Svalbard is the official Norwegian name for the island archipelago located 600 miles north of Norway's North Cape, but most of the outside world knows the place as Spitsbergen, which is, in fact, the name for the largest island in the chain. Svalbard attracts a considerable number of visitors in the height of summer. They come for the scenic mountain wilderness of ice and snow that is home to a great variety of wildlife on land, in the sea and often in the air.
The islands were named Spitsbergen ("sharp-pointed mountains") by a Norwegian, Wilhelm Barentz, in 1596 and were soon after visited in 1605 by Henry Hudson, who reported an abundance of whales. A whaling industry established by the Dutch, English, Norwegians and Russians began almost immediately and expanded to include the trapping of walruses and seals. Today, only Norway engages in whaling in these waters.
The islands also became a base for polar research, as they lie halfway between the top of Norway and the North Pole. A number of expeditions by sea and early 20th-century airship flights left from Spitsbergen. In 1906, an American entrepreneur named John Monro Longyear established a coal-mining industry there, and he named what would become the island capital, Longyear City (now officially Longyearbyen). Norwegian and Russian interests also established mining claims, and the Russians still operate a mine at Barentsburg.
At the Treaty of Versailles, Norway was handed administrative rights to Spitsbergen, and it assumed official oversight in 1925, changing the archipelago's name to Svalbard in the 1920s. Since the turn of the century, Svalbard has achieved a measure of local rule, administered by a locally elected Longyearbyen County Council.
Longyearbyen (population: 2,200) replaced mining with tourism as the primary industry when regular air service was established in 1975. The town then transformed itself from a rough mining center to the attractive, colorful, small frontier town we see today, with many families settling there to engage in tourism, research and government services. Evidence -- some picturesque -- of now-abandoned coal mining facilities is still extant in a perimeter around the capital.
Sixty percent of the islands are designated as national parks or nature reserves, and the landscape and wildlife are protected. The most numerous species of wildlife seen are polar bears, Arctic foxes, Svalbard reindeer, walruses, bearded and ringed seals, fin and blue whales, little auks, kittiwakes, fulmars and a variety of wading birds. The landscapes of mountains, fjords, glaciers, snow, sea ice and tundra are breathtaking.
Two kinds of cruise ship passengers visit the islands in summer. Those who arrive by large cruise liners on long voyages often make a single call at one of the three permanent settlements -- Longyearbyen, Ny-Alesund (a research station) or Barentsburg (a Russian mining camp) -- and then cruise the fjords and coastline without landing. Expedition cruise travelers arrive in small purpose-built ships and use Zodiacs to get close to the glaciers and wildlife or for hikes across the tundra. Some expedition vessels are based at Longyearbyen for all or part of the summer tourist season (June through August), while others embark passengers in mainland European ports.
The eastern side of Svalbard experiences far more heavy ice conditions; hence, most cruise and expedition ships concentrate on the west side's coastline and fjords. The summer climate, when most tourists visit, is quite mild for an area so far north, with daytime temperatures often above freezing and possibly rising to just above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Rainfall is low, but summer months may experience fog. The midnight sun lasts from mid-April to mid-August.
There are no facilities at the piers, as the town is very close.
Svalbard Museum: This modern museum, opened in its present location in April 2006, offers an introductory window into Svalbard history and present-day conditions, as well as its tundra, fauna and wildlife. Separate sections focus on early exploration of Svalbard and the North Pole, the whaling industry, the hunting and trapping eras and mining (which is still extant at the Russian settlement of Barentsburg). Exhibits include photographs, drawings, maps and artifacts. The museum shop sells attractive souvenirs with Svalbard themes, plus jewelry, fossils, books, drawings, maps, photographs and postcards. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's located at the Svalbard Science Center, just steps from the Radisson BLU Polar Hotel Spitsbergen. (Postboks 521; 47 79 02 64 92)
North Pole Expedition Museum: This museum, formerly known as the Spitsbergen Airship Museum, is now located just behind the university near the fjord. Here you'll find exhibits related to the airships that set out from Svalbard to reach the North Pole in the early years of the 20th century: the America in 1907/1909, Norge in 1926 and Italia in 1928. The museum, which opened in 2008, exhibits photographs, drawings, maps, books, articles about the era and a sizable set of stamps that feature airships and their exploits. Most interesting are models of airships, planes and ships. The museum also screens films, such as documentaries on airships, on demand. Opening hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but the museum offers extended hours when a cruise ship is in. (Postboks 644; 47 91 38 34 67)
Svalbard Kirke: The slim wooden church tower with a red base rising from a sharply peaked roof is visible on a slope above town from just about anywhere in Longyearbyen. The church was built in 1958, replacing one destroyed during World War II. Visitors are welcome to enter at any time and are offered free coffee and tea (and complimentary Wi-Fi) in the church's lounge. Services are held on Sundays at 11 a.m. and Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. (Postboks 533; 47 79 02 55 60)
Galleri Svalbard: This small gallery is a bit of a walk from the center of town, but it's worth it if you're interested in local photography, art and crafts. There's also an interesting collection of historical Svalbard maps. It's open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gallery is located at the southern end of town near the Coal Miners' Bar & Grill and Guesthouse 102. (Postboks 350; 47 79 02 23 40)
Local Life: As many expedition-style cruises depart from Longyearbyen and then return, some visitors will have both pre- and post-cruise stays there. Once the museums have been seen, it's nice to walk up the main street to get a glimpse of local life at buildings like the post office, bank, shops, schools, sports center, playgrounds and the rows of colorfully painted houses in shades of red, mustard, light and dark green, blue and tan. When mining ceased, the town found a new lease on life with tourism. That brought many families to the area for the first time, providing an incentive to improve services for the local population.
On Foot: It's a short walk into town, and most places there are reachable on foot.
By Shuttle, Bus or Taxi: If you do not wish to walk from the pier into town, you can take a bus shuttle, tour bus or taxi. Once you're in town, most places are walkable.
By Bike: You can also borrow a bike for free from the tourist office in the center of town (47 79 02 55 50).
There is no local transit, and there are only 30 miles of roads. No roads lead from Longyearbyen to any of the other settlements, such as Barentsburg and Ny-Alesund. Travel to these destinations is by plane or boat in summer and snowmobile and dogsled in winter. In summer, the dogs are kept in an open kennel compound at the edge of town.
If you're taking an expedition cruise that departs from Longyearbyen, you can find flights from Tromso and Oslo (Bergen) in mainland Norway. A bus transfer is provided between the airport and hotels or guesthouses.
Food in Svalbard is expensive, and the best restaurants are in the main hotels. If you want to save money, try some of the smaller restaurants that do not cater exclusively to tourists; they may be a better value or at least a bit cheaper. The food served here appeals to the international clientele that visits the town, with a slant toward Norwegian cuisine, including fish, marinated seafood and meat. Specialties include reindeer and seal, and vegetarian meals are not easy to find. Fresh berries are a summertime treat.
Restaurant Nansen is the Radisson BLU Polar Hotel's restaurant, and its well-regarded a la carte menu offers such local entrees as reindeer, seal and whale steaks, and Arctic char (a fish). The room seats about 100 and has views out to the Isfjord and a backdrop of mountains through floor-to-ceiling windows. (Vei 500; 47 79 02 34 57; open 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. for breakfast and noon to 10:30 p.m. for lunch and dinner)
Barents Pub & Spiseri: A less formal eatery is Radisson BLU Polar Hotel's Barents Pub & Spiseri for hamburgers, steaks, pizza and baguette-type sandwiches. (Vei 500; 47 79 02 34 66; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Funktionaermessen: The Spitsbergen Hotel has its own French-flavored restaurant called the Funktionaermessen, which boasts a decent wine list and a very good reputation. Opened in 2000, the 100-seat dining room looks over the town and the Isfjord. The bar serves great club sandwiches. It's only open for dinner (6 to 11 p.m.), making it a good option for passengers who are staying a night pre- or post-cruise. (Postboks 500; 47 79 02 62 00)
Kroa: Located in the center of town next to Basecamp Spitsbergen, this place offers soups, sandwiches and pizza (including some interesting toppings -- beef, jalapeno, corn and red pepper, anyone?) in a laid-back setting. (Postboks 150; 47 79 02 13 00; open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Sushi Kita: The centrally located Lompen Senteret shopping mall offers Sushi Kita, which claims to be the world's northernmost sushi restaurant. (47 41 59 15 28; lunch served Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
Taste of Thai: This venue might not be overly authentic, but it isn't bad for a quick meal. (47 95 40 96 81; open from 11 a.m. on weekdays and from noon on Saturdays)
Longyearbyen has three uncovered piers. If there is more than one large vessel in port, one will have to anchor off with a very short launch transfer. Two of the three piers are within reasonable walking distance of the center of Longyearbyen, but buses will likely provide a shuttle service from any of the three.
No one should go beyond the edge of town because of real danger from polar bears. If you venture out of Longyearbyen by any means of transportation or on foot, you must be accompanied by someone who knows how to use a rifle. That rule is simply a given, and there are no exceptions. When you do walk around town, you may come upon small Svalbard reindeer, as they often come into the edge of the settlement to graze.
Currency is the Norwegian Kroner (NOK), but the shops in Longyearbyen will also accept euros. Major credit cards are fine, and there are ATM machines at the Spare Bank next to the post office in Longyearbyen. For up-to-date conversion rates, go to www.xe.com.
The official language is Norwegian, but most Norwegians -- and certainly those with whom you will be in contact at Longyearbyen -- speak very good English.
Norwegian-made goods include colorful knitwear (scarves, caps and sweaters), sealskin items, jewelry and art in the form of watercolors, oils and drawings. The polar bear is the top attraction in Svalbard, so anything that features one -- T-shirts, mugs, glassware, cloth napkins, pot holders and even zipper pulls -- makes a great gift. Generally, purchases are free of VAT and import duty, so some items may be cheaper than in mainland Norway.
The Radisson BLU Polar Hotel (Vei 500, 47 79 02 34 50) has a decent gift shop. The Lompen Senteret (a small mall) in the town center has Gullgruva (47 79 02 18 16, Monday - Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) for Svalbard-designed jewelry, clothing and souvenirs, as well as Arctica (Postboks 355, 47 79 02 11 22, Monday - Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) for winter clothing and gear. RaBi's Bua (Postboks 385, 47 79 02 10 48), located on the main drag in town, is another good spot for clothes; it's open Monday - Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday noon to 3 p.m.