The vast snowy and rugged landscapes of Spitzbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway, is the stuff of Arctic dreams. Most visitors head here to experience life at the northern extreme, soak up a magnificent visual feast and, of course, meet the unique wildlife that thrives this far north. Primarily, however, visitors head to Spitsbergen because it is from its main settlement, Longyearbyen, that Arctic expeditions set off during the summer months.
Cruising the Arctic in summer gifts you the highest chances of wildlife spotting and gets you further north than you ever could get, on land. Aside from cruising, Spitzbergen offers a wealth of highlights for adventure-seekers and history lovers alike, so if you’re looking for a reason to visit Spitzbergen, you’ll find a multitude of them.
Why should you visit Spitzbergen, you ask?
Just look at all the amazing things you can do here!
Join a world-class Arctic expedition
State-of-the-art expedition ships are specially-built and equipped to deal with the harsh conditions of the Arctic. They offer unrivalled comforts and luxuries in what is a spellbinding yet insanely harsh environment. On an expedition cruise to the far north, you’ll feel like an old-world explorer, heading out on Zodiacs most days to admire amazing ice formations and get close-up photos of wildlife. Arctic expedition ships are quite extraordinary, most boasting libraries and lecture halls, lounge and bars, panoramic viewing rooms and outdoor sightseeing decks, as well as fitness centres and even Jacuzzis and sauna! You’ll probably be told how ‘difficult’ life is for people this far north but you may have a hard time believing that when you’re soaking your wearing bones in a steaming whirlpool at the end of an exciting day on land.
This is as good as life on Spitzbergen as it can ever be.
You can see Polar Bears surfing on ice
Spitzbergen has a lot to offer intrepid adventurers but let’s get real: the biggest reason everyone wants to visit is that this is the best place in the world to spot Polar Bears going about their business. The archipelago is famously home to more Polar Bears than people although your chances of seeing them on land in summer are actually quite low. As ice melts, Polar Bears tend to move further north and northeast, chasing seals as they too migrate north in search of pack-ice. Aside from the steaming whirlpool, having excellent chances of spotting Polar Bears is the main enticement of Arctic expedition cruises, as they get you further north and into the jagged fjords most wildlife retreats to during the summer. Moreover, do note that the endangered bear is fervently protected in Spitzbergen, so there are no ‘polar bear sighting land excursions’ as such, which is inarguably a good thing considering Polar Bears are endangered but they’re also aggressively predatory.
When visiting Spitzbergen for Polar Bear sightings, your best (and safest) chance is on an Arctic expedition cruise during the short summer season, in July and August, primarily.
You’ll be enthralled by all the Arctic wildlife
Unlike Antarctica which is devoid of large terrestrial wildlife (one of the many differences between the Arctic and Antarctica) the Arctic Spitzbergen archipelago is home to a number of unique land animals like the Polar Bear as well as the Arctic fox, the Svalbard Reindeer and the Southern Vole, an oversized toothy rodent. What is truly abounding in this archipelago is the array of marine mammals, which make Arctic expedition cruises even more appealing. Over 20 distinct species are found swimming in these frigid but nutrient-rich waters, including walruses, dolphins, several species of seals and plenty of migrating whales. Bird-lovers will also have a field day here as Spitzbergen attracts thousands of migratory birds during the northern summer.
You can retrace the steps of historic Arctic exploration
Spitzbergen is the last frontier before the North Pole and this was the main base for Arctic exploration during the 16th century, after the archipelago was first discovered by Dutch explorer Wilen Barents. The history of Spitzbergen has been closely linked to the exploitation of natural resources and the island has been famously home to several foreign-run mining towns, like the now-defunct Pyramiden, a Soviet town, which you can visit on excursions from Longyearbyen. These are very fascinating places for history-lovers to visit, as is the Svalbard Museum (without a doubt the first place you should visit in town to get an enlightening overview of Spitzbergen’s history) and the North Pole Museum, a small but fantastic ode to the historic explorers who ventured further north than ever before. Leave yourself a few hours for this latter museum as the exhibits are substantial. If you’re a history buff, you’ll no doubt be captivated no end.
You can go totally snow-crazy!
The wonderful thing about an inhabited place this far north is that you get all the snow you could ever dream coupled with a host of exceptional organised outdoor activities. In Spitzbergen, you can go hiking (atop mountains, ice caves and glaciers), camping, dog-sledding, bike riding (with extra fat tyres), fossil hunting tours and snow-mobile riding, as well as Midnight Sun kayaking just off the coast of the main island. All outdoor activities are regulated and most are on offer either in winter or in summer. Spitzbergen is a glorious snowy playground and if you’re into the more adventurous side of life, you’ll find plenty of chances for adrenalin-pumping fun. Given the fact that all outdoor activities occur outside of the main settlement, all tours are fully guided, lest you actually run into a Polar Bear!
You can soak up the sun 24hrs a day…
The Land of the Midnight Sun is an ethereal place to visit in summer, especially during the few weeks where the sun never sets. This unique experience may seem familiar to those who’ve cruised Antarctica during its summer season, yet it still never fails to mesmerize.
…or not at all!
Travel to Spitzbergen in winter and you won’t see the sun at all although you may be rewarded with sightings of the Northern Lights instead. The best chances to see the dancing light show occurs at the tail end of the Arctic cruising season, in September, when pack ice has yet to fully close up channels. For very special and more rewarding Northern Lights sighting, however, we recommend cruises to Greenland departing from Reykjavík in Iceland. Svalbard is a little too far north to see the lights in all their glory.
You’ll experience life in the far, far, faaaar north
Longyearbyen is unlike any other city you’ll ever visit although calling it a ‘city’ is a bit of a stretch. This may be the best springboard for Arctic expeditions yet don’t be fooled into just overnighting here: this is a captivating place to explore for a few days. Aside from the historic sights, museums and outdoor excursions, you’ll find a host of facilities here, in a place you won’t believe operates 12 months of the year. This is the northernmost settlement on earth, a place inhabited by hardy folks who seem to get on with their life like snow, ice, freezing temps and all-day darkness are totally normal. Everyday life in Longyearbyen is fascinating to outsiders, everything about it seems utterly surreal. The juxtaposition is arresting: there’s a kindergarten here and a high school, a cinema, sporting complex, cultural centre as well as a pub, hotel, fast-food outlets, a range of great shops and a well-serviced hospital. People carry firearms when they leave town and leave their doors unlocked in winter for faster getaways in case a Polar Bear breaks in. Travel to Spitzbergen in winter and you may be surprised to find a host of social activities. This is a small knit and well-organised community who makes things happen, most especially in winter when fewer tourists visit.
Spitsbergen is a fascinating, enthralling and magnificent Arctic destination, one that’s easy to reach and rather impossible to forget. If you’d love to know more about Spitzbergen Arctic expeditions contact us today.
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Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”