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Svalbard is the Arctic North as you always dreamed it existed. This wondrous archipelago is a land of dramatic snow-drowned peaks and glaciers, of vast icefields and forbidding icebergs, an elemental place where the seemingly endless Arctic night and the perpetual sunlight of summer carry a deeper kind of magic. One of Europe’s last great wildernesses, this is also the domain of more polar bears than people, a terrain rich in epic legends of polar exploration.
Svalbard’s main settlement and entry point, Longyearbyen, is merely a taste of what lies beyond and the possibilities for exploring further are many: boat trips, glacier hikes, and expeditions by snowmobile or led by a team of huskies. Whichever you choose, coming here is like crossing some remote frontier of the mind: Svalbard is as close as most mortals can get to the North Pole and still capture its spirit.
Places in Svalbard:
Svalbard’s only town of any size, Longyearbyen enjoys a superb backdrop including two glacier tongues, Longyearbreen and Lars Hjertabreen. The town itself is fringed by abandoned mining detritus and the waterfront is anything but beautiful, with shipping containers and industrial buildings. The further you head up the valley towards the glaciers, the more you’ll appreciate being here. Even so, Longyearbyen is a place to base yourself for trips out into the wilderness rather than somewhere to linger for its own sake.
Visiting the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg is like stumbling upon a forgotten outpost of the Soviet Union somewhere close to the end of the earth. Although efforts are being made to spruce it up, the bleakness of its Soviet-era architecture in the icy north still seems like a grim evocation of Arctic Siberia.
The first thing you see upon arrival is its power-station chimney, belching dark black smoke into the blue sky. This isolated village continues to mine coal against all odds and still produces up to 350,000 tonnes per year – the seam is predicted to last at least another decade. With its signing in Cyrillic script, still-standing bust of Lenin, murals of muscly workers in heroic pose and a run-down and dishevelled air, the overwhelming feeling is of a settlement whose time has past.
Despite its inhospitable latitude (79°N), you’d be hard pressed to find a more awesome backdrop anywhere on earth than the scientific post of Ny Ålesund, 107km northwest of Longyearbyen. Founded in 1916 by the Kings Bay Kull Compani, Ny Ålesund likes to claim that it’s the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited civilian community (although you could make a case for three other equally minuscule spots in Russia and Canada).
Throughout much of the 20th century Kings Bay mined for coal. As many as 300 people once lived and worked here but, after the last of several lethal explosions resulted in 21 deaths, mining stopped in 1963. Ny Ålesund has since recycled itself as a prominent scientific post, with research stations of several nations, including Japan, France, the British Antarctic Survey and China (bizarrely, in this land of polar bears and Arctic foxes, two marble lions stand watch over the Chinese quarters). There’s a hardy year-round population of around 30 scientists, rising to 130 in summer (never more as that’s the number of beds available) as researchers from about 15 countries fly in.
Thanks to Lillehöökbreen (its grand tidewater glacier) and several cultural relics, Krossfjorden attracts quite a few cruise ships. At Ebeltoftbukta, near the mouth of the fjord, you can see several whalers’ graves, as well as a heap of leftover junk from a 1912 German telegraph office that was shifted wholesale to Ny Ålesund after only two years of operation. Opposite the entrance rise some crowded bird cliffs overlooking one of Svalbard’s most verdant spots, with flowers, moss and even grasses.
Hotels In Svalbard: