Welcome to Svalbard: The Northernmost Year-Round Settlement on the Planet
By Dave Fox
Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway
[This is a quick overview of my trip to Svalbard. I wrote it a few days ago and am now uploading it on the train from Oslo to Bergen. More in-depth articles about Svalbard are coming soon.]
Kattina gasped in an alarming way, and I thought something was wrong.
But then I leaned over and saw her view out the airplane window.
The “midnight sun” (or, more accurately, the 1:10 a.m. sun) was bouncing off the snow, casting long shadows over Svalbard’s glacier-laced mountains.
Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. At 78 degrees north latitude, its capital, Longyearbyen, is the northernmost, permanent human settlement anywhere on our planet.
The islands are under Norwegian sovereignty, but unlike mainland Norway, citizens of any country are allowed to move here if they can find work. (When you’re just 1,338 kilometers – 831 miles – south of the North Pole, it’s safe to assume you won’t become clogged with immigrants.)
I first learned about Svalbard in 1986, when I moved to Norway as a foreign exchange student. Since then, it has been one of those mystical places I’ve promised myself I’d visit “some day.”
Twenty-eight years later, I have arrived.
The last three days have been intense. I’m working on multiple articles for multiple publications, and because it’s very expensive here, I only have four days. So I’ve been running – non-stop, it seems. When the sun never sets (as is the case here for more than three months every summer), it’s easier to stay awake.
On our first night, after our flight landed at 1:25 a.m., we checked into our room. Mary-Anns Polarrigg is a funky place, dripping with local history. It was originally built as a barracks for construction workers and miners. In 1999, it was put up for sale.
A woman named Mary-Ann Dahle bought it and converted it into a hotel that spans the entire spectrum of accommodations options. In the summer months, budget double rooms, with shared bathrooms, go for 1150 kroner (US $185) per night. The Jacuzzi suite costs 6,000 kroner (US $970).
As I said, it’s expensive here.
On our first morning, Kattina and I took a divide-and-conquer approach. To get my bearings, I hopped on a minivan tour with Svalbard Maxi Taxi. I was skeptical about what sort of an orientation I’d get with a taxi company, but our guide, Viggo Antonsen was both hilarious and ridiculously informative. He took me and 11 others on a two-hour spin around the island, spouting story after story about Svalbard’s wild history and life today.
Kattina, meanwhile, satisfied her science teacher nerdiness with a fossil hunt. She hiked to a glacier and returned with a backpack full of rocks. (Very cool rocks with fossilized leaves in them. We’re a little concerned about our weight limit on the flight home to Singapore.)
In the afternoon, we met with Ronny Brunvoll of Visit Svalbard. Ronny was phenomenally helpful in setting up our trip before we arrived on Svalbard. By the end of our meeting, he had us convinced we need to come back in the winter.
He told us his favorite time of year is in March, when the sun starts peeking toward the horizon again after 84 days of darkness. The sky and the snow glow bright blue. On March 20 each year, Longyearbyen has a big celebration as the first rays of sun strike the town.
“It might be 20 below zero and freezing cold winds,” Ronny said, “but everyone shows up.”
After our meeting, Kattina and I stopped into the Karls-Berger Pub, which Viggo told me was his favorite Longyearbyen watering hole. We were expecting a simple pint of beer. Our eyes bulged when we saw the bar, with an epic selection of whiskeys, cognacs, and 50 different types of akvavit.
What saved us from severe liver damage was the fact that it was nearly 10 p.m. and restaurants were closing. When the sun doesn’t set, it’s easy to lose track of time. So we raced out for dinner.
Around midnight, we started heading home. But we didn’t make it home. And no, we did not head back to the Karls-Berger. (Though we considered it.) We instead took a long walk, as far as we were allowed to go.
Due to the risk of polar bears, it’s illegal to leave central Longyearbyen without a rifle. Once you reach the polar bear sign, you have to turn around.
On our second day, we tried to climb a mountain to an abandoned coal mine. Kattina, who is a more skilled climber than me, made it all the way. I gave up halfway and retreated to the bottom to whimper.
Then we celebrated our third wedding anniversary at Huset, a ridiculously amazing gourmet restaurant. The only reason I can think of that it’s not Michelin-rated is that Michelin’s reviewers haven’t mustered the fortitude to come up here.
Today, we went on a summer dogsled ride with Basecamp Explorer. Several companies on Svalbard offer dogsledding – on real sleds when there’s snow, and wheeled buggies when there isn’t.
This was another activity I was skeptical about before I did it. A dogsled with wheels? But it’s important for the dogs to stay in shape in summer, and it was wild fun. (I’ve got video coming soon!)
Tomorrow, we’re off to Pyramiden, an abandoned, Russian “ghost town” on a fjord safari.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of our trip here. More in-depth articles are on the way soon.
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