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SVALBARD TRAVEL MAP
SVALBARD TRAVEL INFORMATION
This trip review illustrates two adventure travel to Svalbard in winter, over Spitsbergen island, with the purpose of visiting its most remote areas by snowmobile and lodging in tents, igloos or refuges. The first trip was done in April 1999, taking advantage of 24 hours of continuous daylight to visit Svalbard in complete freedom, while the second tour was held in February 2001 to greet the sun rising for the first time after the long polar night. Both trips include a tour of Longyearbyen (the capital of the Svalbard Islands), Barentsburg (a village run by Russians who lives thanks to the coal mines) and Svea, another small mining community. Thanks to a branch of the Gulf Stream, the climate in Svalbard is not hard as other places of the same latitude, with temperatures often relatively mild, only a few degrees below freezing point, even in winter.
WHY GO TO SVALBARD?
The Svalbard Islands are a very remote destination with an harsh climate and therefore it is quite natural to ask why a tourist should want to visit this distant outpost, facing various difficulties, instead of choosing easier destinations. Actually, especially for Europeans, Svalbard is perhaps one of the easiest polar destination to get to and, although the price is far to be cheap, it is certainly cheaper than most destinations in Canadian Arctic, Alaska or Greenland, especially when talking about flight's cost. Furthermore, there isn't the bureaucracy that plagues many places in Russia, saving from the need of getting visa or special permits. Despite its relative civilization and the services offered, Svalbard is in any case a wild and "authentic" place where you can quietly observe the fauna and flora typical of the polar regions, where you may enjoy beautiful excursions almost all year round among majestic glaciers, or where you can see the northern lights, as well as the special light conditions ranging from an eternal night between November and January, to an uninterrupted daylight between early April and early September.
HOW TO GET TO SVALBARD?
Given the distance from continental Europe, America or Asia, considering the special geographical and climatic conditions, as well as the small number of locals not guaranteeing an high traffic of passengers, you might be wondering how to get to Svalbard and if the place is really accessible without having to spend nights halfway across the world, as sometimes happen for the most isolated places in Canada, Russia or Greenland. If you want to go to Svalbard, you'll be pleased to know that Longyearbyen, the "capital" of Svalbard on Spitsbergen Island, is served by a number of flights from Oslo via Tromso and some direct flight from Oslo (flights are almost daily, up to three per day, and are relatively cheap). On some days of the week, especially during the months from March to October (high season) the flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen (and vice versa) allows same day connections to most of Europe, America or Asia, allowing to optimize journey time and its related costs. Flights to Svalbard are operated with modern Boeing 737 and despite the often inclement weather, delays are only occasional thanks to the airport properly equipped to work safely even in apparently adverse conditions. If you want to reach Svalbard by ship, currently (at 2015) there is no ferry service (in any case it would still take a couple of days of sailing to reach Longyearbyen from northern Norway), however there are operators offering cruises calling in Norway, Iceland, Greenland and continuing onto Svalbard (so you could, for example, stop at Svalbard after the cruise and return by plane or vice versa).
WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT SVALBARD?
Well, you have just decided to take a nice vacation in the Arctic on the top of the world, but now the big question: what is the best season to go to Svalbard? Generally speaking, there is no best time to go to Svalbard, as the choice depends essentially on your interests and what kind of excursions you would like to do. In order to appreciate all that Svalbard has to offer, you actually need to go there many times in different periods of the year, so you can better appreciate changing scenery and lighting conditions. Furthermore, the tours available radically change with the seasons and two trips to Svalbard, even if made in the same month, are rarely the same. Therefore, let's examine in detail what each time of the year offers, starting with the most popular season to visit Svalbard: the brief Arctic summer:
WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT ATTRACTIONS IN SVALBARD AND WHAT TOURS SHOULDN'T BE MISSED?
The major tourist attractions of Svalbard are certainly the nature and the landscape, without forgetting to visit the small communities, even for just simple curiosity. Most tourists who come to Svalbard do to visit the archipelago in the summer on small cruise ships that can negotiate the ice, sometimes reaching the most remote corners of Spitsbergen (the main island of Svalbard archipelago) or getting all the way to Nordasutlandet (an island covered by an ice cap which is the third largest in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland) through other minor islands. In addition to admiring postcard landscapes dominated by mountain ranges and large glaciers that flow into the sea, the cruise offers the best chance to closely observe polar bears, walruses and whales under the endless light of the summer polar.
Other excursions that allow you to admire the beautiful landscape of Svalbard, although making more difficult to see the animals up close, are those by snowmobiles, sled pulled by dogs or by skis. Local operators offer various winter tours of different levels of difficulty and length, with or without overnight stays in the middle of nowhere (which may include sleeping into igloos, tents or remote refuges). Unfortunately, because of climate change, many winter itineraries have been reduced in recent years, as most fjords do not freeze anymore, but if you're lucky enough to be able to drive the snowmobile on a frozen fjord, up to the glacier flowing into the sea (maybe doing some zigzag among icebergs), this may be one of the most exciting experiences you can do in Svalbard.
In Svalbard there are small communities which are worth a visit, even just to see how problems are resolved in a so harsh environment: how an aqueduct can be built if the ground is almost permanently frozen? Or how are the foundations of buildings built in the permafrost? The main village on Svalbard is Longyearbyen and here you can not only get an answer to most of the questions, but you can also visit an interesting local museum or get into an abandoned coal mine. Not far from Longyearbyen, in the winter months, you can take a nice walk inside the belly of a glacier. Barentsburg is instead a Russian community living on coal mines and it can be reached from Longyearbyen by a few hours of snowmobiling in the winter or a short cruise in the summer, while Ny Alesund hosts researchers and scientists. Further to the north, Pyramiden is a ghost town abandoned by the Russians in 1998, perhaps because the coal mines did not produce enough money (it was the northernmost human settlement on Svalbard and probably in the world, you can get here by boat in summer or by snowmobile in the winter)
OTHER SVALBARD TRAVEL TIPS AND IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOW
Below you will find other useful information about Svalbard, which could be useful when planning the tour and during the journey.
SVALBARD PICTURES - FEBRUARY 2001 TRIP: THE RETURNING SUN
|<<-- GO Longyearbyen, on Spitzbergen island, is the Svalbard's main administration center and has excellent facilities, for both tourists and residents, considering the latitude. Excursion to Svalbard museum and hikes in the town.|
|<<-- GO Snowscooter trip to Barentsburg from Longyearbyen. Barentsburg is a little Russian mining town, living on coal mines. The snowscooter trip takes about two hours each way.|
|<<-- GO The expedition to the most hidden parts of Svalbard starts today, driving the snowmobile from Longyearbyen to an area designed as campsite. Here, the group overnight into a small igloo, under a sky made of millions of stars and northern lights.|
|<<-- GO Snowmachine excursion to the east coast of Spitsbergen island, driving over glaciers and pack ice trapping huge icebergs.|
|<<-- GO By snowscooter back to Longyearbyen, with lunch stop in Svea. Today the weather is really beautiful and the cold, together with a sun very low on the horizon, even at mid day, produce incredible sky colors going from pink, to orange, to violet, to deep blue.|
SVALBARD PICTURES - APRIL 1999 TRIP: SPITSBERGEN BY SNOW SCOOTER
|<<-- GO Hikes in Longyearbyen, before descending into a cave under a glacier, for an ice cave excursion. Visit to a coal mine (where it wasn't permitted to take pictures).|
|<<-- GO A four days expedition thru Svalbard by snowscooter starts today, driving from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg for the first lunch stop.|
|<<-- GO After a short break in Barentsburg, the expedition to Svalbard by snowmobile continues driving over glaciers and frozen fjords all the way to Svea for the first overnight.|
|<<-- GO Excursions to the east coast of Spitsbergen island by snowscooter. Today the weather is superb and there are lots of wonderful places to see, with many glaciers flowing into the frozen Arctic ocean. Return back to Svea to overnight.|
|<<-- GO The expedition to Svalbard by snowmobile ends today, driving from Svea back to Longyearbyen via the beautiful Von Post glacier.|