Svalbard: the great white wilderness
If you think you may die in your lifetime, don’t make plans to move to Svalbard, Norway. Because dying is against the law. Yep, it’s illegal to pass onto the afterlife there. Since bodies never decompose when buried, the town’s small graveyard can’t afford to house deceased bodies anymore. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Svalbard’s most interesting facts.
Considered one of Europe‘s last great wildernesses, the chain of arctic islands is a destination filled with natural wonders, endless summer days, 24-hour nights, and more polar bears than people. Lying half way between the mainland and the North Pole, 60 percent of Svalbard is covered by glaciers, 34 percent by rocky surfaces and vegetation only makes up a measly six percent. Svalbard was first mentioned in 1194, but was fully discovered in 1596 when Dutch navigator Willem Barents visited. For the next 300 years, it was only a place of whaling and winter trapping/hunting. Today it currently has a population of about 2.640 people and since the 20th century has been known as a hub for coal mining.
Its only town, Longyearbyen, is built on stilts since the ground is frozen year round, ranging from 10 to 40 mt deep. Each summer, the top yard of earth thaws, and the stilts keep the buildings from flooding or sinking. If you’re looking for street names, you won’t find any; they are designated by numbers.
There are two hotels in Longyearbyen, the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel and the Spitsbergen Hotel Scandic Partner. Although designated four-star, we suggest to do not be too much pretentious. However, for a trip to the n. 5 northernmost city on the planet, they’ll do just fine. Or, a better bet is to book a cruise such as Abercrombie & Kent’s Arctic Cruise Adventure: Norway, Greenland & Iceland 15-day excursion. Accommodations will instead be aboard the all-balcony Le Boreal ship. During the trip, passengers will get to experience various destinations in the arctic including Longyearbyen, Greenland, Josef Fjord and Husavik, a whale-watching haven.
Each year the region experiences four months of midnight sun (it never sets) and four additional months of polar night (darkness). From April to late August, its summer months, guests can easily venture out on 2 a.m. walks on glaciers or go sea kayaking against the orange and yellow sunset-like sky. In the winter months, November to early February, the opposite occurs and because of its angling in the solar system, the other planets block out the sun. During this time, temperatures can reach as low as 20-30 degrees below zero. To welcome the sun back, locals gather on the steps of the old hospital to celebrate Solfestuka, a week-long event that begins precisely 11 a.m. on the day of the sunrise.
Although Svalbard is a coal mining town, the archipelago is looking to become a center for scientific research and a greater tourist destination. Hoping to capitalize on its polar night, Arild Olsen, mayor of Longyearbyen recently told to Skift, “We’re advertising the exotic side of being in the dark.” Luckily for Olsen, with the Northern Lights dancing in the sky and the area’s abundant wildlife roaming freely, visitors are already taking more notice of the arctic destination.
To experience both, Epic Road offers a nine-night Polar Bears & Northern Lights excursion which includes all accommodations, meals, activities and a helicopter trip to view the arctic mammals from above. Guests will journey by snowmobile and qamutik, a traditional Inuit sled, and enjoy a safari-style Igloo Dome base camp for five nights. Prices begin at Euro 21.900,00 per person.
If you plan on exploring Longyearbyen without a guide, you’ll need your own snowmobile. But that shouldn’t be an issue since there’s a surplus of around 4.000 snow scooters for the town’s 2.640 residents. Plus, having a rifle and knowing how to shoot one is essential (and required). More than 3.000 polar bears reside in Svalbard and can be pretty hungry after four months of not eating. All shops have gun checks at the front door, where you should also leave your shoes. It is customary to take them off in establishments and slippers are typically provided in return.
Along with dog-sledding and snowmobiling, another favorite activity of visitors and locals is ice caving. Equipped with headlamps and a guide, travelers can wind their way through ice and rock formations while squeezing through tight spaces or crawling along tunnels to reach the other side. These trips are not for those who suffer from claustrophobia. Spitsbergen Travel’s three-hour excursion includes all equipment, hotel transfers and is priced at around Euro 85,00 a person. Beautiful fjords, glittering night skies, strange laws and reindeer walking alongside residents, Svalbard is a wonderful and quirky destination to add to your travel list.