Author: Martin Palko
It is not that long ago that Svalbard archipelago and its largest island known as Spitsbergen became populated. Some whale hunters from the Netherlands arrived in the 16th century, but most of permanently peopled settlements were set up at the beginning of the 20th century, when coal started to be mined here. Recently, the mining industry has been on a downgrade, but Svalbard is administratively part of Norway, and profits mainly from tourism and scientific research. Amongst 3000 people living here, you can find nationalities like Norwegian, Russian, Ukrainian, or even Thai. Thai ancestors used to work in the mines and thanks to being short in stature, they were advantaged over well-built Scandinavians. People from all over the world work in tourism. Many work in their homeland throughout the year as managers or real estate agents, but for summer they end up here, to clear their heads, and take their lives to a brand new level. And trust me, we are speaking of 180 degrees change here.
You’ll find only couple of settlements in here, Longyearbyen being the capital, with a tiny international airport. When you get to the arrivals hall, you are welcomed with huge stuffed polar bear, which leaves you hoping, it is the last polar bear you have and will encounter for the rest of your stay. For such a small town, the infrastructure is very sufficient and satisfactory. Buses wait for passengers of each flight; services like hospital, nurseries, shops, all very well equipped, and you will get free wifi in almost every hotel and restaurant. An interesting fact and a tip for you: bring your slippers. Entering any public building, you’ll have to take your shoes off. A custom, which has survived from the mining golden years, when everyone after their shift was covered in coal dust.
Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the weather here is very mild and pleasant. (Except occasional strong winds) Seriously, sometimes it is hard to believe that you are only 1300 km away from the North Pole. No extra special clothes are necessary here. (Except the slippers J ) Summer average temperatures are about 10 degrees. In winter, it rarely gets colder than minus 10. Minimal precipitation. From certain depth, the ground here stays frozen all year round (this phenomenon is called “permafrost”), so all the settlements are built on stilts. There is no sunset from April to August, and Polar night starts in October, lasting till February.
Flora of Spitsbergen is very limited. Mostly grass, lichen, and beautiful rock plants. You ain’t gonna find a single tree here. Fauna is mostly represented by sea mammals. Whales, seals, walruses, and polar bears of course. You may also see arctic foxes and reindeers, who btw. are not shy at all, and they wander the streets with no fear from people. Thousands of various kinds of birds are nesting here. My favourite bird is Arctic tern (Sterna Paradisea). To protect its nest (which you will be totally oblivious and unaware about), it is willing to attack and follow you until you are out of its territory. A great tip: Arctic terns attack the highest point of you, so to swing a stick above your head should do the trick. Basically, the cute birdie is harmless. It only can be a bit pain in the ass sometimes.
Your stay in Spitsbergen needs to be pre-planned thoroughly ahead of time. Ironically, flight tickets are the least problem which you will encounter. There is a flight from Oslo twice a day, and a flight from Tromsø. A return ticket from Budapest (via Oslo) cost me 350€ per person. Accommodation facilities are limited, but new and new hotels are growing each year. Often, the hotels are redone and renewed buildings, which were originally used as barracks for miners. Be ready to pay 150 – 200€ per night, but if you are lucky, you can find lodging for 60€. This might happen only if you book it months before your actual arrival. Another, cheaper option is to stay in a camp near the airport, however, all the peopled areas will be quite out of reach for you here.
There are several larger and smaller tour guide agencies, but they are also very limited. What you should do though, is to check visitsvalbard.com, where you can scroll down to the trip you are interested in, and book it right there. Most of the small travel agencies will come pick you up at your hotel, and bring you back to the same spot after the trip. In case you are more of the adventurous type, and you are keen to do the trips individually, you need to study the rules and restrictions hard. These, you will find on the website of the Governor of Svalbard sysselmannen.no. The most important thing is that moving outside of inhabited settlements must be reported in advance, meaning, you must contact the Governor’s office, in case you are planning independent travel outside the central parts. You also must be a part of a group, where at least one has a firearm, and knows how to use it. You can rent a firearm in a local sport supplies shop, but you must be an owner of firearms licence, translated officially into English language. If you don’t own a gun licence, you can ask for a rifle, directly at the Governor’s office. This also must be done in advance.
Be prepared to pay. People from Norway find services and goods here pricey! And that says it all. There is one larger supermarket, and some smaller shops with sports gear, souvenirs, and restaurants. Lunch for 2 will cost you at least 50€. If you fancy something extra, plus a beer or two, then be ready to become another 100€ shorter. Whale meat is a local speciality here, and it is cheaper that chicken meat. (note: Only common Minke whale, which is not one of endangered species, is hunted and eaten) You can use your credit card in Longyerbyen on a regular basis, but if you plan visiting the Russian settlements, you are gonna need cash – Norwegian Krones (NOK).
There is plenty to see and experience in Svalbard, but most tourists long for one particular thing: to get a glimpse of a polar bear. Don’t get your hopes too high up though. Even here, to spot a polar bear, you would be considered a lucky person. So don’t be disappointed if you don’t manage to do it during your stay. This is no Safari, where they’d take you close to these predators, only to make you happy and willing to pay. Norwegians take their role as bear protectors seriously. It is strictly forbidden to seek these animals, and bother them with your presence. And it works both ways. As a protection of the bears, and yourself. Despite the fact that polar bears are quite nosy animals, they are not keen on encounters with people, and they choose to avoid men in general. Unfortunately, thanks to global warming, bears here no longer can get to their hunting grounds, so many individuals are suffering from starvation. And trust me on this, a hungry, grumpy, starving polar bear is the last creature on this planet you wish to meet. Polar bear is twice as big as the brown bear, and it runs much faster than Usaian Bolt. The unfortunate thing is that a hungry polar bear will consider a human to be his natural quarry. If a warning shot from your flare gun won’t do, you have no other option than shooting the poor animal. But careful, shooting a polar bear under attack is investigated in a similar way as shooting a man in self defence. And if you can’t prove you did everything possible to avoid coming across the bear, you be prepared for the trip to become very, very pricey. And to be honest, a big ticket fee is the best scenario for you in that case.