Norway’s roads less traveled: Spitsbergen, “a place out of the ordinary”

Photo: Kristin Folsland Olsen / Visitnorway.com Dogsledding is a good way to get out into the stunning Arctic scenery on display in Svalbard—but sometimes the dogs need to stop and play.

Photo: Kristin Folsland Olsen / Visitnorway.com
Dogsledding is a good way to get out into the stunning Arctic scenery on display in Svalbard—but sometimes the dogs need to stop and play.

Christine Foster Meloni
Washington, D.C.

When you visit another country, you shouldn’t miss the popular sights. They are usually popular for a good reason. But every country has special places that fly below the radar and Norway, of course, is no exception. So we have decided to ask some individuals who are very familiar with Norway to tell us about places Americans should not miss.

The question: An American is planning to visit Norway. He/she has skimmed a few tourist guides and is planning to see the usual must-see sites. But he/she also wants to do something special that the average tourist might miss. What would you suggest?

We posed the question first to the Norwegian Ambassador to the United States, Kåre R. Aas. His response is the subject of this article, which is the first in our new series, “Norway’s roads less traveled.” Responses from Norwegian Consuls in the United States will follow in subsequent issues.

The Ambassador’s Response:
This is a difficult question because there is so much to see and explore in Norway. However, I would specifically recommend traveling to Spitsbergen, the largest and the main island of the Svalbard archipelago.

Photo: Jens Henrik Nybo / Visitnorway.com  Just one example of Svalbard’s incredible scenery.

Photo: Jens Henrik Nybo / Visitnorway.com
Just one example of Svalbard’s incredible scenery.

About 2,700 people live here, halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole.

It is a spectacular place—both during winter and summer. I myself have been there several times, and the beautiful scenery up in the Arctic continues to amaze me.

There are many reasons why Svalbard is my choice. There is something about the atmosphere—laid-back, open, a good “community feel.”

And the landscape is absolutely amazing! As Svalbard is located 78 degrees north, you are able to enjoy the midnight sun from late April nearly through August. During the dark, magical wintertime, chances are good of seeing the Northern Lights.

Hiking and riding dog sleds are both wonderful ways to explore the area.

Photo:  Asgeir Helgestad / Artic Light AS / visitnorway.com Polar bears are a major attraction in Svalbard.

Photo: Asgeir Helgestad / Artic Light AS / visitnorway.com
Polar bears are a major attraction in Svalbard.

But remember there are polar bears in the area, so no one should leave the settlements without a guide with a gun!

Svalbard represents the Arctic where people live, work, and go to school. It is an important place for science and research, and it is where the “global seed vault” is located—a seed bank near Longyearbyen that is seeking to preserve a wide variety of the world’s plant seeds.

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that Svalbard is a place out of the ordinary. I urge everyone to visit—and to bring warm clothes!

Planning a Trip
If you decide to take the Ambassador’s advice and go to Svalbard, Scandinavian Airlines offers flights from either Oslo or Tromsø to Svalbard Airport in Longyearbyen.

Photo: Kåre Aas Ambassador Aas’s encounter with a polar bear was relatively safe.

Photo: Kåre Aas
Ambassador Aas’s encounter with a polar bear was relatively safe.

Remember the Ambassador’s warning about bringing warm clothes! The average temperatures in July range from 37.4 to 44.6° F (3 to 7° C) and in January between 8.6 and -4.0° F (-13 and -20 °C). I would personally opt for July although it wouldn’t really feel at all like summer despite the midnight sun!

Tourism is becoming an important industry in Svalbard. The Ambassador mentioned the polar bears, which are one of the island’s main tourist attractions. Although they are a protected species, anyone leaving the settlements is required to carry a rifle to be used in self-defense if attacked.

Research is another important industry. An article about the research being carried out by NASA and European Space Agency scientists on the island, entitled “Hunting for Martians on Svalbard,” appeared in the November 27, 2015, issue of NAW. Svalbard has similar characteristics to Mars and is, therefore, an ideal place to prepare for future expeditions to Mars.

Photo: Ambassador Kåre Aas Spitsbergen is far from everywhere, even the rest of Norway! Located halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago is home to a few thousand researchers and other inhabitants who live and work in a laid-back community.

Photo: Ambassador Kåre Aas
Spitsbergen is far from everywhere, even the rest of Norway! Located halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago is home to a few thousand researchers and other inhabitants who live and work in a laid-back community.

The Global Seed Vault, built by the Norwegian government, is a very interesting endeavor. The purpose of the vault is to preserve duplicates of all the earth’s plant seeds, protecting them from extinction in the event of catastrophes such as wars, plant disease, climate change, and asteroid strikes. The vault was recently opened for seeds from Syria that were in danger of disappearing because of the current situation in that war-torn country.

To learn more about it and understand why Svalbard was considered an ideal site for the seed vault, read the informative article about it in the Spring 2007 issue of Norway News at www.norway.org/PageFiles/243249/New_ofNorway1-07.pdf.

Scott Pelley, Correspondent of the popular TV news magazine “60 Minutes,” visited the vault in 2008. A very interesting article about his visit can be found at www.cbsnews.com/news/a-visit-to-the-doomsday-vault. An intriguing video of Pelley visiting the interior of the vault can be found at www.dailymotion.com/video/x50vl3_the-doomsday-vault-secure-your-seed_school.

Looking Ahead
Elin Bergithe Rognlie, Norway’s Consul General in New York, will share her recommendation in the next article in our series, “Norway’s roads less traveled.”

Ambassador Kåre R. Aas left his position as Political Director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to become the Norwegian Ambassador to the United States in 2013. Prior to his assignment as Political Director, Amb. Aas served as the Norwegian Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; as Director General, Department for Security Policy and the High North; and as Norwegian Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) Board of Governors. Amb. Aas was born on May 25, 1955, in Oslo, Norway. He has three daughters and one son. Follow the Ambassador’s blog at the-y-indiplomacy.com.

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, DC. She values her Norwegian heritage.

This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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