Pros: Exciting, raw, amazing, arctic, unique.
Cons: Far, far away. Somewhat expensive.
I went to Svalbard in May 2007 with my Dad to do a father/son Arctic trip. While it wasn't highest on my 'to do' list, I had that same yearning for the unknown North that C.S. Lewis often described in his writings. Enjoying outdoor activity and the rawness of wilderness added to the draw.
First- a little clarity about the area geography and history- Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Sea 360 miles north of Norway's northern mainland shore. Spitsbergen is the largest of the islands and the one with human inhabitants. There are only a few settlements (I think 4?) where people live and the communities historically were built around coal mining, which continues to this day. Longyearbyen is the biggest town at 1600 inhabitants and is rapidly finding its way forward as a tourism destination rather than purely a coal mining town. It is situated in a valley with stunning backdrops of snow and ice covered peaks and a glacial filled valley, complete with a deep moraine being shoveled ahead of it.
Being at 78 degrees North means no trees, little vegetation and a harsh climate, although due to the Gulf current that sweeps up the Atlantic, Svalbarden is actually less extreme than Greenland, which juts much further south. Less cold, but still cold. We went in June and it was about 40F to 50F every day with some up and down and was quite comfortable. It was hard getting used to 24 hour sun and after 7 days, I missed the dark of night- something internal lets us know that the day is done and without dusk, it just never feels quite complete. Of course during the dead of winter, there are months where it is never quite sunny and that must be an odd state to be in as well. Except for perhaps the coal miners, who may feel like they never quite get out of the mine.
We landed in Longyearbyen a day before a boat trip (which ended up getting canceled due to engine problems) to check out the town and environs and hopefully get a little early adventuring in. I could not hike yet as my luggage was delayed and I had landed in the Arctic wearing sandals.
The first inquiry we made was about hiking the beautiful ridges on either side of Longyearbyen. To a person, everyone there admonished us to rent a weapon. So we went and checked out the options at the local rental store- it turns out that WWII Mauser hi-cal rifles are what are available for tourists. Yakov asked us if we knew how to handle guns- both of us grew up in Colorado and had passed hunters safety, so we were pretty comfortable with them- more so than the thought of polar bears on the loose. It had been quite a while since someone had been killed, but the threat is real and present and you are reminded of it regularly by the gun safes that are in the lobbies of all public buildings and the signs as you leave the settlements that warn of bear. And of course there are the people carrying guns on their persons, bikes, etc.
We talked about going on an evening walk out of town without a rifle to see some of the surroundings and my dad reminded me that we would not be able to outrun a polar bear. I reminded him that I only needed to outrun him and thus the father son trip was off to a start!
We gave in to common sense and rented a car (four hours for about $70US)- this gave us a sense of all of the area's driveable 50km of road. Why there were brand new chopper bikes for sale at one of the stores was beyond me. Your ride can be over in less than an hour and how many times can you cruise the same stretch of road? Apparently more than I was able to imagine. In any case, the drive was beautiful and we saw dozens of Arctic reindeer, which are small and more related to Caribou than Reindeer from Norway. We also observed a camp where a hunter had about a half dozen seals suspended high in the air on wooden poles, presumably to keep them cold and out of bear reach.
We noticed that wherever there were large kennels of sled dogs (30-50 dogs at a spot), there were a bunch of ducks nesting, just out of reach of the dogs. We learned that these were eiders and they have learned that dogs on chains cannot reach them and that the Arctic Foxes, who normally will raid their nests, will not come near the dogs.
We went back to our hotel- the Spitsbergen Hotel- to meet the rest of the guests that we should have spent boat time with and have an arctic dinner that would consist of reindeer, seal and other northernly delights. Vegetarians beware- while you are welcome in the North, expect to eat a fairly limited diet of potatoes and other such vegetables since everything must be flown or shipped up. The menu even sported whale carpaccio, which is a dish I don't think many could have dreamed up. Judging by the price (around $20 for probably an ounce of meat) a whale must have enormous financial value. Norway is one of the only countries that still does commercial whaling and insists that it is managing carefully the wild stocks. In any case, the food was delicious and like everything in Svalbard- very expensive. The only thing that was cheap was renting a gun- about $12.
The guests were mostly European hailing primarily from Norway, Germany, Sweden and the UK. While the average age was approximately 55, there were a few people in their 30s, 40s, 70s and a very few in their 80s enjoying the trip. What everyone shared was a vitality and lust for life that could be felt as the group gathered and became acquainted.
Our ship did make it to Barentsburg- a coal town with 400 people all Russian, and managed by the Russian government. It had a throwback feel that was confirmed by our Russian guide- he said it reminded him of the Soviet Union 40 years ago. Hardy people clawing living out of the ground and sustaining a small community so far north that only one other settlement on earth is further North (Ny Alesund, also on Svalbard). Apparently there is an abandoned Russian town formerly of 2000 people, abruptly left in 1989 named Pyramiden about a 4 hour boat ride from where we were. We wandered around the deserted streets and observed the town at midnight in the bright light which showed the coating of coal dust on absolutely everything- even the snow across the bay about a mile away.
The most enjoyable experience of the trip was hiking the mountains around Longyearbyen solo (rifle on back)- getting within 30 feet of Svalbard Reindeer and seeing the cliffs full of little auks, clattering and chattering with vigor. The quiet, the rugged beauty, wind sweeping over snow and jagged peaks made for a very memorable day.
I also took a day boat trip to the bird cliffs near Longyearbyen where there are 20,000 kittiwake, guillermot and other colonies of seabirds. Apparently farther north on the island is a cliff with 600,000 birds. I can only imagine the guano and noise, which was considerable at the smaller colonies. Arctic foxes are often spotted moving along the near vertical surfaces, fending off attacks in order to get birds and eggs for dinner, although we didn't see any.
The facilities in Longyearbyen were beyond adequate. I stayed at the Radisson Hotel 4 nights and the Spitsbergen Hotel 3 nights and both were very nice- I believe 4 star in both cases. Room sizes were a little smaller than US, but very clean. Kroa is a new restaurant/nightspot that has great northern and other fare. There is a Thai restaurant in a hole-in-the-wall and the hotel's restaurants and pubs are great but PRICEY. There's also a great local's cafe- I don't know the name of it, but it's attached to the Karlsberger pub, which has an enormous scotch display for the visiting Norwegian navy, local coal miners, tourists, etc.....
There are a couple of local art galleries that have a nice selection of northern-inspired pieces. One of the most interesting visiting spots in town is Svalbard Kirke, the church. they have as much space devoted to lounge areas as there is to sanctuary and it is the world's northernmost church. It is open 24 hrs/day 365 days/year with coffee and tea and cookies always available for visitors. I hung out for hours there and got to chat with people from Holland, US, Belgium, Norway and Finland.
Longyearbyen is the edge of civilization and you feel it, but all the comforts that might be needed to survive in such an extreme environment are there. It's a place where they ask you to take your shoes off when you come into homes and hotels, but you must carry a big gun out of town. A place where you can eat carpaccio and be eaten as carpaccio. I got my itineraries through Spitsbergen Travel, who did a fantastic job both for the big and small trips and tips. It's a civilized spot in a wild land. If you can make it there in your lifetime, you will be glad you did so.