The 62,500-square-kilometre Svalbard archipelago is one of the most hostile places on earth. Some 836km north of the Norwegian mainland – and just 1308km from the North Pole – two-thirds of its surface is covered by glaciers, the soil frozen to a depth of up to 500m. Despite the hardships such topography engenders, there are convincing reasons to make a trip. For one, Svalbard’s hinterlands make it a devastatingly gorgeous place to visit – whether in summer, autumn or spring when a magical light engulfs a Bergmanesque landscape and the Arctic opens itself up to curious visitors (during winter Svalbard is unconscionably dark). Experiences up here can be otherworldly: hiking a permafrost landscape strewn with antlers and whalebones; donning a massive orange drysuit to float around in icy waters; and dining at a snowy beach on campfire-cooked ox gruel and fjord-chilled champagne. It’s not your average place to visit – this is a land where there are double as many polar bears as people – and is a once-in-a-lifetime destination if ever there was one.
Though the landscape of Svalbard is mentioned in a twelfth-century Icelandic saga, suggesting that the Vikings made it up here several centuries previously, the first recorded discovery of Svalbard’s ice shards was by Dutch explorer Willem Barents on June 17, 1596. It was the third year in a row that Barents had come in search of the Northeast Passage, and when his Dutch crew saw the icy peaks of Svalbard (whose modern name for which derives from the Old Norse for “land with the cold coast”, they actually believed they had arrived at part of Greenland. After a protracted maritime battle with a polar bear, Barents was forced to winter at Bjørnøya just south of the main island, and later died sailing towards the Russian Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. A decade later, an English ship landed to hunt walrus, followed by French and Danish whalers, Russian polar bear and fox trappers and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, coal miners from all over the place.
Even today, the mythology of early European exploration informs everyday life here, with place names that read like an encyclopedia of imperial Arctic discoverers and explorers. Aside from the Barents Sea, there is Taylorfjellet, a mountain recalling the Victorian editor of The Scottish Geographical Magazine, W.A. Taylor; Murraypynten, a cape named after Scottish oceanographer Sir John Murray; and a group of islands named after sixteenth-century merchant and adventurer Thomas Smythe.
After rich coal deposits were discovered in 1899 – the geological residue of a prehistoric tropical forest – the first coal mine was opened by an American seven years later and passed into Norwegian hands in 1916. Meanwhile, other countries, particularly Russia and Sweden, were getting into the coal-mining act, and when, in 1920, Norway’s sovereignty over the archipelago was ratified by international treaty, it was on condition that those other countries who were operating mines could continue to do so. It was also agreed that the islands would be a demilitarized zone, which made them, incidentally, sitting ducks for a German squadron, which arrived here to bombard the Norwegian coal mines during World War II. Today though, only two of the collieries are still in operation – generating enough energy to run Longyearbyen’s power station – and Svalbard’s role is now primarily as an outpost for Arctic research and a place where tourists come to experience life at the end of the world.
Arctic posh: Isfjord Radio
At Cape Linne on the Isfjord’s southernmost tip is a tiny settlement that has been retrofitted over the past several years into one of Svalbard’s premier adventure destinations, Loomed over today by a massive radio tower and a dilapidated satellite dish, the cape’s Isfjord Radio Station was established in 1933 as the sole telecommunications link between Svalbard and the Norwegian mainland. When underwater fibre optics laid seventy years later outmoded the station overnight, Norwegian adventure company Basecamp Spitsbergen (t79 02 46 00, wbasecampspitsbergen.com; inclusive stays from 7300kr per person) stepped in and re-envisioned the settlement’s half-dozen buildings as a remote, rustic-chic base for explorations into the Arctic wilderness. The 23 swish, blue-grey rooms are done up with exposed wood, large comfy beds, goatskin blankets and driftwood sculptures, with high-powered binoculars that await you at the window sills (the station looks out onto a protected bird area).
To bear arms
As the world’s most northerly settled land, Svalbard easily lends itself to notching up your bedpost with geographic superlatives: most northerly kebab; most northerly naff souvenir shop; most northerly place in the world where you can walk around in a hoodie and carry a gun without ever getting a second look from your neighbour. Island law requires everyone of age to carry a firearm anywhere outside of Longyearbyen – most residents travel with a Ruger .30 rifle – as well as a “shocking device”, a signal pistol or suchlike, to ward off polar bears. Firearms can be rented from, among other places, Ingeniør G. Paulsen (t79 02 32 00) in town, though you’ll need to either show documentation that you have permission to possess a firearm in your home country or apply for a licence with the governor (see Svalbard tours).
These regulations are a constant reminder that somewhere out there lurks Ursus maritimus, the common, hungry polar bear. Polar bear attacks up here, while not commonplace, tend to get plenty of press in the international media, which often serves to tarnish Svalbard’s good name for a while and result in a few cancelled holiday plans. In 2011, a British teenager was tragically mauled to death and four others injured when a polar bear entered their tent during an expedition sponsored in part by the Royal Geographical Society. Though there have been just five fatal bear attacks on humans since 1971, thirteen bears were shot to death between 2001 and 2011. The root cause of all these deaths – both human and ursine – isn’t carelessness, though: it’s global warming. As the sea ice retreats, the bears, who more commonly hunt seals, are forced to unaccustomedly look inland for sustenance, even targeting such unlikely food sources as the eggs of barnacle geese. As food and proper hunting grounds dwindle, interactions between polar bears and humans are likely to increase, particularly as out of the estimated 3500 polar bears that comprise the Barents Sea population roughly half live on or around Spitsbergen.
Global Seed Vault
Svalbard is home to the Global Seed Vault, a “doomsday” bank built in 2008 that stores seeds from thousands of crop varieties and their botanical wild relatives from all over the world. The current total number of seed samples numbers some 250 million (representing 500,000 different varieties), including members of one-third of the world’s most important varieties of food crops. The vault is most commonly used in the event that any of the world’s thousand-plus collections of diverse crops accidentally lose or destroy samples – not an infrequent occurrence. The structure is about as impervious to an end-of-the-world catastrophe as possible, constructed some 120m inside a sandstone mountain and 130m above sea level, which ensures the site will stay dry even in the event that all the icecaps melt. Seeds are kept in specially constructed four-ply packets and heat-sealed to exclude moisture. For obvious reasons, the vault is closed to visitors unable to prove some specific scientific purpose.
Guided tours are big business on Svalbard and you can choose anything from hiking and snowmobiling through to kayaking, ice-caving, dog-sledging, Zodiac boat trips and wildlife safaris, not to mention trips into a former coal mine and stays on a converted Dutch schooner moored in the polar ice. The winter season runs from December to late May, while June to November is the season for “summer” activities. Your first point of contact should be Longyearbyen’s official tourist office, Svalbard Tourism, which presents a fairly thorough overview of everything you can do on the island. Next, select a tour operator – some of the best ones are listed below; prices tend to not vary too much. Note that in addition to the tours below, most of the operators run day-trips to Barentsburg by snowmobile or Zodiac, and some do overnight trips as well, with a stay in the hotel.
You can, of course, book a whole holiday with an operator back home (see Tour and holiday operators) or even take pot luck when you get there, but be warned that wilderness excursions are often fully booked weeks in advance. And finally, note that if you are determined to strike out into the wilderness independently, you first have to seek permission from, and log your itinerary with, the governor’s office, Sysselmannen på Svalbard, Postboks 633, N-9171 Longyearbyen (t79 02 43 00, wsysselmannen.no) – and they will certainly require you to carry some form of weapon (see To bear arms).
Local tour operators
t79 02 46 00, wbasecampspitsbergen.com. Svalbard’s most innovative adventure company, whose offerings include an evening snowshoe trip to see the northern lights (590kr), a three-day dog-sledding trip out to a century-old Dutch schooner (now an atmospheric floating hotel) moored in the ice (15,900kr) and five-day skiing expedition to the glacial peaks of Oscar II Land (12,900kr). Also operates the boutique Isfjord Radio guesthouse several hours southwest of Longyearbyen.
t79 02 17 05, wpoliarctici.com. Run by an affable Italian outdoorsman, this smallish specialist operator is one of the best in town, offering snowmobiling, boating and hiking tours from 690kr. They also rent out small apartments in Longyearbyen, and have a cottage out at Van Mijenfjorden, some 65km away, that’s available for stays during the winter.
t79 02 61 00, wspitsbergentravel.no. One of Svalbard’s largest outfitters, they run hotels, restaurants, safaris and can even rent out weapons and clothing. Their amazing four-day summer cross-country ski expedition (9700kr) heads out to the north of Spitsbergen, passing through Ny Ålesund.
t98 87 16 21, wsvalbardhusky.no. A solid dog-sledding group with around 50 huskies based about 10min outside of Longyearbyen in Adventdalen. A 4hr winter husky tour costs from 1090kr. In the warmer months, the dogs pull sledges outfitted with wheels (790kr).
Svalbard Maxi Taxi
t79 02 13 05, wtaxiguiden.no. This local taxi company offers informative guided tours twice daily of Longyearbyen (275kr per person), which take in the Global Seed Vault, Adventdalen coal mine and Longyearbyen church, among other sights.
t79 02 46 61, wscooterutleie.net. Manned by a gang of consummate Norwegian adventurers and maintaining scores of vehicles, this is one of your best options for snowmobiling adventures. A 3hr journey through the polar night starts at 1350kr; an 8hr day-trip to Barentsburg costs from 2050kr.
t79 02 10 68, wwww.terrapolaris.com. One of the most hard-core of Svalbard’s adventure companies, this place specializes in extended journeys out to some of the archipelago’s more remote spots. Pick from a skiing expedition to Newtontoppen and Atomfjella (15 days; 22,500kr), a tour of Spitsbergen and eastern Greenland (13 days; €4500), or a visit to Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya by Russian ice breaker (12 days; 45,000kr), among many other journeys. Owned by Svalbard expert and guidebook author Andreas Umbreit.