Gjelder Hele Svalbard: Vacation at the top of the world
“Where in the world is Svalbard?” Unless I’m addressing a native Scandinavian, that’s the reaction I tend to get upon mentioning this remote Arctic archipelago. After explaining where it is, and the fact that I’ve actually visited the place, the next invariable question is, “Why would you want to go there?”
That’s a reasonable question, considering Svalbard is not a stop on any casual itinerary, unless you happen to be a polar bear. The group of islands is situated deep within the Arctic Circle, several hundred miles due north of Norway’s mainland. When trying to help my fellow Americans visualize just how far north it is, I tell them to imagine making their way to the very top of Alaska, then hopping in a plane and flying even further north for a couple hours.
The only other parcels of terra firma to be found in those extreme climes are the topmost bit of Greenland, and some ice-choked islands belonging to Russia and Canada. While those places are too inhospitable for anything more than the odd military outpost, the North Atlantic Current affords Svalbard some relief from those severe temperatures. This allows it to sustain the northernmost permanently populated civilian settlements on Earth. Essentially, these would be the first set of chimneys that Santa would see on his way down from the North Pole.
Those settlements and their nearly 3,000 residents are all on Svalbard’s largest island, Spitsbergen. About two-thirds live in Longyearbyen, the northernmost incorporated town in the world. It’s named after an American, John Munro Longyear, whose company began extracting coal from the island in 1906. Since then, various mining operations have provided the backbone of Svalbard’s economy.
So, why would any tourist want to go to a place like Svalbard? For some intrepid travelers, touching the Arctic Ocean, or simply experiencing nearly all of the world’s northernmost landmarks—town, statue, church, museum, post office, even the ATM, to name but a few—can be a compelling enough feather in their cap. Others might need convincing of a more mundane nature, such as the assurance that most everyone you’ll encounter speaks English, and most hotels are of a surprising caliber.
One big attraction is summed up in the first sign you’re likely to see upon arriving: a polar bear silhouette in a red-bordered triangle, sometimes underscored with the words “Gjelder Hele Svalbard” (roughly translated to “over all of Svalbard”). These beasts are indeed all over Svalbard, as are the signs. Even though the bears generally avoid town, and are protected by law, any person or group journeying outside of the settlements is required to carry a rifle, for the rare instance when self-defense might be required. All organized excursions have guides who will be toting these, for your protection.
The excursions available are many, and vary according to one’s interests, preferred method of travel, and season. Naturally, exploring raw Arctic nature is the primary attraction, but one can choose to experience it in different ways. The midnight sun brings 24-hour daylight from April to August, which is a great time to hike, kayak, ride horses, fossil hunt, take a scenic fjord cruise, explore the many glaciers, or try a dogsled on wheels. Besides polar bears, one might encounter Svalbard reindeer, Arctic foxes, and a plethora of birds and sea mammals, including that fabled “unicorn of the sea,” the narwhal. From October to February, polar night casts the land in round-the-clock darkness, save for the moonlight glowing off the snow. This is a popular time for dogsled and snowmobile safaris, ice cave exploration, and staggering views of the Northern Lights. Some of these are simple day trips, while others can take a few days or weeks, depending on your time and budget.
Another popular destination is the abandoned Russian settlement of Pyramiden. Why is there a Russian town on a Norwegian island? Although Svalbard is an official part of Norway, a 1920 treaty uniquely classifies it as a demilitarized, free economic zone, and allows citizens from over 40 nations to visit and work there without the sort of red tape they would encounter on the mainland. The Russians still hold mining interests there, but Pyramiden was abruptly abandoned years ago, resulting in a perfect, time-capsule specimen of a Soviet-era workers’ town, statue of Lenin and all. It can be reached by snowmobile or boat on an easy day trip.
Largely thanks to that international treaty, many residents not employed by the mines or tourism industry are on the island for various scientific pursuits. Research facilities for several nations and organizations abound, and there is a university campus in Longyearbyen, which specializes in Arctic sciences. One of the more renowned installations is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, preserving key plant specimens from around the world for posterity. These facilities are generally not open for touring, but the odds are good that if you’re at a pub in town, you might strike up a conversation with some fascinating researchers from all corners of the world.
It’s truly well worth setting aside some time around your excursions to experience Longyearbyen. Small as it is, there are still museums, a mall, and a main street that lines up perfectly with a view of Hiorthfjellet, the dramatic mountain across the bay that seems to be caving in on itself. One of the town’s biggest surprises is the quality of its restaurants, many of which feature unique local meats like reindeer, seal, and minke whale in everything from gourmet dining to pub grub. There are sometimes music and art festivals that attract quite a few tourists, so you might want to book your hotel well ahead.
No matter what aspect lures you there, the bottom line is that your effort to see this rugged, unique land at the top of the world will be rewarded. Where else can you can experience the raw beauty usually only known to hardcore Arctic explorers, offset by just enough epicurean comforts to let you reflect on the wonders that are “Gjelder Hele Svalbard.”
This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.