There are more polar bears than people in Svalbard. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Visitors to Svalbard, Norway, can participate in a unique walrus safari. // © 2016 iStock
For weeks before my trip, when anyone asked where I was going in Norway, I immediately took out my phone to show them a map.
“Here’s Norway,” I explained to self-assured nods.
Then, I would scroll up toward the North Pole to a small arctic archipelago.
“And here’s Svalbard,” I added.
“Whoa,” would inevitably be the response.
Yes, “whoa” indeed. Anyone interested in visiting this exotic destination needs to keep a few things in mind: Svalbard is the name of the archipelago, Spitsbergen is the name of the primary island and Longyearbyen is the name of the largest town. All three tend to be used fairly interchangeably.
For passengers visiting Svalbard, the easiest point of entry is via Oslo. From Oslo Airport (OSL), it’s about a three-hour flight to Svalbard Airport, Longyear (LYR) on either Norwegian Air Shuttle or Scandinavian Airlines. Neither airline flies daily, so keep that in mind when planning itineraries. The airport is only a 15-minute drive from Longyearbyen town, the northernmost permanent human settlement in the world. Buses greet every flight and take passengers to all hotels — including the very comfortable Radison Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen in the center of town — for about $9. Arriving in Svalbard is an event in itself, with passengers taking selfies that show they have reached 78 degrees north.
Because of its status as an unincorporated area of Norway and as a home to Russian and international mining outfits, traveling to Svalbard is like visiting a frontier destination that has all the comforts of the first world.
Svalbard is a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone, and it sits outside the Schengen area, all of which makes it feel like its own little country. As a bonus, the Svalbard Treaty mandates that Norway cannot collect more tax than is needed to support Svalbard alone. And with only 2,600 people living in the entire archipelago, not much is needed; thus, taxes are far lower than on the mainland. Prices in shops and restaurants are also quite affordable for Americans.
Svalbard was historically the starting point for expeditions to the North Pole and it continues to serve as the gateway to the arctic via operators such as Hurtigruten, whose ships routinely circle the archipelago. For those looking to stay on land and still get a taste of the arctic landscape, Better Moments offers day trips including a walrus safari that brings passengers out to Forlandet National Park on Prins Karls Forland. This island is the westernmost spot in the archipelago, and in summer, walrus sightings here are nearly guaranteed.
The full-day walrus safari includes many highlights of Svalbard all in one trip. For a visitor staying in Svalbard for only a few days, such as myself, it provides a comprehensive introduction to the region.
With a glass of champagne and a smile, Captain Ivan welcomed us onboard the small ship. On the way out, we cruised along the Icefjord and took in scenery so dramatic it looked like a painting. During the trip, we saw few other boats but plenty of mink whales and puffins enjoying the arctic climate.
Viewing walruses in the water is a challenge. Fortunately, in the summer, they mostly lay in piles on the beach groaning and slapping each other with their giant flippers. Guests tender ashore in small zodiacs and approach the animals with caution. In Svalbard, conservation and human safety are taken very seriously. Guests must keep their distance from wildlife, and guides are required by law to be armed at all times when outside the settlements. One never knows when a polar bear will emerge from the fog. (Polar bears outnumber people in Svalbard.)
Summer in Svalbard brings the midnight sun. From April through August, the sun never sets, and for most of that time, it sits right in the middle of the sky — so 2 a.m. looks exactly the same as 2 p.m. This means more time for boat trips on the Icefjord with Better Moments; dog sledding in Adventdalen with Green Dog Svalbard; and visiting the mining towns of Barentsburg and Pyramiden, or taking an ATV safari, with Spitsbergen Travel.
In the winter, perpetual darkness means ideal viewing of the Northern Lights. It’s also a time for snowmobile safaris, potential polar bear viewing and ice cave exploration.
Although many people treat Svalbard as a destination unto itself, the ease of connectivity to mainland Norway means it’s possible to add a few days in Svalbard on to a trip to Oslo or even the fjords. No matter how much time you have to spend, Svalbard offers endless opportunities for both the casual traveler and the extreme adventurer to explore the high arctic.