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Set halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard (which literally means "cold edge" and is also known as Spitsbergen) is predictably cold and not exactly a resort-type destination. With temperatures during winter resting around the 20 °C below zero mark, summer (if you can call it that) might be a slightly better option for sane travellers.
The archipelago was used as a base for whaling trips and as a launching place for Arctic expeditions, neither of which activities are particularly common amongst today's travelling community. Instead, travellers to Svalbard come to enjoy the stunning beauty of an Arctic desert, a landscape as harsh as it is mystifying. And for those who just want to get away from big city life, the capital Longyearbyen offers just that: a community of 2,000, whose means of transport are snowboards and boats.
Vikings may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. Russian Pomors may have had settlements on the archipelago in the 16th century, although evidence is lacking before the late 17th century. Pomor accounts name the island as Grumant. The Dutchman Willem Barents made the first indisputable discovery of Svalbard in 1596. Following the report of a "great store of whales" by an English expedition under Jonas Poole in 1610, the first whaling expedition was sent to Spitsbergen in 1611. In 1612 the first Dutch and Basque expeditions were sent, followed by the French (1613) and Danes (1617). Whaling off Svalbard continued into the first decades of the 19th century, being dominated by the Dutch and Germans until the late 18th century, after which it was taken over by the British. Belgian, Norwegian and Swedish expeditions were also sent to Svalbard during this time period. At the beginning of the 20th century, American, British, Swedish, Russian and Norwegian companies started coal mining on the archipelago. The coal was first mined on a significant scale by an American named Longyear, who founded Longyear City - or Longyearbyen in Norwegian - on the west coast of Spitsbergen. Norway's sovereignty was recognized by the Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920 with additions that limited the military use of Svalbard, and that the other nations retained rights to their settlements; five years later Norway officially took over the territory.
Svalbard is an archipelago between the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea and Norwegian Sea and basically forms the northernmost part of Norway. Svalbard is located between 74° to 81° north latitude, and between 10° to 35° east longitude. The land area covers 61,022 km², the majority of which forms the island of Spitsbergen, which constitutes more than half the archipelago, followed by Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. All settlements are located on Spitsbergen, except the meteorological outposts on Bjørnøya and Hopen. North of Svalbard there is pack ice and the North Pole, and to the south mainland Norway. The Russian archipelago Franz Josef Land and Nova Zembla are located to the east, Greenland is to the west. Glaciers cover 36,502 km² or 60% of Svalbard; 30% is barren rock while 10% is vegetated. The largest glacier is Austfonna at 8,412 km² and during summer, it is possible to ski from Sørkapp in the south to the north of Spitsbergen, with only a short distance not being covered by snow or glacier. Kvitøya is 99.3% covered by glaciers. The tallest peak is Newtontoppen at 1,713 metres, followed by Perriertoppen at 1,712 metres and Ceresfjellet at 1,675 metres. The longest fjord is Wijdefjorden (108 kilometres), followed by Isfjorden (107 kilometres) and Van Mijenfjorden (83 kilometres).
Svalbard consists mainly of settlements, with the exception of the capital Longyearbyen (literal translation "Longyear city").
Although not many travellers visit Svalbard during winter, it is still possible to travel to Longyearbyen and settle yourself down in a nice and warm hotel, witnessing total darkness for several months. Although there are better places to experience the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), you can witness this here as well. December and January are the darkest and coldest months, so if you are in the mood to celebrate Christmas in a very special way, come to Svalbard. Equally interesting is to experience daylight for 24 hours from May to early August. This is when most travellers visit Svalbard, although it still is relatively quiet. There is a difference between the northernmost and southernmost points of course. At 74° north, the midnight sun lasts 99 days and polar night 84 days, while the respective figures at 81° are 141 and 128 days. In Longyearbyen, midnight sun lasts from 20 April until 23 August, and polar night lasts from 26 October to 15 February.
Many people visiting Svalbard will eventually set off on a boat to cruise northwards. If the conditions are right and there isn't too much sea-ice left, it is possible to cross the 80th parallel. People travelling further north are mostly the more adventurous travellers on an expedition to the North Pole, so this is your chance to go as far north as possible in relative comfort without flying!
Svalbard, together with some parts of Canada (for example near Churchill), is one of the best places on earth to see polar bears. Be careful though and don't go out walking by yourself, always take a guide or do a tour, as these animals can be very agressive towards humans as well. The sight though is very impressive and you will never forget this encouter with one of the biggest bears in the world. Other species to view are reindeers, polar foxes, seals and walruses, as well as many species of arctic birds.
There are several annual festivals held in Svalbard:
Most big concerts are held at "Huset", which has been the stage for many of the big Norwegian bands and theatre ensembles over the years. Most of these are not regular but connected to a big local event like the return of the sun on March 8th.
You are expected to take off your shoes in most of Svalbard's buildings before entering. This tradition dates back to most settlements being built around coal mines and was a way to keep the coal dust out of the houses. Where required, it is usually quite obvious thanks to the shoe rack covered in dirty boots in prominent position at the entrance. When visiting Svalbard it's therefore a good idea to pack some indoor shoes, warm slippers or socks.
The climate is Arctic, but somewhat tempered by the warm North Atlantic current. The average temperature ranges from -14 °C during the winter to 6 °C during the summer, with temperatures of between -20 °C and -30 °C being quite common for longer periods during the winter. The wind-chill factor normally makes it feel even colder.
With much of the year being spent in darkness, it's not strange that most travellers to Svalbard prefer the light months of March through September. The most popular time to visit Svalbard is during it's brief summer, from June to August when it's both light and not too cold, however for those interested in winter sports the period between March and May offers both snow and light.
Svalbard features the midnight sun from April 20 to August 23, although the sun itself is often hidden behind dense banks of fog. Conversely, the sun stays under the horizon during the polar night from October 26 to February 15.
The only way for most travellers to get to Svalbard is via plane and flights are generally expensive if not booked long in advance. There are regular flights to and from Oslo and Tromsø operated by SAS although the number of flights per week are dependent on the season. It is approximately 3 hours flight from Oslo and 1 and a half hour flight from Tromsø. Norwegian has quite a few flights as well and prices can be very affordable, sometimes just around €200 for a return from Oslo to Longyearbyen.
There is an airport bus between the airport and Longyearbyen which is timed to coincide with flight arrivals and departures.
There is a cargo ship service from Tromsø in the summer but this is not a regular mode of transport for most travellers as passengers are usually not allowed on board. In the rare cases where it is allowed, prices are generally as high as flying and the journey takes 2 to 3 days.
In the summer, several sailing boats also make the crossing to Svalbard, some as small as 20 foot.
A number of operators offer cruises around Svalbard in the high season. These are the only practical means of visiting the more far-flung bits of the archipelago like Ny-Ålesund, but they don't come cheap. There are also longer cruises, some starting all the way from Oslo.
There is a flight from Longyearbyen to Ny-Ålesund but in principle this is reserved for scientists, researchers and workers.
There are no roads connecting the different settlements on Svalbard but there is around 50 kilometres of road around Longyearbyen. There are several taxi's in Longyearbyen. In the winter the common form of transportation is snowmobile.
In the summer there is a boat connection between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg several times a week. During the summer Ny-Ålesund can be reached by boat.
You do not require a visa (or even a passport) to to visit Svalbard or the Russian settlements or even to work there. However this is purely theoretical as practically the only way to get to Svalbard is via Norway and as Norway considers Svalbard a local destination you will need to pass Norwegian immigration first. Passengers arriving in Norway from Svalbard can also have their passports checked.
Depending on the settlement, Norwegian and Russian public holidays apply respectively.
There is not much to look after if you want to work here, but if you are lucky and into it, there are sometimes opportunities which are totally different from jobs you know off. For example, in 2013, the Norwegian government is looking for a polar bear spotter, to notify researchers in the area if there is one nearby and to scare them away with you voice, or if needed, with a gun.
Since 1993, Svalbard is home to the world's northernmost education institution, The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), which is located in Longyearbyen at 78ºN. The university offers courses at the undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate level in Arctic Biology, Arctic Geology, Arctic Geophysics and Arctic Technology.
Norwegian is the official language, though Russian is spoken almost exclusively in some settlements.
Food on Svalbard is expensive for most visitors, as it is anywhere in Norway. Local specialities include seal and reindeer, served at restaurants in Longyearbyen.
A range of accommodation is available only in Longyearbyen, which offers camping, guesthouses and luxury hotels. The camping site is located 300m from the airport and is the only place where camping is permitted in relatively close proximity to Longeryearbyen. For travellers looking to bring the cost down it is much cheaper to camp than pay for guesthouses and the camping site is free to use outside season, although the service buildings are locked meaning facilities such as toilets are unavailable at this time.
Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund also have a single hotel each.
Alcohol is duty-free on Svalbard. If you´ve arrived from Norway the bars will seem refreshingly cheap but are still equivalent to London prices. If you head over to Barentsburg, Russian vodka can be outright cheap.
A popular party trick for glacier cruises is drinks served with glacier ice, purified by natural processes over thousands of years.
See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Svalbard. Possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. You can drink the tap water on Svalbard but surface water should be boiled before consumption as tapeworm eggs might be contained. As there are no pharmacies on Svalbard, travellers should bring their own medication where needed. Some non-prescription drugs can be purchased in Longyearbyen, which also has a small hospital for emergencies.
See also: Travel Safety
The biggest threat on Svalbard is polar bears (isbjørn), some 500 of which inhabit the main islands at any one time. Six people have been killed by polar bears since 1973, the most recent in August 2011, so if travelling outside settlements you are required to carry a rifle at all times to protect yourself.
The harsh Arctic environment also poses its own challenges, particularly in winter. Beware of the danger of frostbite in the face (nose and cheeks), fingers and toes, particularly in low temperatures with wind (such as high speed on snowmobile). Crossing glaciers and rivers can be hazardous and travelling with local guides is strongly recommended. If heading out on your own, informing the Governor of Svalbard about your route and expected duration is highly advisable. For any trips outside central region of Spitsbergen, you must notify the Governor, and may be required to purchase insurance or put up a large deposit to cover possible rescue costs.
Svalbard is connected to the phone grid in mainland Norway via fiber optic cable. This ensures a good quality telephone coverage in Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, Sveagruva and Ny-Ålesund. The area code for Svalbard is the same as for Norway +47. GSM mobile phones work in Longyearbyen, Svea and Barentsburg. UMTS phones can also be used in Longyearbyen.
See also: International Telephone Calls
There are several public internet terminals in Longyearbyen and internet connections are top class, thanks to NASA renting bulk capacity of undersea fiber optic cables for extreme condition experiments held in Svalbard. GSM/3G phones work in the main towns of Svalbard.
Main to and from Svalbard follows the regular Norwegian system and prices. There is also a Lokalpost system which is used for intra-Svalbard mail.
While mail from Svalbard to mainland Norway and the outside world uses regular Norwegian stamps at regular Norwegian prices, philatelists may be interested in the Lokalpost system used for intra-Svalbard mail. Stamps, first-day covers and more are available at the post offices in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, as well as at Longyearbyen's Svalbardbutikken.
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