This is a dual review, both of the Trapper's Hotel and the snowmobile expedition that they organised for us.
Our experience started when we made a request for a short stay at the Trapper's Lodge coupled with an overnight snowmobile excursion to the ship in the ice. The minimum amount of guests on the Basecamp Spitsbergen excursions is four and at the time we were the only request (for two) for our dates, but they promised to keep an eye out for availability for us. A couple of weeks later, I got an email saying that another couple wanted to do the five day trip, also including a stay at Radio Isfjord and did we want to join that? A few minutes reorganising our flights to Longyearbyen made that a YES and we were all set.
Emails were exchanged with a few of the staff, they were professional and chatty at the same time, letting us know what was going on and what we could expect when we got there. A definite plus for an over-planner like me!
On arrival in Longyearbyen airport, we got the airport transfer bus which was fine and efficient, but as a taxi is under 200NOK, I'd probably go straight for that next time.
We were greeted warmly at the Trapper's Hotel by Camilla and Ingrid who are lovely and an absolute asset to the lodge. They work such long hours and I'm amazed that they manage to keep up such a positive professionalism all the time.
We were quickly settled into our room which is indeed rustic but has such charm that we immediately felt right at home (ok, our house isn't constructed from wood and fur, but hopefully you will see what I mean). We had dinner at Kroa next door, which was hearty and topped off with a very reasonably priced (duty free in Svalbard) bottle of bubbles.
We awoke the next morning to some pretty rubbish weather. As locals said, there was a fresh breeze and snow. Us soft Southerners would call it a blizzard. Go stand in the freezer and put a hair dryer on cold and blast yourself in the face. It was a bit like that. But colder.
We were supposed to set off at 10am and this was put back to mid-day in the hope that the weather would clear a little. This was fine by me - the coward inside me hoped a little that the trip would be called off completely. Camilla kept saying "safety is our first priority" which is absolutely true of the company and when our guide Mikael arrived and said we would make a go of it, I trusted that he knew what he was doing.
As an aside, it is very rare that I trust someone 100% upon first meeting them. However, we were lucky enough to have Basecamp Spitsbergen's head guide, Mikael, as our leader and I instantly felt safe in whatever decision he chose to make. We had a briefing that covered the usual caveats that this sort of trip entails, had lunch in the comfort of the Trapper's breakfast room and soon we were off down to the expedition base to get kitted out.
Outside it was hovering around -20ºC. This is what I wore: wool fleece tights, woollen knee length socks, wool and silk long johns, ski pants, two wool and silk base layers, fleece, ski jacket, liner gloves, wool mittens. These was supplied to us: Wool felt boot liners, BIG boots, two balaclavas (one neopreen, one wool), big leather bike mittens, survival suit and a helmet. It took about 20mins to get into all of that!
We got a 5 minute practice and then set off into the approaching darkness. After about 20mins Mikael stopped to check we were ok. I put another balaclava on as my head was feeling cold and I know that can be dangerous. We huddled like penguins (yes, I know, wrong pole) and the whole group helped me add another layer of warmth. When the wind had dropped a bit we stopped again to check that none of our bits had dropped off.
There was no path to follow. Our lovely guide Mikael followed his GPS, I followed him, my husband followed me. We were joined by a couple that were fabulous. She had bought the trip for her husband's 50th - so whenever things got tough or scary, I just kept on going thinking "Happy Birthday!!".
When you are on an expedition like this, you are only as strong as your weakest member. I think that was me.
All things considered, we made great progress and after a short 4 1/2 hours of heart stopping moments (including dropping down a 100m 45º angled hill in the dark) we arrived at the frozen waters of Tempelfjord.
We stayed on the ship that is frozen in the ice. Had the best cup of tea of my life, which was swiftly followed by Cognac to settle the nerves. We had an amazing three course dinner served by Maaike and Ted who wrap you up in the warmth of their welcome and make the trip that much more worthwhile. When they mentioned they had three dogs onboard, we requested an introduction, bu this was only allowed after everyone was checked for allergies.
My husband ventured out onto the ice with our guide after dinner for some photography. The light is incredible in Svalbard. In the night there is an ethereal blue of the moonlight reflecting on the snow. Sunrises and sunsets last for hours. But most of all that night, I noticed the patience and willingness that Mikael showed after a long day of guiding. Apart from wanting to ensure that my husband didn't end up as a Polar Bear snack, he genuinely was happy to get back outside. He has a passion that no amount of money can buy and was always as excited as us at seeing the light and landscape as if it was for the first time for him too.
After a very comfortable sleep, we woke up the next morning to a cloudless sky. We set off back up into the mountains and back UP the steep bit that we had come down the previous night. I got more scared now that I could see what we had done the night before!! But I did it nonetheless, thanks to the encouragement from our little troupe.
We headed back the way we came and it was brilliant to actually be able to see the landscape this time without the blinding snow. We had a short toilet break in Longyearbyen and then headed up and over the mountains to the south. From this point it was a 800m rolling drop down into the valleys.
Driving through the valleys we averaged speeds of about 70kph, it was exhilarating! We stopped to say hello to some reindeer. They are a small stout version up here. They root around in the snow looking for lichen to eat.
I got stuck for the first (and only) time this day. I was tired and didn't have the strength to pull the snowmobile around a turn whilst going up a hill. I stopped and Mikael came and rescued me, which was just as well, as I was sitting on the edge of a waterfall.
Being doubled up a hill by a strapping mountain guide is pretty ok too :D.
Around a fjord, over another mountain saddle, across a frozen lake and up onto a ridge for our first sight of our home for the night, Radio Isfjord. It was a stunning view with the wind whipping the snow into a swirling mass across the ground. I reckon if Hell freezes over, it may look a bit like this. But it wasn't hell... it was breathtakingly beautiful.
And then we arrived in the most remote hotel in the world. It was amazing! Having driven for 10 hours to get here made it even more luxurious. Oh, the many many glasses of red wine that they gave us helped. A lot.
We had a three course dinner here that would rival more than one Michelin starred restaurant that I can think of. And breakfast the next day was even better.
The next morning was REALLY windy and the coldest day yet. On the way back, we stopped for a break in Barentsburg. This was a thriving Russian mining town of 2,000 people until there was a fire in the mine in 2006. There are now just 300 people here surviving on a little tourism. It is a very surreal place and I will remember my visit whenever I think I am having a bad day at work.
We made our way back to Longyearbyen via the coastal route and en route our team mate flipped her snowmobile, but she jumped and thankfully was perfectly fine.
We got back to Longyearbyen and headed to Kroa restaurant once more for some lovely food and many many drinks.
Camilla and Ingrid (apologies, ALL the ladies are lovely, but these two really did stand out for me), were as pleased as we were that we enjoyed (and survived!) our expedition. We also met the chef, Jacqui, for the Noorderlicht (ship in the ice) who was coming in for the season and SO excited to be there at last. She really summed up the whole culture of Basecamp Spitsbergen with the genuine passion that all the staff show for their jobs and us guests that are lucky enough to be there.
That night I think I slept more soundly than I ever have.
So how was it driving a snowmobile for the first time?
I am not fit - I am a woman that mostly drives a laptop... Was it tough? Yes.
My arms hurt, my neck hurt, but it's amazing how a small dose of stubbornness can get you through these pain inconveniences. The trip that went before us hosted a 75 year old who managed perfectly fine (although I did meet him and he had a lot more cojones than your average 75 year old, I was completely impressed, as a wimpy 40 year old).
All in, we did 302.5km (that last 500m was tough :) ) on snowmobiles around Svalbard. Max temp -16ºC, minimum temp -50ºC with winds gusting up to 35mph. We were the only group to leave town in a blizzard... all 'first timers' but took on the challenge and got paid back tenfold. Drove too fast for comfort and just fast enough to have a rollicking good time (top speeds at 100kph!) Sore body, happy hearts.
Was it worth it? 100% yes.
What I especially loved about the Basecamp Spitsbergen experience is that they don't 'cosset' you. You will be responsible for yourself and communicating your limits.
If you are expecting to be waited on hand and (frozen) foot, this isn't for you.
We were especially lucky to spend our adventure in the company of Mikael. This is not a job for him, this is a way of life and I personally felt very privileged to have shared the adventure with him. He won't fix things for you, but he will show you how to conquer your fears for yourself, which is one of the most valuable thing someone can give you (in my opinion). Having said that, if you really don't want to (or can't) do any part of the driving, that's fine too. But my recommendation is to try it for yourself first.
I'll try anything twice.
Would I do all this again? If you asked me on the day I got back I would have said no... Now I am not so sure. Ask me again tomorrow and I suspect that it will be a big fat YES.
- Official Description (provided by the hotel):
- Basecamp Hotel is situated right at the heart of Longyearbyen, among restaurants, pubs, shops and bank. It is absolutely Longyearbyen's most amazing hotel; decorated in traditional trapper's style with driftwood, sealskins, pictures and objects that illustrate the past and current trappers' life in the Arctic. Despite its rusticity, Basecamp Hotel offers high quality accommodation with unique style! ... more less
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- Also Known As:
- Basecamp Hotel Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, Svalbard