There are many places that make you feel like you’re on top of the world, but there are only a few places where you literally are ‘on top of the world’!
Svalbard is a remote archipelago located half-way between Norway and the North Pole and is particularly well known for its unique wildlife of polar bears, walruses, arctic foxes and puffins. The largest island of the Svalbard archipelago is Spitsbergen, the only permanently populated island on Svalbard. There are five main settlements in Svalbard with Longyearbyen appointed as the only town and therefore the Northernmost town in the world. In total, Svalbard has just over 2500 people with the majority of these people living in Longyearbyen, followed by Barentsburg, a nearby Russian Settlement with around 500 residents. It’s difficult to imagine, but some of the remaining settlements have as little as 6 or 7 people living there, and these people are usually polar scientists carrying out climate, glacial, and geological studies.
It’s amusing but not altogether surprising to hear that the number of polar bears in Svalbard out-number the amount of people. But despite this ratio, I’m afraid to say I didn’t manage to spot the King of the Arctic during my visit. Alas! It would have been a magical moment but I’ll manage to console myself…
What is surprising to hear is that despite its tiny population there are over forty different nationalities in Svalbard. More and more recently people have come from all corners of the world to call this unique and remote place their home. One of the more common nationalities on the Island is Thai which I found interesting, and because of this you’ll be able to find a popular Thai restaurant on the main street in Longyearbyen. But from my experience I would definitely recommend trying local cuisine like reindeer because it’s incredibly fresh and tender in this part of the world. Alternatively, there isn’t the possibility of going to a vegetarian restaurant in town, but veggies should still find a few options on restaurant menus. During my stay, the MUST – GO place to eat was the scrumptious Funktionærmessen Restaurant which is noted for its French inspired menu. Who knew there would be fine dining near the North Pole? I didn’t…
From talking to people who live in Longyearbyen I quickly discovered there is a great sense of community in this town. It’s a place where news travels fast, and everyone seems to know everyone, or at least they know everyone through six degrees of separation.
A fascinating fact I learnt is that people in Svalbard don’t close their doors – ‘why?’ – it’s a precautionary action in case anyone finds themselves within close proximity of a Polar bear, they’ll be able to run inside the closest house for shelter. Before arriving here, I wasn’t really aware of the dangers of polar bears (it must be something to do with all the cute and cuddly pictures I’ve seen of them playfully rolling around in snow). But during my visit I was constantly reminded by how much I should be aware of these natural predators – none more notable than during a hike lead by a guide from Spitsbergen Travel who had casually slung a rifle across her shoulder for protection. Carrying a gun for protection isn’t unusual here, and all visitors who wish to explore outside the immediate town centre must be accompanied by a guide who is trained in using a weapon.
Polar bears are highly intelligent animals that can run as fast as 40mph, and if that’s not intimidating enough, they are also equipped with an incredibly sharp sense of smell – so you can guarantee that if you see a polar bear, it saw and sniffed you out a long, long time before! But despite fearing polar bears, they are tremendously well loved and are considered a symbol of Svalbard. The inhabitants go a long way to protect them and harsh penalties are given to people who are found hunting these endangered creatures. If anyone does find themselves in a dangerous predicament with a polar bear they must try and scare it away first with a warning shot, and if that doesn’t deter the bear then… you don’t need me to finish off the sentence! When this does happen the incident must be reported to the police straight away.
My favourite aspect of being here is seeing the landscape, filled with glaciers, fjords, mountains and brightly coloured houses. And like the whole of Scandinavia, I love the fresh air – as soon as I step off the plane I take such pleasure at breathing in the cool, crisp air. Incredibly, 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers and I went out by boat to see the Von Post Glacier which is the smallest and nearest one to Longyearbyen. Since we used a small boat to get there we didn’t get too close due to ice calving and the potential waves that could be caused as a result. Apparently the bluer parts of the glacier indicate areas where ice calving has recently occurred.
Longyearbyen is a really photogenic place, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and colourful houses which are traditionally painted bright to break up the darker, barren days brought on by the harsher period of winter months.
People living here will experience what it’s like to live in two very contrasting seasons: the Midnight sun from April 20 to August 23, and the Polar night from October 26 to February 15. However, during the light period the sun is often hidden behind layers of fog the temperature never usually rises above 8 degrees. As I visited at the beginning of September I missed marginally missed the Midnight Sun, but I was surprised to find it was still light until 11pm. This meant I was still able to cram in a lot activities. Fun activities to do in Svalbard include husky sledding, snowmobiling, glacial hiking and fossil hunting to name a few.
Needless to say, anyone wishing to come here can’t be afraid of the cold, but good advice was given to me by the Norwegians who like to say, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!’.