Recommended for absolute Norway & Arctic enthusiasts: arrival not guaranteed, weather not guaranteed, booked tours not guaranteed, Northern Lights not guaranteed - but totally worth it
5 days in Svalbard, 700 km north of the North Cape
Last update July 2018
4-5 days trip
You got to do it when you have the chance!
Spitzbergen, which is the main island of the Svalbard archipelago around 700 km north of the North Cape and 1.300 km south of the North Pole, had been on our bucket list right from the beginning when we moved to Norway. We eventually visited it once in mid-February, more by chance. However, this had the advantage to experience both, the darkness of the Arctic winter pretty much 18 hours a day by then, but also seeing the light coming back.
We had never been to the arctic region before, so we were quite excited to get so far north. And Svalbard is probably the place on Earth easiest to reach so far North. And with all the infrastructure there and really nice hotels and bars, it is quite comfortable, too.
When we arrived, it was rather "warm", with only -5 degree Celsius, so it was pretty windy. So our plane made some jumps on the final approach, causing some noise in the cabin... People told us later that this happens from time to time during that time of the year.
Luckily, our pilot managed to land on the first attempt, while the SAS flight scheduled to arrive just two hours later, did not: He made 3 attempts and had then to go back to Tromsø! They arrived the day after, with rather unhappy travelers I assume.
We also had hoped to see Northern lights during our stay. We took that actually for granted that we would see them, after all it was dark most of the day. But pretty quickly we were told that Svalbard is actually often too far north to experience regularly Northern Lights... We never heard that before. Maybe they should call them rather the "Not So Northern Lights", would be more accurate. Admittedly, that would make it somewhat harder to sell.
Anyhow, first disappointment, but we stayed in good mood and started exploring the island.
You never walk alone...
Due to a lot of polar bears on the island, the infrastructure and the weather conditions, you are not allowed to leave the city on you own without the permission of the mayor. People who do (mostly locals) or those with permission have to carry a weapon. Something you usually don't take with you on a holiday trip. Well, outside the US. So we booked tours with local guides and that is what we would recommend anyhow for everyone. It is definitely not a good idea to sneak out of the city on your own.
What to do - in the winter
In total, we did 3 tours: one snow-scooter trip to Tempelfjord and Postbreen, one hike to a nearby ice cave (surprisingly scary and for sure nothing for people who are a bit heavy or claustrophobic) and finally a snow-scooter tour to a valley around the corner, with a nice view towards of Longyearbyen.
All this plus a nice evening at "Huset", the best restaurant in Svalbard with a great wine collection, made this trip one of the most memorable ones for us.
Tour 1 - Tempelfjord & Postbreen
The trip to Tempelfjord is for sure a highlight: Around 6 hours snow-scooter driving, speed varying between boring 30 and frightening 80 km/h, with several stops at places worth stopping, a 45 min lunch break with hot coffee, cookies and some instant food (better than you think), in front of an impressive, and noisy, glacier.
The landscape is really unique, in particular for us who have not been to the arctic somewhere else.
With only -5 degrees Celsius, it was rather warm that day and therefore the whole tour was absolutely pleasant. And the "blue hour" literally lasted for hours, was quite magic and perfect for taking lots of pictures - until the batteries froze.
We saw some reindeer with very short legs (Svalbard style, eh, type), a hole in the ice made by a seal for breathing (but it was apparently not in need for any breathing when we were there as we did not see any), an old empty hunter cottage from the last century, a sailing boat intentionally left freezing in the ice (where you can book yourself in for a night, see "unique hotels"), a frozen waterfall you could walk around and the 50m high end of a deep blue glacier that sometimes made funny noises when the ice cracked.
Disappointingly, we did see no polar bears. Not one. That was a real shame, we had hoped to see a couple of those. Not too close though, just close enough for a good picture. Well, maybe next time.
View onto the glacier at the end of the Tempelfjord
Sailing ship that is intentionally left in the ice - you can actually stay overnight here!
Trip 2 - Not to Barentsburg ... again
The originally planned to Barentsburg, the old Russian mining town, was cancelled because of avalanche risks. So what to do with the day?
We managed to get another snow-scooter tour for the afternoon with a guide who took us and another couple on a 4-hour ride out of town and into a side valley. The daylight was already more or less gone when we started at 3:30 pm but that dipped the whole landscape into a translucent cold blue and white atmosphere, just breathtaking!
And it did not just look cold, it was very cold this time with around -20 degrees Celsius. And the wind made it worse. The break with the usual cookies and coffee was therefore rather short and we took only a few pictures as our fingers got really really quickly really really cold. Thank God that the snow-scooters have heated handles, also for passengers.
On the way back we spotted a broad but somewhat washed-out string of green Northern Lights. Not as clear and bright as we hoped for and as we have seen it elsewhere but nice anyhow. When returning over rather icy bits of a frozen river to Longyearbyen in total darkness, we were longing for the hot bathtub back at the hotel and some warming strong drinks.
Above: Behind a frozen waterfall - Below: On the way back, getting dark
On the last day we tried to get to Barentsburg again. The Russian mining town is one of the primary destination for most Svalbard tourists, but once more it was cancelled due to avalanche risk...
So we had to stay in Longyearbyen, where the weather was very good, and went on a sightseeing tour to the church, the remains from the coal industry and the city museum, which is great for adults and kids alike (see gallery above).
Trip 3 - The ice cave
On another day we booked a trip to a "nearby" ice cave. There are different tours to various ice caves, some on foot with snow shoes, others with dog sledges or beltevogn (a kind of mini caravan, unheated and quite uncomfortable as we were told by another visitor). Having been in Norway for already 4 years, we went for the sporty option...
The walk up the steep hill just outside Longyearbyen took about 1,5-2 hours and was not difficult but strenuous as it went up the hill really steep. On the upside, the wonderful views onto the city and surrounding landscape compensated for the sweat.
Reaching the cave´s entrance we exchanged the snow shoes for some iron crampons, got helmets and head lights and watched the guide digging out the entrance for us which was fully covered with snow.
That went fast because the entrance is a rather tiny hole in the even ground, not much wider than a person.
To be honest, when we thought "ice cave", we were thinking of a big door or something leading into an even bigger cave or so. Not so here. The only way in is to climb into that little hole and then slide down around 4-5 meter into the dark...
It is quite an odd feeling even when you are not claustrophobic. If you have a problem with small narrow places, you should definitely not go on that tour as you cannot just wait outside: there is only one guide with a gun per group, meaning the whole group could not enter the cave and would have to return!
The cave itself offers stunning views and features lots of twists and turns, surprisingly different layers of white, brown, blue, totally clear or very opaque ice, formed by melting water during the summer. But it always remains very narrow: at most places you cannot pass each other and once we even had to take off the backpacks because you otherwise could not have passed through.
I guess the narrow entrance works a test really.
With the help of a couple of ladders and some very short climbs with a rope, we reached the end of our tour: a wider place where we had a short break with coffee and cookies - apparently the usual tour snack because we got it during all trips.
The cave continues a bit further on until it sharply drops for 30m. Not a place where you like to do a wrong step...
After the break, we safely headed back for the entrance / exit.
To crawl out the last 4-5m of the cave through the snow tunnel was the hardest bit: you needed to push the rucksack ahead of you steep uphill while trying not sliding back again yourself. Luckily all fellow travellers were reasonably fit for that exercise.
The way down to Longyearbyen took less than an hour and we had more time and breath to enjoy the gorgeous nature around you.
Again, no sight of polar bears, reindeer, foxes, birds or other animals again, unfortunately. Well, luckily no polar bears.
Feels a bit strange to jump in the ice cave or to get out only with some help. But inside it is quite the show.
All in all
A fantastic and truly unique destination for a 3-day trip. We are looking forward to coming back here, then in the summer for a boat trip around the island to see a bit more. And finally get to Barentsburg.
PS: We have not written much about Longyearbyen itself: Well, you can comfortably stay overnight there, more and more hotels are available, from simple to very charming, you can visit the museum, do some tax-free shopping and enjoy a nice lunch or two. That is it, mainly. It is kind of cute but small of course. And, we nearly forgot, you can have a excellent dinner at the "Huset": the rather expensive but really high class restaurant with an excellent wine cellar. Not just for Longyearbyen but by all accounts!
1300 km south of the North Pole and 2050 km north of Oslo
3 hours by direct flight from Oslo; usually you get a connection via Tromsø
Things to do: (e.g. snow scooter tours, dog sledding; ice caves; sightseeing & museum in Longyearbyen
Our extra tip
Longyearbyen has good restaurants, e.g. Huset, Nansen - try out some arctic food - delicious!
You can shop tax free on the island
And particular for a winter trip
Bring your own woolen socks, ski underwear and all the other winter stuff
Slippers as you need to take off your shoes at most hotels and some other places
Crampons for the shoes (the simple ones)
A properly shaped thick ski-mask which also protects the nose (!)
Overnight stay we can recommend
Svalbard hotel, but there are several hotels, all are located centrally
Good to know
Don´t expect to spot much of Northern Lights, Svalbard is too far north for that - but you can be lucky
Be prepared to last minute changes due to bad weather conditions
Remember that you can not go on tours on your own outside the city
You need your passport to enter Svalbard as it is not part of Schengen (or a Norwegian bankkort or a Norwegian driving licence in the ´98 or later format)
Bring your driving licence, you need it for the snow-scooter tours
Best time: Mid February (when the sun returns) until late April (when there is still plenty of snow but nearly midnight sun already)
You might want to book some tours ahead of your visit to be sure, otherwise do all hotels help you booking activities
There are several experienced agencies that offer different tours, e.g. Spitzbergen Travel
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