HUMAN population: 2,600. Polar bear population: 3,500. Welcome to Svalbard, Arctic playground for thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies.
As far as seaside tourism towns go, Norway’s Svalbard is pretty much the polar opposite of Bournemouth. Instead of zimmer-frames, find ski poles. In place of dawdling mobility scooters, find snowmobiles capable of flying over the ice at more than 100 kilometres per hour.
The remote outpost is the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, with its capital Longyearbyen mainly inhabited by adventurous youthful types.
“I’m probably the oldest person on the island!” joked Viggo, a sexagenarian Norwegian who gave us a tour of the town. Cruelly nicknamed Captain Birdseye by us childish Brits, the grey-bearded local explained that withering slowly off one’s mortal coil is actually banned. “We have nowhere to bury you; there is permafrost here. You have to go back and die where you came from.”
Svalbard – which aptly means “cold shore” in Viking language – falls under Norwegian sovereignty yet differs hugely from the mainland. For a welcome start, booze is not liable to the fun taxes (also known as “vice taxes”) and red tape that blight much of Scandinavia.
Thus while a pint of insipid lager in Oslo will set you back around £7, the cluster of small bars in Longyearbyen serve up a decent gin and tonic for around half the price – and are often packed and buzzing late into the night.
A word of warning for all you party animals, though – when your beer goggles fall into place, remember that Longyearbyen is an extremely small town. In the event that you hook up with a fellow reveller, you will almost certainly bump into them again the following day. And the day after that. Et cetera.
I report this purely out of journalistic duty, incidentally – not from experience.
Yet it is for a different kind of kick that people make the long adventure north, best accessed via a plane from Oslo or Tromso. During the winter months glacier-clad mountains can be conquered on ski-doos (snowmobiles to you and I), husky dog sledges or plain old skis. For the ultra-fit, snow shoes even allow hiking expeditions. And below the ground, spectacular ice caves may be explored if conditions are cold enough.
At this time of year some of the snow and ice melts away, and a solstice of 24-hour sunlight nears. In these more mild conditions, kayaking and boat trips are added to the plethora of activities available to visitors and locals.
For ultra-adventurous and affluent City types, the summer also offers the ultimate, unique experience – a personalised helicopter trip to the North Pole. Svalbard is little more than 800 miles from the Pole, roughly the same distance as from London to the south of France. The truly once-in-a-lifetime journey will take around four hours from Longyearbyen and set you back an austerity-busting £7,000.
Having more modest ambitions, we settled instead for an excursion to Barentsburg, an eight hour round trip on the ski-doos. The town is named after intrepid Dutchman Willem Barentsz who stumbled across Svalbard while attempting to find a northern sea route to the East in the late sixteenth century. Continuing their journey, Barentsz and his men ended up stuck in the frozen arctic seas. Somehow they survived the winter and escaped once the ice thawed, yet Barentsz died on the journey back – perhaps due to scurvy, having drunk little but beer, wine and brandy for several months.
Barentsburg is now a Russian mining town. On arriving we encountered an inebriated Ukrainian miner who appeared to survive on a similar diet to the one that proved fatal for poor Barentsz over four centuries ago. “My English very bad!” repeated our new friend Andriy several times, before pointing at the town’s prominent statue of Vladimir Lenin and bursting out laughing.
Struggling to balance while shuffling down Barentsburg’s ice-covered roads, I made an attempt to bond with Andriy by enquiring about Ukrainian football team Shakhtar Donetsk. “Shakhtar!” he exclaimed, hugging me. “You say that in Ukraine, everyone love you!”
Must try that some time. Despite the long trip to Barentsburg and back to Longyearbyen, through deserts so white that you can see no colour at all, we failed to spot any of the island’s famous ursine inhabitants. The disappointment was mitigated when one considers the plight of a teenage Brit who was mauled to death by a bear on the main island of Spitsbergen last year.
The widely-reported tragedy, I must confess, caused me to baulk at accepting the offer of a visit in the first place. “Will they have guns?” I demanded to know from my Norwegian host. “I’m not doing it unless they have guns.”
Fortunately for your precious urbanite reporter, the locals carry rifles whenever they venture away from the towns. Trips into the snowy wilderness are always conducted by professionals trained in the art of scaring away or killing any potential white-furred prowlers. Only a handful of polar bear attacks have proven fatal in the entire last century of human activity on the island. Indeed, as we discovered, the chances of even seeing a big white bear in the flesh are pretty slim.
Despite using the postcard-friendly creatures as an unparalleled selling point for the island, people in Svalbard have a policy of respectful separatism. “The idea is to avoid coming into contact with them at all,” we were told.
Yet a cunning cheat exists for those who want to spot some polar bear action. The bears prefer to gather where there is ice-covered water, so that they can feast on unsuspecting chubby seals. These areas are common on the colder, eastern side of Spitsbergen – where several of the local companies will happily take you on an expedition. Further, an alternative source of accommodation is a ship frozen into the waters miles into the abyss, reached as usual on a ski-doo. Polar bears, I am reliably informed, sometimes walk up to the ship out of curiosity.
As far as animals go, I must confess to preferring the loyal and less deadly husky dog to the fearsome bear. A pack of these zealous hounds pulled us on a delightful sledding trip courtesy of Robert Nilsen – a Norwegian who quit his middle management job in Oslo and moved to the remote island to breed huskies.
His kennels on the outskirts of the town are remote, the nearest neighbour being a local woman in a small house who has her own version of the good life: cycling her child into Longyearbyen’s one school every morning with a rifle on her back.
“I think this place tolerates strange people,” our guide Viggo said that evening. “It’s a refuge for the odd.” Not necessarily a bad thing.
A VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE EARTH
How to get to Svalbard and what to do once you land on the island:
1 Only one airline can get you to Svalbard, the Scandinavian carrier SAS flying from Oslo from £328. Numerous airlines fly to Oslo, so the journey offers the chance for a sightseeing stopover. Note, however, that Oslo is not cheap.
Due to the tiny size of Longyearbyen, accommodation is fairly scarce. A standard room at the Spitsbergen Hotel (also known as Funken) ranges from 890 to 1890 Norwegian krone (£95-£200) varying on the time of year.
2 Alternatively an Oslo and Longyearbyen four night package trip is run by Discover the World in the opening four months of the year, for £1,122 per person.
3 Go on a skidooing adventure to the mining town of Barentsburg with Svalbard Scooterutleie. The trip, which includes armed guides and survival suits, costs around £210.
4 Dogsledding for four hours takes you into one of the stunning valleys and costs around £115 per person. You will also be shown how to collect and harness the dogs. For a big adventure, just ask Svalbard Husky and they will shape a trip to your desire.