Why a holiday in Svalbard, the land of the midnight sun?
In the weeks building up to my Arctic trip to Longyearbyen in Svalbard I became very adept at explaining where Svalbard was and why it appealed to me. It was clear that it’s not on most peoples radar as a place to visit. Of course it gets plenty of visitors but I didn’t meet one person who knew where it was or what I was likely to experience there. I guess some of this isn’t helped by the fact that it can be referred to by several names. Some people refer to it as Spitsbergen,the main island within the archipelago of Svalbard. Others would refer to the main settlement of Longyearbyen. Sometimes I would just say “I’m going to the Arctic”.
People would ask me “why are you going there?” At first I said “to see some Polar Bears” but after researching a little more, that soon changed. My list of amazing things to do included Dog Sledding, see the Global Seed Vault, to visit a Glacier and to see the Midnight Sun just to name a few.
I like seeing how other people live and that’s what is really interesting about Longyearbyen. Before the trip I was thinking about what life would be like living in a remote place with non-stop sun in the Summer and total darkness in the Winter. It’s such a different way to live and it makes Svalbard such and interesting destination.
Is it just about polar bears?
I think it’s fair to say that polar Bears are the biggest attraction for tourists. Unfortunately due to the effects of Climate Change and melting ice I don’t think that will be the case for too much longer. Don’t worry, you can have so many other amazing experiences in Svalbard. A successful trip won’t hinge on whether or not you catch sight of a big white bear or not. If you plan correctly, you’ll have the most amazing experience of your life in this magical, wild and otherworldly place.
Dog Sledding was the biggest attraction for me. I booked Green Dog tours for one of the last tours held on the snow for the Summer. There are a range of other tours that you can take from long hikes, kayaking, fossil hunting to Boat trips and more. The biggest difference to other destinations is the rule about leaving the town unaccompanied. You’ll need permission from the governor and a rifle to protect yourself from polar bears, otherwise you will have to take guided tours. For most of us it means booking tours with local guides to get you out of town and back again safely.
Let me warn you now this is not a cheap destination. Tours will take up most of your budget with the majority of them costing more than £100. It’s important to say that I never felt ripped off, I loved the experiences that I had.
How far away is Svalbard?
People wouldn’t believe me when I said I was going to spend a long weekend in the arctic, they would just laugh. The truth is that you don’t need to launch a full blown arctic expedition like the explorers of old. Simply make your way to Oslo and jump on a Norwegian Air flight for around three hours to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. I found that the cheapest flights departed early in the morning so I spent the night in Oslo. Norwegian Air flights leave from the main airport in Oslo, Gardermoen. Don’t confuse Oslo Gardermoen with Oslo Rygge Airport, you can’t get flights to Longyearbyen from there.
First impressions of Longyearbyen and Svalbard
Firstly, the flight will take you past some amazing scenery of Northern Norway and then the view of Svalbard is breathtaking. Mine was a bumpy landing but nothing extreme. I wasn’t sure what the airport would be like but I knew not to expect Heathrow. It’s a lovely little airport just outside Longyearbyen. A stuffed polar Bear greets you as you enter the baggage area. A revolving door takes you out into the chilly air where you can get a bus into town. Don’t worry too much about which bus to get. I think they all go to Longyearbyen, there’s nowhere else to go.
It took me a couple of hours to figure out what was so different about the landscape, and then it hit me. The place is just monochromatic, the buildings and the sky are the only objects that provide any colour to the barren scenery in Summer. It was so foreign to me to be in a place like this and I loved it.
There are visible signs of the different lives that the inhabitants of Spitsbergen lead. It’s raw, everything is there for you to see. All of the things that make a community run are close by, it has to be. Most cities collect the rubbish and take it away somewhere out of sight. Supplies needed for day to day life are stored in warehouses away from urban areas, but not in Longyearbyen. At first it appears a bit bleak and perhaps ugly but it makes total sense. It wasn’t long before I was totally charmed.
The land of the Midnight Sun
Come night time the most amazing thing happens, I visited in June, by midnight the sun had just moved around the horizon and not even come close to dipping below for a sunset. I had a huge smile on my face as I walked the streets until about 1:30am. The sky was as bright as midday and I was absolutely overcome with wonder. I felt like a 9 year old again. Amazingly the guesthouse we stayed in for the first 2 nights didn’t have total blackout curtains and we had to arrange towels and jackets around the edges to get to sleep. Of all the places to scrimp on curtains!
Reflections on in 5 days in Svalbard
I highly recommended booking your tours and activities before you set off for Svalbard to secure the limited places. The problem with this is that the websites aren’t great and it’s hard to choose without all the information. I found it really hard to commit to expensive tours when it wasn’t totally clear what the details were.
In the end I booked two tours and then booked a boat trip when I was in Svalbard. It was a bit of a risk but I got away with it.
There’s not a lot to do in the Longyearbyen town so don’t count on sitting around, relaxing and perusing the shops. It only takes an hour or so to see most of the town. There are a couple of interesting museums that will be worth spending some time in though. You just have to get out and see the surrounding landscape and there are plenty of ways to do it.
Unexpectedly I was reminded of all the crap that we don’t need to live. Life in Longyearbyen is simpler and it works. It’s a more raw and genuine life than I live in the city and it has a connection to nature that i’m very envious of.
The irony of abandoned coal mines scattered about in a place that is suffering because of melting glaciers was not lost on me. A huge contributor to Climate Change was actually sourced and is still being sourced where the biggest example of the impact can be seen. The mines looked like scars in a beautiful and otherwise untouched landscape.
In the Summer temperatures are still in single figures so don’t pack the bikini. it was much colder when out on the water so remember to pack plenty of layers.
If you’re thinking about visiting Svalbard, do it! Longyearbyen will get you into the wild far enough…. but not too far.