The first thing about Svalbard is that very few people know what it is, or where it is. It’s a group of islands in the high arctic that Norway has sovereignty over, but due to the Svalbard Treaty numerous countries have the right to found settlements there and exploit the natural resources available. Currently only Russia is taking advantage of this and they have a small 500 person settlement (Barentsberg) not too far from the main Norwegian town, Longyearbyen, that has around 2000 people.
I first got interested in the place when I first discovered that you could actually get this far up north in the world on a reasonably priced scheduled flight (As low as £250 return from London with SAS, 2% cashback through quidco). I had a week booked off work to tour with a band but it fell through so I checked flights to Longyearbyen and low and behold I managed to get some on the cheaper end of the spectrum.
For a remote outpost in the Arctic Longyearbyen is surprisingly well serviced. There is a decent sized supermarket, several hotels, a main street full of shops and bars and a public bus ferrying people to and from the airport (50NOK to Longyearbyen, 60NOK to Nybyen). It’s quite nice that these buses are sync’d up with the flights arriving each day, you head out of the small terminal building and the warm bus is waiting, and again on the way back the bus stops outside most hotels around an hour or so before each flight.
Compared to the mainland of Norway some things are more expensive in Svalbard, namely accommodation and activities, but things like alcohol, fuel and food are much cheaper as Svalbard is a tax haven. As I found a pint of beer in Oslo can be had for around £9.50 but in Svalbard it’s around £4-5. Not bad especially when you consider where you are and what it’s taken to get the beer there!
There are a few options of cheap accommodation and I ended up going with Guesthouse 102 where I paid around £30 a night for a bed in a four person dormitory. Trond, the manager of the guest-house, was extremely helpful when it came to booking activities around the city and is very knowledgeable on the history of the islands. The price also includes a free breakfast including a mix of breads, cured meats, cheese and cereals as well as tea, coffee and juice.
Svalbard is rich with activities but depending on what time of year you go affects what is available. When you are this far up north the consideration for the hours of day light and darkness become paramount for arranging your trip. From around late October to March Svalbard is in thrown into perpetual night, but along with this comes a much more generous coating of snow increasing the options in regards to snowmobiling and husky sledding. This snow lasts through Spring, when daylight hours resemble a normal day, and then begins to melt in the Summer when the sunlight become everlasting. By Autumn most of the snow is gone leading to this being one of the least popular, but also cheapest, times to go. As you can see in my photos below I got lucky and a major snowfall happened during my trip giving me the best of both worlds!
So what is there to see and do? There are various arranged activities you can sign up for in Svalbard, namely, Husky sledding, Hiking, Moutain Climbing, Kayaking and Boat trips to various locations. I booked my activities in advanced which, in hindsight, I would not recommend as since they are pay upfront and non-refundable you won’t be able to swap activities around if some are cancelled. I had particularly wanted to visit Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian settlement with such claims as the most northerly statue of Lenin on Earth, but the boat I was booked onto was cancelled a couple of days before I was due to go leaving me without a way to get there during my trip. Again part of this is due to visiting in Autumn, less predictable weather and lower numbers cause various activities to be cancelled.
I ended up doing some Husky carting (like sledding but with wheeled carts for when there’s no snow), Horse riding and some hiking up around a glacier. Also on my own accord I went exploring around an abandoned mine up on one of the faces of the valley. The Husky carting and horse riding were great, they get you involved in harnessing up all the animals and then feeding them after. Harnessing up 12 Husky’s who are very excited about going for a run is a serious challenge! The horse riding was different to that that I’d done in England and Mongolia in that due to the extremely hard ground you had to take it easy with the horses. On the glacier hike we went up to the base of the Longyearbreen glacier where there are fossils all over the place making for some nice souvenirs.
In terms of hiking out on your own you have the problem of polar bears, at each point where roads cross the city limits there is a “WARNING: Polar Bears” sign. You are highly recommended to only go past these points with guides who will usually be armed with flare guns and a pistol or rifle. The act of injuring or killing a polar is taken extremely seriously by the authorities and is a serious offence if determined to have been unjust. Take the warnings seriously, toursits have been killed on several occasions.
Nightlife revolves around the various bars and restaurants including what must be the most northerly fine dining establishment on earth, Huset, where various local speciality tasting menues can be ordered including thing likes pureed Reindeer. There is even a Thai restaurant in Longyearbyen serving very nice food, a result of a surprisingly large Thai community on this frozen bit of land. Due to most people being worn out in the evenings from activities many of the guesthouses have comfortable TV rooms, the one I stayed in featuring episodes of Top Gear.
So if you’re curious about the Arctic but always though it would be difficult or pricey to get to then Svalbard might be a good place for you!
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