Traveller's Guide: Chill seeker - the dramatic Arctic outpost of Spitsbergen
As the long Arctic night comes to an end and new flight connections begin, there's never been a better time to visit this remote corner of the world
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Friday 22 February 2013
Travellers who crave adventure and intrigue like to go to extremes. And the most extreme location on the planet accessible on a normal scheduled flight from the UK? Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, a name which means "cold shores".
Try to find a more compelling travel website front page than svalbard.net. Above a picture of kayakers cutting through a soup of sea ice towards a ridge of jagged peaks, the slogan reads simply: "3,000 polar bears; 2,500 humans".
This lonely location is deep inside the Arctic Circle, barely 800 miles from the North Pole. It is rendered fit for human habitation by the West Spitsbergen current, a branch of the Gulf Stream, which also helps to explain the remarkable wildlife – including the largest land carnivore on the planet, the polar bear.
These fragments of Norway, 400 miles north of the edge of Europe, are the closest the tourist is likely to get to the end of the world. Mountains rise from a steely sea to claw at the sky. Thick veins of snow trickle from the peaks to fuel the glaciers that gouge through the rock in a geological power struggle. The ocean itself can be congested with chunks of ice the size of double-decker buses.
Most of the terrain is permanently covered in ice, with three-fifths of the land area glaciated and only one-tenth with any kind of vegetation – tiny, tenacious flowers and lichen that flourish during what passes for summer at these latitudes. The remainder is rock.
Not surprisingly, man has had only a short, tentative relationship with Spitsbergen. The island was named by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, who passed by while in search of the North-East Passage to the Pacific in 1596. "Nothing more than mountains and pointed peaks," he wrote. "Therefore we called it Spitsbergen."
By the early 17th century, Dutch, Basque and Danish adventurers had begun whaling. Relics of the bloody trade are still scattered around the shorelines. Whalebones litter the shore at Smeerenburg (which translates as "blubber town") on Amsterdam Island in the extreme north-west.
Within a couple of centuries, the whale stocks had been almost wiped out and attention switched to mineral wealth. John Munro Longyear, founder of the Arctic Coal Company, gave his name to the capital, Longyearbyen.
From Friday, Longyearbyen – and the rest of the Svalbard islands – will become easier to reach. The low-cost airline Norwegian (020-8099 7254; norwegian.no) starts flying non-stop between Oslo and the airport on the outskirts of the capital. By April, the summer schedules will bring Spitsbergen within six hours of Gatwick, with fares as low as £352. Scandinavian Airlines (020-8990 7000; flysas.com) is responding fiercely with fares as low as £344 in April from Heathrow.
You may not want to be there right now. The sun rose in Longyearbyen at 10.20am last Saturday, ending the bitter Arctic night that began at sunset just after noon on 26 October last year. For the next couple of months, there is something resembling the customary diurnal cycle. But from mid-April through to late August, the sun will not set on the strange empire of Svalbard.
The archipelago is the ultimate no-through-road location, with just one main highway (really an extended cul-de-sac) running for about five miles inland from the airport via the centre of Longyearbyen to the edge of nowhere. Any trip beyond can be undertaken only in the presence of armed guards, because of the risk of attack by polar bear. Given the terrain, a voyage aboard an expedition ship is the obvious way to see the archipelago. These are not your typical cruise ships, but state-of-the-art, small ice-rated vessels. Cruises provide home comforts, G&Ts cooled by 40,000-year-old glacier ice and 360-degree views of magnificent landscapes. They also offer a range of fascinating landing excursions (patrolled by the requisite riflemen). Beach landings are mainly carried out in "Zodiacs", rigid inflatable boats.
Exodus, an experienced operator in Spitsbergen, warns participants: "On the shore, the majority of landings are 'wet', which means that the Zodiacs beach and you are helped to slide into the ankle-deep shore break before walking up on to dry land. There are, of course, no paths, so be prepared for slippery, rough terrain and sometimes fairly deep snow." There are strict rules about human incursions, given the fragility of the environment.
The extreme logistical requirements, strong demand and limited supply of Svalbard holidays mean that prices are high. Hurtigruten (the Norwegian state-owned coastal ferry company; 0844 272 8961; hurtigruten.co.uk) offers a one-week cruise entitled "In the Realm of the Polar Bear". It is available on 14, 21 or 28 August for £3,117 – with a hefty single supplement of £2,444. Flights are extra (and likely to cost about £500 return at that time of year). But all meals, excursions and a night in a Longyearbyen hotel (plus "city tour") are included in the price.
The outdoor clothing you will need for Zodiac expeditions is provided on board – but you should also pack plenty of warm, waterproof kit. This part of the planet is at the wrong end of the thermometer. Even in the height of summer, daily highs rarely climb much above freezing. You can get more detailed information from the definitive travel guide, the Bradt Guide to Spitsbergen (£16.99) by Andreas Umbreit.
On the map, Svalbard might look like a nowhere land. On the ground, and from the water, the archipelago is a natural wonder. The combination of accessible wilderness and perpetual daylight (at least until mid-August) makes it a destination that is guaranteed to amaze. And it is a modern miracle that the end of the world is now so accessible.
Life in a northern town
About two-thirds of Spitsbergen's population live in Longyearbyen – a settlement that feels like a forlorn, windswept village. But its extreme location, plus a first-rate museum, make it a fascinating place to stay. The Trapper's Hotel, run by the Basecamp organisation (00 47 79 02 46 00; basecampspitsbergen.com) is constructed partly with driftwood, sealskin and old mine machinery. From mid‑May to late September, a double room with breakfast costs Nkr2,050 (£241). The Svalbard Museum (00 47 79 02 64 92; svalbardmuseum.no) tells a compelling story of human frailty in the face of raw nature. It opens daily from noon to 5pm, Nkr75 (£9).
Many Norwegians prefer to visit Spitsbergen in March, when even though temperatures are well below freezing, there's still more than 12 hours of light each day – as well as the enticing prospect of seeing the Northern Lights at night.
Cross-country skiing is popular, as is (perhaps surprisingly) camping. Basecamp Spitsbergen (00 47 79 02 46 00; basecampspitsbergen.com) can organise activities such as hiking, climbing and husky sledging. The firm's newest facility is Basecamp Nordenskiold, an "expedition cabin" at the foot of the Nordenskiold glacier without running water or electricity – but with amazing views.
Eighty degrees north is just the place to have a whale of a time, with the beluga one of many wildlife attractions. Expedition ships seek out walrus in lazy abundance in the sanctuary off Moffen Island in the far north, as well as Arctic fox, reindeer, prolific birdlife such as Arctic terns and Brünnich's guillemots and, especially, Ursus maritimus – the polar bear.
No cruise itinerary is fixed, but besides the main island of Spitsbergen, calls are likely to be made on the second island, Nordaustlandet, and smaller outlying isles. The exact course is decided by expedition staff and the captain, and depends on the weather, the prevalence and density of sea ice, and reports of wildlife behaviour.
Exodus (0845 330 6013; exodus.co.uk) runs a "Spitsbergen in Depth" trip, aboard the Finnish-built, Russian-operated ship Vavilov. It simply promises: "Start: Longyearbyen. Day 2‑12: Exploring Spitsbergen and the Svalbard archipelago. Day 13: Disembark and end in Longyearbyen." The trip is led by Paul Goldstein, one of Britain's foremost wildlife photographers. Such is the demand (priced £3,650, excluding flights) that the only departure this year, on 15 July, is "on request". Exodus has other Svalbard trips on offer.
The Russian link
Almost as many permanent residents of Spitsbergen are either Russian or Ukrainian as Norwegian, a legacy of the Soviet-run mining operation in the old Dutch settlement of Barentsburg. The town has been hit by mining disasters, Second World War attacks by both sides and a 1996 plane crash that killed 141. But it is also a fascinating outpost and home to the world's most northerly diplomatic mission, in the shape of the Russian consulate.
Svalbard plus ...
The journey to Svalbard passes many enticing northern locations. By air, you will inevitably travel through Oslo, and it is well worth building in a 48-hour stopover. (See bit.ly/Oslo48 for our city feature.) Several cruises offer added extras – such as the itinerary aboard MS Expedition offered by Explore. The 15-day trip starts at Leith and continues via Orkney, Shetland, Bergen, Alesund, the Lofoten Islands and Tromso to Svalbard. Prices start at about £3,000, excluding flights.
Hurtigruten offers an annual "Climate Voyage", which starts in Reykjavik and takes in the remote Jan Mayen Island as an appetiser to Svalbard. The eight-day cruise includes talks on man's impact on the far north.
The price starts at £2,876, excluding international flights. But this summer's has already sold out – bookings are now being taken for the 17 July 2014 departure.
The natural world still dominates in Spitsbergen, where mankind has only a tiny foothold. The main risk on land is an attack by a polar bear; at sea, the concerns are the usual maritime hazards, and falling ill so far from large-scale medical facilities.
Polar bears are the only animal species that will actively hunt humans. In August 2011, a polar bear attacked a party of British schoolchildren who were camping some 25 miles north-east of Longyearbyen; a 17‑year-old student was killed and four other expedition members were hurt before the bear was shot dead.
The governor of Svalbard warns: "If you are going out for a trip alone and plan to go beyond Administrative Sector 10 [the central parts of Spitsbergen], you must report your planned trip. You will also be required to take out search-and-rescue insurance."
The leading tourism operators say they comply with all the rules, and take every precaution to ensure their guests' safety.
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