The North Pole with Quark

By Jo Rawlins Gilbert
This item appears on page 26 of the December 2016 issue.
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Church doorway in Gerace, Italy. Photo by Maria Ciancio

When Quark Expeditions sent me information about a North Pole trip aboard a Russian nuclear icebreaker, it was the Murmansk stop that sold me. I remembered that during World War II, merchant mariners took chances sailing to that Russian port in the Arctic to deliver supplies to our Soviet allies.

I previously had a good experience with Quark Expeditions (Seattle, WA; 888/332-0008, www.quarkexpeditions.com) in the Antarctic. For this Arctic trip, I chose their least expensive fare ($26,750). I later upgraded (at no extra cost) so my roommate and I could have a larger room.

With 12 days aboard the 50 Years of Victory, a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker, the trip, June 26-July 8, 2016, began and ended with a night at a Hilton in Helsinki, Finland. 

The Quark package included a charter flight from Helsinki to Murmansk, where our busload of passengers was checked and double-checked while being held in a sally port. I was a bit concerned, as I was using a visa I’d obtained a year earlier for a Siberian Rail trip. I’d been assured it was still good, but I didn’t trust that it was until I passed muster.

We were given a several-hour tour that included walking around the center of town. Murmansk’s central area has some older, but nicely designed, buildings done by a St. Petersburg architect. An effort had been made to maintain the grounds there, unlike in most of the city, which was dominated by old-style Soviet blockhouses that were deteriorating.

The harbor at Murmansk is large. One area appeared to be for civilian use while another was more military, including the spot where our ship was anchored, near several other nuclear-powered ships and warships.

After the tour, we boarded the ship. I looked forward to the educational talks, helicopter flights and Zodiac rides. Quark has always been a traveling seminar of the polar regions. 

On board were a small bar, a first-rate dining room, a library, a small gym and a swimming pool. In comparison to my last expedition ship with Quark, it was luxurious. The multilingual staff was outstanding, and the expedition leader was superb.

In addition to those of us who spoke English, passengers included groups of Chinese, Japanese, Russian and German speakers. Quark managed to keep all of us involved. 

For the most part, passengers had the run of the ship, with arrangements made for below-decks tours. I didn’t spend much time on the bow, but I did hang out on the bridge and was impressed with the modern equipment. I had a great view of the ship cutting over and down on the ice. 

Photographers abounded. Some carried a minimum of three cameras and a laptop. One man had his camera attached to a “selfie” pole that was at least 8 feet long. He got some really awesome shots.

Staff offered a fair amount of organized and unorganized evening gatherings — not my cuppa tea, though my roommate took advantage of all opportunities, even getting up at 2 a.m. to view polar bears! The rest of us also got to see polar bears as well as a walrus and all sorts of arctic birds.

The Russians are the major players in the Arctic’s development, maintaining an icebreaker fleet and with scientists spending summers on Franz Josef Land. 

We went ashore at Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, once a meteorological station. The ship dropped off park rangers and scientists at a summer station there and supplies were unloaded for the summer staff. We couldn’t land by helicopter or Zodiac at the first spot but did succeed in settling in at the second. 

There were lovely old, weathered buildings on a rocky shore. Some of the women aboard were delighted when told there was a shop at the post office, only to find little more than postcards.

We took another Zodiac ride around Champ Island, flocked with birds and sea life. I felt it was one of the best parts of the trip, along with a short helicopter ride I took above our ice-breaking ship at work.

One of several city gates in Gerace, Italy. Photo by Maria Ciancio

The pièce de résistance for most was the day at the geographic North Pole, the place explorers in the past had suffered to find, while we arrived in comfort. What a contrast! We took photos and enjoyed hikes, a barbecue and polar plunges.

I had problems staying upright in the snow and ice wearing the Quark-issued boots, so I did little wandering about. I hung about on the ship’s stern, watching the polar plungers shiver their way out of the jumps. I’m not a water person, either warm or cold.

We missed out on much due to winds and fog, including a scheduled hot-air balloon ride at the pole, but there were at least four presentations daily covering the glaciers, wildlife, history and politics — all well done and interesting. 

Heading home, I had time to kill in Helsinki and spent some with two guys from California, one of whom was proficient with his iPad, getting us on trams here and there and checking out a bar, a bookstore and an excellent restaurant serving reindeer meat. (I had the best salmon ever at that restaurant, though I don’t remember which one it was, since we found it after impulsively getting off the trolley.)

Sleeping at the Helsinki Airport gets about a B-/C+ on my rating scale. With my boarding pass, I could get past security and to my gate, where I spent the night until 5-ish on a padded bench without armrests (and, luckily, no PA announcements, although lights and AC were on all night). Vending machines with food and drink were nearby, and, had I looked, I would have found chaise lounges up a corridor. 

JO RAWLINS GILBERT

Palo Alto, CA

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Church doorway in Gerace, Italy. Photo by Maria Ciancio

When Quark Expeditions sent me information about a North Pole trip aboard a Russian nuclear icebreaker, it was the Murmansk stop that sold me. I remembered that during World War II, merchant mariners took chances sailing to that Russian port in the Arctic to deliver supplies to our Soviet allies.

I previously had a good experience with Quark Expeditions (Seattle, WA; 888/332-0008, www.quarkexpeditions.com) in the Antarctic. For this Arctic trip, I chose their least expensive fare ($26,750). I later upgraded (at no extra cost) so my roommate and I could have a larger room.

With 12 days aboard the 50 Years of Victory, a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker, the trip, June 26-July 8, 2016, began and ended with a night at a Hilton in Helsinki, Finland. 

The Quark package included a charter flight from Helsinki to Murmansk, where our busload of passengers was checked and double-checked while being held in a sally port. I was a bit concerned, as I was using a visa I’d obtained a year earlier for a Siberian Rail trip. I’d been assured it was still good, but I didn’t trust that it was until I passed muster.

We were given a several-hour tour that included walking around the center of town. Murmansk’s central area has some older, but nicely designed, buildings done by a St. Petersburg architect. An effort had been made to maintain the grounds there, unlike in most of the city, which was dominated by old-style Soviet blockhouses that were deteriorating.

The harbor at Murmansk is large. One area appeared to be for civilian use while another was more military, including the spot where our ship was anchored, near several other nuclear-powered ships and warships.

After the tour, we boarded the ship. I looked forward to the educational talks, helicopter flights and Zodiac rides. Quark has always been a traveling seminar of the polar regions. 

On board were a small bar, a first-rate dining room, a library, a small gym and a swimming pool. In comparison to my last expedition ship with Quark, it was luxurious. The multilingual staff was outstanding, and the expedition leader was superb.

In addition to those of us who spoke English, passengers included groups of Chinese, Japanese, Russian and German speakers. Quark managed to keep all of us involved. 

For the most part, passengers had the run of the ship, with arrangements made for below-decks tours. I didn’t spend much time on the bow, but I did hang out on the bridge and was impressed with the modern equipment. I had a great view of the ship cutting over and down on the ice. 

Photographers abounded. Some carried a minimum of three cameras and a laptop. One man had his camera attached to a “selfie” pole that was at least 8 feet long. He got some really awesome shots.

Staff offered a fair amount of organized and unorganized evening gatherings — not my cuppa tea, though my roommate took advantage of all opportunities, even getting up at 2 a.m. to view polar bears! The rest of us also got to see polar bears as well as a walrus and all sorts of arctic birds.

The Russians are the major players in the Arctic’s development, maintaining an icebreaker fleet and with scientists spending summers on Franz Josef Land. 

We went ashore at Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, once a meteorological station. The ship dropped off park rangers and scientists at a summer station there and supplies were unloaded for the summer staff. We couldn’t land by helicopter or Zodiac at the first spot but did succeed in settling in at the second. 

There were lovely old, weathered buildings on a rocky shore. Some of the women aboard were delighted when told there was a shop at the post office, only to find little more than postcards.

We took another Zodiac ride around Champ Island, flocked with birds and sea life. I felt it was one of the best parts of the trip, along with a short helicopter ride I took above our ice-breaking ship at work.

One of several city gates in Gerace, Italy. Photo by Maria Ciancio

The pièce de résistance for most was the day at the geographic North Pole, the place explorers in the past had suffered to find, while we arrived in comfort. What a contrast! We took photos and enjoyed hikes, a barbecue and polar plunges.

I had problems staying upright in the snow and ice wearing the Quark-issued boots, so I did little wandering about. I hung about on the ship’s stern, watching the polar plungers shiver their way out of the jumps. I’m not a water person, either warm or cold.

We missed out on much due to winds and fog, including a scheduled hot-air balloon ride at the pole, but there were at least four presentations daily covering the glaciers, wildlife, history and politics — all well done and interesting. 

Heading home, I had time to kill in Helsinki and spent some with two guys from California, one of whom was proficient with his iPad, getting us on trams here and there and checking out a bar, a bookstore and an excellent restaurant serving reindeer meat. (I had the best salmon ever at that restaurant, though I don’t remember which one it was, since we found it after impulsively getting off the trolley.)

Sleeping at the Helsinki Airport gets about a B-/C+ on my rating scale. With my boarding pass, I could get past security and to my gate, where I spent the night until 5-ish on a padded bench without armrests (and, luckily, no PA announcements, although lights and AC were on all night). Vending machines with food and drink were nearby, and, had I looked, I would have found chaise lounges up a corridor. 

JO RAWLINS GILBERT

Palo Alto, CA