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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrNine-hundred kilometers north of mainland Norway, and 684 miles from the North Pole, lies an archipelago of islands, where the landscape appears as if at the end of the ice age - 60% of the land area is covered with ice - Svalbard Islands. The realm of the polar bear, unique wildlife, wild nature, and old mining towns have long fascinated visitors. This astonishingly beautiful archipelago is the world’s most readily accessible bit of the polar north and one of the most spectacular places imaginable.
More than half of the surface of Svalbard consists of protected areas, including three nature reserves, six national parks, and 15 bird sanctuaries. The combined permanent population is less than 3,000, nearly all of which is concentrated in the main settlements of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg on Spitsbergen.
The independent traveler is a rare sight on the islands; the vast majority of visitors arrive on an organised tour. Despite being so close to the North Pole, the archipelago has a relatively mild climate compared to areas at the same latitude. The high travel season is during summer, from June to August, when it’s not too cold outside. That also means that polar bears are unlikely to be there either; in the summer they stay further north where more ice remain all year-round.
HistoryThe Dutch discovered Svalbard in 1596 and named the largest island Spitzbergen due to the pointy mountains on the west coast. Svalbard has ever since been a fountainhead of lore about hunters, trappers, mining communities, and amazing expeditions. After the discovery of Svalbard, it has been a place for international whaling, Russian, and Norwegian hunting. In 1906, American John M. Longyear established the first mine and named the town Longyearbyen. Twelve countries signed the Svalbard Treaty in 1920, and Norway was granted sovereignty in 1925. Svalbard has never been a place where people settle down for life, where family traditions are passed down from generation to generation. People came and left again. Svalbard's history is thus starkly set apart from that of other places. Only to a small extent could people depend on common experience about the harsh conditions which they braved.
Svalbard MuseumVisit the Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen and get insight into the discovery of Svalbard, 17th century whaling history, expeditions, winter trapping techniques, mining, geology, flora, and fauna. The winner of the Council of Europe's Museum of the Year award in 2008 is a modern museum where you are allowed to touch things.
Galleri SvalbardGalleri Svalbard was established in 1995. The gallery displays the permanent art and culture collections from Kåre Tveter, The Svalbards Collection (arctic maps, books and money) and The Recherche Collection. It has also a small cafe and an excellent shop.
Spitsbergen Airship MuseumThis recently opened museum, with a stunning collection of original newspapers and other documents relating to the history of polar exploration, presents the history of three airships that tried to reach the North Pole, all starting from Svalbard - America in 1906 – 1909, Norge in 1926, and Italia in 1928.
Flora & FaunaAt a distance, Svalbard appears to be dominated by bare rocks, glaciers, ice, and snow. However, for those with an eye for plant life, the land up north gives another impression. In summertime, flowering plants, the dense moss tundra in the valleys, and the lush green vegetation under the bird cliffs are astonishing. In the area around Longyearbyen alone, more than 100 different species of plants have been registered, while the entire Svalbard features around 170 species of plants. The flora is very fragile, and everyone travelling on Svalbard must take great care to avoid causing any damage. Destruction of vegetation can leave permanent traces in the landscape. Therefore, all vegetation is protected. Wildlife diversity peaks when migratory birds return to breed and there is intense bird activity at sea, in the bird cliffs and on the islands. This contrasts starkly with the wintertime, when only the sounds of the wind and the sea may be heard. Only the hardiest species like Svalbard reindeer, polar bears, Svalbard rock ptarmigan and Arctic foxes can be seen in winter.
GeologySvalbard presents an exceptional geological diversity within a relatively small area. The archipelago is one of the few places in the world where sections representing most of the Earth’s history are easily accessible for study. The diverse geology of Svalbard has resulted in a wide range of landscapes. Hornsund, for example, is surrounded by jagged mountain ridges; the east coast of southern Spitsbergen is characterized by flat-topped nunataks , whereas the landscape around Woodfjorden is distinguished by gentler slopes with distinctive, reddish colors.
Food & DrinkThere is a selection of cafés, pubs, and restaurants in Longyearbyen. Meals served in Longyearbyen hotel restaurants are either traditional Norwegian food or international cuisine. Other pubs and restaurants often add real local flair by offering various types of Arctic meat (reindeer, seal, whale, geese, ptarmigan) or polar fish species. Alcohol is duty-free on Svalbard and thus less expensive than on the Norwegian mainland.
AccomodationAccommodation is generally expensive. The relatively affordable option is either a guesthouse with shared facilities or campsite. I found the 4 star Spitsbergen Hotel, with the cosy fireplace lounge, traditional and charming. The rooms are comfortable and quite good value for money. Whatever you pick, it is advisable to book well in advance.
Getting there & Around
By PlaneSvalbard doesn't come easy and especially not on the low budget. Fares are not cheap, so book early. The easiest way of getting to Svalbard is by taking a plane. Most of the year, there are daily flights from Oslo to Longyearbyen via Tromsø. From Oslo the flight time is 2 hours and 50 minutes, and from Tromsø it is 1 hour and 40 minutes. Due to Svalbard being outside the Schengen area, be aware of the mandatory ID control for all travelers, so don't forget your passport.
By BoatIn the summer, there is a boat service from Tromsø once a week. The journey takes 2-3 days and prices are generally at least as steep as flights. Occasional boats also operate from Murmansk to Barentsburg.
The environmental protection legislation contains certain restrictions for traffic within Svalbard. Among other things, the use of motorized vehicles on bare grounds is prohibited, and the use of scooters is only permitted in certain areas. All traffic in the bird sanctuaries and in some other protected areas is regulated or prohibited.
If you are going out for a trip alone and plan to go beyond Administrative Sector 10 (the central parts of Spitsbergen), you must report your planned trip to the Governor of Svalbard. The obligation to report applies to all trips both on land and on sea, and such reports shall be made on specific forms. Make sure you contact the Governor of Svalbard a long time in advance. You will also be required to take out a search and rescue insurance or provide a guarantee for the same in connection with such a trip.
Also, there are no pharmacies so bring your necessary medication.
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Author: Ayda. Last updated: Feb 25, 2015