Svalbard / Spitzbergen

Travel Forums Europe Svalbard / Spitzbergen

1. Posted by AndyF (Moderator 1581 posts) 1w Star this if you like it!

Boris mentioned wanting to go to Svalbard so I thought I'd tell you about my trip there about five years ago.

I think Svalbard is the name for the archipelago and Spitzbergen is the main island, but the name Spitzbergen seems to be used for it all these days, and I think all the settlements are on Spitzbergen.

I heard of a cruise company doing a one-off addition to their regular Norway fjords-and-North-Cape route in which they'd pop across to Spitzbergen. I booked on the day bookings opened, and fifteen friends subsequently tagged on with me. It was to be a relatively small cruise ship, the cruise from the North Cape (most northerly point of mainland Europe) would take a day and a half each way, plus a day visiting the main town Longyearbyen and a day split between visiting Ny Alesund and a sail into the Magdalenefjord.

Longyearbyen feels like an arctic town of the wild west. It's a mining settlement, the landscape is pretty barren with lots of rock spoil in view, access tracks to a dozen mines. The place was opened up by Russian and Norwegian miners; the sovereignty was settled with Norway owning the islands but Russians have a right to be there. The last remaining Russian settlement is Barentsburg, with about 500 people; Longyearbyen has around 2000 people with souvenir shops and bars, a Radisson Blu hotel, and a lot of snowmobiles. Instead of a car everyone has a snowmobile, often with a trailer attached, and you see them parked up in rows complete with a pallet of fuel cans. The other obvious feature is guns - residents carry guns because of polar bears, and all the bars have signs saying guns must be left outside. As a mining community of young men, with 6 months of darkness, suicide and murder rates are high. Not much to do but drink I guess - you can see why the bars want the guns left outside.

I heard that the Norwegian government is trying to "normalise" the community there. Previously the pattern was for young men (average age 25) to stay around five years working at the mines before going back home permanently. So now the government is opening a secondary school and trying to encourage families there.

There was a great museum of arctic life and exploration; I'm not often a museum fan but this was captivating.

Visiting is now apparently relatively cheap and easy, with Norwegian air shuttle offering budget flights from Oslo, and accommodation options like that Radisson Blu hotel. In the bay was a Quark Expeditions ship, so it seemed to be a base for tourism. We saw husky sledging on offer depending on the season, I was there in the wrong season but otherwise it looked a great way to see the place - but go expecting to be covered in husky pee.

Ny Alesund was small - a scientific station of about a hundred people. A rainy flat settlement where we weren't allowed beyond the perimeter due to the risk of polar bears. The setting was amazing, glaciers calving into the bay, which then drifted about. I went to the shore and found blue ice bobbing there, so I picked one up in my arms and can say I've held an iceberg. There was a town trail of infoboards, fascinating to see but it didn't take long. Fortunately we were off again at lunchtime for an afternoon sail up the Magdalenefjord. We reached the head of it and were surrounded by glaciers calving on three sides; the ship slowly turned in a confined space and I stood on deck with the snow coming down and it all felt very remote - if the ship hit something I didn't think there was much help nearby. Standing on deck someone pointed out a walrus to me. This was all a great experience.

Coming away we saw another small expedition ship, with zodiacs taking its passengers on tours.

Even if it's relatively cheap to get to Longyearbyen I'm sure you'd need to budget a lot for activities, but for an Arctic experience I think it will be at the cheap and accessible end of the spectrum - it's got to be the cheapest way to see the polar regions.

2. Posted by Borisborough (Moderator 1309 posts) 1w Star this if you like it!

Thanks Andy - very intrresting. Did you see any polar bears? A friend of mine actually went on a 'walrus safari' there as a day trip from Longyearbyen last week.

I've been interested in visiting Svalbard since reading Tim Moore's "Frost on my Moustache" a few years ago - ironically while travelling around Myanmar.

3. Posted by AndyF (Moderator 1581 posts) 1w Star this if you like it!

Quoting Borisborough

Thanks Andy - very intrresting. Did you see any polar bears? A friend of mine actually went on a 'walrus safari' there as a day trip from Longyearbyen last week.

I've been interested in visiting Svalbard since reading Tim Moore's "Frost on my Moustache" a few years ago - ironically while travelling around Myanmar.

No polar bears, just that walrus and an arctic fox.

Thanks for the book suggestion - just found a used copy on Amazon for £2.14 inc postage so I couldn't resist. :)

4. Posted by Borisborough (Moderator 1309 posts) 1w 1 Star this if you like it!

Quoting AndyF

Thanks for the book suggestion - just found a used copy on Amazon for £2.14 inc postage so I couldn't resist. :)

I think he writes for the Guardian. He also wrote an excellent one "French Revolutions" about trudging around the Tour de France route on a bike - one of my favourites.