Scotland to Spitsbergen by Alan Bevis

I shall never forget my first Naturetrek holiday, taken in June 2009.  It was a cruise to the high Arctic island of Spitsbergen.  Standing on the quayside at Oban waiting to embark on the cruise ship, I could only wonder at what might lie ahead and I was feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension – after all, this was my first foreign holiday – at the age of 64!

Polar Bear, Spitsbergen

There were to be four ports of call and each had its own charm and attraction. First was the Scottish island of St Kilda. Cloud and rain neither prevented us landing, nor dampened our spirits as we spent a few hours exploring this most westerly outpost of Britain.  Despite the rain, there were colourful flowers and a tantalising glimpse of a St. Kilda wren. On this gloomy day, it wasn’t difficult to imagine why the islanders opted to leave for the mainland in 1930. The islanders may be long gone, but not so the seabirds and on leaving we saw many of the 60,000 pairs of gannets that have chosen St. Kilda for their nesting sites.

Next port of call was Vagur on Suderoy, the most southerly island of the Faroes. Here we had an afternoon ashore and some warm sunshine in which to enjoy the town and its colourful houses, and the nesting seabirds on the cliffs. The meadows too were colourful, being peppered with marsh-marigolds, the national flower of the Faroe Islands. Later, as we continued northwards, dramatic 1,000ft cliffs came into view, made even more imposing as shafts of sunlight sliced through the evening clouds. The sun set as a red ball at 11.15pm.

Then it was Jan Mayen, uninhabited apart from a Norwegian research station, positioned midway between the Faroes and Spitsbergen. Few have even heard of this island, let alone visited.  The island commander welcomed us before stamping our passports – from the back of a landrover! Jan Mayen is volcanic, desolate but strangely beautiful. A few flowers poked through the basalt, but the air, sea and cliffs were alive with the sights and sounds of myriads of auks and other seabirds. Best of all was the sight of the snow-capped Mt. Beerenberg. At 2,277 metres, the volcano dominates the island, but it is only clear of cloud or mist on rare occasions – the gods were smiling on us! As we left, the cloud lowered once more and I wondered when the volcano would next be visible.

Finally, on to Spitsbergen and that had to be the icing on top of an already well-iced cake! I shall never forget our first day there when we cruised through the pack-ice off the south-east of the island. The weather was perfect: calm with broken cloud, and ideal for photography. Colours in the ice were ever-changing with the variation of sun and cloud. Wildlife excited us with good views of polar bears, harp seals and typical Arctic birds. Even the sound of our ice-strengthened ship breaking the ice lives on in my head.  It was a truly wonderful day. Could the next day match it? You bet! Overnight we had moved into Horsund Fjord on the south-west of the island. Here the water was flat calm, the sky a deep blue and we were almost surrounded by jagged, snowy mountains, with glaciers tumbling to the sea – simply breathtaking. A Zodiac excursion that day allowed us amazing views of another polar bear as it meandered on the ice, as well as seals and many Arctic seabirds. The finale that day came in the evening. It was the summer solstice and we celebrated with an on-deck barbeque and disco – so surreal and simply magical.  Next day we cruised further up the west coast, but sadly low cloud had replaced the bright skies of the previous two days.  Never mind! A couple more landings enabled us good views of walruses, Svalbard reindeer and Barnacle geese, plus other interesting fauna and flora. Then it was on to the capital, Longyearbyen, for the flight home.

Although, on this cruise there were several long days at sea, boredom was not on the agenda. Apart from birds, cetaceans made regular appearances and below deck informative lectures were available. And to refresh and recharge, there was always the cosy lounge and bar where we could relax and chat to like-minded holiday companions.

My flight home was a reflective one. Tired, but elated, I carried with me a host of wonderful memories. That was my first of several Naturetrek holidays. The tour leaders and Naturetrek guides did an excellent job in looking after us all and their knowledge and expertise ensured that no opportunity was wasted in providing us with the best possible wildlife experience.

To find out more about our 'Spitsbergen - Realm of the Polar Bear' tour, click here.