What to do in Svalbard in the Summer
Svalbard is a long way up. It’s more or less on top of the globe. It’s one of those places that only the Norwegians, Arctic explorers or die hard travel enthusiasts have heard of. I wasn’t one of those. It has a desolate beauty, a remoteness that you can feel it as the cold air stings your face. A place so remote that it is a legal requirement to bring a rifle with you if you leave the town of Longyearbyen because of polar bears. A land that has almost no plants but plenty of riches. Riches that left abandoned towns behind on the larger island of Spitsbergen to return to the hands of nature. Despite these human tragedies the island is spectacular and whether seeing the fjords and icebergs from above on the way in or from sea level, they are equally impressive.
I like 99% of people hadn’t heard of Svalbard but after reading National Geographic I looked it up to discover that Longyearbyen has flights from Oslo. Flights that were cheap. Brilliant, let’s go there. I went in the summer which means 24hrs of daylight! A first for me. This sounds great and the Norwegians love it but for somebody who isn’t used to it, it is very disorientating. Firstly we wondered why the shops were closing so early. Oh, its 7pm. We found we were eating dinner much later as it didn’t seem so late and also going to bed much later without realising it. The strangest thing was that the curtains in the hotels were paper thin. We may as well have had none. We resorted to using towels to block out the light!
There are two seasons in Svalbard, Norway. The spring season when there is still snow on the ground but the cloak of winter and 24hr darkness has lifted. Snowmobiling, husky mushing and skiing excursions are the order of the day. As there are no roads between towns on Svalbard this is the easiest time of the year to get around the place as everywhere is a road. The summer season then brings the longer days, warmer temperatures (relatively) which means boat trips to glaciers and abandoned Soviet towns, hill walking, kayaking etc. The northern lights can be seen in the spring but during the 24hrs of light during the summer they cannot. As I was there during the summer I am going to concentrate on that.
My main piece of advice would be to book the activities you want in advance. Clearly this is not as important if you plan to spend 2 weeks in Longyearbyen (don’t do that, the place is tiny) but if you are like me and plan to spend less than a week on Svalbard then this is important. Longyearbyen is very small and clearly not overrun with tourists so the one or two companies that organise 2 or 3 day trips don’t go every day. If you haven’t got this planned in advance then you could miss the start and by the time they are back then you will miss your flight home if you go on the next one. Just keep it in mind. Single day trips are also available so don’t fret but the multiple trips can be better.
Everything in Svalbard is expensive so this won’t be a cheap holiday.
Lonyearbyen is the capital of Svalbard, on the Svalbard island of Spitsbergen. The Russians actually have their own town Barentsburg because of a history treaty. Despite the perfect surrounds of Longyearbyen on a fjord hidden away between huge bare mountain peaks on the waters edge, it is not a pretty town. There are a lot of temporary looking cabins and abandoned snowmobiles around the place. It is also very small as you would expect. There is a museum to while away an hour and of course some shops and restaurants but that is about it. There is a university on the island as well as a school so not as remote as you think although most people go to the mainland for secondary (high) school. You cannot walk too far out of town as the road finishes so you need to head on some sort of paid activity to make you time worthwhile unless of course you are there for an expedition. Be wary of the Arctic Terns, they are very aggressive, we even got attacked by some for no apparent reason! In my opinion spend as little time in Longyearbyen as you can as even a few hours will see it in its entirety.
What to do in Svalbard in the Summer
What to do in Svalbard – Boat Trip
A boat trip is definitely worth doing. Any trip brings you around part of the Spitsbergen Island so you can admire the amazing fjords. The one I went on and one of the more popular one is to see the beautiful Nordenskiold glacier and the abandoned Soviet mining town of Pyramiden (more below). As all these are north of Longyearbyen this is probably the furthest north that you will ever go unless you plan an expedition to the North Pole. It’s a dizzying 78.7deg north. Despite the steepness of all the fjords and lack of any noticeable plants the area is teeming with birds. The jagged mountains are endless and then get interspersed with little icebergs the closer you get to the Nordenskiold glacier. Don’t be fooled by a picture with the selling point that you may see a polar bear because the chances of seeing one are one in a million. There is always a chance though! Boat rides are from May to October. They cost approximately €195 (US$210) for an 11hr excursion including lunch.
There are also trips to the scenic Bore Glacier but this trip doesn’t include Pyramiden as part of it. There are lots of other trips to Barentsburg and other glaciers but in my opinion Pyramiden is definitely the most interesting spot.
Boat Safari’s as they are called in Svalbard are the shorter boat excursions in a power boat around the fjord of Longyearbyen, Adventfjord. These get to you to glaciers, short hikes, abandoned mines and some fossil hunting but wrap up well as it can be freezing on these boats as you zoom along.
What to do in Svalbard – Pyramiden – Abandoned Soviet Village
Pyramiden mine has possibly the prettiest location for a mine in the world with the backdrop of the huge Nordenskiold glacier sitting behind it. This mine though is a spooky sight. It is straight out of a horror film. There are apartment block, gyms, cinema, statues of Lenin (the most northerly statues of Lenin in the world), mines etc all still there but all abandoned. Now the seagulls have moved in and taken over the place. The last people left when mining ceased in 1998 but after several years with nobody there a few people restarted some work there in 2007 and are being paid to do some upkeep so the town doesn’t fall into complete disrepair. In 2013 a hotel opened up for tourists (Tulip Hotel) so it is now possible to stay the night.
What to do in Svalbard – Hill Walking/Trekking
We got a guided tour and climbed up Hiorthfjellet on the opposite side of the fjord to Longyearbyen. It is a tiring 900mtrs high. The weather was perfect and it was a long steep climb but the views were amazing. Mountain peaks and plunging fjords interspersed with glaciers. What more would you want? Climbing up Hiorthfjellet involves kayaking across the fjord of which the most difficult and strenuous bit is getting in and out of your dry suit! The kayaking takes only 10min but the dry suit is needed in case you fall into the 3deg water. The climb is steep and there are plenty of loose rocks so a decent level of fitness is required to be able to withstand all this for several hours. You pass several abandoned mine shafts on the way so have some appreciation for what the workers had to go through on their daily commute. The climb to Hiorthfjellet takes approx 10hrs. Cost is approx €140 ($156) including lunch.
There are several other options for hikes such as Trollsteinen behind Longyearbyen which takes you over the Lars glacier and to a similar height of 849mtrs (6hrs). For an easier hike Forkastningsfjellet is a short boat ride across the Adventfjord and gets you up to 400mts to enjoy the view.
What to do in Svalbard – Kayaking
Nature can be harsh and the ice of the Arctic covers 60% of the island permanently but once the summer arrives then the fjords are free to take off on sea based excursions. Kayaking is a great way to get up close and personal with the wildlife and the sheer cliffs with the added bonus that you are getting some exercise along the way. There are several options for kayaking but break out into a day trip or a lengthy excursion, normally 6 days.
By kayaking you get a much better appreciation of the wildlife that inhabits what seems like a dead environment. There are over a hundred different birds to look out for as well as seals. The day trip kayak takes you out and about around Adventfjord (7hrs, €110/$130) whereas the expedition of 6 days can be done on the north edge of Isfjorden. I didn’t do it but it does sound brilliant with different glaciers everyday and only your paddle stroke breaking the silence. As well as the time it is expensive as like everything up north, approx €2,000.
What to do in Svalbard – Fossil Hunting
There are plenty of fossils millions of years old lying around Svalbard and with a little bit of local knowledge they can point them out to you. As mentioned above it can be done with a kayak trip or alternatively on a short trip from Longyearbyen which will take less time and bring you back to the age of the dinosaurs.
Practicalities – What to do in Svalbard
€1 = 8.7 Norwegian Kroner, US$1 = 7.7NOK
- Language – Norwegian. English is widely spoken by everybody. They may even have better English than you!
- Bus – No buses in Svalbard
- Train- Definitely no trains
- Useful Websites: www.spitsbergentravel.com, www.visitsvalbard.com/en/Svalbard, www.spitsbergenoutdooractivities.com/site/
- Flights- Longyearbyen International Airport (LYR) is flown to by Norwegian Air and SAS from Oslo and Tromso.
- Accommodation – €100 per night for an average double room.
- Beer – A pint of beer cost approximately €7
- Visa: Norway has a special arrangement with the EU and any EU citizen does not require a visa. If you are from a country that does require a visa from any EU country then one will be required for Norway. Read more about the visa/passport rules at http://sysselmannen.no/en/Visitors/Entry-and-residence/
- Population of Svalbard: Only 2, 100 people!