The Most Northerly NORDSTJERNEN, Part One

Peter Knego crosses the 78-degree mark to tour Longyearben and its surrounds before joining the 1956-built former Hurtigruten liner NORDSTJERNEN on a three night voyage into the Svalbard archipelago.

Hurtigruten’s Svalbard Cruises

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All photos by and copyright Peter Knego 2015 unless otherwise noted.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

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Vintage Bergen Line postcard image of the MV NORDSTJERNEN. Peter Knego collection.

For decades, I’ve yearned to travel aboard Hurtigruten’s 1956-built MV NORDSTJERNEN, a mini-ocean liner built for the Norwegian coastal run that is now offering summer cruises to Svalbard under charter to her former owners. Since this would be my first trip to the archipelago that forms the northernmost portion of Norway, I would have two full days of excursions and some time to explore before embarking the little dreamboat NORDSTJERNEN.

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Svalbard arrival.

After some 30 hours of planes and airport lobbies, my transfer from mild, sunny Southern California to near-polar Longyearbyen was complete. It was 10:00 PM but time doesn’t matter in Svalbard’s summer season where there is 24-hour daylight and a near-freezing chill that instantly renders lips chapped and cheeks reddened.

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Which way is north?

With a population of 2,000 permanent residents, Longyearbyen is located in the relative shelter of Adventfjorden, off the Isfjord on the Svalbard Island of Spitsbergen at 78 degrees, making it the world’s northernmost town (that is not exclusively a coal mining establishment or research station).

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Spitsbergen Hotel.

Dazed from the commute, I stumbled onto the shuttle bus, which at 75 NOK/(about $5 US) will deliver visitors to a number of Longyearbyen’s hotels. My home for the next three nights was the historic Spitsbergen Hotel which is on a bluff overlooking the town. In 1947, not long after the German battleships SCHARNHORST and TIRPITZ obliterated Longyearbyen, the coal mining establishment Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani built an accommodation and barracks for its workers that was eventually converted into a comfortable and friendly hotel.

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Shoes off!

Upon entering most homes, boutiques, museums and hotels in Longyearbyen, there is a “shoes off” policy. A very sensible practice in a land of slush, coal dust and reindeer  poop.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

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Behind the dogs.

Prior to the trip, I signed up for Hurtigruten’s “Dog Sledding On Wheels” tour. A friendly guide picked me up at the hotel at 9:00 AM for a short drive to a place called Green Dog, where I donned an exposure suit and helped harness eight gorgeous and willing huskies to a wheeled dog wagon.

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Dog wagonning.

Although it wasn’t that cold, my mittened fingers soon felt otherwise, making photos quite tricky. We passed some grazing reindeer and the remnants of a research station and coal mine, stopping to give the dogs some water from a glacial stream. The pups were energetic, well cared-for and more than eager to drag us on the two hour adventure.

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Fixer upper with a great view.

Back at the hotel shortly after noon, I had the rest of the day to wander Longyearbyen, where the fascinating remains of old mines cling to the hillsides.

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The northernmost church.

Replacing a church that was destroyed in World War Two, the Svalbard Church enjoys the distinction of being the world’s northernmost.

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Mountain panes.

Worth removing shoes for, its interior features warm wood paneling and simple, yet elegant glass panes that create a colorful mosaic of the surrounding mountains.

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Angles of Longyearbyen.

At times, Longyearbyen’s empty streets were akin to those of a ghost town. The community is “bear safe” but just steps outside of the protected area, there are many warning signs. Encounters with polar bears (who actually outnumber the people in Svalsbard) don’t always end so well, so those who do venture out on their own are obliged to “carry”.

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Reindeer grazing.

The reindeer in Svalbard are rather fearless and tend to graze when and where they please, even in the center of town, oblivious to stalking paparazzi.

Monday, June 29, 2015

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Although the 1986-built excursion ship MV BILLEFJORD doesn’t quite hold the same allure as the truly classic NORDSTJERNEN, she would provide a warm and comfortable setting for Hurtigruten’s eleven hour pre-cruise excursion into Isfjord.

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A whale of a Barbeque.

The Finnish-built BILLEFJORD has three guest decks, including an open observation level, an open fo’c’sle, and near-sea-level promenades as well as a snack bar, dining room and lounge. Her friendly crew even served up a barbeque lunch with choices of salmon, whale meat(!) and salad.

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Bird cliff.

We cruised along a dramatic bird cliff called Diabas on the southern banks of the fjord before turning northward towards Nordenskjold Glacier.

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Nordenskjold Glacier.

The BILLEFJORD slowly made her way into the Templefjellet to linger off the tidewater glacier Nordenskjold, whose ice is 1,200 years old when it finally meets the sea. While there was no dramatic calving, it was impressive, nonetheless.

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Colors of Pyramiden.

Few places boast the haunting allure of the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden, once considered “paradise” by some 1,000 inhabitants. Hints of sunlight were beaming onto its rusting palate of blues, reds and yellows as the BILLEFJORD neared its sagging wharf. Named for the pyramid-shaped mountain that forms its backdrop, Pyramiden was founded by the Swedes in 1910 but sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. The town thrived until the collapse of the Soviet Union and later, Russia’s economy.  It was abandoned in 1998 and largely left “as is”, although some 30 caretakers are stationed there to stave off vandals and souvenir hunters.

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The northernmost Lenin.

Our St. Petersburg-based guide Sasha led us to a bus where we were delivered to the town center, once nicknamed “The Champs Elysées”. A large bust of Lenin overlooks a city square that now caters to reindeer, polar bears and a wide variety of Arctic birds.

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Pyramiden Social Hall.

Sasha unlocked the doors to the Social Hall, which contained a large lobby, a massive cinema, meeting rooms, classrooms and an indoor basketball court.

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Sasha on sentry.

We had about fifteen minutes to explore as he patrolled the entrance. A couple weeks prior, a polar bear had tried to break into the remnants of the nearby hotel, which has partially re-opened for adventure-seeking visitors.

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Soviet seating.

One salon had midcentury furnishings, books and shelves that look as though its inhabitants would be returning in any moment.

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The Balalaika Room.

In the Music Room, huge balalaikas loomed amongst drums and a piano.

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Parting Pyramiden.

Pyramiden ranks at number seven among National Geographic’s top ghost towns. A fascinating and haunting place.

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Isfjord scenery.

After Sasha returned us safely to the BILLEFJORD, we were sailing off into the massive Isfjord. The sun made some dramatic appearances, highlighting the ruggedness and glacier-carved beauty of our surrounds. Once back at the hotel, I enjoyed a refreshing work out, dinner and a night of very deep sleep.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

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MV NORDSTJERNEN first glance.

At 9:00 AM, I delivered my luggage to the bus that would take fellow guests on a tour of Longyearbyen before heading off on foot to “meet” the NORDSTJERNEN.  The 2,191-gt, 150-guest ship was so diminutive, I could only see her masts lurking above the harbor’s warehouses until a break in the skyline revealed her traditional black funnel, which was restored to its original Bergen Steamship Company livery after a massive refit in 2013.

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MV NORDSTJERNEN at Longyearbyen.

As her passengers enjoyed tours of the church and Longyearben’s museums, I spent the next couple of hours “Decking!” the meticulously restored NORDSTJERNEN (see next post). Mission accomplished, I climbed the nearby knoll for some aerial views of the grand little lady before converging at the pier with the tour buses, gathering my luggage and officially embarking as a passenger.

End of The Most Northerly NORDSTJERNEN, Part One

Much More to Come…

Special Thanks: Mindy Bianca, Lauren Frye, Elliot Gillies

The Northernmost NORDSTJERNEN, Part Two

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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