April 24th, 2022
April 24th, 2022
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Sondre is the Chief editor of the Oslo Gazette, he loves the outdoors and city life (who doesn’t), and knows everything that moves on Norway’s cultural and music scene. Enjoy his humorous - yet useful - guides to Norway.
If there is anything on this planet that can be labelled ‘unique’, this is it: the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, just 1300 km (810 miles) below the North Pole. Svalbard takes the Norway experience to an advanced level: Norway 2.0.
Up here everybody has a snowmobile and a pet polar bear. OK, that’s only partly true: they all have snowmobiles (parked outside their houses like cars); polar bears are less welcome around human settlements. Which is a shame, as there are more of these huge furry beasts than people here, and they all behave like attention-seeking pets – bloodthirsty attention-seeking pets. But the polar bears are the true kings of the island, while it's the lowly humans who are the domesticated ones. So, in the main town Longyearbyen, the local kindergarten has a polar bear fence, and people carry rifles when out for trekking, on skis, going on their weekend trips to their "hytte", or out driving their beloved snowmobiles. Longyearbyen is actually a polar bear-free 'safe zone', but be aware, and do not cross the town border.
The snowmobile has its share of dangers too, though not of the furry or bloodthirsty kind. They’re cheeky little devils that skim across the snow at blurring speeds. The best way to experience the rides – the locals would argue – is to do some singing while shooting over the Arctic tundra plateau (if you’re not familiar with the local folk music, try a Wagner aria, or anything by Queen.) Because the scenery is out of this world!
While polar bears are not particularly welcome in people's gardens, reindeers, husky dogs and the Arctic fox all get a free pass. And the surrounding wilderness outside Longyearbyen is all mountains, fjords, Arctic flora and fauna such as puffins, killer whales, their nemesis the minke whale, even the walrus. So load your rifle and go! (Or bring a guide.)
Svalbard has been a trapper’s paradise for centuries. There’s still some trapping going on in the archipelago, by adventurous folks who are genuinely dedicated to escaping the grid. But make sure you don't deliberately shoot a bear (or the more even-tempered mini-version, the Arctic fox). Global warming and people's desire for their luxurious fur have put both of them on the endangered species list. That is why you won’t find any polar bear safaris. The highest chance of seeing polar bears is on a boat trip around Svalbard and its islands.
You may be struck by the absence of trees up here. That only makes the vegetation on the ground become more visible. In summer, the flowering plants, the dense moss of the great valleys and the green lush vegetation are striking. The ecosystem on Svalbard is supremely delicate, so we encourage everybody to try to ‘leave without a footprint’, which is, to be honest, nearly impossible. All human activities on the Arctic tundra – its ground soft as a baby’s bottom – are bound to leave some footprints. But at least, aspire to leave a minimal footprint – or even a positive one.
If you think it’s all rugged up here, think again. Everybody takes their shoes off inside, even in the hotel lobby or museum. One of Longyearbyen’s several top class restaurants has one of the world’s biggest and Europe’s best wine cellars (probably the same thing, when you come to think about it). And talking of cellars, Svalbard has the world's largest secure seed storage. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent here for safe and secure long-term storage in cold, dry rock vaults. Svalbard is a wonderful, unusual place with a cold climate, dangerous bears, big guns and warm-hearted people.
So, as a guest, as we all are in this truly unique corner of the world, remember that Svalbard is not just breathtaking landscapes and an incredible wildlife experience. It’s also a reflection of how the earth is changing. So, in that sense, it’s the world’s most up to date location.
We are frequently asked, “When is the best season to visit Svalbard?”. This is, however, virtually impossible to answer. Each season has its unique charm, and it really comes down to what you would like to experience on your journey to the Arctic. During the polar summer, the mining sun dominates the sky, and from mid-may to late September the sun won’t drop below the horizon.
During the “golden autumn” bird prepare for their long southbound flight, and the flora and fauna prepare for another long winter. It starts to get darker during this time, giving way to older landscapes filled with the most incredible autumn colours you can imagine.
The dark winter season, or the "Polar Night" as we refer to it, is the two and a half month period lasting from mid-November to late January. At this time the sun is at least 6 degrees below the horizon at all times, making the archipelago pitch dark 24 hours a day. Due to the “Polar Night” Svalbard is actually the only permanently settled place on earth where visitors can experience the Northern Light during daytime.
Spring might as well be called “sunny winter” as the landscape is still covered in ice and snow as far as the eye can see.
Torunn from the Up Norway Team went on an expedition with our friends in Nansen Polar Expeditions in 2022 and can guarantee an Arctic experience like no other. Being onboard an expedition ship allows you to slow down, and truly connect with the local natural landscapes, wildlife and fellow travellers. The crew onboard are impressive Arctic guides, many of them also excellent photographers. We can't think of any better way to explore these islands than from the sea.
We can book you on an expedition as a journey on its own or combined with travel in other parts of Norway. We will assist with travel planning & booking as well as flights. Who knows, you might just spot a polar bear or two...