Svalbard Norway and Spitsbergen: A Magnificent Frontier To Explore
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Spitsbergen NorwaySpitsbergen, at the 78th parallel, is the largest and most visited island in the archipelago with its town of Longyearbyen as the largest settlement; a permanent population of over 2000 mixed nationalities, from Norwegian, Russian to Swedish and Taiwanese.
The local residents work in tourism, mining and research. It is amazing that these resilient individuals experience months of no sun.
The season is called Dark Winter and it means that by the end of October, there is virtually no sun at all until February. By mid February (locals call it the Blue Season), a little light under the horizon returns casting a magical hue to the snow covered landscapes with a sky that is perpetually a deep blue until mid March. Of course, summer constitutes 24-hours of sun and residents, as well as visitors find it a bit difficult to adjust their sleep cycles. Yet, it is a fantastic time to take advantage of the daylight and participate in numerous and thrilling outdoor activities.
The best time to visit is from mid-March to September.
Longyearbyen NorwayThe Longyearbyen town center lies adjacent to the Adventfjord harbour and is the hub of commerce, hotels, restaurants, pubs, museums, sporting and recreational arctic expeditions.
In Longyearbyen, take a walk around the town and explore the fascinating surrounding scenery. The arctic desert landscape, with reindeer wandering about, jagged snow-capped peaks, vibrant harbour views, as well as the town's colorfully painted homes are incredible. You'll get the sense you are in a place that's like nowhere else; you're at the top of the world and it brings a special kind of awareness that is exciting and invigorating.
After your walk, stroll down the town's two main streets that are lined with unique shops offering exquisite Nordic made clothing, jewelry (look for the coveted polar bear Svalbard ring), art galleries, souvenirs and a host of additional intriguing shops, where you'll find great treasures. You won't need transportation, as they are all located in the town's walkable, secure zone. All shopping is tax fee as well.
When you visit, you will be at the closest post office to the North Pole this side of Santa's mailbox. Remember to buy a few post cards and mail them with official, Svalbard polar bear stamps to friends and family.
While in town, visit the Svalbard Museum for an absorbing history and culture of Svalbard. It is recognized as one of the top museums in Scandinavia and provides comprehensive and interesting exhibits of animals, marine mammals, geology and the cultural history of the early trappers and coal miners who settled the region. The museum is also a great place to obtain information on the environment, encouraging environment-friendly contact with nature and the cultural heritage found on Svalbard.
The region is a rugged and striking environment, but also fragile, as the ground is permafrost (the soil is frozen permanently). However, in Longyearbyen, the active layer melts off in warmer weather. Be careful where you tread while walking in town or out on activities, as the ground cover and flora take a long time to recover once disturbed.
Most visitors stay in the town's hotels with the exception of specially guided camping expeditions or pre-arranged stays in other small settlements.
In addition, there are at least 3000 polar bears living around Svalbard, and the only secure area for visitors in Longyearbyen is in the town center. If you wish to travel out of the town center, a guide that carries a rifle must accompany you. The areas outside of the secure zone are clearly marked with polar bear signs.
Lodging in Longyearbyen: Basecamp Trapper's HotelThere are just over half-a-dozen hotels and lodging facilities in Longyearbyen that range from rustic to the modern Radisson Blu Polar Hotel. However, if you want to stay at a captivating hotel that keeps with the history of the area and a unique design, sojourn at the Basecamp Trapper's Hotel.
As the first inhabitants of the area were trappers, the 15-room hotel is decorated in a traditional trapper style with driftwood, slate, sealskin, photos and items that exemplify their trade and lives. Moreover, the material used to build the hotel came from cast-off materials found in and out of the area; the rooms are even decorated with old equipment from disused pits.
The hotel is absolutely amazing and despite the style that the name denotes, it actually offers high-quality accommodations. The lobby area is a warm, cozy place to relax, chat and sip a steamy cup of coffee. It is designed with comfortable sectional seating made with hand-cut wood frames, rustic varnished-wood coffee tables and sealskin-covered wood stools. Even the walls sport a frontiersman appeal and are decorated in burlap coffee sacks from Brazil with books on Svalbard lining the shelves.
Rooms are located on the hotel's second floor and are just plain cool! If you ever went to outdoor school, you may have had wood-frame bunk beds; Basecamp features the same kind of wooden bunk beds with quality, warm linens. With walls built of rough-hewn wood planks and long johns comically sewn into curtains, each room has a rustic character and is outfitted with a slate-covered table, leather chairs, stools and a complete bathroom.
Further, breakfast is something to look forward to, as the hotel lays out an enviable spread of delicious fare that includes fresh-baked breads, cheeses, and hot dishes, to eggs, meats and croissants.
The Basecamp Trapper's Hotel provides the atmosphere of a natural setting that lends itself to the local landscape, but also offers the conveniences most of us find necessary for a comfortable stay. Inquire at Basecamp's reception desk for a great selection of guided activities that you may wish to consider as well.
Summer Boat Tour of Isfjord: Marine mammals, birds, and a Russian settlementIf you visit Longyearbyen in summer, full-day boat trips are a fantastic and exciting way to see the Isfjord, marine mammals, bird cliffs, abandoned settlements, glaciers and Russian settlements. Henningsen Transport & Guiding is renowned for their excellent guided cruises to these destinations aboard their ship the MS Langoysund.
The Esmark Glacier and Barentsburg tour starts in the morning and departs from the Longyearbyen harbour with Stein Henningsen, an amazing guide that's humorous as well. Henningsen describes the fascinating history of the area, as the ship cruises westerly to the Esmark Glacier. Along the route, there are breathtaking views of Spitsbergen, the surrounding mountains.
The tour also offers a glimpse of the agricultural marvel the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The seed vault is built 150 meters deep into the permafrost rock mountain with just the shinning optical entrance visible. The vault contains seeds from just about every country in the world in case of a catastrophe. Due to precise temperature control to keep the seeds stable, unfortunately, visitors are not permitted inside.
As the ship heads deeper into the Isfjord, passengers often head inside the comfortable, warm cabin of the ship for a cup of coffee and snack (try the Norwegian brown cheese). Even in mid-summer, the temperature in Spitsbergen averages only about 55 F and on a ship in the Isfjord, it can be rather chilly, so make sure to dress warmly and wear a wool hat.
Once the ship nears the dramatic ice-blue Esmark Glacier (a surge glacier that moves up to 100 times faster than normal), floating ice increases in the Isfjord and sea mammals are often spotted, such as the Bearded Seal. Young Bearded Seals are a gold color and the adults are a blue-gray. These marine mammals are more curious about the ships filled with people than scared and they lie on the floating ice with comical and curious expressions on their faces. Although there are over 3000 polar bears throughout the archipelago, it is rare to see the polar bears in summer, but on occasion, they can be seen hunting by the glaciers. The best way to see a polar bear is from the deck of a large ship and the safest as well.
A Visit to a Russian-Norwegian Settlement of BarentsburgAfter departing the Esmark Glacier, a tasty BBQ lunch of Minke Whale (not endangered) and side dishes are served aboard the MS Langoysund; it tastes a bit like liver and looks like beef. The cruise continues to the fascinating Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg. Barentsburg is the second largest settlement in Svalbard and is under Norwegian sovereignty.
The settlement started as a Dutch mining town in the 1920s; then, the concession was sold to the Soviet Union in 1931. Today, about 550 Russian citizens live, work and attend school in Barentsburg. Each miner and his family generally stay for two-year contract periods. Passengers disembark for a guided tour of this captivating town with its interesting Russian architecture and history. After the tour, you are free to explore and photograph the town or go to the commissary and buy a pint of Russian-brewed two percent Red Bear beer and chat with the locals. Or, peruse the Russian gift shop for memorabilia before departing back Longyearbyen.
Dog Sledding Summer and WinterIf you want the adventure of dogsledding, you won't miss out if you visit Longyearbyen in summer; you simply go on wheels! Svalbard Husky is an excellent company that picks guests up from their hotels in town and takes them on thrilling guided dog sled/wheels tours in Longyearbyen. The tour starts with a visit to the dog kennels, where guests are allowed to interact with these incredibly sweet dogs that love attention. The dogs are an ancient mix of Greenlandic, Alaskan husky and several other breeds to produce a dog that can live in the coldest temperatures comfortably and are strong enough to pull the sleds. Their dense fur under wool is remarkable in thickness and they weigh generally about 60 pounds. Once the dogs are selected for the team to pull the sleds/wagon, everyone is loaded into SUVs and driven to scenic Bjorndalen to begin the tour.
Keep your cameras handy at all times, as the area is teaming with astonishing landscapes and wildlife, such as Arctic Turns, Red Throated Divers (sea birds) Svalbard Reindeer, foxes, seals, Barnacle Geese, walrus and even Beluga Whales on occasion.
The sleddogs love to pull sleds and the wheeled wagons and voice their eagerness until hooked up in the team and they set their pace for the tour. Along the route there are beautiful harbour views, and hillsides covered with flowers that are small and delicate, such as the white fluffy flowers called Marsh Cotton or Snow Wool and colorful Svalbard poppies, as well as dozens of species that are indigenous to the Svalbard Archipelago. Moreover, Svalbard Husky offers a number of awesome tours during the summer and winter.
If You GoLongyearbyen proffers numerous excellent restaurants, cafes and pubs. If you're curious to see one of the top six bars in the world that features over 900 different bottles of spirits, visit Karlsberger Pub in the town center. This pub is a great place to hang out with the locals and hear a tale or two. If you're brave enough, ask for a shot of Ratzputz (made from ginger and strong); it will warm you to your toes.
For a delicious dinner in town, the Kroa restaurant, attached to the Trapper's Hotel, is a smart option for great cuisine. The menu features everything from scrumptious lamb dishes to beef and fish, to amazing lava cake and tarts, in a comfortable and friendly atmosphere. For fine dining, the place to experience is the renowned Huset Restaurant, located about two miles outside of town (take a taxi). The restaurant is situated in a grand cultural house that also features concerts and dinner in the old movie theater hall and conferences in various rooms of the house. Considered one of the finest dining establishments in Norway, celebrities, world leaders and notables fly in to Longyearbyen just to dine on Huset's brilliant cuisine.
Huset's wine selection is nothing short of magnificent and boasts some impressive vintages (over 2500 bottles), stored in a cellar labyrinth that is located under the house. Upstairs, in the chic dining room, guests are seated at well-laid tables with lovely views and a dining experience to cherish. As the seasons change in Svalbard, so does the exquisite menu at Huset. A menu in fall might offer a delicate marinated halibut with polar salad, jalapeno and almonds, or a savory and rich homemade reindeer sausage with sage and pickled onions. If you wish to dine at Huset, make sure to make reservations in advance of your journey to Svalbard.
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Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site OffbeatTravel.com and is a regular contributor on travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author