Life at the top of the world: Spitsbergen

The moment when your pilot says ‘It is currently -25 degrees Celsius outside’ as you come in to land, doesn’t do much to actually prepare you for just how bone-numbingly cold this is. Stepping out of the terminal building in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen was quite a shock to the system. But not just because of the drop in temperature. Have you even stepped out of a terminal building to a view like the one below?

The first glimpse of Spitsbergen from the airport terminal building
The first glimpse of Spitsbergen from the airport terminal building

From my very first breaths of the cold Arctic air, I was hooked on the incredible island of Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Nestled about as far north as it seems feasible to go – 78 degrees north to be precise – the scenery is made even more dramatic by its distinctive lack of visual landmarks. Huge distances of snow-covered valleys, mountains and ice-covered fjords dominate the landscape on a scale that makes you realise how inconsequentially small you are. We were black dots on the pristine landscape thanks to our much-needed, heavy duty snowmobile suits (more on this later).

Gazing out over the vast white landscape
Gazing out over the vast white landscape

I never dreamed I would visit the Arctic. To be honest, I had never even considered it as a holiday option. While I have found the thought of whizzing down a mountain skiing somewhat captivating, the thought of going almost as far north as humanly possible seemed to ‘explorer’ for me, who gets stressed when she can’t work out what lane to be in on a roundabout.

Somewhere warm for the huskies out on the frozen fjord!
Somewhere warm for the huskies out on the frozen fjord!

A three hour flight from Oslo with Norwegian takes you directly into Longyearbyen on one of the only two inbound flights a day. Coming in to land was a sight to behold, with an icy runway surrounded by towering white cliffs. If you watch Game of Thrones, you might liken it to the closest place on earth to being north of the Wall.

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Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city, was established in 1900 and named after American John Longyear who was drawn to the island to set up a mining operation and the Arctic Coal Company. Today, mining is still big business in Longyearbyen, but tourism has also taken hold. Once you arrive you can see why. Today, this small community is home to around 2,000 people, with a Governor, hospital, university, two museums – it is incredible.It is also one of the world’s primary scientific research sites, with a large spread of international scientists and researchers based there.

Welcome to the world's northernmost city
Welcome to the world’s northernmost city
A small street in Longyearbyen. I loved the colours against the snow
A small street in Longyearbyen. I loved the colours against the snow

Once you head out of town though, it gets even more exciting. In the space of a few short days, I snowmobiled hundreds of kilometres across frozen landscapes, watched the Northern Lights, saw wild polar bear tracks, gazed at 3,000 year old glaciers, went as far north as I could go as a commercial visitor, played with 100 huskies, and slept on a cosy 100 year old ship frozen into the ice. It was as incredible as it sounds. As the Spitsbergen was coming out of the Polar Night , the light had a beautiful quality to it, and driving across endless miles of white it was actually possible to lose all sense of depth perception with the mountains, ground and sky all seemingly the same colour. Snowmobiling itself was incredible, with a fantastic adrenaline rush as the wind whips past your hair. If you haven’t yet done it, add it to the top of your must do list.

Just 'chilling' in front of a 3,000 year old glacier!
Just ‘chilling’ in front of a 3,000 year old glacier!
Our 'Ship in the Ice', the world's only ice-bound hotel
Our ‘Ship in the Ice’, the world’s only ice-bound hotel

What struck me about Spitsbergen was just how many unusual facts I learned about this fascinating destination. Take the below for instance:

  • Polar Bears vastly outnumber people in Longyearbyen, by 3,000 to 2,000. If you leave the safety of the town boundaries, you have to carry a gun with you.
  • If you are unemployed or retired, I am afraid that there is no place for you in Longyearbyen. You must be employed to stay.
  • In a similar vein, women must fly back to the mainland to give birth to children, and it is ‘illegal to die’ in Spitsbergen.
  • There is not a single tree on the island thanks to the permafrost. All wood has to be imported into the island.
  • You are out of luck if you like cats – thanks to the island’s bird population, moggies aren’t allowed.
  • If you like Thai food then good news! Longyearbyen is home to the world’s northernmost Thai restaurant and a Thai supermarket that seems very at odds with the Arctic environment it sits in.
My trusty snowmobile!
My trusty snowmobile!

If you like your destinations to challenge you, the chance to feel like an explorer, to discover a land that feels like another planet, then Spitsbergen for you. There is nothing like snowmobiling for three hours in the pitch black, in a bitter -37 degrees Celsius, before stopping to watch the Northern Lights to make you feel alive.

The light at the end of the polar night was just beautiful
The light at the end of the polar night was just beautiful

Top tips for Spitsbergen:

  • I travelled with Basecamp Explorer who run four lodges, including the rustic and cosy Basecamp Hotel in town, and the unique Ship in the Ice.
  • If travelling in winter – PACK MANY, MANY LAYERS. This point I cannot emphasise enough. If you are snowmobiling however, make sure it can all fit into a rucksack as suitcases weren’t designed to sit on the back.
  • Take inner gloves. If you are a keen photographer like myself, then you don’t want to be in the tricky position of needing to choose between getting your camera out to capture the perfect shot, or maintain the feeling in your hands. Put your batteries as close to your body as possible to maximise on battery life
  • Final note on the cold: take a hat that would fit under a snowmobile helmet (without any bobbles I learnt) and hand-warmers are a great idea
  • Svalbard Museum in the centre of town makes for a fascinating way to spend some time in Longyearbyen, teaching you the history of this unusual island. Entry at the time of visiting was 75 NOK.
  • Send a post-card from the world’s northernmost post office for a unique memento of your travels. Stamps can be bought at the post-office.
  • For a present to take home, the supermarket in town has some fantastic ‘Polar Beer’, brewed exclusively for Svalbard.
The beauty of Spitsbergen blew me away
The beauty of Spitsbergen blew me away
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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Looks absolutely amazing!! It’s strange that you have to work there to live there, but I guess it minimises the number of people living there and the strain on resources.

    1. RebeccaT says:

      Absolutely right, it would be too much to try and support those not working. It’s an incredible place!

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