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June 8-10, 2016

We left Wednesday evening. It is now Thursday night at 10:15 in Oslo and still light. We only have one more leg to our journey tomorrow morning when we fly to Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, Norway. So far, our trip has been rather uneventful.

We took a red eye on a British Airways 747, a rickety old plane. I skipped the meal service, took a sleeping pill and actually slept a good six hours quite comfortably in coach. I couldn’t believe it…I usually get four hours of sleep at best! We killed time during our five hour layover in London by having lunch at Giraffe, browsing the shops, and catching up on some reading.

Our next flight to Oslo was half empty. The two hour flight and one hour time change got us into Oslo around 9:30pm. We experienced one of the easiest immigration and customs processes ever…no landing card and no line. We picked up our bag and walked out the door straight to the information desk and asked where we could find the airport hotel. “Out the door,” the gentleman said. “If you get lost, it is your fault.”

Yep, it was that simple. We took the crosswalk to the Radisson Blu, checked in, and chilled. I think it was easier to get to Norway than to New York the last time we went. Hopefully we’ll continue this smooth sailing!

The next morning, we cued up in the three person line at SAS Airlines and within just a few minutes it was our turn. Little did we know that the pilots were planning a strike and the airline and the pilots union were up through the wee hours of the night negotiating a deal. Fortunately for us, the Norwegian pilots came to an agreement. The Swedish pilots, however, went on strike. Tons of flights ended up being cancelled which stranded some 25,000 passengers. I am glad I did not know this until after we landed in Longyearbyen which I still don’t know exactly how to pronounce.

When I told the lady at the ticket counter, we were going to Longyearbyen (LONG-year-by-en), She responded, “Long-YER-Ben?” “Yes…there,” I replied. But since then, I’ve heard it pronounced several ways. Uniquely it is named after an American, John Munro Longyear whose Arctic Coal Company started operations there in 1906. Byen means town in Norwegian. Anyway, the town is located in the Southwest of Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago.

With boarding passes in hand, we asked where we would find security and how long would it take. She pointed to the turnstiles to our right and said, “the sign says 5 minutes”. Brilliant, I thought, an electronic sign that provides the time to get through security. Knowing we had plenty of time, we found one of only a few seats upstairs, though there were plenty downstairs, and enjoyed our “to go” breakfast that we grabbed at the airport coffee shop.

Eventually, we passed through security by scanning our boarding pass ourselves as opposed to waiting on an agent to scan it, sent our bags through X-ray, and found a hopping terminal. The bars were full with people enjoying their beer at 8:30am! Inside the terminal was the place to be. We kept walking to our gate at F. It required us to go through immigration again as while Svalbald is owned by Norway, it isn’t part of the EU. Regardless, this has been the friendliest and easiest travel we’ve completed in some time. Had I known how easy this would be, I would have likely booked the 8:30am flight instead of the 10:10am, but I thought we’d get in late and be tired so I gave us some breathing room. We were looking forward to getting to Longyearbyen.

We arrived in Longyearbyen at 1pm on Friday and loaded the bus that our expedition company Quark sent for the ship passengers and took a short drive from the airport to our hotel Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg. What a unique place with its kitschy outdoor decoration, spa, and restaurant. It was a stones throw away from the city center, but we had to walk down to the road and around the drainage ditch full of glacial melt in order to get there.

The town is home to a tiny indoor mall that included the northern most sushi restaurant, the northernmost chocolatier, a grill, a library, and a few clothing shops. Nearby were a few more hotels, tour operators, a fur shop, some outdoor shops, and a grocery store. After a few blocks, the Main Street led us to the local neighbor which included a few identical houses lined up next to each other with a view of the glacier a short distance away.

The wind blew off the glacier into our faces making for an unpleasant walk until we turned around. We were reminded everywhere that the town was located 78° North, about 817 miles from the North Pole. Today happened to be Longyearbyen’s 110th birthday, so the entrance to the Svalbard Museum was free.

The Svalbard Museum is the number one attraction in Longyearbyen according to Trip Advisor. Amazingly, it isn’t the only museum in the town. The North Pole Expedition Museum is located closer to the water on the main highway. The museum explained the way of life in the early 1900’s which included whaling, mining and exploration to the North Pole by several countries. It also discussed the geological significance of the island. The glacial ice has torn at the land so much that dinosaur fossils and even coal was found.

The coal mining opportunity put Longyearbyen on the map. The Arctic Coal Company operated for ten years until it fell upon financial difficulties around the First World War and it was purchased by Store Norske from Norway. This company added barracks and more mines up until the Second World War when the town was very unsettled due to fighting among the Germans and the English. After the Second World War, coal production increased again until the falling prices of coal. In the 1970’s, the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry began buying up the Store Norske shares and supporting the coal industry as it wanted the town to look economically successful during the Cold War due to its close proximity to Russia.

Now, mining is a very small part of the town’s industry as tourism is becoming its largest business. It was hard for me to believe tourism is the town’s biggest draw given its small size. After we visited the museum, we walked around the outskirts of town to visit the world’s most northern church, the old mine and the docks. We were finished seeing the whole town by dinner. The only way to see more was to sign up for a tour. In the winter, snowmobiling, skiing, dogsledding, and ice cave exploring were a few of the tour choices. For the summer, we could choose from activities like kayaking which we are doing the next two weeks, a harbor cruise though we were going to be on a boat the next two weeks, dog sledding on not the greatest snow, visiting a replica of a coal mine, or taking a guided hike. We could not hike on our own, as it is required by law to carry a fire arm for protection from the polar bears outside of the city limits. None of the summer tours sounded terribly appealing to us for tomorrow morning, so we didn’t sign up for anything, but perhaps that was because we were tired.

We chose to have dinner at the hotel restaurant, Vinterhagen, which was basically inside a greenhouse…no long underwear was necessary! Their menu was limited and unique…whale, seal, reindeer, dried fish, and steak. I went with the steak. It was excellent. David loved his reindeer. Afterward, we tried our hardest to stay awake until 9pm in the common room. I thought after two nights of sleeping pills I’d get on Arctic time, but as soon as my head hit the pillow, no such luck. Maybe one day my body clock will adjust to different time zones!

I laid awake listening to all sorts of noise as the night never came…it was daylight for 24 hours. I felt like there was a highway behind our room with all the evening traffic in a gravel area between two buildings. I don’t know what was happening except that I wasn’t sleeping. Perhaps if we closed the window it would have been quieter, but I must say the heat worked well everywhere! We were regularly stripping down to T-shirts inside buildings and of course removing shoes and using supplied crocs at the hotel’s request to keep from tracking snow/mud into the area. I think Svalbard may be keeping the croc shoe company in business. We are looking forward to getting on the ship tomorrow afternoon! ETB

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