Svalbard & Jan Mayen
There are few places in the world where you can truly escape, however, if you are brave enough, then there is a majestic wilderness north of Norway which is the epitome of an Antarctica fairy tale – this place is Svalbard!
It came as quite a surprise to me that the more I mentioned Svalbard to friends, the more I discovered how many people had visited this remote part of the world as part of a cruise or small ship expedition.
None however had just gone to visit this small remote stretch of land dominated by tundra, bare mountains, glaciers, extreme light variations and wildlife which would be hard to match anywhere on earth.
I was therefore delighted to have recently been contacted by former travel agent, Heather Cragg, who wanted to share her incredible experience of Svalbard.
I was thrilled when I was told at work that I’d won “two business class tickets to any short haul destination”. However, I then had to choose where to go! My partner and I discussed various European options, then I realised that this could be my chance to see the Northern Lights. It’s something I had always wanted to do.
I knew that Tromsø would be an ideal destination for this, so we went to the SAS website to check our flight options. Whilst looking at their route map, we saw a line going north from Tromsø, and we both said “where does that go?” We found ourselves looking at Svalbard, an archipelago way up into the Arctic Circle between Norway and the North Pole. After some research, we excitedly decided this would be a real adventure – a sparsely populated land of polar bears, the midnight sun and the Northern Lights.
We chose February because that’s when the sun starts to come back after 3 months of 24-hour darkness, and the chances of seeing the Northern Lights are good. Anticipating temperatures of around -20°C during the day, we purchased some serious winter clothing and excitedly looked forward to this trip of a lifetime.
We booked a stopover each way in Oslo, plus a night in Tromsø. In Oslo, we visited Frogner Park to see the famous, unusual sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. The park was covered in a thick layer of pristine white snow – and although the air was very cold, it was dry and fresh unlike damp England, and the snow was fluffy, not wet.
The next morning we flew to Tromsø. I was excited to be well into the Arctic Circle (217 miles to be precise) – however, due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, Tromsø’s climate is relatively mild. It was only around -1˚C so we didn’t need so many layers whilst wandering around the quaint streets. We visited Polaria, a museum about the poles as well as the Mack Brewery (the world’s northernmost) and walked across the bridge to the striking Arctic Cathedral.
Later we headed towards the edge of town to get away from the lights in the hope of seeing the Aurora Borealis, however, it was too cloudy. The town looked really pretty in the snow with a soft glow of pale orange light coming from each house – no harsh neon city lights to be seen.
Then finally we flew to our main destination – Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago. As we were coming onto land, we saw breathtaking scenery – pure white peaks and valleys as far as the eye could see, under a clear pale blue sky. The pilot said that the temperature (around midday) was -12˚C.
That evening we had the chance to test all the warm layers we’d bought especially for Longyearbyen. We went on a hike up nearby Plateau Mountain (Gruvefjellet) and our friendly guide carried a rifle (believed to be a Mauser 7.62 bolt action) in case of a polar bear encounter. These powerful animals are the only ones known to actively hunt and attack humans, so although we hoped to see one, we wanted it to be in the distance!
It was around -10˚C and dark, so along with deep snow, icy patches, jagged rocks and a cold wind, the hike was hard work, to say the least! However, we persevered and were rewarded with a view across the small town of Longyearbyen. It was a strange realisation when we stopped halfway up, that we were sitting on the side of a mountain in the Arctic, and (courtesy of our guide) drinking tea and eating cookies! In a blizzard! Our descent was a mixture of scrambling and sliding. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see the Northern Lights.
The temperature at breakfast time the next day was around -24˚C. As we wandered along the main street through the snow, the mountains around us were topped with a pink glow of sunlight, but that was as far as it could reach. The light in the valley was only diffused, not direct because the sun had only started to rise above the horizon a few days before we’d arrived. One quirky little moment amused us with the sign on the door of the bank – it denoted ‘no guns’.
On our third day, we set off on a snowmobile trip to Barentsburg, a Russian settlement only reachable by boat (in summer when the sea ice has melted) or snowmobile, as there are no roads outside Longyearbyen. Our guide ensured that we were well wrapped up, as he said that any exposed skin could be affected by frostbite. The ride was hard work and bumpy. We reached a glacier not far from town and stopped for a spectacular view of the sun, low on the horizon, shining between two sharp peaks.
Our guide was concerned about the wind in the valley ahead of us, whipping up the snow. He contacted his colleagues and the decision was made to turn back due to the avalanche risk, which could block our way home several hours later. I must admit I was relieved, as I wasn’t sure if I could cope with a full day on a snowmobile, although I was disappointed not to see Barentsburg and the chance of seeing the polar bears en route.
After a lovely meal in a local pub/restaurant that night – still remembered as one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had – we walked back to our hotel. We could feel a tingling, freezing sensation in our noses as we breathed in, and I could feel ice forming on my eyelashes. As we entered our hotel, the thermometer showed -30˚C.
Even though we didn’t get to see the Northern Lights (it’s possible we went too far north), being in the Arctic had been a fantastic experience – an adventure that we’ll never forget.
With thanks to Heather Cragg for the blog. Sadly Heather is no longer working for a travel agent but has asked that should anyone be interested in this unique corner of the world then they should contact their local travel agent for more information and to book.
If you are looking to head off to Svalbard in frozen Europe then I suggest you also check out the amazing local Visit Svalbard website as well as catch up on their social media sites below.