PHOTOS FROM: North Norwegian Tourist Board
Aptly named by early Norse explorers, Svalbard (literally “the cold rim”) lies halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Consisting of numerous islands, the largest of which is Spitsbergen, the archipelago was only settled during the last 200 years when mining and whaling drew settlers to this remote corner of the world.
This part of the arctic is governed by extremes – the Polar Night and Midnight Sun alternately cloak Svalbard in darkness or bathe it in light half the year, yet even with its remoteness, Longyearbyen (the archi-pelago’s only real town) is covered with Wifi connection.
Longyearbyen is the kind of town where Svalbard reindeer (a rare endemic species) wander the streets, and arctic foxes run through snowy fields. There are also more polar bears in Svalbard than people, so locals travel armed anywhere outside of town.
Home today to a burgeoning community of climate change researchers, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a university and some remaining coal miners, relics of the past abound, from the ruins of early settlements to the hulking remains of the abandoned mines and whaling stations that were Svalbard’s raison d’etat.
While in winter Svalbard is a dark (the sun never rises), cold and forbidding place (save for the occasional glow of Aurora Borealis), it comes alive during the short arctic spring/summer (April-August), when the Midnight Sun serves as a signal to plants and animals alike to erupt in activity, when flowers bloom and reindeer graze.
Activities like snowmobiling, ice caving, dog sledding and glacier hiking are best in late winter, while summer is good for horse riding, kayaking and hiking.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest activities in Svalbard is dog sledding. Local operators run everything from half-day runs to multi-day expeditions into the wild, which would require you to carry a gun for protection against polar bears.
Longer trips make the land crossing to Barentsburg, or the ghostly abandoned mining settlement of Pyramiden, while shorter trips run down the Adventdalen Valley or to the neighbouring settlement of Nybyen – both 2-3 hour return trips.
Operators also run trips to and from Barentsburg (2-3 days), crossing some of the world’s most untouched landscapes.
The Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg is a mix of raw nature and Soviet-era kitsch, and the only way in is via boat (or helicopter) down the icy fjords from Longyearbyen.
Filled with murals of a “workers’ paradise”, a Lenin statue, a lonely Orthodox church and the 78th Parallel Bar, Barentsburg has a distinct frontier town feel. It is also slowly shrinking, as operations wind down. Dotted with industrial decay (like boarded-up buildings), it still spews plumes of black smoke, making it a sight to behold, simply for the outlandish mix of detritus in town and white glaciers just beyond.
Getting There & Around
It’s the world’s most northerly destination serviced by commercial flights; the easiest route is via mainland Norway. Longyearbyen has only one road through town (though you can walk everywhere), and other outlying areas accessible by boat or dog sled (in winter).
What to Eat or Drink
Being that far north, their idea of ‘fresh catch’ include reindeer, whale, seal and Arctic char. You can enjoy some reindeer fajita or seal steak at the Kroa (Longyearbyen’s convivial local), or Arctic char at Huset. Mary Anne’s Polarigg even serves Thai-style whale stir-fry.
Where to Stay
Perched on a hill, the historic Spitzbergen Hotel (built in 1947) is a fixture in Longyearbyen, as is Mary Ann’s Polarigg, with its unique frontier theme. Alternatively, you can stay onboard the ‘Ship in the Ice’, moored 60km from town, which hosts guests from February to March.
Locals have a custom of taking off their shoes and boots before entering someone’s home, or upon entering hotels, offices and some shops – it’s a tradition dating back to the coal mining days when miners would take off their shoes to avoid tracking coal dust into the houses. Visitors today swap their shoes with indoor slippers (or Crocs) provided, so don’t forget your socks.
Prices of food, drink and everything else are subsidised – which is contrary to costs elsewhere in the arctic.