Can neurotic travel-phobe COSMO LANDESMAN embrace the Arctic?

Can neurotic travel-phobe COSMO LANDESMAN embrace the Arctic? Find out what happened when he tired dog-sledding, hiking and eating reindeer heart

  • Cosmo Landesman writes about his trip to Norway’s icy Svalbard archipelago
  • READ MORE:  My amazing camping trip in Svalbard

Question: can a grumpy, neurotic senior citizen who hates to travel head to the rugged Arctic wilds of Norway, see polar bears, go dog-sledding, hike up mountains, eat reindeer hearts and actually enjoy it? 

Answer: absolutely not. Or so I would have said before I went to Norway. I’m more of a Noël Coward kind of chap than a Bear Grylls survivalist type. I was so ignorant of the great outdoors that I thought a frozen tundra was a curry you took from the freezer.

So why go? I desperately needed to escape the claustrophobia of my comfort zone, the treadmill of daily routines and domestic rituals. My life was going down the drain of one undistinguished day after another. So I decided to pack up, man-up and head north.

Where did you go? I caught a plane from Oslo to the small Norwegian town of Longyearbyen. I spent three days there before boarding the MS Trollfjord to Tromso to experience the Svalbard Express voyage.

Var det noe bra? I beg your pardon?

Eyes peeled for Polar Bears: People walk around with rifles in case they encounter the animal 

That’s Norwegian for ‘Was it any good?’ It was stralande – that’s Norwegian for brilliant!

Stop showing off – and give us the facts. Longyearbyen is the world’s most populated northernmost settlement. It’s in the Svalbard archipelago in the North Atlantic. Next stop: the Arctic wilderness.

So was it cold? It was so warm we couldn’t go sledding as the dogs would overheat.

Any curious facts about Longyearbyen? No cats are allowed. No trees can be planted. There are no flowers. No one gets buried in the town – the permafrost prevents it. Alcohol is rationed. And people walk around with rifles in case a polar bear pops by.

What? Yeah, everywhere we went we were warned about the polar bears. Funny thing is, there are 2,000-3,000 polar bears in the Svalbard archipelago and I didn’t see one!

Sounds a bit grim. Not at all. Everywhere you look, beauty looks back at you. As your plane arrives you can see landscapes of snowy peaks and magnificent glaciers.

It’s like looking down at the Ice Age. Longyearbyen is adorable, embroidered by mountain ranges topped with fog and snow.

What’s to love? Just about everything. The daylight (in summer, when we visited, the sun doesn’t set) is so pure it doesn’t seem real, like The Truman Show. And the air can be so cold and crisp it’s like licking a block of ice with your nose and giving your lungs a cold shower.

Then there are Arctic glaciers everywhere. The only ice I’m normally interested in is floating in my gin and tonic, but this was something else. Imagine the White Cliffs of Dover made of ice. 

By the way, just as you can’t swim in the ocean and not think about sharks thanks to Jaws, you can’t see glaciers from a boat and not have the theme song to Titanic, ‘My Heart Will Go On’, playing endlessly in your head!

OK, what’s not to love? A lot of Norwegian delicacies – Arctic sea urchin soup (icky), Svalbard cured seal (gamey yuckiness) and reindeer heart (sorry, Rudolph) – weren’t to my taste. We had a couple of Nordic food and drink tasting sessions – the kind where you get 14 courses and still feel hungry. (No doubt it’s heaven for foodies with a passion for fine wines.) 

I caught a plane from Oslo to the small Norwegian town of Longyearbyen (pictured)

But the meals at my hotel, the Funken Lodge, and aboard the MS Trollfjord, were delicious. The burger I had at the funky Funken was the best one of my life.

Worst moment of the trip? Taking a speedboat across the Isfjorden to Borebukta, to visit a walrus colony, see the glacier fronts and admire the beautiful fjord.

Sounds like fun! It was a nightmare. The choppy waves meant I was bounced vigorously on my bottom and sometimes my balls for over an hour. My back ached, my wet hands began to freeze, my clothes were soaked and I struggled not to be seasick.

Did you man-up? No. I begged the captain to take us back but nobody else would back me. Frankly, I can’t wait to never do that again.

Favourite moment? Quad biking along the Advent Valley, zooming along like an easy rider. Actually, it was like driving one of those seated lawn mowers, but that didn’t stop me from singing ‘Born to be Wild’ at the top of my lungs as the wind blew in my face.

Was the wildlife amazing? Yes, absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually see much of it but many of my co-travellers did. Not only did I not glimpse one grumpy polar bear, I didn’t see dolphins or whales either. (It’s a funny thing, but every time I went to the loo someone else spotted a beluga whale or a group of dancing dolphins.) 

I did see four seagulls, two Arctic terns, one puffin, a few snow buntings and a couple of walruses. I shouldn’t say this, but they look better on TV.

So was it disappointing? No. What it lacked in wildlife it made up for in landscape. Sailing near Kongsfjorden, among mountains, it was so calm I felt this transcendental oneness with it all. It might sound silly, but all the voices and noise in my head went quiet as I was swept up into a wave of serenity.

How was life on the MS Trollfjord? My last cruise, in 2015, was on one of those soulless multistorey ships where you get lost on the way to your cabin. But this was easy to get around, while the staff were friendly – and not in that phoney have-a-nice-day way.

OK, so what did you learn? I used to say that travel only broadens the stomach, but that’s not true. I need to get out of my comfort zone more often. Really, the highest compliment I can pay Norway is that I can’t wait to go back.

  • Hurtigruten Norway has selected ten-day Svalbard Express itineraries between May and September 2024 starting at £3,016pp; price includes all meals, alcohol and accommodation pre-cruise; international flights extra, from £818; 

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