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Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Overview
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. The region 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 is now 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 they assumed official oversight in 1925, changing the archipelago's name to Svalbard in the '20's. Since the turn of the century, Svalbard has achieved a measure of local rule, administered by a locally elected Longyearbyen County Council.
Longyearbyen (population: nearly 2,000) 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 April 19 to August 23.
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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-shirt, mug, 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.
A local artist, Aino Grib, draws and paints Svalbard landscapes and animals that are available as originals and prints at her Atelier Aino. The Radisson BLU Polar Hotel has a decent gift shop. The Lompensenteret (a small mall) in the town center has Gullgruva for Svalbard-designed jewelry, clothing and souvenirs, and RaBi's Bua offers mostly clothing.
The official language is Norwegian, but most Norwegians -- and certainly those with whom you will be in contact at Longyearbyen -- speak very good English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
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 Sparebank next to the post office in Longyearbyen. For up-to-date conversion rates, go to www.xe.com.
Where You're Docked
Longyearbyen has two uncovered piers, one for large and small ships and the other for small expedition-style ships. If there is more than one large ship in port, one will have to anchor off with a very short launch transfer. Both piers are within reasonable walking distance of the center of Longyearbyen, though buses will likely provide a shuttle service.
There are no facilities at the piers, as the town is very close.
If you do not wish to walk from the pier into town, you can take a bus shuttle, tour bus or taxi. Most places, once in town, are reachable on foot. There is no local transit and 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 dog sled 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.
Watch Out For
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.
Svalbard Museum: This modern museum, opened in its present location in December 2005, offers an introductory window into Svalbard history and present-day conditions, the 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. and when cruise ships are in town. It's located at the Svalbard Science Center, just steps from the Radisson BLU Polar Hotel Spitsbergen.
Spitsbergen Airship Museum: Housed up the slope from the center of Longyearbyen in the former Svalbard Museum site near the church, the Airship Museum features exhibits related to the airships that set out from there 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 sizeable 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 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., but the museum will offer extended hours when a cruise ship is in. There is a combined admission ticket with the Svalbard Museum.
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 and are offered free coffee and tea in the church's lounge. Services are held on Sundays at 11 a.m. and Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m.
Been There, Done That
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.
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 there 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.
Brasserie Nansen is the Radisson BLU Polar Hotel's restaurant, and its well-regarded a la carte menu (for lunch and dinner) 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. A more informal eatery is the hotel's Barents Pub & Spiseri for hamburgers, steaks, pizza and baguette-type sandwiches.
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.
Lompensenteret shopping mall offers Kafe Busen for moderately priced lunches and dinners. The restaurant serves up Norwegian cuisine in large portions. For a quick snack meal, try the Classic Pizza.
Radisson BLU Polar Hotel Spitsbergen is the leading hotel, built in 1995, with the most convenient location for the Svalbard Museum and local shopping. The ships' tour buses and shuttles usually let their passengers off there, and they often arrange a meal between the cruise and flight to or from mainland Norway. Superior rooms have views of Isfjord and the mountains.
The Spitsbergen Hotel, built in 1947 for the mining company, was completely renovated in 2000 to meet international standards with 88 rooms (including 16 superior rooms and five suites). Situated on a hill, it has views of the town, the Adventfjord and Longyear Glacier. The hotel is decorated with historic photographs.
The Spitsbergen Guesthouse was originally built to house miners and now offers 75 inexpensive single-, double- and triple-bed rooms with nearby bathroom and kitchen facilities, a TV room and laundry. Breakfast is served in the old mess hall. It is well-located on the hill overlooking town.
Staying in Touch
The library in Longyearbyen has Wi-Fi and computer terminals with Internet connections, as do the two principal hotels.
Shore excursions for large cruise ships are generally not offered in Svalbard. Instead, if a ship calls at Longyearbyen, Ny Alesund (research station) or Barentsburg (Russian mining town), passengers are free to visit the local museums and shops on their own. Passengers also enjoy sightseeing from the ship's decks during scenic cruising in the area.
Expedition ships with 150 passengers or fewer land passengers where they are safe from polar bears and dangers from ice and snow. Cruisers can go for hikes on the tundra to seek out the flora, ring-neck and bearded seals, walruses, reindeer, birds and remnants left by whalers and trappers. Often, the hikes are divided by category of difficulty, and they generally last one to two hours.
For More Information
On the Web: www.svalbard.net
Tourist information: +47 79 02 55 50, email@example.com
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--By Theodore W. Scull, a New York City travel writer with more than five years at sea on cruise and expedition ships, ocean liners, cargo vessels, cruise ferries, barges and river boats.