Trip duration: 4 days | Approx cost: £600 | When: All year round – each season is unique
Doinit factor: This place is wonderfully unique, and it’s probably the closest you’ll get to the north pole!
Halfway between Norway and the North Pole is the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. A remote wilderness; a land of ice, islands and mountains. It’s as far north as most people can get using commercial means, and with the summer temperatures reaching ‘tolerable’, 24 hours sunshine and low taxes I think this could be my kind of summer holiday.
Svalbard is a territory administered by but not technically part of, Norway. This all dates back to the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. Before this the archipelago was a frozen wild west where anyone could pretty much settle here, providing they could get there. Hunting and mining is what drew people here but up until the Treaty, the land didn’t really belong to any existing country. Norway was given control of Svalbard but it came with a number of conditions. These included no military presence; any taxes collected would not be added to Norway’s central budgets and no immigration checks.
What’s in the name?
- Svalbard: Is the archipelago – the name given to the islands group i.e the name of the territory.
- Spitsbergen: Is the largest and only inhabited of the islands within Svalbard.
- Longyearbyen: Is the largest settlement and the administrative centre for the territory.
Oslo in a nutshell and Longyearbyen in a tent
Realistically any trip to Svalbard will need a stopover in Oslo, and with a four hour layover, we’ve enough time to make the most of it. A helpful guide at the airport gives us a map highlighting all the things one should try and see: the Cathedral, Parliament buildings, City Hall, the Fortress and the Opera House. Walking around Oslo during a lovely Summer’s day makes for a pleasant experience and I can’t help thinking unfairly this is only killing time before I finally step foot on Svalbard later that day, but the time goes quickly and before long we are back on a train en-route to the airport.
We touchdown at the small airport and after collecting our bags from the one and only baggage carousel – and as there’s no customs or immigration to negotiate – we’re out of the terminal within minutes, deep within the Arctic Circle; my excitement is truly obvious. It’s evening but you wouldn’t know it – this time of year (June) the sun never sets. Out of the front of the airport building is the famous sign, indicating distances to the World’s major cities which are all south from here.
A few minutes’ walk from the airport is the World’s most Northerly campsite (most Northerly being a phrase I’ll be using a lot). I couldn’t resist booking at least one night here, so a compromise was reached between my wife and I. First night camping, the rest somewhere a bit more sturdy. The campsite is set alongside the coastline and surround by snow caped peaks as far as the eye can see.
Above: Map of the main sights to see in Oslo | Sign post showing distances | Longyearbyen campsite is a short walk from the airport where we check into our Arctic tents
Not wanting to lug all our camping gear from the UK, I’ve arranged to rent all that’s needed prior to our arrival; a spacious arctic tent, sleeping bags and ground mats. Once we’ve unloaded our bags it’s time for dinner. The campsite has a well-equipped service building which provides us with a place to cook our dinner, consisting of pasta and Tesco’s finest spag-bol sauce that we’ve carried from home – how fine it can be if it’s from a tin is debatable.
The campsite caretaker tries to get us to sign up to a naked swim in the sea, and as much as it would be a cool certificate, I decline, instead opting for a short stroll along the coast line. The caretaker suggests a route, indicating you “probably won’t” run into any polar bears if we follow her direction. It feels rather surreal as I check my watch to see it’s almost midnight, yet it’s as bright outside as it was at midday; I am tired but I just don’t feel like its bed time. After about 30 minutes, the cold air starts to penetrate our clothing so it’s time to get into our tent for our first night sleep on the island. It’s still bright outside; I’m glad I’ve brought my eye mask.
Buses, boats and abandoned towns
We’re up early and we have a full day planned. I’ve arrange to join a bus tour to take us around the main settlement of Longyearbyen (named after the American John Munro Longyear). It’s one of the standard ‘tourist excursions’. It’s a two hour drive around the area where our driver talks about the history and points out local attractions. He takes us past the famous seed vault which was undergoing maintenance at the time – so we couldn’t get too close, the old airport, around town, pointing out the most northerly church, most northerly university, most northerly kebab shop and so on. After our tour we’re dropped off at the top of town, at the Miners cabins, where we will be spending the rest of our stay. We’ve got a couple of hours to grab some lunch and have a quick shower before our next excursion. We’ll be spending the afternoon visiting an abandoned Soviet mining town.
Above: The bus tour takes us around Longyearbyen, from the global seed vault to the radar research stations | Caution Polar Bears
On board the Aurora Explorer our voyage takes us through the Billefjorden, the dramatic walls of this fjord wouldn’t look out of place in the Lord of the Rings. The day starts rather misty, with icy showers occasionally forcing us below deck, yet the puffins flying along our side don’t seem to mind. The scenery truly is marvellous and about an hour into our voyage the weather appears to settle in time for us to have a close encounter with the enormous blue glacier, Nordenskioldbreen not long before finally arriving at the dock at Pyramiden.
Above: Cruising along the fjord from Longyearbyen to Pyramiden
Pyramiden is a real time capsule, an ex-Soviet mining town abandoned in 1998. First established by the Swedes in 1910 and later sold to the USSR. Today it serves as a reminder to the conditions people are willing to endure in the pursuit of pillaging the Earth’s resources. A remote outpost deep in the Arctic with essentially no communication to the outside world; today it attracts boatloads of tourists in the summer months, but abandoned may not be an entirely accurate description. Today a small Russian team of about four or five care takers manage the small settlement, making repairs and keeping it ticking over; and there are rumors of a revival in the not too distant future.
Off the boat we meet our Russian guide with a rifle on her back to ward-off polar bears. She enthusiastically welcomes us to the “best place in the World” explaining that she hasn’t got a clue what’s happening in the rest of the world. She doesn’t have access to Facebook, the news, texts or calls, and she loves it. Apparently if there’s an emergency one might be able to get reception, ‘maybe’, at the summit of the mountain, for which the settlement is named and serves as a backdrop to the town.
We’re guided around the town and through some of the buildings, and what really strikes me is that this wasn’t just miners that lived here, their families joined them and a whole host of support comrades. There was a school, a hospital, theatre, sports hall and of course the inevitable World’s most Northern statue of Lenin; situated prominently in the heart of the community. Our tour ends in a hotel and I’m amazed and disappointed that I hadn’t thought of this – but visitors can spend the night here. After a warming soup and a pint of Russian beer, we’re able to buy a post card and get it stamped before having to make our way back for our return sailing.
Above: An afternoon walking around Pyramiden
Morning hiking and midnight kayaking
One can’t visit Svalbard and not explore the nature. With such a remarkable environment, today we’ve organised to go on hike. There are several options but a guide (or a rifle) is mandatory if you’re leaving the confines of the town, so it’s always best to book in advance. The reason for all hikes being guided is due to the very real possibility of coming across a polar bear, so licensed guides carry rifles to deter any possible encounters; I’m not sure if I do or don’t want to come across a bear.
We’ve opted for the ‘Sea to Summit’ hike. It starts on the opposite side in Adventfjord bay so we need to jump into a rib boat for the 10 minute crossing. We’re greeted by a small herd of reindeer before we set up the valley for our five-hour circular hike. Our guides take the lead, occasionally stopping to point out local flora and fauna. The trek’s a steady gradient, a mix of rock and grass, occasionally giving way to deep patches of snow; It’s June and we are knee deep in the stuff, wow!
Near the head of the valley, we make a turn to traverse the short but steep side. As we make our final push to the ridge, a magnificent panoramic view begins to reveal itself. High above, the sky is blue and far below the sea shimmers, the teal and turquoise shades deceptively making it feel like it could be a warm day. It may be Summer here, but it’s only a couple of degrees above zero.
The view seems endless across the Isfjord, the second largest fjord in the archipelago. The sky and sea are eventually separated by a horizon of mountains and ice. Here we’ve reached the highpoint of our hike, 400meters above sea level, and now it’s time to for our return journey. The return walk is along the exposed ridge, down we head paralell to the trail we’ve walked up in the valley below. It is probably one of the most scenic hikes I’ve done. For a couple of hours, to our right the view of the Fjords make for a stunning backdrop and a I can think of no better place for us to have our lunch and sip hot blackcurrant syrup – Norwegian red bull as they call it here. By the time we meet our boat, we’ve clocked about 10km and feeling rather windswept I look forward to warming up indoors.
Above: Stunning scenery as we go hiking
It’s easy to go off route here; in fact we encountered plenty of people telling us they’d had to double back as they went in the wrong direction. This same mistake was made by the faster members of our team who pushed further ahead only to realise they were on wrong side of the cwm meaning a slow traverse side track back on route. Though they’re only about 100m away it takes an hour before we are reunited.
The south cwm eventually begins to level out with only boulders covered in ice left to negotiate. By now we’re within the snowline. Though much of the snow has melted away frozen patches the size of football fields still need to be crossed. Fortunately we are able to follow well-trodden footprints made in the proceeding days. At times three point contact is needed and the snow is frozen solid. If you’re not wearing gloves your hands feel the burn.
Above: 24 hour hour sunlight means you can get a tan kayaking at midnight
It’s late afternoon and we’ve a few hours to rest and grab some food before our next trip (I do like to pack it all in). Making the most of the 24 hour sun we’ve opted for a midnight kayak on the Adventfjord, the same bay we crossed on the motorised rib earlier today. After the long hike earlier I must admit I’m not feeling at peak fitness but in our sea kayaks, as we make our way across the bay from Longyearbyen, surrounded by mountains and sun shining brightly, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the evening. It’s a little over an hour paddling to get to the other shore, we pull our kayaks ashore and have some time to rest as our guide tells us stories about the area and passes around cups and her thermos of hot blackcurrant syrup.
It seems that the return journey always seems harder, but it has been a pretty action packed and exhausting day. On our final approach back to the shoreline of the town, bopping on the water, I note it’s approaching midnight and wow – the suns shining high above and groups of people are BBQing on the shore; It feels as if it’s the warmest part of the day and I start to think that perhaps I should have worn sunscreen.
Any excuse to go to a brewery
Finally, we’re not having to get up early ready for an organised activity. My body is certainly feeling it today and is craving an easy day, but my mind wants to cram in as much as I can on our last day. So far, we’ve not really spent much time in the settlement of Longyearbyen so the plan is to walk around, pop in to shops, have a coffee, lunch and generally take it all in. We’re at the top of the World and we’re just milling about, and I’m more than happy with that.
We double back to some of the places our minibus tour whisked us past the other day for another look. The church, the old post office/shack, and the elegant 24 hour sundial before getting up close and personal with some of the remaining aerial tramway (cable car) which once transported mounds of coals from the nearby mines to waiting ships. It seems like a real feat of engineering, more so once you consider that they’ve been abandoned for 20 years, withstanding the arctic conditions and still standing tall.
Above: Longyearbyen town center with statue of miner | Told post office and church | Arial tramways | Giant post box for letters to Santa
That afternoon we discover the Svalbard Museum (free and warm!) is well worth a visit. It’s not large but its full of interesting artifacts, photos, stories and installations. It feels rather arty yet tells an informative story of Svalbard’s past from the establishment of Longyearbyen, hunting, industrial heritage, mining and the fragile nature; it’s a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours.
As this will be our final night, and as a beer lover, I can’t think of a better way to end our trip than visiting the World’s most Northern brewery. The Svalbard Brewery was established in 2011, tapping its first beer in 2015. While tasting the beers we’re told the nail-biting narrative of how it took six years of effort by the founder of the brewery to change the 1928 law which banned the manufacture of alcohol on Svalbard, as well as all the other antics in his life. Setting up a brewery at such a Northern latitude involves some tricky logistics, not only must they import all their ingredients but they must also export all the spent grains (mash) as the climate doesn’t allow for them to decompose naturally. Another frustration for them, and us, is that due to Svalbard’s strict off-licence laws they can’t sell us any to take away – you can drink as much as you want in licenced establishments, but locals have a ration book for how much beer, wine and spirits they can purchase to drink at home and tourists have to show their passport and return boarding card to buy any alcohol for off-site consumption!
With the sun shining brightly you wouldn’t really think the day was drawing to an end, but there’s time for dinner consisting of reindeer ribs (how I could I have said no?) before bouncing through a couple of bars up the valley to our accommodation, bizarrely still needing sun glasses at 1AM.
Above: Svalbard museum is a very calm place | Beer tasting in the worlds northern most brewery
Time to fly south
I’ve loved our short stay here, It really was a magnificent experience and I find myself sad having to leave. As our plane takes off, it’s a few minutes in when I get one final and amazing view of the town of Longyearbyen in the valley below.
Above: Flying over Longyearbyen nestled in the valley