An unassuming destination is becoming the hotspot for the ultimate ‘been there, done that’ badge of honor.
At the world’s northernmost airport with scheduled public flights, Longyearbyen, lies the access point into the intriguing island of Svalbard. An archipelago that shares the latitude of the Arctic regions, the autonomous area administered by the Norwegian government is rife with the world’s northernmost of things, notably the post office and university. First discovered in the late 1500s by the Dutch, the earliest recorded history of the island is a harrowing two-century account of how intense whaling activities nearly wiped out the giant sea mammal population in the north.
In the following years, explorers and fortune hunters remained mesmerized by the archipelago’s raw and extreme landscapes and exotic animals including polar bears and reindeers but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century when coal deposits were found that Svalbard became something of economic importance. The influx of resources allowed for extensive Artic exploration and research and with it, modern-day tourism.
Its unique occurrences of the midnight sun – 24 hours of daylight – in summer and the polar night – 24 hours of darkness – in winter are enough tell-tale signs of a diverse ecosystem set against a dominant landscape worthy of Tolkien’s fantasies. While cruise ships ferrying tourists make quick pit stops around the island in summer in attempts to sight polar bears, the real adventure is to immerse in the experience of being in full days of sunlight, or complete darkness. Head out with a team of precision-trained husky dogs and sled your way from west to east or hop on a snowmobile to power up the high plateaus for an infinite view of the North Pole.
In the capital Longyearbyen, there is just one long street where everything is situated, or as the locals call it, ‘the center of the universe’. Lodgings, grocers, sport stores and government institutions including a very well-curated library sit side-by-side with modern bars and contemporary restaurants. The new Nordic influence in cuisine and design is very much alive in the few but phenomenal food and lifestyle establishments here. Even for the most adventurous among us, the familiar comfort of this street is a soothing touch after experiencing the most extreme of Mother Nature.
An epitome of Scandinavian functionality and minimal design, this hotel is part of the Svalbard Adventure Group which makes it easy for guests to tailor their wilderness experience with the onsite team. Its location right in the middle of Longyearbyen’s main street makes it a convenient pick while room types include apartments for families.
The hotel is fashioned after former quarters for coal miners where rooms are housed in construction rigs. The mining-life experience is recreated throughout the whole property with thematic dining and lounge rooms complete with black and white photos of the early coal mining days. Service is very personalised and informal making it a great choice for an immersive local experience.
Coal Miners’ Cabin
Located at the tail-end of the main street in Longyearbyen, this property is a refurbished coal miner’s cabin with a completely modern interior. It’s bar and restaurant are also one of the main hot spots for locals with its thematic nights and events so here’s a good place to get to know Svalbard’s residents.
Open only by appointment, the restaurant serves a seasonal menu that draws from Artic cuisine. The building is a former canteen of a mining base right under the glaciers and has been refurbished to maintain its historical ambience. Chef and owner Steve D. Torgersen undertook the project with the help of the Svalbard’s Directorate for Cultural Heritage to bring the building back to life and to inject a slice of refined cooking into the local dining scene.
Restaurant Kroa (Steakers Svalbard AS)
Sturdy large wooden furnishings with a menu of hearty rich dishes that will take away the chill in your bones from the constant sub-zero temperatures. Give the daily specials a go – ranging from stew of seal meat to whale served with flatbread. Dinner service begins at 4pm in this part of the world and reservations are necessary as the place fills out quickly with local shift-workers at the mines.
Though it is part of the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen, it sits in its own structure with an open window concept that overlooks the Hiorthfjellet coast line. This is a favorite among locals for special occasions as the menu offers an international touch for those missing home but its light interpretation of northern dishes also offer first-time visitors a great introduction to the local cuisine.
Setting off from Longyearbyen, getting on a boat is the best way to cover the diverse landscape and natural wildlife of the entire archipelago. Depending on the time of the year and your interest, the boat trips can be tailored to specific animal sightings be it whales, seals, bird migrations or to discover the different geology formations throughout the coast line. The raw Artic glaciers are the real highlights on these trips.
The Northern Lights
Svalbard’s geographical location makes its one of the best places in the world to catch the Northern Lights especially during polar nights. Hop on a snow mobile or a dog sled out into the quiet plateaus where sightings of the lights are at its peak. For the more adventurous, it is possible to cross from the west to the east on longer trips to explore the locality and natural wildlife.
Svalbard Museum – the world’s northernmost museum – is the winner of the 2008 Council of Europe Museum Prize and is an excellent starting point for visitors to begin their Artic journey into the archipelago. It’s collaborative effort with the Svalbard University gives it in-depth access into research on the history and geography of the area resulting in extremely well-curated and informative exhibits. The taxidermy of the exotic wildlife alone is worth the trip.