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Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.

olden norway fjord


Population: 5.2 million

Currency: Norwegian krone

Phrase to Know: Snakkar du engelsk? (Do you speak English?)

Fun Fact: Dying is forbidden in the Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, located above the Arctic Circle in the Svalbard archipelago. According to the BBC, the cemetery in this small town no longer accepts new bodies because they don’t decompose in the area’s permafrost. Locals who become seriously ill or who die unexpectedly must be flown to the mainland.

9 Incredible Animals to See in the Arctic

We Recommend: Experience a traditional Viking feast — featuring lamb and homemade mead, along with singing and dancing — at the Lofotr Viking Museum.

10 Best Norway Experiences

Have you been to Norway? What was your favorite spot?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

On my last trip, I traveled nearly to the ends of the earth.

My destination was Svalbard, a remote cluster of islands located approximately halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It’s a land where polar bears and reindeer roam, and where the only ways to get around are by air, sea, snowmobile or dog sled.

svalbard polar bear


I traveled with polar specialist Quark Expeditions, which offers small-ship cruises in Antarctica, Greenland, northern Canada, Norway, Iceland and even the North Pole. My itinerary was the “Introduction to Spitsbergen,” a Svalbard cruise that sails roundtrip from Longyearbyen with a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses and other Arctic wildlife.

Over eight nights aboard Sea Adventurer, Quark’s oldest vessel, I discovered a few of the qualities that make this itinerary special — plus a couple of little things that didn’t quite live up to expectations.

HITS
Wildlife: Every part of a Svalbard cruise is designed to get passengers as close to the wildlife as possible. When a whale surfaces or a polar bear is spotted in the pack ice, the ship veers off course to get a better look. For more intimate encounters, smaller Zodiac boats bring passengers right up to the shoreline for views of nesting puffins or grazing reindeer. In the most incredible moments, the animals came to us — as when a polar bear padded directly across the ice to within about 50 feet of our ship, lifting its sensitive nose to scent us every step of the way. The wildlife is the number one reason that most people book a Svalbard cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.

svalbard reindeer


Staff: Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable expedition team, Sea Adventurer’s crew kept us safe, well fed and well informed. Naturalist guides piloted the Zodiacs and offered insight about the animals and birds we saw along the way. When viewing wildlife on deck, they helped passengers spot the animals (which were often quite far away and difficult to see, even with binoculars) and positioned the ship’s telescopes to give us a better glimpse. In the evenings they gave talks on everything from walruses to glacial geology.

Beyond the expedition team, the rest of the crew greeted us with smiles and provided efficient service in the dining room, bar and cabins.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Food: Sea Adventurer may not be a massive cruise ship with food around the clock, but we certainly never went hungry. From early-morning munchies in the lounge to tempting desserts at both lunch and dinner, the food aboard the ship was plentiful and usually delicious (if not always particularly healthy). The highlight was an Arctic barbecue, held on deck one mild evening when the ship was anchored in a fjord. Dining alfresco on burgers, ribs and corn on the cob with a stunning view of a glacier? Yes, please.

MISSES
Shore Landings: One of our scheduled hiking outings was called off because we spotted a polar bear on shore — obviously not a creature we wanted to encounter on foot! Another landing spot was inaccessible due to ice. In the end, we boarded on Monday afternoon and didn’t set foot on land again until Friday afternoon. That didn’t mean we were twiddling our thumbs in our cabins — Quark filled our days with Zodiac cruises (including some amazing close-up viewing of the polar bear that would have been such a danger to us on land) and nature lectures. Fortunately, we did end up with four landings over the last three days of the cruise, all of which were excellent. But passengers on any Svalbard cruise should keep in mind that all landings are subject to the whims of weather and wildlife.

svalbard hike


Staying in Touch: While Internet access was available on the ship (via Wi-Fi and two computers in the Internet cafe), it often didn’t work in the remote regions where we were cruising. Even when you could get a signal, it was extremely slow and might boot you off between emails. Considering the lofty prices ($20 for 10 MB of data, $50 for 30 MB and $130 for 100 MB) and the fact that the access cards are nonrefundable, most passengers simply didn’t bother.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Are you interested in traveling to Svalbard?

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two destinations at the extreme ends of the earth.

Would you rather …

… visit Longyearbyen, Norway, in the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, or …

longyearbyen svalbard norway



… travel to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina?

ushuaia argentina


Longyearbyen, with a population of just 2,000, is located on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard chain. This part of the Arctic region is most popular with travelers looking to view polar bears in their natural habitat. At the other extreme is Ushuaia, near the very southern tip of South America — a common jumping-off point for cruises to Antarctica.

Photos: 9 Best Destinations to See from the Water

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

borgund stave church norwayOn a recent trip to Norway, a member of the country’s tourism bureau told me that the number of U.S. visitors to Norway increased by about 40 percent in 2014 due to “Frozen.” That’s right — an animated Disney blockbuster for children boosted the number of travelers to the region by nearly half. That got us thinking about other movies that have spurred visits from loyal fans and, in some cases, even tours that feature the places where the actual filming took place. Read on for a list of some of the most notable ones.

“Frozen” (Norway)
Set in the Norwegian fjords, this story takes Anna, a princess, on a journey to find her sister with the help of a snowman. It sounds quirky, but Disney is now offering official “Adventures by Disney” tours of the region, which include stops in Bergen (on which Arendelle, the movie’s fictional setting, is based), as well as activities like rafting, hiking, fishing, dancing and fjord exploration.

“The Lord of the Rings” (New Zealand)
This famous fantasy series, shot entirely in New Zealand, had many filming locations within the country, including Wellington, Nelson, Canterbury and Fiordland, among others. Several companies like Lord of the Rings Tours offer guided excursions to various places seen in the movies, but you can also easily organize your own tour with the help of New Zealand Tourism’s resources.

I’ll Take a Large Popcorn and a Ticket to Paris

“Anne of Green Gables” (Canada)
The classic novels and their made-for-TV counterparts still draw lots of visitors each year to Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island, Canada. While there, you can get a feel for the place Anne called home and even tour Green Gables, the house that was used in the TV/film series; it has been decorated to look just like what you’ve imagined from the books.

“Memoirs of a Geisha” (Japan)
Set in Kyoto, Japan, a “Memoirs of a Geisha” tour — like this one offered by Japan for You — will take you to several of the movie’s shooting locations and expose you to Japanese food and culture through performances and trips to shrines, restaurants and tearooms. You’ll also have some free time to explore on your own.

The Top 5 Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two places that art fans would love to explore.

Would you rather…

… see the sculptures in Vigeland Park, Oslo, or …

vigeland park oslo



… wander the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City?

metropolitan museum of art new york


The incredible human sculptures in Vigeland Park helped land Oslo on our list of The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the largest and most famous art museum in a city that has dozens of them. Allow a day just to get a taste.

10 Best Norway Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot is of the dramatic cliff of Trolltunga, looking out over Norway‘s Ringedalsvatnet Lake.

trolltunga norway hike lake ringedalsvatnet


Read Trip Reviews About Norway

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

9 Best Places to See from the Water

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering at work on the day before Christmas? Rather be someplace else in the world? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot is of folks exploring a glacier in Patagonian Chile. But glacier hiking can be done in New Zealand, Alaska, Norway, Greenland and many other places, giving you endless travel options.

glacier hiking patagonia chile



Walking Tours and Trips

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

— written by Dori Saltzman