Like any good traveller I usually plan my trips well in advance, researching thoroughly to make the time pass by more quickly. Back in February 2012, I planned a trip to Norway, just a short hop across the North Sea from the UK by plane. One place I didn’t really know existed was the Svalbard archipelago. An Arctic outpost once favoured by whalers, naturally I decided to pay a visit.
Prince Harry visited Svalbard not long before my trip with his Walking with the Wounded charity, they even stayed in the same hotel, which was a pleasant surprise. This place in winter is brutal, bitterly cold and harsh, I’m amazed that anything can survive, let alone live here.
However, Longyearbyen, the “capital” of the Svalbard archipelago is a rather busy little town, I know of very few other places where you’ll see most people skiing and snowboarding down their main high street! A rather awesome sight.
Upon landing in Oslo; the Norwegian capital, I was quickly back on another SAS flight and on my way to Tromso in the far North. This place is like a winter wonderland. With just one more flight awaiting me before my arrival in Svalbard, I was devastated to sit in the departure lounge and see snow drifting past the window of the departure lounge.
However, this is Norway, I was told that a little bit of snow is not going to stop take off, amazingly it didn’t! We took off in a snowstorm, you’d never see that at Heathrow for fear of “health and safety”.
Flying over the frozen wilderness was incredible, especially when coming in to land. In winter you’ll be lucky to see a visible road, Longyearbyen has one main street and the road to the airport. Even though it’s isolated, I don’t feel alone.
Be aware, you will be greeted at Svalbard Lufthavn by a huge stuffed polar bear!!!
I’ve lived in London for the past 10 years, usually it means you’ll be woken up by the sound of sirens, street fights or foxes. In Longyearbyen however, snow scooters, snow trackers or potentially even reindeer will wake you up!
So what is there to do in Longyearbyen? Well, in summer there are many more things, however, I arrived in winter and was quite limited on what I wanted to do in minus 25! An activity I’d always wanted to try was to mush huskies, they are such loveable animals and in the Arctic they are essential.
I went with a company called Svalbard Husky, they have a large complex where dogs have their own huts, raised from the ground so they don’t get “cold”, that’s a little difficult to believe when you can barely feel any part of your own body. First, we had to prepare the huskies, this was a challenge in itself as they are constantly hyper and wanting to just run. With six of them that’s like having six 5 year olds running around arghhh!!
After securing them and ensuring to secure the brake was dug into the snow so they couldn’t run off, we could then get ourselves ready. You have one musher and one person in the sledge, I was told we would get to a half way point and switch, sadly for me this didn’t happen. This didn’t dampen the experience, it was absolutely amazing! You have a lot of things to remember though, you have to lean slightly more on one leg whilst the other leg gently rests on the brake, just in case the dogs decide to venture off-track or the sledge tilts.
For me this was one of my favourite things I’ve ever done whilst travelling, I highly recommend it, even if afterwards you can’t feel your face, hands or any other part of your anatomy! The best part is getting to feed the huskies, they are so demanding.
One thing you’ll notice in Longyearbyen is there are quite a number of restaurants, although mostly serving international food. One of my favourite places was called Kroa, in a traditional wooden hut setting, in the centre of the town. The food was so good that I went back after having an average experience elsewhere.
Something you must know about Svalbard and the food here is that if you don’t like eating meat, you will be a bit stuck! It’s mostly reindeer, whale or fish. All very tasty and fresh, but not cheap so be aware of this. It is part of a tax-free region in Norway as officially Svalbard is still classed as Europe.
As it was February, and you are 78°N, there is a chance to see the Northern Lights. Thankfully for me the atmosphere and relatively clear evening meant I was lucky enough to fulfil one of my dreams.
In remote Spitsbergen, very few people can access the island, meaning it’s perfect to store precious items, such as seeds of the world.
In 2008 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was created, storing over 770,000 seed samples! This is incredible achievement, it also means that if a major disaster was to occur wiping out crops, there is a place safe and secure where seeds can be accessed. Unfortunately for me I was not able to enter the vault, I believe this is still the case to ensure no diseases penetrate the building.
It’s winter, it’s cold, so what did I chose as my final activity in Svalbard? Ice caving! I must have been mad…
Travelling with Spitsbergen Travel, to access the entrance to the cave we had to leave Longyearbyen by the only means possible, a snow tractor! The perfect vehicle for this type of terrain and in the snowy weather.
This place was incredible, the entrance was in an igloo and inside was a hole in the ground where, once a ladder had been attached we climbed down and began our journey.
It’s certainly a challenge in some places, there are some very tight gaps. In one part you had to sit on your bum and push yourself down what can only be described as an icy slide, it was incredible.
Without realising it, you are in fact walking down upon entering, therefore walking back up and out is the fun part. You certainly need strength and strong thighs.
I highly recommend visiting Svalbard, especially if you are into exploring and adventure. Where else in the world would you find a high street where reindeer casually mix with shoppers?
Although it was incredibly cold when I visited I highly recommend you see Longyearbyen in its true beauty of winter.
If you’d like to discover more photographs and information from this trip or any others please feel free to ask me any questions. You can visit my Facebook page and please don’t forget to ‘Like’ Travel Geek UK.