When I told people our trip to Norway included a 3 day junket to Svalbard, Norway the following questions came up immediately almost every time: where is it, how do you get there, and why would you want to go there.
The answer to the first and second questions are easy. To find Svalbard on the map, find Oslo and go straight north off the mainland of Norway across the Barents Sea and stop just before you get to the North Pole. Svalbard is actually the name of the archipelago and Spitsbergen is the largest island within the archipelago. Svalbard is the most northernly populated place in the world. Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen and the capital of Svalbard, can be found at 78 degrees north. For comparison sake, the most northernly parts of Alaska are only at the 71 first parallel. With modern aviation, it’s not quite as crazy a destination as it might initially sound. It is a 3 hour direct flight from Oslo on a 737.
As for the third question, why go to Svalbard, the answer is a bit longer. In doing research for our Life Bus trip to Norway, my interest in visiting Svalbard was peaked when I came across an article I had torn out from Outside magazine. Prior to that, I too had never heard of Svalbard nor had any idea where or what Svalbard was. The more I read about Svalbard’s outdoor adventure offerings and stark beauty the more obvious it was that we should make a Life Bus pit stop there, especially given how easy it is to access Svalbard. Pam and I both figured that while we were this close to a place so remote, we had to check it out. It was well worth the 3 day detour!!!
One of the simultaneously greatest and craziest parts of our trip to Svalbard was experiencing the midnight sun. Due to the extreme northern location, from April 19th to August 23rd, the sun does not dip below the horizon in Svalbard. It was the first time I have ever landed somewhere at midnight and walked off the plane into a bright, sunny day where I needed sunglasses. The midnight sun is amazing when you’re on vacation because you can maximize your ability to get out and do things. This was true for us all over Norway. Throughout our trip we found ourselves starting hikes and adventures at 10 o’clock at night or later with no need at all for headlamps, flashlights, etc. In the alternative, after 3 days and 2 nights of unrelenting sun, I was a bit desperate for a nice dark space where I could actually get a good sleep.
We went to this remote outpost with the primary goal of seeing polar bears. After sharing this goal with locals, we quickly learned that to see polar bears on Svalbard you really need to take a multi-day boat trip that circumnavigates the whole island. The polar bears are primarily on the north and east side of the Svalbard which are only accessible by boat I believe (possibly also by snowmobile.) Not sure how we missed this key fact but apparently we did.
As luck would have it, the LIfe Bus gods were really smiling on us while we were in Svalbard. We took an excursion to go see some glaciers and an abandoned Russian settlement. Our original plan to see these sights in Zodiacs and dry suits was thwarted when the agent booked our excursion for the wrong day. Instead of having that adventure, we wound up on a 12 hour tour on a no frills fishing boat. Everything turned out okay, however, because we saw polar bears!!! As we neared the glacier, a crew member spotted a mother and two adolescent cubs near the shore. It was an incredibly beautiful, breath taking experience. That and the excursion to Pyramiden (more in another post) made the 12 hours worth it.
Hanging out in Longyearbyen was a fun two days. I personally didn’t know what to expect from this town. I certainly didn’t expect fun bars with outdoor patios, a great coffee shop, excellent restaurants, a well-stocked grocery store, or shopping worth mentioning. As much as Pam and I like our adventure travel, we definitely enjoy a good shopping opportunity and are pretty good at finding shopping no matter where our trips take us. We are women after all. I’m pretty sure Greg and Todd thought there would be no way we could find shopping in Longyearbyen. Guess what, the shopping there is limited but what there is is quite good. There are at least 2 excellent outfitter stores in case you need to layer up or forgot some last minute outdoor gear item.
Given that our hotel room had a full kitchen we were excited to find a great grocery store in town. We were able to buy breakfast and lunch provisions which helped with the crazy cost of eating out in Norway. There are also some fun places to have a bite and a drink in Longyearbyen. We had some great Norwegian microbrew beers (Aegir IPA from Flam and Nogno O ) and nachos on the outside deck at the Svalbar as well as a cozy dinner in the Basecamp Trapper’s Cabin. I love this Trapper’s Cabin and if I ever make it back will most likely stay here. It is so well made to look like a trapper’s cabin and has an incredibley cozy feel which I think would be key when the weather turns nasty in Longyerabyen. We stayed at the Svalbard Hotel which has a great central location and had a full kitchen. Fruene Kaffee is a lovely, cozy coffee shop that would be popular anywhere in the US. Now imagine finding a place like this 800 miles above the Arctic Circle. The latte and pastries were delicious.
Wanting to make the most out of the beautiful weather we were having and the 24 hours of daylight, we decided to do a hike out of Longyearbyen. They take their polar bear safety seriously here and you are basically hiking at our own risk if you don’t hire a guide who carries a rifle. (The fact is that they haven’t had a bear near the town in about 10 years but they say you just never know.) We were all good with that. I really didn’t want to become polar bear fodder.
We hiked a mountain right out of Longyearbyen that goes pretty much straight up. It was a beautiful, steep climb that took us to some very expansive views. One of my favorite things about this hike, other than the beautiful views and good exercise, is the fact that we started at 7 PM and returned home at 10 PM with full daylight.
All in all, it was a very interesting, fun, and beautiful few days spent on Svalbard (Longyearbyen). If you find yourself somewehre in the vicinity, do try to make a detour. You won’t be disappointed. Winter time might actually be an even better time to go if you can psch yourself up for pure dark and real cold. For some aurora borealis and polar bears, sounds like it would be well worth it.
I still can’t believe Life Busers saw real polar bears out in the wild. Mission accomplished and then some.