There are few places on earth that even the most seasoned of travellers will have felt privileged to have visited, and one of these destinations is the high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. A joy to explore with a unique pulse and a magnetic pull. Now classed as a ‘sustainable destination’ with nearly two thirds of Svalbard protected – consisting of national parks, nature reserves and bird sanctuaries.
Our travel expert Rosanna, recently travelled to the islands and shares with us her personal highlights of this untouched Arctic wilderness.
Details of your favourite properties and why?
Basecamp Hotel in Longyearbyen: This small and intimate hotel is decorated with driftwood furniture, seal skins and various paraphernalia linked to the Polar region. More like a quirky log cabin than a typical town centre hotel, the property offers character (in typical trapper’s style) and charm. The beds are rather narrow and many offer upper bunk beds, so may not suit or be accessible for all guests, but I enjoyed it.
If staying outside the capital then the Isfjord Radio in Cape Linné is worth considering as part of a two-centre itinerary. This solitary outpost was originally the location of a radio station used as an important telecommunications link between Svalbard and mainland Norway. Today, the interior of the property (three buildings) has been stylishly renovated; although the outside doesn’t look like much. Guests will get a real taste of the wilderness with the possibility of seeing a polar bear (who occasionally wander around this area) and enjoy a most unique Arctic experience. A good location in summer (April to the end of August) for bird watching, fishing (trout) and nature walks. In winter you can go ice fishing or take a dip in the Arctic waters. The food here is also delicious – dinner is a 4-course affair. Arrive by rib boat in summer and by snowmobile or dogsled in winter – as there are no roads to this remote outpost.
Favourite viewpoint and why?
One of my favourite views was from the aircraft flying in to Svalbard. It was a beautiful sunny day with bright blue skies which perfectly offset the snow-covered mountains, glaciers, fjords and desert Polar landscapes that we glimpsed on our approach.
Favourite activity and why?
Dog sledding on wheels was one of my favourite activities as you get to meet the dogs (Alaskan huskies) and even learn how to harness them to the individual sleds. Then you take them out, one person standing at the back and one person sitting in the basket in front, along the roadside. The huskies are well-trained and friendly and offer a unique way of enjoying the striking Polar landscape.
Where you ate your best meals?
All the meals were excellent throughout my trip. If I had to choose one, then it would be the 4-course dinner we had at Gruvelageret, a newly opened gourmet restaurant on the outskirts of Longyearbyen. The restaurant is uniquely located inside what used to be a miners cabin and has been carefully designed to reflect the buildings’ past and create an intimate yet atmospheric dining experience. The excellent food and friendly service make it the place to go.
What were the highlights of the trip?
The trip to Isfjord Radio by rib boat from Longyearbyen. We were kitted out with floatation suits, which you wear over your clothes, for a 1½ hour rib boat safari to Cape Linné. It was a very calm day on the water on our way out and we were lucky enough to see a Minke whale en route. The return trip was a lot choppier due to the high winds which developed overnight and we were almost stranded on Cape Linné as a result – this is not uncommon as the weather changes often and quickly in the Polar Arctic. Our guides were well prepared for the change and we felt that we were in safe hands. I would have been happy to stay but alas we had to return to base in Longyearbyen.
General feel of the area?
I really enjoyed my visit to Svalbard, not really knowing what to expect. I would have liked to explore much more of the island had I had more time. Our guides talked about the different light throughout the months – the polar nights (mid Nov-mid Feb), the midnight sun (19Apr-23Aug), the blue light filtering through in February after the polar nights, which all sounded exciting to see and offered something completely different. From the 14th November onwards you can no longer tell the difference between day and night – a perfect time for observing the Northern Lights throughout the day, and one of the few places on earth where you can observe daytime auroras as well as night. Polar night season is over by the 14th of February, when the first rays of the sun shine on Longyearbyen. You can still see the Northern lights at night until mid-March. The Midnight Sun is when the sun never sets and produces 130 days of continuous light. August, I’m told, is the best time to visit from a photographer’s point of view.