Fact: I never went to Svalbard to see polar bears. I actually went to Svalbard to visit Pyramiden, which is an abandoned Soviet mining town on Spitsbergen.
Pyramiden is home to the world’s most northern Lenin statue and just houses a unique side of Soviet history- one I am deeply enamored by. I was very busy with constant travels before the trip and left the booking of getting to Pyramiden up to someone else. It was easily reachable by boat, particularly this year because the warmer temperatures came at a much earlier time than usual.
I was booked through Henningsen Transport & Guiding. The trip was 1550 NOK per person (around $250 or so) and was an all day trip leaving Longyearbyen by boat and heading to Pyramiden, where travelers were permitted to walk around and tour the abandoned town. I also got to visit some glaciers (although were never allowed to get off of the boat) and other small sights. But truth be told, I was only on this trip for one reason and that was to visit Pyramiden.
<This is the best shot I could get miles away on my lousy camera of Pyramiden.>
The company sent a bus to pick us up at our hotels around Longyearbyen and we are then taken to the docks and board the boat. Once on the boat, and pulled away from the shore, we are informed that the chances of us getting to go to Pyramiden are slim as recent, more Arctic-like temperatures have caused significant amounts of ice to form blocking passageway to the city. We were not to know for sure until arriving, but the chances were pretty good that we were not going to be getting off the boat. I asked the tour director when this was known and he told me the previous trip had the same problem.
Now here is my thing: This is a non-refundable tour. I get that. BUT… knowing that people have limited time when up in Svalbard and will probably only travel there ONCE in their lifetime, wouldn’t it be wise to inform people of this prior to getting on the boat and taking to sea? So what if I was out $250 (even though I think that was bogus)? My problem was that I had spent an entire day on a boat when I could have been exploring something different. I could have taken a snowmobile trip out to where polar bears were. I could have gone to another Russian city (that is not abandoned) called Barentsburg and enjoyed a unique experience there. Instead, I was stuck on a boat, which I’m not entirely a fan of anyways, where the tour director was constantly talking about how global warming is a myth and polar bears are doing better currently than they have ever done. He also went on a rant against people who don’t eat whale meat (which would be me) because the minke whale is overpopulated.
No one seemed phased or to care that we never made it off the boat and to Pyramiden- apart from me. I don’t believe that anyone even knew the first thing about Pyramiden, in fact. Which is fine, but it was very disheartening to know I spent an entire day on a boat seeing things from a distance as opposed to being right close to a place I’ve always wanted to travel to.
I finally had the guts to say to the tour director how disappointed I was with everything. He assured me that once we got back to land that he would try to hire a helicopter and take me to Barentsburg. When I was stunned that he would do this for me, he noted that we would just fly over Barentsburg and not actually land in the city. Ok?
Needless to say, he must have been drinking when he stated this because it never happened and was never mentioned of again after that point.
The tour served whale meat for lunch, but also had some dried out, inedible salmon that was an alternative to people like me who don’t fancy whale. The salmon was so gross and dry that I ate a cabbage salad instead. Yep, just a cabbage salad for eight hours.
The problem with this trip wasn’t so much that we couldn’t make it to Pyramiden. I understand that there was ice there and it was dangerous to try to make it out that way. My problem was the fact that we were not informed of this until after we were already on the boat, not giving us a chance to opt out of going. I would have not gone on this trip and tried for something different. Or even another way to get to Pyramiden, or even to Barentsburg for the day. I could have rented a snowmobile and gone to see polar bears (not a guarantee but everyone I know who went on this tour saw them in excess). There are so many things I could have done than being locked up on a boat for eight hours when I am not a fan of being on a boat in the first place. If this had been any other destination, I feel I could have done a better job at making the best of a shitty situation. But this was Svalbard. This was a unique destination. It is one that is not easy to get to and not particularly a place for the budget traveler. I can’t just fly there every weekend.
I don’t know when I will make it back, but I can assure you that I will NOT be booking a tour with Henningsen Transport & Guiding. If you’re here looking for information on Henningsen Transport & Guiding, the best advice I can give is to find a different one and refrain from giving them your money if your goal is to see Pyramiden. If your goal is just to see some scenery from afar on a boat, then this may be a decent option for you.
To see what Pyramiden is actually like, Norwegian blogger Sophie has made the trip herself and wrote a cool write-up about the place!
You can also see some photos from this article at Business Insider.