be one of my most exciting – and expensive – impulse buys. Follow my blog to read all about it.

Sunday 23rd July 2023

Home - Heathrow

I am desperately trying not to sleep in the car on the way up to Heathrow, as we are planning on a very early night tonight, ready for the flight tomorrow morning.

Premier Inn

We are delighted when we discover that we have two large beds in the room. Usually, their twin rooms are one proper double bed, plus one converted sofa bed – the latter being rather uncomfortable, Here we have a proper bed each.


Another good thing about the room is that it has air conditioning, something that is not the norm in Premier Inns.

Thyme Restaurant
We have time for a quick freshen-up and change before going for dinner at 17:45. There are a number of children in the restaurant, which is only to be expected this early in the evening, but I am delighted to find that they are all very well behaved, and no trouble at all. It is uncomfortably hot in the restaurant, however, which is disappointing after the lovely air-conditioned rooms

While David has his usual steak and ale pie, I choose the hoisin noodles with three added jumbo prawns. What a disappointment. The sauce is very thin and pretty tasteless, and the prawns are overcooked and tough.



The dessert of tiramisu is not much better, with very little taste of coffee, and instead of sponge fingers, they have used chocolate cake.

After dinner we go straight to bed at 19:45. My idea earlier of not sleeping in the car on the way here worked, as I go straight into a deep sleep. I wake at 22:15, however, and am too excited to be able to go back to sleep for the rest of the night.

At some stage in the night, I receive a text message from SAS explaining that the flight is full, and they are allowing passengers to check in their carry-on free of charge. No thanks, I have packed everything I need in the hand luggage in case the main bags do not arrive, such as thermal underwear and a spare set of clothing, plus, of course, the camera gear and medical stuff that has to be with us at all times. I hope there will not be any problems at check-in tomorrow.


Monday 24th July 2023

After just 2.5 hours of sleep last night, I feel pretty tired this morning. We arrive at the car park at 04:30 for our meet-and-greet parking, where someone is waiting to take our car away (who will then bring it back to the same place when we arrive home after the trip).

Special Assistance

I use the usual call button to summons someone to collect me in a wheelchair from the car park. No reply. I try again. Still no reply. David tries the telephone number on the help sign. He receives a recorded message stating that “The office is now closed”. No mention of what time the office does open and what to do meanwhile. I guess you are not supposed to be disabled at this time in the morning.


I walk from the car park to the check-in, which thankfully I am able to do. There is, however, absolute chaos here, with lots of people standing around, waiting. I ascertain that there are two long queues next to each other, one for checking in to United Airlines, and the other for people waiting to print their own bag tags. We join the latter, but it moves at a snail's pace, and no one seems to really know what is going on. The self-service bag-drop machines are not just for our flight, but for several different airlines, adding to the chaos. The lady in front of us is flying to Delhi in seven hours' time, and doesn't understand the instructions on the machine. There also doesn't seem to be a clear queueing system, with one long line snaking around the corner, but then, right at the bit where the self-check-in machines are, people are jumping the queue by entering from two other sides. Once we've finally managed to print and attach our tags, we join another line for the actual bag drop. We are travelling in the SAS Plus cabin today, and the sign at the head of our queue quite clearly states that it is for such passengers only, but others still join. Several get turned away once they get to the counter, but there is no-one to supervise the queues. Total shambles. By the time we reach the counter, we have queued for over 40 minutes. One of the reasons I book special assistance, is because I cannot stand for long periods of time. Today proves just that, as, by the time I reach the Special Assistance area (which is open by now, obviously 05:00 is the time from which you are allowed to be disabled), my back is extremely painful.

Halfway there in the queue

Thankfully no one mentions anything about checking in hand luggage, in fact, they don't even look at the carry-on bags, so I worried about nothing. As a photographer, the weight of the cabin bags is always a concern – I am wearing one of my cameras around my neck to lighten the load in the bags. I have also packed four lenses in the checked-in luggage, and Big Bertha (my 600mm lens), has her own hard case, of course. We have to take her to the Oversized Luggage counter in order to check her in.

In the Special Assistance Area, waiting to be pushed around

Once I have been put in a wheelchair and allocated a pusher, we are off to immigration and security. Here there are self-service machines again, where you just scan your boarding cards, but the turnstiles are too narrow for wheelchairs, so we have to wait to be manually checked. This is another slow queue. At security I temporarily abandon the wheelchair and walk through, setting off the X-ray machine. The scanner also detects something, so I am manually searched. The security guard insists I should have taken my concealed money belt off and put it through the scanner – which is odd as I have passed through Heathrow over a hundred times before and never once been asked to remove the belt from under my clothing. This is one of the many things I hate about flying – everything is always such a palaver, and just as you think you know what you're doing, they change the rules.

From there I am pushed through to the Airside Special Assistance Area. That is one disadvantage of booking a wheelchair, the waiting area is often far away from any food outlets - they don't seem to realise that disabled people may want to eat too. David goes off to get a sandwich and a drink for me.

As we are waiting for the next stage, a smart-looking middle-aged black man arrives in a wheelchair with a pusher, apparently having been separated from his family. The staff ask him time and time again if he can walk, and tell him to get out of the chair. It is pretty obvious after the first question that he is at best non-verbal – his face is completely emotionless and he makes no effort to move. Eventually, his family arrives and explain that he cannot walk, nor talk.

The assistant who comes to collect me has zero personality, and my attempts at communication fall on stony ground. I am parked inside the gate while we wait for the crew to arrive. Another chap soon joins us, a big guy with full sleeve tattoos that extend onto his hands, as well as on his neck. He also has several large piercings, but he certainly has way more personality than the chap who wheeled me here, and we soon start chatting. When I tell him we are going to Svalbard, his face lights up – not only does he know where it is, he knows all about the Treaty and visa-free entry. He is the first person we have met who has shown any knowledge about Svalbard, which just proves, yet again, that you should not judge a book by its cover.

SAS Plus Flight from London Heathrow To Oslo Gardemoen

The plane fills up fairly quickly, the doors are closed, and we are ready to go when the captain comes on the tannoy to announce that we will be delayed for push-off as a result of a faulty tow-tug, so we are waiting for a new one to arrive. The delay is only just about five minutes, before we are on our way.

We are in seats 2E and F, and are surrounded by a big group of pretty rough and raucous Welshmen who are off to Norway fishing. A couple of them have real potty-mouths, which feels very disrespectful as there are children across the aisle. They are also very loud, and twice the steward has to ask them to be quiet during the announcements. Despite their noisiness, and the fact that the chap in front of me leans forward when he talks to his mates, then throws himself back in the seat afterwards, crushing my knee each time, I spend most of the flight dozing, waking only for the breakfast. The meal service consists of a piping hot bread roll, ice cold and rock hard butter, strawberry jam, a thin slice of Norvegia cheese, a whole baby Camembert, yogurt with muesli, and an apple, elderflower, and ginger juice (which David thinks is delicious, me less so).

Having received the text earlier today to warn that the flight is full, I am delighted to find that the only free seat is next to us, so David can move over to give us both a little bit of extra room. The plane is thankfully not as cramped as some, with adequate space for my legs – until the person in front throws himself back, of course.


Where the tunnel meets the plane, a nice young man (with plenty of personality) meets me with a wheelchair. At the top of the ramp, we are stuck, as the end of the tunnel is closed off by a locked door, and the lift is out of action. After a few minutes, the foot passengers are told to use the escalator on the right rather than the ramp on which they are queuing. More chaos. We go in the lift, which is now suddenly operational, but is so small there is no room for David, who meets us at the top. From there, we go down a long, narrow corridor before we reach Immigration. A number of ropes create a snaking line, which we bypass to use the Special Assistance counter... which is closed. The wheelchair assistant moves me to the front of the 'normal' queue, and is almost immediately told off by a jobsworth who is overseeing the area, claiming that some people have waited for two hours! With only three counters open, and each person asked a number of questions about why and where they are visiting, as well as being asked to show their return ticket and itinerary of their trip, I can understand why it is taking so long. With a Norwegian passport, I sail through, and David doesn't take much longer, although he does get a stamp in his passport.


Despite the Svalbard archipelago belonging to Norway, even Norwegians need to show their passport when travelling to the islands. That's because Norway is part of the European Schengen area, while the Svalbard archipelago is not. We are technically just transiting through Norway proper. A strange concept.

From there, we go straight to the gate for the next flight, with plenty of time to spare, in fact, the passengers for the previous flight (to Edinburgh) are still there, which initially confuses me a little.

SAS Plus flight from Oslo Gardemoen to Longyerbyen

When it is our turn to board, the girl at the check-in comes over to ask if I can walk. Apparently, she has phoned for assistance for me, but no one has arrived, and she needs to start the boarding if they are to have time to check passports. Just as I get to the desk, a lady from assistance arrives, but without a wheelchair. I decide it is much easier for me to walk down the ramp to the plane than it is for her to fetch a chair.

We are in row 4 this time, E&F, and while the flight is not completely full, the seat next to us is not the empty one, unfortunately. One good thing is that I am right above the luggage loading chute, so from my seat, I can see the bags going onboard. It is with great relief that I spot all four of our cases. The SAS app on my phone also gives me the opportunity to track where our checked-in luggage is, so I have been able to follow it along from London to here, and know that it has been scanned at Gardemoen.


David's bag on the left, Big Bertha on the right

The captain announces that we will be delayed, albeit only a few minutes, as we are waiting for the last few items of luggage from a connecting flight to be loaded.

The children in the seat behind me are super-excited about flying and delightedly exclaim 'Look daddy, we are reversing' and squeal with excitement when we take off. Unfortunately, the same kids are this excited throughout the flight, which seems to involve a lot of kicking the back of my seat.

In-flight meal
This has to be the most exotic in-flight meal I've ever had, and is absolutely delicious.


Again I sleep on and off, but wake up as we approach Svalbard, with some amazing views of Spitzbergen from the plane.

Svalbard has ove 2,100 glaciers



Longyearbyen Airport

As I am about to disembark, I am informed by the air stewardess that there is not a wheelchair available as they are all in use (the airport only has one or two). I can walk anyway, so it is not a problem. Access from the plane is via steps, which have a stairlift attached. I can't remember ever seeing that before – usually, they take disabled passengers up in the lift used to stock food on the plane, through the door opposite the passenger entrance.

The wheelchair meets me halfway across the tarmac, and I decide to make use of it, just in case there is a long wait for luggage. As it turns out, it is not really necessary, but she is a delightful girl and very helpful.


Longyearbyen is a long way from pretty much everywhere

Svalbard is nearer the North Pole than Oslo



As there are no taxis at the rank, we get on the bus instead, which is almost full, so I grab the back seat while David puts the bags in the storage compartment underneath. When his vehicle is full, the driver comes on board to sell tickets – this system seems to work really well, as he is able to assist with loading the luggage too. The bus stops at every hotel along the way – ours is the third stop.


Radisson Blu Polar Hotel

A lot of people get off here. We struggle a bit with our three rolling bags, Big Bertha, a backpack, two messenger bags, and a small camera bag between the two of us, so end up right at the back of the queue for checking in.

Radisson Blu entrance

Reception area at the back on the right

Retro furniture in the lobby

A stuffed polar bear in reception, shot in 1992 due to illness

Thankfully our room is on the same level as the reception, and not too far down the corridor, so reasonably easy to drag all the luggage. The room consists of two single beds pushed together, with individual bedding. Yay! I have never understood the concept of a double quilt, in most relationships there is usually one person who ends up uncovered during the night because the other one is hogging the covers. I am that hogger, so David is the one who ends up exposed and cold, but thankfully, with a single quilt each, this will not be a problem tonight.


David goes off for a recce to see what is around while I try to find out where I put things in my bag. He comes back with cider, crisps (my favourite from my childhood), and chocolate.


In Norway, the sale of alcohol is regulated by the government, and is only available in shops known as Vinmonopolet (directly translated: wine monopoly). The shops are plain (ie no advertising on the outside to suggest what they sell), as is the packaging the bottles come in. What you might call a brown-paper-bag-jobbie. As my friend John pointed out, brown paper bags are also good for people who hyperventilate – which is often what happens when you see the price of alcohol in Norway. Alcohol is even further restricted here on Svalbard, with permanent residents having a monthly quota and having to have their ration card stamped each time they buy some; and visitors, such as David, having to show proof of an onward ticket before being allowed to buy alcohol.

Image of a Svalbard ration card from the internet


We enjoy a couple of ciders from Vinmonopolet before going down to Barentz Gastropub which is part of the hotel. There is a buzzing atmosphere when we arrive, with lots of people coming and going. With the good weather and mild temperature, the outdoor seating area is popular (and full). It seems to be a favoured meeting place for youngsters of all nationalities. With Svalbard being a visa-free destination, it attracts people from all over the world - it is said that there are people from 53 different countries living and working here. I am guessing (from overhearing parts of conversations) that these kids work on cruise ships. Not only is Svalbard a popular cruise destination, but this hotel (as well as a couple of others here in Longyearbyen) is also owned by Hurtigruten ( a large Norwegian cruise company).


The bar stocks a selection of ciders, and while David thinks any other flavour than apple is a sacrilege, I am rather partial to the flavoured ciders, and order a Rekordelig mango and raspberry.


The menu focusses mainly on burgers and pizzas (maybe a reflection of its mainly younger clientele?), as well as a couple of specials each day. We both choose reindeer stew. It comes served with creamed potatoes and lingonberries, and is absolutely delicious. Sorry, Rudolph.

Those little red things are NOT baby red noses, but lingonberries

There are stuffed bears everywhere in this town

After another drink, we retire to the room for an early night. It's been a long and tiring day, we've been up since 03:15, and while travel isn't physically tiring as such, I find the queueing, security checks, and general airport bureaucracy wearing.

Posted by Grete Howard 10:33 Archived in Svalbard Tagged oslo flight airport dinner alcohol sas passport luggage svalbard longyearbyen heathrow cider wheelchair polar_bear hurtigruten airport_security radisson big_bertha premier_inn check_in gardemoen special_assistance thyme_restaurant passport_control bag_drop sas_plus palaver disabled_passenger in_flight_meal passport_stamp disembarkation flybussen radisson_blu radisson_blu_polar_hotel stuffed_polar_bear twin_bewds paprika_crisps rekorderlig vinmonopol ration_card reindeer_stew lingonberries airport_bureaucracy Comments (4)

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