Svalbard is the Arctic North as you always dreamed it existed. This wondrous archipelago is a land of dramatic snow-drowned peaks and glaciers, of vast icefields and forbidding icebergs, an elemental place where the seemingly endless Arctic night and the perpetual sunlight of summer carry a deeper kind of magic. One of Europe’s last great wildernesses, this is also the domain of more polar bears than people, a terrain rich in epic legends of polar exploration.
Svalbard’s main settlement and entry point, scruffy Longyearbyen, is merely a taste of what lies beyond and the possibilities for exploring further are many: boat trips, glacier hikes, and expeditions by snowmobile or led by a team of huskies. Whichever you choose, coming here is like crossing some remote frontier of the mind: Svalbard is as close as most mortals can get to the North Pole and still capture its spirit.
In addition to a few thousand polar bears, the islands are home to almost 3,000 human inhabitants, over 2,000 of which live in Longyearbyen, the administrative centre and largest settlement of the islands. This small and colourful community has gone from a typical village town to a modern community with different kinds of businesses and industries, and with a surprisingly wide range of cultural activities and opportunities, such as concerts, shows, festivals and exhibitions.
Longyearbyen has a couple of museums and the world’s northernmost church. The Soviet-era settlements of Barentsburg, still running fitfully, and Pyramiden, abandoned in the 1990s, make offbeat attractions, being home to (among other things) the world’s two northernmost Lenin statues. Both can be visited by cruise or snowmobile from Longyearbyen.
Festivals in Svalbard
Polar Jazz: End of January. 4-5 day jazz, blues, and bluegrass festival.
Sunfest Week: Around March 8th. A celebration of the end of the polar night.
Dark Season Blues: Blues festival in end of October. An appropriately blues-themed way to mark the approach of winter.
KunstPause Svalbard: Around 14 November. An arts festival timed to match the beginning of the polar night.
Food and Drink
Arctic food is served at a wide range of places to eat and drink of higher standards than you might expect from a small community, among them the world’s northernmost sushi restaurant. Svalbard also has a local beer brewery.
There are only about 46 kilometres of road on the Svalbard Islands. Driving off-road is strictly prohibited. There are no roads between the various settlements. Instead, locals use boats in summer and snowmobiles in winter. Snowmobiles can be rented in Longyearbyen.
Svalbard has a unique visa policy – everybody may live and work in Svalbard indefinitely regardless of country of citizenship. Realistically though, getting in is expensive and time-consuming; it’s nearly impossible to arrive in Svalbard without a stopover in Norway. Although Svalbard is a part of Norway, it has a separate border (mainland Norway is part of the Schengen area, whereas Svalbard is not). This means if you are taking a nonstop flight from Oslo to Svalbard, you do not need to pass through Norwegian immigration, and only need a visa if airside transit requires it for your nationality.
Jan Mayen Islands
This desolate, mountainous volcanic island was named after a Dutch whaling captain who supposedly dicovered it in 1614 (though earlier claims have been reported). It was visited only occasionally by seal hunters and trappers over the following centuries, and the island came under Norwegian sovereignty in 1929.
For many years no one was allowed to visit the island, but recently the tiny island has become available to tourists and a Jan Mayen cruise has found growing interest. As it is a territory of Norway, visitors need a passport to set foot on the island, and must keep in mind a few basic rules. As the environment is extremely fragile, no souvenirs—in the form of flowers, moss, or fungi—may be gathered. Permission to climb Beerenberg while on a tour of Jan Mayen must be requested from the Station Commander, as the glaciers are dangerous and often deeply crevassed.
Cruising in Jan Mayen Islands:
Travelers on a Jan Mayen cruise will be in awe of the austere landscape—from the majestic slopes of Beerenberg to the curving, rocky coasts. In the summer, bright green moss spreads in a blanket across the land, and small wildflowers, lichens, and fungi also attract the eye. Jan Mayen is home to many birds, from the albatross-like fulmar to the black-and-white puffin. Harp seals and various species of whale can also be seen swimming in the chilly waters.
Wildlife on Jan Mayen Islands
Jan Mayen has no indigenous mammals, but the island is home to many birds. Both the novice and the experienced birder will be delighted at the birding opportunities during their Jan Mayen cruise. Ninety-eight bird species have been documented by the personnel living at the weather station, though only 22 species have a significant presence. Some of these include the fulmar (a relative of the albatross), the striking black-and-white polar guillemot, the tiny puffin, and the eider duck.
Harp seals and many species of whale—including humpback and Minke—can be spotted during a trip to Jan Mayen. And occasionally even a polar bear will make its way to the island, though this happens less often as there is less ice now than there was a century ago. Polar bears have not been seen on the island since 1990.
Visitors must gain permissions from the station commander well in advance before visiting the island.
Note: There is nothing to eat and no public accommodations on Jan Mayen.