Get orientated – Svalbard is the icy desert at the top of the world. Nestled midway between Norway and the North Pole, this remote ‘Land of Cold Coasts’ comprises three main islands and many smaller ones, flung out into the Arctic Ocean 640km from its European motherland. The largest isle is Spitsbergen, followed by Nordaustlandet and Edgeoya; other islands include Barentsoya, Prins Karls Forland and numerous islets and skerries. Spitsbergen is the only permanently inhabited isle. If it weren’t for the Gulf Stream, thick sea ice would entrap the archipelago.
In fact, this warming current keeps Svalbard much milder than its latitude would suggest, and means that – in summer – seas are navigable by cruise vessels. A voyage here might yield sightings of the archipelago’s 19 species of marine mammals, while on land you may spot Arctic foxes, reindeer and snow bunting. The biggest draws, though, are the islands’ 3,000 polar bears, the world’s largest land carnivore.
Getting there – Norwegian flies Gatwick-Longyearbyen (on Spitsbergen), via Oslo, from £198 return. Total flight time is about five hours. There is no regular ferry service between Svalbard and Norway. On Spitsbergen there are no roads between settlements and internal transport is either by snowmobile (winter) or boat (summer). Strict rules apply to the movements of visitors.
The visit – Svalbard is ideal for a summer high-seas adventure. From mid-April the skies shine bright all day (in Longyearbyen, the midnight sun lasts from 15 April to 26 August), providing lots of light for outdoor activities. By June the sea ice has melted sufficiently to allow boats to cruise the floe-dotted seas. This makes June to early September the best time to embark on expeditions to glimpse walruses and polar bears on the pack ice and whales in the water.
Note, eastern Svalbard tends to experience heavier ice conditions; most ships concentrate on the archipelago’s west side. Summer also sees wildflowers bloom and a flurry of bird activity. Kayaking, hiking and climbing are best from July, when most snow has melted. You can still visit in winter (November-March). The polar night means 24-hour darkness from 14 Novemberto 29 January, but dog-sledding, snowmobile safaris, glacier walking and skiing are all available. You might even see the northern lights. Don’t miss a visit to the Svalbard Museum.
Svalbard history – It’s thought that Vikings first spotted Svalbard – it was mentioned in an Icelandic document in 1194. However, it was officially discovered by Dutch explorer Willem Barents in 1596, who named it Spitsbergen after its spiky peaks. It became a whaling base from the 17th century, and was used for hunting by the Russians and Norwegians. The archipelago was placed under Norwegian sovereignty in 1925.
Walrus – Since the 1950s the walrus has been a protected species and stocks have increased. It is particularly prevalent on the Island of Moffen.
Pack ice – The seas around Svalbard can be covered by pack ice, Its extent depending on the season and conditions. The fjords of the Islands’ western coasts can generally be reached by boat from late May to late autumn. The waters north and east are rarely accessible.
Magdalenefjorden – The scenery around the popular little fjord of Magdalene on the north-west coast of Spitsbergen is spectacular. Most ships visit around here. About 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers.
Kvitoya – The last campsite used by the ill-fated Andree expedition was found on Kvitoya In 1930 – 33 years after Salomon Andree attempted to fly from Danskoya Island to the North Pole by hot-air balloon.
Ny Alesund – No visit is complete without a stop at this, the most northerly permanent settlement in the world and a hub for scientific research. Be sure to send a postcard from the post office and watch out for the terns who have a tendency to dive-bomb visitors!
High points – Newtontoppen (1,713m) and Perrlertoppen (1,712m) are Svalbard’s highest mountains.
Polar seagull – The polar seagull is one of 15 species of birds nesting on Svalbard, including guillemot, kittiwake, fulmar and little auk.
Longyearbyen – The capital of Svalbard Is named after the American JM Longyear, who opened the first mine on Svalbard in 1906. Longyearbyen has a population of 2,000.
Polar bear – The polar bear is the largest of the bear species. It can reach 2.8m in length. In winter its fur is snow-white, in summer it’s creamier in colour.
Svalbard poppy – There are two types of long-stemmed Svalbard poppy: yellow and white.