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You may have noticed a sudden increase in travel photos and stories about seeing the Northern Lights, places that look like they’re from Frozen, and of course, those cool looking glass domes you can camp in under the starry winter night. People are literally making the coldest destinations; like Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland, the hottest places to go right now, despite their icy weather. But there’s also a place in the Arctic that not many have heard of besides extreme adventurers and explorers.
What if I told you that there’s an Arctic archipelago in between Norway and the North Pole, that you can easily get to by plane? What if I also told you that it’s home to the Northernmost inhabited town in the world, and that notorious explorers have traveled far and wide to get there? If you’re a wanderlust adventurer like I am, you’re probably dying to hear more.
This “North Polet” I’m talking about is called Svalbard, and I’ve just spent five days in the peculiar town of Longyearbyen, in an area of the archipelago called Spitsbergen, with none other than the areas very own travel company, Spitsbergen Travel. I didn’t know I would be visiting this rare and incredible place until a last minute suggestion by someone at Scandic Hotels, who literally convinced me that if I had the opportunity to go to Svalbard, I should definitely take it because it truly is a “last Arctic frontier”. Being the inquisitive adventurer and explorer that I am, I switched my entire travel schedule around and booked the cheapest flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen and back, for a mere $175 using my SkyScanner “flexible” technique. Not bad for getting as close as you can to the North Pole.
What I learned while exploring the tiny former cole-mining town called Longyearbyen, was that this was a place for people who love adventures and want to experience the true Arctic . Everyone I met was there for those reasons, including the whopping 2,100 residents who come to live in Longyearbyen from all over the world. What’s interesting about the small population of inhabitants, is that there are no natives to Svalbard. In fact you are not allowed to be born (or die) there, which makes it all the more interesting as a true adventure destination. So why is this Arctic island one of the hottest destinations, and why does it attract adventurers from all over the globe? Here’s my reasons why:
Unless you have a ton of money to charter a trip to the North Pole or any other un-charted Arctic area, Svalbard is your most practical opportunity to travel to the Arctic. The town of Longyearbyen is the Northernmost place that commercial flights operate to, and if you’re flexible on dates, the flight prices aren’t terribly insane.
Since any other place this far North is typically a research station, Svalbard also has the advantage of having accommodations, restaurants, and even its own travel company called Spitsbergen Travel, which operates with the majority of the hotels, tours, and activities that they offer there. Since you really are in the Arctic, and it can realistically be quite dangerous, you’re better off just going on a tour or getting a guide, instead of risking freezing on the middle of a glacier, or getting attacked by a polar bear.
The activities that you can do in Svalbard are unlike any other in the world. I got to go on a snowmobile tour on the frozen Advent Valley fjord, where I not only saw breathtaking, unpopulated Arctic landscapes, but also the wild (and fluffy!) Arctic reindeer, and even a frozen waterfall! I got to take the former-military vehicles called “Snow Cats” across glaciers to climb through an ice cave, and see the Northern Lights, and while you can do both activities via snowmobile, the Snow Cat offered the perk of a warm transport.
Dog sledding is also a popular Arctic activity in Svalbard, and the highlight of several travel show features including one that was being filmed by BBC while I was in town. For the extreme adventurers, the opportunity to take multi-day dog sledding tours is possible, and so is a longer snow mobile ride that can take you to the East coast of the Archipelago where the polar bears might be.
One of the hotels I stayed at was the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel (I mostly like saying “Polar Hotel”), and one thing I found interesting besides having to take my shoes off to enter, was that each hotel room door featured a life-size photograph of an explorer, miner, researcher, or trapper. The one I first noticed and recognized was given the biggest conference room door; Roald Amundsen, who’s bio is placard on the wall with the title of “Polar Explorer”. Amundsen is credited as the first person to travel to the South and North Poles, and began his expedition to the North Pole from Svalbard.
My hotel room door featured a very serious looking man, who I couldn’t help but feel slightly hostile towards since his description of notoriety was for polar bear trapping (aka killing). The name of the town Longyearbyen comes from another explorer, an American in fact, whose last name was “Longyear”. Longyear discovered the area while it was only being used for cole mining, and bought it from the Europeans and turned it into a town.
If you’re the type of traveler looking to rack up numbers on your “number of countries I’ve been to” list, Svalbard is not the place for you. It’s technically under Norway’s rule, but it doesn’t officially belong to any country, which to me, makes it all the more intriguing to travel to. It’s literally just this mass of no-man’s land that any country has fair rights in, but cannot claim as their own. That means anyone can go there to live and start a business without needing to be approved, as long as they are able to sustain themselves since there’s no government to issue financial assistance.
Like I said before, there’s also no native people to Svalbard, only residents who have either chosen to live there because they love the Arctic, have gotten a job or assignment there, or are studying at the university or research stations. You can’t be born there because the hospital is not equipped for delivery, and you can’t die (well, be buried) there because the permafrost would cause you to resurface several years after being buried.
While the population of humans is only 2,100, the population of polar bears is estimated to be around 3,000. I had some questions and concerns about taking over the polar bears’ natural habitat, but what I learned was that they mostly stay near the coasts, because they are in fact considered marine animals. That means that despite the numerous polar bear hazard signs and people walking around with rifles, you probably won’t see one in town.
Like many of the people I met, I really did want to see a polar bear, which is one of the main reasons why some people even go to Svalbard. Two older men from Denmark that I spoke to had even gone on an 8 hour snowmobile ride to the East coast of Svalbard to try to see one, and although they didn’t get to see the actual bear, they were still happy about finding its tracks.
Initially, one of the main reasons why I went to Norway in the winter was to see the Northern Lights. I saw a spectacular show in Tromsø where the Northern Lights literally seemed to be ribbon dancing around me, but when I got to Svalbard I got a completely different experience. Since I was much higher up on the latitude lines (78 degrees to be exact), and the Northern Lights usually appear around the Arctic Circle, the view I got of them from just outside the city lights of Longyearbyen was one that seemed like I was looking down instead of looking up. It was at that moment that I truly felt like I was on top of the world.
You have several options for Northern Lights tours in Svalbard; you can go by snowmobile, Snow Cat, or another option that includes a fun dinner inside a circular type of well-built tepee.
Longyearbyen gets credit for having the Northernmost university in the world, which is mainly focused on Arctic research. Although it’s somewhat of a rare topic to pursue, the university attracts students who travel from all over the world, and take classes in quite the attractively designed university center in Longyearbyen. It’s pretty much perfect for polar research, and there’s even a research station further north in Ny Ålesund. By the way, some people may claim that Longyearbyen is not the Northernmost town since there are research stations further North than it, which is why I emphasize the “inhabited town” part.
As I mentioned, the reason why Longyearbyen gets credit for being the “Northernmost Town in the World”, is because it’s an actual inhabited town, with residents who live there for other reasons than conducting research. The best way I can describe it is as what you’d probably image the North Pole where “Santa lives” to look like. It’s a cute little town that’s covered in snow and ice (well, during the winter at least), and there’s even an old coal mine nestled in the middle of a mountain where the children believe Santa Claus actually lives.
But for the people who live there, it’s a place they are very passionate about, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have invested so much time and money into working and living there! They have the “Northernmost bar”, and newly opened “Northernmost brewery”, where I got to see and taste some local Svalbard beer. You can also find the Northernmost shops, restaurants, movie theater, and hotels too!
If you’ve ever been concerned about the world ending, this might interest you quite a bit. The world’s “seed vault” is located and protected in Svalbard, which essentially holds the necessary seeds to re-plant food crops in the event that the existing ones were to disappear from the Earth. Learning about this made me feel like Svalbard was a place for a secret society of worldly explorers; who know the secrets of the universe and hide them on this random Arctic island.
Aside from having a university dedicated to teaching students about the Arctic, Svalbard also caters to young creatives in several other ways. Photographers and writers (ahem, me) head there to document its glory, animal lovers migrate there to pursue careers in dog sledding and polar bear research, and there’s even a Polarjazz festival that showcases mostly Norwegian musicians, that people from all over the world fly in to see.
Something that I also found interesting was that the average age of residents in Longyearbyen is 35, which means young people are moving to Svalbard to pursue a dream, and then staying once they discover a passion!
There’s nothing quite like zipping across a frozen fjord as the white Arctic wilderness stretches alongside in every direction. For the most part there’s no pathways and definitely no roads (besides in town), just untouched snow and ice aside from the occasional snowmobile tracks or shoe prints. It’s truly a sight that you’ll never forget for the rest of your life!