Turning 50 on the Top of the World

I knew I wanted to celebrate my 50th birthday in a big way. I had turned 20 in Baltimore, 30 in Berlin, Germany and 40 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I wanted to leave my 40s behind in a really cool place. Originally planning to travel to Antarctica to mark the occasion, I wanted to experience something completely new for me, an extreme of some sort. The Covid pandemic interfered in making arrangements to travel to the Great White South, so I decided to check out the northern polar region instead. I liked the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis, experiencing 24 hour darkness, visiting the Global Seed Vault and learning more about polar bears. A plan began to form.

Svalbard liquor store with a play on words in Norwegian. It means both “North Pole” and “Monopoly” – seems kind of appropriate given the remote location.

Day One: Getting There, Checking in and Relaxing

My Norwegian friend Leo, my fiance Chrissy and I flew Norwegian Air from Oslo up to Longyearbyen with a ground stop in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø. We had to deplane and enter the tiny airport in order to go through immigration and get our passports stamped as we were about to leave the Schengen area.

The sun was setting, making for some gorgeous colorful skies, highlighted by the blue of the water and the pure white of the seemingly untouched snow. Low mountains surrounded the airport.

I left the aircraft wearing nothing more than a T-shirt. I knew it was only a quick stop and didn’t want to make the effort to dig the jacket out of the bag. I stepped out of the plane and braced myself for the frigid cold. To my surprise, I wasn’t cold at all. The truth is that I hadn’t felt cold during the few days I spent in southern Norway either, which frankly left me bewildered.

As I walked across the tarmac, I could feel Norwegian eyes upon me, some with confused looks and other with genuine looks of concern. One man even stopped and asked me how I was not cold. “Menopause”, I answered him. My response seemed to leave him even more dumbfounded.

Stepping off the plane in Tromsø to go through immigration on my way to Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Once back on the plane, my excitement grew. I was about to travel the furthest north I had ever been – 78° North Longitude. As we traveled due north, my eyes stayed glued to the window taking it all in. I was fascinated at being able to see the line where the light ended and the perpetual darkness began. I mentally said goodbye to the sun and we landed in what felt like a different world.

After settling into our junior suite at the Funken Lodge, Chrissy and I met Leo at the Funken Bar on the second floor, where we were given cloudberry sorbet. I hadn’t had cloudberries since traveling in and around Newfoundland and so was happy to be reacquainted with them. I also tried aquavit, a Scandinavian spirit made of grains or potatoes. It reminded me of the moonshine I had tasted in Nashville. We continued our evening by relaxing at the bar before heading a few feet over to the Funktionærmessen Restaurant. Not a bad way to begin our Svalbard adventure!

View from my hotel window at the Funken Lodge in Longyearbyen

Still affected by jet lag, I fell asleep early and awoke at midnight. I decided to go look out the window to gaze at the snow and to check for any aurora borealis. I drew back the curtain and to my surprise there were reindeer right in front of the hotel! I woke up Chrissy right away and we both watched them for about 20 minutes before they mosied on their way. Later, we learned that Svalbard reindeer have shorter legs than other types of reindeer. What a treat to see them!

Svalbard reindeer right outside the Funken Lodge

Day Two: Seed Vault, Thai Massage and Fine-Dining

After a delicious, filling and luxurious continental breakfast at the lodge, we all took a taxi to the Global Seed Vault. Nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault”, this repurposed copper mine represents a major international cooperative effort to identify and provide heirloom seeds of every food plant known from around the world, so that if some sort of catastrophic event occurs, we can replant that food source once again. Simply put, it might just save our lives one day.

I thought about the gravity of its significance on the way up the hill in the darkness. I also thought about my mother, who is an active member of a seed-saving group in Vermont. I became excited when, I spotted the beautiful green light of the building jetting out of the permafrost ahead.

The taxi could only go so far and so we walked the short distance to the outside of the vault. It is well-known that only a very select few people may enter the vault as to not contaminate the millions of seeds and this was reinforced by a secure keypad and badge swipe on the door.

After absorbing the importance of the location, we made our way back to the taxi through the bitter cold.

Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Once back in town, we asked the taxi driver to drop us off at the Svalbardbutikken, otherwise known as the world’s northernmost department store. It was neat to walk around the grocery side of the store. Without knowing it at the time, I came across an orange husked berry that I would end up trying later that day just across the street. It’s called a physalis, or Peruvian groundcherry, and it’s apparently related to the tomatillo.

We ventured to the Lompen Senteret, a two-story shopping mall directly across from the Svalbardbutikken and enjoyed looking through the various shops for souvenirs. I found the perfect magnet for my fridge collection, and I found a laughing troll with a big belly for my travel shelf.

Leo and I had made a reservation for a 90 minute massage at Golden Hands and decided to grab a bite to eat beforehand. Chrissy ended up ordering a slice of raw vegan cake with what we learned, thanks to our friend Leo, were physalis on top. While Leo and I enjoyed our Thai massages, Chrissy thoughtfully went back to the store and bought a container of our newly-introduced husked fruit for us to enjoy the rest of our trip.

The two massage practitioners were from Thailand and one of them was even from Chiang Mai, where I lived for 2.5 years. The woman who worked on me had very strong hands and really dug into my body and got out all kinds of knots. I was quickly reminded how painful, but therapeutic, a Thai massage can be.

At one point, she pressed hot wet towels against my body (through a sheet), and it felt like the heat was being sent directly into my core. It felt great and very rejuvenating – just what I needed. We walked the 30 minutes through a small neighborhood back to the lodge. It was neat to observe locals going about their daily lives and in complete darkness.

For dinner that night, we headed out to Huset, an upscale restaurant specializing in Norwegian cuisine and reportedly one of the finest restaurants in Scandinavia. Unbeknownst to me before arriving in Svalbard, Huset also offered a vegan version of their pre-fixe tasting menu. A fan of vegan fine-dining, I simply had to give it a try and the others were happy to try Huset too.

One of the many beautiful courses at Huset in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Chrissy and Leo ordered the wine-pairing and I tried the juice-pairing, which included all Norwegian companies, one even dating back to the 1600s. Each course was quite the presentation and not knowing what to expect next, I enjoyed being surprised by each dish.

Day Three: Hike to an Ice Cave

Our third day in Svalbard was without a doubt the most challenging and the most amazing highlight of the entire trip. It is illegal to leave the clearly-marked boundaries of Longyearbyen without an armed guide who is knowledgeable in spotting and handling polar bears.

I have to admit that I was nervous about leaving town, as I didn’t want to witness a polar being shot and killed right in front of me, a ghastly event that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t made the decision to venture into her/his territory. Furthermore, polar bears are quite quickly losing their natural habitat and Svalbard is one of the few remaining places where they live.

So, I asked Glen, our guide from Spitzbergen Adventures, about the likelihood of coming across a polar bear and he explained that the chance of spotting a polar bear was slim to none. He went on to explain the procedure if we did come across a polar bear. My mind was put at ease when he said they don’t automatically shoot a bear on site. Instead, a flare gun is first used to scare the bear. If the bear does not leave the area, the guide would shoot a flare directly at the bear. If the bear stays, the guide will fire a shot in the air. A person should only actually shoot at a bear if s/he is not responding to the warning shots and instead approaches. Our guide was happy to share that he has never had to shoot a bear thus far. I was relieved to learn this.

The hike up the mountain to the ice cave was hard. It had been a decade since I had even seen snow, let alone trudged through it, sometimes up to my knees. I wore Timberland construction boots, not having anything truly appropriate for hiking in that climate. We were given crampons to put over our boots so that we could grab the ice better when we got to the snow-covered glacier. I set out knowing that I was out of shape and that hiking up had always posed a challenge for me. We donned headlamps to be able to see in the dark, but the full moon provided quite a bit of light too.

Slow and steady was my strategy and we paused often for breaks to return my breathing to normal. There was a rather steep point, where one wrong slip would mean falling off a cliff into a ravine at least 30 yards deep. I was not looking forward to facing that area again on my way down.

We got to the top of the mountain just before the glacier started. It was a good place to rest and take in the view. Glen introduced us to the sign-in book (and in a plastic bag to protect it from the elements) in which everyone who has reached that point has placed their name and the date they arrived. When the book is full, it gets placed in the local library. I love this idea. Perhaps one of my relatives might journey this far in the future and see my name in the book before signing their own to the newest book.

Entering the ice cave just outside Longyearbyen, Svalbard

We finally reached the entrance to the ice cave. It was time for lunch. Glen got out freeze-dried squash and sweet corn casserole and taught us how to prepare lunch with the hot water he brought. While waiting for our meals to cook, Glen gave us some hot toddies to warm up.

Making lunch in the ice-cave just outside Longyearbyen, Svalbard

It was really neat to have lunch inside a cave. After our filling meal, we explored the cave a bit, climbing over and under chunks of ice. The icicles were amazing! The location was surreal and reminded me a bit of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but not as blue. The ice was often sparkling like diamonds. A really gorgeous location!

Exploring the ice cave in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

We departed the cave and began to head back down the mountain. It was SO much easier walking back down the ascending for me…that is until we got to the scary part along the cliff. My fear of heights kicked into high gear and it didn’t help that I fell and began to slide toward the edge and could not control my movement. I managed to make it upright again, but with each step came the concern that I could slide again at any moment. I was literally frozen with fear. Eventually, Glen came over to me and held my hand, blocking the view of the edge. This helped me tremendously.

View while hiking back down the mountain in moonlight n Longyearbyen, Svalbard

The rest of the walk was easy. It was wonderful to walk toward the city again, taking in the incredible views. When we got back to the van, we watched Glen unload his rifle as per law. A bright orange piece was placed in the chamber so when he walked through town, people could clearly see it was unloaded. I must say that it felt very strange not tipping our guide, especially because he was so patient with us and did an amazing job answering so many questions we had about the area, polar bears and so much more. But, my Norwegian friend assured me that tipping in Norway is not a common practice.

Day Four: a Bath, a Nap and a 7-Course Dinner

Chrissy surprised me by decorating the living room area of our suite with a birthday banner, a birthday t-shirt, a birthday tiara and a birthday sash for me to wear.

Chrissy’s birthday surprise for me

After breakfast, while the others explored the town, including the church and the museum, I happy laid down for a much-needed nap. When I awoke, I drew myself a bath in the deep soaker tub in our bathroom. I brought in some snacks and let the hot water work on my sore muscles.

Donned with my newly-acquired birthday attire and slippers (as per Svalbard tradition anytime you are inside, even at a fancy restaurant), I sat down with the others for a 7-course vegan meal at Funktionærmessen Restaurant. I had booked this meal months in advance and was excited to celebrate my birthday eve with great company and a gastronomic event.

I tried a few cocktails as well, including a cocktail with aquavit in it. I also tried Sazerac which had cognac, absinthe, peychaud bitter and white sugar.

Almond cheese, tomato jam, rosemary and flatbread from the Funktionærmessen Restaurant in Longyearbyen, Svalbard

It was wonderful to experience each course of the tasting menu, each one with its unique blend of flavors and textures. For the final course, the staff brought me the dessert with a lit candle and sang me happy birthday with Leo and Chrissy joining in. I was overwhelmed by the sentiment. I also kept the candle and added it to my memory box when I got back home.

Day Five: My Birthday!

Checkout day happened to be my actual birthday. After a leisurely breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and caught the airport bus back to the airport. I proudly donned my tiara and “It’s my 50th birthday” T-shirt. With plenty of room on the plane, we spread out, each having a window seat. This was our last opportunity, after all, to try to see the northern lights. I was also looking forward to seeing the first glimpses of the sun again. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to enjoy any aurora borealis on this trip, but this only means that the search continues.

Retracing our steps, we switched planes in Tromsø. Unlike our last time transferring in this small airport, this time the air was much colder and the wind had picked up. A t-shirt was simply not enough, even with my menopause superpowers. But, I kept walking to the tiny terminal figuring that I would only be outside for a short time. To my surprise, we were to wait quite considerably outside this time to wait in line for immigration.

We eventually made it to the front of the very slowly moving line and received another stamp in our passports. The immigration officer even said “Happy Birthday” to me, a greeting I got from several people throughout the day.

We survived the cold and headed back out across the tarmac to reclaim our seats. This time, the plane had fewer empty seats.

We stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel right across the street from the Oslo airport and had a birthday dinner in their 26 North Restaurant and Social Club. It was a great way to end a travel day and my birthday. We awoke super early, walked across the street and flew back home to the Sunshine State. I had an amazing adventure, but it was great to be embraced by the sun again.

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