LAST RESORT; Spitsbergen

The nearest human habitation to the North Pole, the Svalbard islands have belonged to Norway since 1925. Other countries, though, have exploited the mineral reserves here: the Russians, in particular, have mined coal in the islands since 1932. But with the end of the Cold War, both the Norwegian and Russian mining communities are having to face up to the prospect of life without state subsidies. The Norwegians are now marketing Svalbard as a holiday and conference centre.

It is a 90-minute flight from Tromso in northern Norway to Spitsbergen, the biggest of the islands. Circling over it in an aeroplane, a mosaic of ice sparkles beneath you, broken by a range of snow-white mountains. Go there any time between mid-April to August and you arrive in brilliant sunshine, even at midnight.

At the airport, loudspeaker announcements warn of the dangers of polar bears and signs in Russian, Norwegian and English tell you to "Protect yourself. Svalbard is spectacularly beautiful. It is also harsh and unforgiving". This year there has been an exceptionally high sighting of bears and visitors are advised to carry guns if they go outside the main town, Longyearbyen, which has the feel of a frontier settlement.

There are more snow scooters in Longyearbyen than people. Two-thirds of Svalbard is covered by glaciers and there are only 45 kilometres of road. Snow scooter, dog sleigh and helicopter are the authorised forms of transport.

There are five main tour operators in Svalbard offering a variety of Arctic experiences from polar cruises, skiing in the North Pole Rim, bird watching in the Bjorndal Valley or a tour to Magdalen fiord, where you can see the burial pits from the old whaling days and look at some of the 165 species of Arctic plant on the islands. The best times to go are either March-May for winter sports or July-August when the ice has melted and cruise ships can navigate the coastline.

Apart from the expeditions, you can easily spend a few very interesting days in Longyearbyen itself - going down one of the working mines or visiting the art gallery and museum. Accommodation ranges from a youth hostel (cheapest bed price pounds 15) to the elegant Polar Hotel which opened in March this year and costs between pounds 110 and pounds 170 for a double room.

If you want to see a rather different lifestyle, you can go to one of the two Russian mining communities in Barentsburg or Pyramiden. Barentsburg is a few hours by snow scooter from Longyearbyen. Technically it is under Norwegian control, but apart from the post boxes and road signs, everything is in Russian and when you arrive you are immediately greeted by Russians in fur hats wanting to sell you Russian matrioshka (the traditional dolls) and shawls. The 35-bed hotel is clean but the whole town has rather a desolate air as the population has been reduced by 30 per cent in the past year to cut the costs of the mining industry.

The Scandinavian airline SAS (0345 010789) operates to Longyearbyen in Svalbard from London and Manchester via Oslo and Tromso, for a fare of pounds 478 including tax.

News
people And here is why...
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Service Charge Accountant

    30,000 to 35,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: We are currently recruiting on...

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?