Svalbard/Spitsbergen: Everything you need to know
Introduction: The world’s most northerly permanently inhabited settlement, namely Longyearbyen, is situated on the island Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago in the Barents Sea halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The whole archipelago was originally called Spitsbergen (“pointed peaks”) by the early Dutch discoverers, and the largest island West Spitsbergen. However, after Norway became independent from Sweden in 1905, the archipelago was renamed Svalbard, according to a name from the Viking sagas after a place vaguely described being discovered by them in the year 1194. Since the renaming only the largest island is now called Spitsbergen.
The Svalbard archipelago today therefore comprises the islands Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet (second largest), Edgeøya, Tusenøyane, Barentsøya, Kviitøya, Kong Karls Land, Hopen, Prins Karls Forland, Bjørnøya and a number of small islets or rocks, lying between latitudes 74° and 81° N and longitudes 10° and 35° E
Spitsbergen, and especially Longyearbyen, was during previous ages the natural and favourite starting point for expeditions into the northern Arctic, such as for polar research, searches for a northern sea-route to the east, or attempts to reach the North Pole, such as those of famous explorers like Andreé (Sweden, 1897), Amundsen (Norway, 1925), and Amundsen, Nobile (Italy) and Ellsworth (USA), who together finally succeeded in crossing the North Pole in the airship Norge the following year.
However, the vast natural resources on and around Svalbard was the main reason for visiting the area. Hunting the seemingly unlimited stock of marine mammals, especially whales and walruses reached its height during the 16th and 17th centuries, leading to the near distinction of some of the species, such as the Greenland right whale. Hunters and trappers looking for the fur and meat of bear, reindeer, fox and other mammals operated on land. Traces of these activities, such as the bones of slaughtered whales or empty hunting stations can today be seen all over the archipelago. Whilst whaling is still allowed in certain areas, but bound to a quota, hunting and trapping is totally banned, except under special license.
Coal mining also took place since the beginning of the 20th century, but the mines are exhausted today, with only one still in operation for supplying coal to the power station in Longyearbyen. Exploration for earth gas is an ongoing activity, but takes place under strict control. A number of countries such as Norway, Russia, China and Poland conduct scientific research at different stations. An interesting international co-operative operation is the secure Svalbard Global Seed Vault, cut deep into a mountain near Longyearbyen, in which the seeds of many of the world’s crop varieties and other plants are kept, ensuring their preservation for the future.
Although the human impact through the centuries was huge, the newly created protected national parks or nature reserves since 2003 comprising about half of Svalbard, as well as the present environmental laws and tourism regulations contribute towards a nature friendly way of life on and around these special islands.
Settlements on Spitsbergen: There are small stations for different purposes on all the larger islands of Svalbard, but permanent settlements are to be found only on Spitsbergen.
The main town is Longyearbyen (named after John Longyear, who initiated coal mining in 1906), the administrative center with about 2500 inhabitants, with most of the modern amenities to be found elsewhere in towns of this size, such as hotels and guesthouses, a shopping centre, bakery, a church, schools, museums, cinema, a college, and even a University Centre, as well as the only scheduled public airport of Svalbard.
The only other permanent settlement sometimes visited by tourists is the deteriorating Barentsburg, south-west of Longyearbyen, a Russian fishing port previously relying on coal mining, now with less than 500 inhabitants. It has a small rustic hotel and museum.
Accessibility and transport: Tourist numbers have dramatically increased since the turn of the century. There are only two modes of transport to Spitsbergen:
By air: Frequent direct flights from Oslo (about 2 hours) or Tromsø (about 1 hour 40 min)
By sea: No direct and regular boat service between the Norwegian mainland and Spitsbergen. However, a number of large and smaller cruise ships undertake year-round trips.
On Spitsbergen itself there are no connecting roads between inhabited settlements and stations. Snowmobiles are the most important way of traveling to destinations outside of Longyearbyen. Boats and ships commute between main harbours.
Climate and when to go: Spitsbergen can be visited at any time of the year, depending on the tourist’s interests; each season has its own highlights:
June, July and August are the most popular months for those who want to experience the midnight sun and Arctic summer. From about 19 April, the sun is visible for 24 hours, with the summer solstice on 21 June, when the sun is at its highest above the horizon. The vegetation turns green, with flowers lasting for only a few weeks. Birdlife is at its most active. During the season of the midnight sun, the nights in northern countries are often referred to as the white nights, because it never becomes dark. Average summer temperatures are approximately 4° C to 6 °C for Longyearbyen.
On about 23 August the sun disappears below the horizon, until April of the next year for the Arctic winter. Migrant birds have disappeared. From September the nights quickly become colder, and from the end of October, and especially during mid-December to the beginning of January the true polar nights can be experienced. They last until the end of February. The winter solstice occurs between 21 and 22 December, when the sun is at its lowest under the horizon, and the night at its darkest. The average winter temperatures for Longyearbyen are from about −12° C to −16 °C
From Mid-January the light returns, whilst the sun again appears above the horizon from the end of February onwards. However, until mid-March these are regarded as the coldest, snow-clad months.
From mid-March to mid-May it gradually becomes warmer, but temperatures are still well below zero. The sun stays above the horizon until about 23 August.
Although it is theoretical possible to see the spectacular northern lights (the aurora borealis) at any time of the year, tourists will do so the best during the Arctic winter between November and March, when it is the darkest and the nights the clearest. Weeks around the full moon should be avoided.
What to do in and around Longyearbyen
As can be expected, tourists are not allowed to go on excursions outside Longyearbyen unaccompanied. However, there are many activities on offer – some of them all-year round; others are exclusive to either summer or winter.
- Sightseeing: Guided two-hour long bus tours through Longyearbyen stop at the major sights, offering insight into the history of the settlement and Svalbard as a whole. During winter nights the northern lights might be seen.
- Expeditions and day trips: A number of options may be considered: from long trips ranging from 3 to 14 days especially in the summer, to shorter day trips, like hiking, walking with skis, dog sleds, kayaking, driving, and boating. Many trips make use of tented camps for staying overnight in the open. A typical summer expedition is the ATV Safari Adventdalen, which offers the opportunity to visit some of the depleted coal mines, seeing the animal and birdlife, and experiencing amazing sights from atop one of the mountains. During winter the three day Winter Safari with snowmobiles along glaciers and a snowy landscape is to be recommended.
- Hiking: These are usually short trips of a few hours or a full day, such as the day trips called the Mountain hike Trollsteinen (Troll Rock Mountain) up the mountain, or the Hiking Hiortfjellet trip crossing the Adventfjorden by dingy, then walking over a high pass offering excellent views over the fjord and Longyearbyen. During winter the Hiking trip to Sarkofagen over the snowy landscape, or the Evening hike up the Plateau Mountain are special.
- Dog sledding: During summer time the dogs don’t draw the normal snow sleds, but wheeled carts. Different trips to surrounding areas are available, such as a 4 hours trip to Foxfanna, with views over the fjords. On another trip even allows the tourists to drive the dog team by themselves.
- Snowmobile: During summer 4 km long trips are undertaken up the Longyear glacier. Winter trips of about 70 km lasting from 3-4 hours are undertaken to areas around Longyearbyen.
- Fatbike: Trips during summer on mountainbikes with 4 – 8 inches wide tires along the beaches and riverbeds, or over the snow, rocks, mud and sand of the arctic tundra during winter creates the opportunity of really coming close to nature.
- Dinner in the wild: Some kilometers outside the settlement, at the Svalbard Villmarkssenter an atmospheric evening with a campfire and special dishes such as reindeer soup awaits the tourists arriving by dog drawn sleds. During winter the northern lights might be seen.
- Boat trips: Safaris up the fjords to different bays, glaciers and ghost towns offer spectacular views of nature, such as the rich bird and animal life. The Fjordsafari to Von Post and Skansebukta, to Fuglefjella and Grumant, or to the Birdcliffs are extremely popular.
- Kayaking: Paddling trips on steady kayaks on the fjords next to glaciers, such as the 6 day long Spitsbergen Isfjorden Kayak Expedition are quite exhilarating.
- Horseback riding: Although there are only 5 horses available, guided rides on the back of the sturdy Icelandic horses amongst the arctic animals and birds are offered to small groups.
- Snowcat: Two hour trips into the tundra during a polar night in the red snowcat, a large snow truck with viewing windows, such as with the Northern lights safari – Snowcat tour, create the opportunity not only to experience the surroundings of Longyearbyen during a polar night, but also to see the northern lights.
- Ice caving: Walking (and crawling) through ice grottoes and tunnels inside glaciers is a fascinating experience for adventurers not suffering from claustrophobia.
What to see in Longyearbyen
Within the boundaries of Longyearbyen the following are the most popular tourist sights:
- The Svalbard Museum features interesting displays of the cultural and natural history of the archipelago.
- The Galleri Svalbard houses permanent as well as temporary art exhibitions.
- Spitsbergen Airship Museum displays the materials and efforts of the polar expedition pioneers.
- The Svalbard Church, where visitors can enjoy a cup of coffee, the world’s northernmost, is open 24/7.
- About 400 m from the church, on the outskirts of the town, an interesting sundial shows the time 24 hours a day during summer, when the sun never sets.
- Animals like reindeer and foxes can often be seen roaming the town’s streets.
Where to stay
Quite a number of options are available, ranging from hotels, lodges, guest houses, and even campsites:
- Hotels: The historic Spittsbergen Hotel offers fine views over the town and nearby attractions, such as the Longyear glacier and Sarkofagen. The modern Svalbard Hotel, with its rustic design and comfortable rooms is situated in the heart of Longyearbyen.
- Lodges: Just outside town at the Sea Lodge, as well as at Tommy’s Lodge, at the Svalbard Villmarkssenter, exclusive arctic accommodation can be experienced.
- Guesthouses like Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg, or Gjestehuset 102 offer affordable B&B accommodation in what was previously miner’s lodges.
- Campsites: A few kilometers outside Longyearbyen, near the airport, Longyearbyen Camping ensures a stay extremely close to nature.
Where/what to eat/drink
Apart from those at the hotels, restaurants, eateries and pubs like the following welcome tourists:
- The Huset Restaurant, in the fully transformed original village hall, boasts a famous kitchen and cellar, holding Scandinavia’s largest selection of wine (over 20 000 bottles.
- The Funktionærmessen Restaurant, also situated in a historic building, offers French cuisine and an impressive wine list.
- In the Barentz Pub & Spiseri, or the Svalbard Pub the locals can be informally met around a beer and interesting, uncomplicated menus.
- During a 2½ hours guided trip through Longbearbyen a full dinner is even served in a restaurant bus.
More information on this unique destination can be found at Svalbard’s official website http://www.svalbard.net, as well as in the Bradt Guide Spitsbergen written by Andreas Umbreit.
– Manie Wolvaardt