Immortalised in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy,
Svalbard offers an insight into life in the polar regions - a world
of Northern Lights, midnight sun and frozen wilderness dominated by
the polar bear.
It's important first of all to get a grasp of where and what
Svalbard actually is. Imagine a land mass the size of Ireland that
looks like the Scottish Highlands during an Ice Age and start
adding a long list of superlatives and quirky facts: Svalbard is
almost as far from Oslo as the coast of north Africa; contains
Europe's largest true wilderness; has the world's most northerly
scheduled flight, full service hotel and pub; is inhabited by
almost as many polar bears as humans; 60% of its land is covered by
glaciers - and you start to get an idea of what Svalbard's all
The climate is remarkably mild for somewhere so close to the
North Pole - a unique location that allowed early Norwegian and
Russian hunters to settle over winter. The first visitors in the
seventeenth century were attracted by the abundant whaling and
fur-trapping opportunities. Discovery of rich coal veins in the
1900's lead to the first permanent settlement of Longyearbyen - the
archipelago's main town and home to the thriving modern community
of miners and others working in the fields of tourism, Arctic
exploration and scientific study. A confusing point can be the
names, the collective area is Svalbard whilst the early Norwegian
name for the main island is Spitsbergen - or "Sharp Mountain".
The colourful little town of Longyearbyen is tiny, with just
1,800 inhabitants, but is the perfect launch pad for an adventurous
Svalbard holiday in the Arctic desert. Come mid-February, the sun
peeks over the horizon to give an orange light and rich blue skies
until late March. These six weeks are the locals' favourite, a
permanent sunrise that brings added illumination to the spectacular
Northern Lights. The midnight sun then sits high over the Arctic
summer from mid-April to late August.
Dog-sledding is the most natural way to enjoy the scenery and
learning to captain your own 6-dog husky team is a fun experience.
Modern transport takes the form of snowmobiles, which are good for
exploring the frozen ocean of the east coast, where you can track
polar bear prints and look for seals. Closer to Longyearbyen,
investigating the ice cave within the local glacier is worthwhile.
As you walk on a frozen river inside the glacier, the ice crystals
and clear glass-like formations are spectacular.