Arriving at the airport in Spitsbergen is like landing on a snow-clad planet Mars. The landscape is eerie due to lack of light in the early spring (our visit was in late February) and the crumbling mountains with their abandoned coal mines and lines of coal buckets suspended in mid-air surrounding the settlement of Longyearbyen.
The Norwegian archipelagos in the arctic is halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Hence it has been used by many early expeditions to the north artic areas and the North Pole. The largest island is Spitsbergen, with Longyearbyen as its administration hub. The islands were used by whalers in the 17th and 18th century, but it was abandoned until coal was discovered in the 20th century. The coal heritage can be seen all around Longyearbyen, the old transportation system for the coal still hanging in mid-air all around. The lift system was used to haul the coal from the mines to the harbour. The Svalbard treaty of 1920 acknowledged Norwegian sovereignty over the islands, at the same time it was designated an economic free zone and a demilitarized zone. There is also Russian settlements on Spitsbergen in Barentsburg, and the ghost town of Pyramiden. Both settlements are coal related, since all nations that ratified the treaty can explore resources on Svalbard. Barentsburg is still home to around 450 Russians, while Pyramiden was abandoned and now makes for great photos of an arctic ghost town.
When to go?
There are three seasons in Svalbard: Polar Summer (mid-May to end of September) with the never ending days, the Northern Lights winter (October to February) where perpetual darkness gives high chances of seeing the Northern Lights and the Sunny Winter (March to mid-May)where the breaking point between winter and summer gives the best chances for seeing wildlife and exploring the great outdoors. The Sunny Winter is the high season for visitors since you both have light and still plenty of snow.
How to get there and where to stay
Obviously, there is only one way to get to Svalbard (unless you have a big amount of time and an inner mariner looming) and that is to fly. There are two airlines operating flight to Svalbard and those are Norwegian and SAS. Both fly from Oslo via Tromsø to Longyearbyen (LYR).
There are several hotels and guest houses in Longyearbyen. The Radisson is the biggest and is where we stayed when we visited. There are also smaller hotels like the quaint Mary-Anns Polarrigg and the boutique The Vault and Polfareren both run by Svalbard Adventures.
What to do?
There is so much to see and do in and around Svalbard islands. We have friends and family who have gone on photo safaris in summer to see the artic nesting birds and to go polar bear watching. There are polar bears all around, there are signs in Longyearbyen warning of the perils if one should roam into the city streets. And at all times do guides and people venturing outside the town have to carry a gun for self-protection. We never saw a big white fluffy killing machine on our visit, but chances are big of you go on an extended trip around the islands with Hurtigruten who have several options for cruises along the coast in summer.
There are several companies offering tours with dogs, snowmobiles and boats around Svalbard. We chose the Hurtigruten Svalbard as our supplier of adventure. You must go on organized trips with guides, you simply do not wander off on your own in the arctic. We only visited for 2 nights, so our schedule was full. Since we visited at the end of February, it was still dark early, so we have limited daylight to explore. The first thing that hits you when you step off the plane, is the sheer brutality of the wind and the cold winter air. It makes it hard to breathe if you are used to warmer temperatures. Second you are glad that you packed 8 layers of wool and down jackets.
After arriving and picking up our luggage, we went straight on a dog sleigh trip to a permanent tent camp (it was almost dark so no photos) outside Longyearbyen. Since it had already gone dark, we did no see much, but the experience was something else. Probably comparable to sledding on the moon, not a tree in sight, no animals, pitch black darkness and the feeling of being very alone. At the tent camp we got a great meal made from reindeer and nice amounts of Aquavit. We were picked up after the meal by a vintage coal miners’ bus who had carried the miners to and from work for many years. The Radisson hotel had a roaring fire going in the lobby, so there was plenty of cold behinds warming up before bedtime.
Our first full day was a snowmobile adventure from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg. We were all equipped with heavy duty romper suits, full face masks, helmets, and thick boots to survive the trip. It was freezing cold when we started early in the morning, and the temperature really did not change for the whole day. Freezing it was. Even the handles on our snowmobiles had heating elements, and we understood why during the day.
Again, it was like some other planet, fascinating nothingness, snow, and more snow. The views were epic all along our route, the snowmobiling was challenging for those who had not ridden such a machine before. Our guides were awesome and made sure that everyone kept up with the group. We had some stops along the way to spot for polar bears but at this time of year they had barely come out of hibernation, so no bears seen. We saw some reindeer, smaller and stockier because of the cold compared to their mainland counterparts.
Riding into Barentsburg was peculiar, suddenly we were in Russia. Cyrillic letters on the buildings and a very eastern European look on the houses and public buildings. The main square had the customary Lenin statue and many of our travelling compadres sent postcards from the local Russian post office. We had lunch in the Russian canteen of the coalminer’s union, a typical Russian meal, lots of potatoes and meat in stews.
It warmed us up good for the 4 hours return journey to Longyearbyen. The return was hard, we all started getting tired, so mistakes were made, and snowmobiles had to be straightened right side up more than once. It was a struggle for many, so do not think that a day on a snowmobile is a piece of cake, its not.
The beers and the dinner that evening tasted like a Michelin dinner. Svalbard has some great restaurants, especially Huset is well known for being THE place to eat and drink in Longyearbyen.
Last day was spent visiting the fascinating glacier cave just outside the town. If you have ever wondered how its like inside a glacier, this is the place to explore. With headlight, crampons and helmet you wander inside and ancient glacier. A truly alien space. Our camera had frozen from yesterdays snowmobile adventure, so no pictures from this adventure. Just time for lunch and then the flight home. Our appetite for Svalbard was wetted and we need to go back and explore more. Svalbard is the place if you really want to see some of the last wildernesses of the world. The frozen wonderland of Svalbard is awesome. Check out more activities and suggestions and check Visit Svalbards website.