Our Greece expert, Stella, swapped the golden beaches and olive-clad hillsides of her beloved Greek islands to holiday in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago 807 miles south of the North Pole. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world and is known for its rugged, remote terrain of glaciers and frozen tundra sheltering polar bears, Svalbard reindeer and Arctic foxes. The Northern Lights are visible during winter, and summer brings the “midnight sun” ensuring sunlight 24 hours a day.
Stella and her husband James stayed at the Basecamp Hotel in Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen. Here in 1906, an American, John Longyear, started the Arctic Coal Company and set up a mining operation for around 500 people. The settlement was known as Longyear City. Today it is Longyearbyen, meaning ‘Longyear City’ in Norwegian with just over 2000 inhabitants. The untamed wild is all around especially polar bears with more than 3,000 that live around Svalbard; they are curious and sometimes hungry after not eating for months at a time. It is not uncommon to spot one of these magnificent creatures or to see the locals carrying a rifle slung over their shoulders – purely as a precaution. The magnificence and scale of the scene here is guaranteed to capture the heart of all that visit.
Read details of her trip to this amazing region of Northern Norway.
Favourite viewpoint and why?
My favourite viewpoint was from the coastal road, looking at the vast landscapes of snow and the sea beyond, backed by ice-capped mountains – such a beautiful combination which was just breathtaking. Apart from the sound of the waves lapping up against the snow, we were surrounded by a calm silence.
Favourite activity and why?
One of our favourite activities was attending the Sunday morning service in the tiny church of Longyearbyen. The church is set on a hill at the back of the town and was about 15 minutes’ walk from our hotel. Once we arrived the Deacon introduced herself to us and was so welcoming. There were only about 20 people in attendance and although we couldn’t understand the sermon, we were given the order of service and hymn books, so we were able to join in with singing in Norwegian! It was a great start to our Sunday and something that we shall remember for many years.
Where you ate your best meal. What did you have?
Our best meal was at ‘Kroa’ which is the restaurant next door to our hotel and accessed via an internal door between the two, which was perfect as it meant we didn’t have to go outside. Decorated in driftwood with photographs portraying Svalbard’s history of hunting and coal mining the restaurant is really popular with locals, as well as visitors and was busy enough that we needed to make reservations at the weekend. Kroa is really atmospheric and famous for using seasonal ingredients. Here we sampled smoked minke whale with lingenberry syrup and sour cream – not many places where you would see see this on a menu! I also had smoked cod served with grilled peppers, courgette, baked onion, pureed potatoes and bacon butter – real comfort food and apparently the restaurants most popular dish. James really enjoyed Kroas’ famous grilled pepper steak – beef tenderloin which was cooked to perfection. We also tried slow cooked reindeer and for dessert liquorice crème brulee. At ‘Svalbar’ – the local bar we sampled reindeer and cranberry pizza and moose burger – again both really delicious. We can truly say that we had a real taste of the region.
What were the highlights of your trip?
This has to be seeing the Northern Lights – twice! We took the Northern Lights Safari excursion which takes you around the sights of the town – we were lucky enough to be the only people on this trip, so more like a private tour and very interesting. We drove to the mine, old town, the harbour, the Husky kennels and the border of town where you can only enter if you’re carrying a gun because of the huge risk of Polar Bear attacks. The most fascinating part was seeing the world’s largest secure seed vault (1300 kms beyond the Arctic Circle) housing tens of thousands of varieties of essential food crops such as beans, wheat and rice. In total, the vault holds seeds of more than 4000 plant species. These seed samples are duplicates of stores in national, regional and international gene banks and survive because of the permafrost.
Just before we arrived at the Husky kennels, James spotted the Northern Lights – which looked totally amazing!! We did try to take photos but unfortunately without a good camera it was virtually impossible to capture them in their true splendour.
However we were lucky enough to see the lights again when we went out on the Snow Cat which has the capacity to take you off road and out into the valleys. As this was further out of town with virtually no artificial light the view was truly spectacular and the lights were visible for much longer whilst changing all the time. It was absolutely freezing especially as we stood in really deep snow for ages. Fortunately, one of the group had a good camera and positioned her tripod in the snow to capture the lights so was able to take some amazing shots.
General feel of the area?
You truly feel that you are in the middle of a total wilderness in Longyearbyen. During the time we visited, it was total darkness 24 hours a day. It felt so strange to walk around during the day in the pitch black and very disorientating especially first thing in the morning when it still feels like the middle of the night. It’s great to know that Svalbard actively promotes ‘invisible tourism’ to alleviate any disturbance to its beautiful surroundings and wildlife for future generations of tourists to enjoy this magical place.
It would be great to visit in the summer months when in contrast it has 24 hours of daylight. There are alternative excursions available to see the region’s landscapes basked in sunlight and also the chance to see different species of wildlife like puffins and whales. we found Svalbard magical, unique, and truly special and would recommend it as a holiday destination in both winter and summer.
Whether visiting for a short-break or combining Longyearbyen with a longer Arctic exploration, this is a destination which will capture imaginations and hearts. We feel truly blessed to have visited Svalbard and we cannot wait to share our experience with future guests.