Longyearbyen, the world’s northern most town, touches 82 degrees well north of the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees. It is a part of Svalbard, an archipelago that lies between Norway and the North Pole. Unlike the Tundra (region), there wasn’t a midge, tree or a bush in sight here. All that grows there in the summer months are moss and grass and tiny flowers that reach a height of six inches. In earlier centuries, hardy trappers and coal miners made the journey here, but now, travellers, photographers and wildlife aficionados come to Longyearbyen, a key launch point for Arctic cruises.
As we explored Spitsbergen (the largest island in the archipelago) via day cruises, treks and dog sledding, we found its rugged beauty overpowering with deep fjords, naked mountains cradling ancient glaciers and vertical tongues of ice. In mid July, the marine wildlife had gathered in profusion, and we spotted reindeer, foxes and ptarmigans on hikes. The greatest lure was the polar bear, and from the prow of our small ship we were thrilled to spot a magnificent mother and two adorable cubs walking about on a rocky hillock. The residents on the isles, I’m told, are far outnumbered by bears.
The main town in Spitsbergen, Longyearbyen, was pocket-sized and suffused with charm. It exuded a welcoming feel as we pulled into the harbour. Small wooden houses, painted in pleasing colours, were beautifully detailed on all sides. Reindeer horns decorated many entrances, skis hung on the front porch and skidoos stood outside, a reminder of the long winter months when the mode of transport is the snowmobile.
Although remote and serenely quiet, a handful of the town’s restaurants had a surprisingly lively atmosphere and the midnight sun cast a bewitching glow late into the night as we strolled around, making it hard for us to tear away and turn in.
Guns are mandatory
When scientists, researchers, teachers, miners or anyone else moves to Longyearbyen, the first thing they’re taught is how to use a gun in case of a polar bear encounter. Toting a gun is mandatory in these parts. School teachers too carry them when they take the kids out to play. Guns are a part of local décor and they feature on walls and in photos of hunters and adventurers. Fortunately, crime is pretty much non-existent other than a rare drunken brawl, and so far they haven’t felt the need for a police station. Interestingly, giving birth or dying here is not an option, and anyone proposing to do either is packed off to mainland Norway.
Reindeer, whale, seal and arctic fish featured aplenty on menus but basic vegetables were a rare luxury. I’d imagine a bouquet of fresh broccoli would be a welcome gift. We left the land of sharp edged mountains hoping to experience it again in the frozen springtime when the cognoscenti arrive from across Scandinavia.
How to get there: Fly to Oslo, Norway’s capital, then take a direct flight (or indirect via Tromso) to Longyearbyen.
Best time to go: May to July for the midnight sun, hiking, sailing and bearable temperatures (average +7degrees C). In March and April for snow- covered scenery and skidoo rides across the land.
Summer Activities: Book day cruises to Pyramiden and Barentsburg, dog sledding and treks. You can also plan exciting expeditions with specialist guides. One to two week-long cruises can also be booked.
Where to stay: Basecamp Trapper’s Lodge is the most atmospheric lodge with a Nordic feel.Radisson Blu- basic accommodation with a good dining experience. Svalbard Hotel — affordable style.
Eat at: Kroa, buzzing and charm infused, serves Nordic cuisine and is the most popular restaurant on the island. Huset for fine dining, Mary Anne Riggins for Thai cuisine.
Bars — Barentz Pub and Svalbard.