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.