Discovering Svalbard: a visit to the edge of the world
My hotel room was an extraordinary sight. On the balcony stood two plastic chairs and a table – all several feet deep in snow. The door from my bedroom wouldn’t even open against a snowdrift but, nevertheless, it was a brave attempt by the hotel to provide traditional holiday facilities in a wholly untypical environment.
Former Top Gear writer Simon Heptinstall specialises in travel and adventures. He once broke the road trips world record by driving to 12 different countries in 24 hours and captained the British Travel Writers team on BBC TV’s Only Connect quiz show.
Banner image credit: istockphoto.com/annaswe
Head north, and keep on going
I say this because I was staying in the most northerly town in the world – potentially with access to the most northerly balcony in the world. In my thickest, woolliest socks and several pairs of trousers layered on, I began to discover one of the most exciting destinations for adventurous tourists – Svalbard.
Unless you’re a fan of His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, you may need a bit of geographic help here. Svalbard is a large group of frozen islands way north of Norway and just a few hundred miles from the North Pole. The largest of the islands is better known as Spitzbergen.
Spitzbergen. Image credit: istockphoto.com/Myndouwe
On a practical level, getting to Svalbard and staying there costs around the same as many Mediterranean destinations – you will leave without a tan, though. Flying out of Oslo, via Tromso, to the capital of Svalbard, Longyearbyen, I was preparing for one of the most exceptional experiences of my life.
It started with the plane landing among a totally white landscape, on a thick-iced runway. Passengers then slipped into a sauna-warm terminal to be greeted affectionately by a gigantic stuffed polar bear protecting baggage reclaim.
Exploring the extreme wilderness
Ah yes, polar bears. Svalbard’s human residents are outnumbered here by these massive creatures by about 1,000. On any given stroll around Longyearbyen there’s a chance that one of the world’s greatest predators might make an appearance. Locals will always be keen to tell you stories about seeing a polar bear peering into their kitchen window! The bears are fiercely protected and respected but, by law, you can’t leave town without armed support.
Image credit: istockphoto.com/AG-ChapelHill
The excitement of the plane landing was only added to by the thought of a polar bear emerging in the town centre. I felt safe, too, with plenty of armed guides ready and willing to accompany you on a range of activities including snowmobile treks, mountain hikes, wildlife safaris, and boat trips.
A particular highlight for me was a 100 kilometre round trip to the only other nearby town – Barentsburg – by snowmobile. Following in the ski tracks of my guide, Karl, I was led through pristine snowy mountains to the Russian mining town. This turned out to be a surreal Soviet-style collection of apartment blocks masked by snowdrifts and statues of Lenin.
Barentsburg. Image credit: istockphoto.com/zanskar
Svalbard is certainly a place of thrills and unexpected delight. My other adventures included a high-speed ride in a snow-cat truck across a frozen lake, and crossing ice to reach a remote ‘restaurant’ in a wooden cabin where I ate reindeer stew round an open fire. Another day saw me commanding a team of dogs pulling a sledge through a snowy valley, with the northern lights bursting through the sky on several occasions.
Image credit: istockphoto.com/AleksandrLutcenko
The best activity, though, is the hike up to the glacier above Longyearbyen to spend the night in a tiny ice-hole with two armed guides. Artic sleeping bags will keep you warm inside the ice, while bears possibly roam outside. In the morning, you can explore the water tunnels deep in the glacier that twist around amazing ice formations present there for thousands of years.
When to visit and what to see
In winter, Svalbard is dark all day; in summer it’s always light. That’s ok because spring and autumn are great times to visit as every day is different. During these seasons, in fact, the amount of daylight changes by 40 minutes each day.
Longyearbyen is home to plenty of quirky sights, including the international seed bank where the world’s plant life is safeguarded deep in tunnels located in the permafrost. Also here is the world’s most northerly brewery, around which inspiring tours are available. A state-of-the-art museum telling intrepid stories of this remote outpost is a must-see on your visit. I didn’t see a polar bear but, in the end, I didn’t mind – there’s so much to engage with.
Svalbard global seed vault. Image credit: istockphoto.com/RelaxedPace
Getting ready for the crowds
Although Svalbard is a wild and distant destination, it’s getting traction as a highly unique place to visit, and is gearing itself up for the impending tourism. Go now and you’ll already find endless adventure trips advertised, tour operators popping up, and clothing hire shops in plentiful supply.
There remains a permanent multinational community of scientists, explorers, and miners. This has led to a wonderful, if surprising, collection of fine restaurants and hotels in the area. Despite the unforgiving climate, some hotels, as I discovered, even offer rooms with balconies.