Svalbard: Travel to the Midnight Sun
Interestingly – the first thing I ever heard about Svalbard many years ago was how mean all the people living there was and how much they hated the tourists. Really? We are talking about maximum 2,500 people in total (Svalbard is among the northernmost settlements in the World – it is closer to the North Pole than it is to Norway). I think it was about ten years ago that I heard this about Svalbard but I have been to Scandinavia many times since then and the first thing I can say about the region is how nice the Scandinavian people are. They are so much at peace with the World surrounding them (such a nice part of the World though – lucky them!) and always so calm – I never had a bad experience with the people in Scandinavia. I don’t think I cared too much about this first not so nice thing I heard about Svalbard but it still took me sometime to go up there – numerous visits to the Scandinavia and getting myself convinced that I should maybe now push it up a little bit further – further north. I looked at the map many times – each time I got surprised how far up Svalbard was compared to Iceland. Until that time – I felt like I did go to the end of the World just because I went to Iceland. How naive I was – in Svalbard, people make fun of Iceland saying that Icelanders consider themselves being located in the Arctic region but Iceland barely touches the Arctic Circle and it is so warm down there! Well – tell it to myself visiting Iceland couple years ago dressed in six different layers.
Sovereignty over Svalbard is a little bit complicated and is subject to the terms of 1920 Svalbard Treaty. The treaty recognizes the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard but also imposes certain limitations. There are today 46 signatories to Svalbard Treaty. The agreement stipulates that any tax collected from Svalbard residents have to be re-channeled to the development of the island. One of the interesting things is that every person can become a Svalbard resident without going through the commonly cumbersome immigration procedures. The entry to Svalbard is also not subject to any visa. However, since one has to travel through Norway to reach Svalbard, if you are from a country subject to visa to enter Norway, you need to have a Norway (or schengen visa).
Svalbard: A Lonely Island
I finally traveled to Svalbard in August 2014 during mid-night sun period with a short stop at my beloved Lofoten Islands, one of the most special places on this Earth for me. Svalbard is under the sovereignty of Norway but subject to the strict rules arising from the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, which sets the Norwegian sovereignty over the land but at the same time restricts the extent of the rights granted to Norway and lists the rights of the other signatory countries. So maybe it is better to say – Svalbard is no man’s land.
I went to Svalbard during the 24 hours daylight period. I have been to Alaska in summer and to St. Petersburg during the white nights but I have never experienced anything near what I saw in Svalbard. It is 24 hours daylight and it never gets anywhere close to getting dark – not even to that twilight stage and the difference which appears subtle when put in the words is much more impressing in real life. Each night, I got up for maybe five times (as I unfortunately always do) and pulled up the blinds and every single time I managed to get incredibly surprised at the how intense the daylight was at 2-3 am in the morning.
I stayed at Basecamp Trapper Hotel in Longyearbyen and I would definitely recommend it as thats the best hotel in Longyearbyen which really fits the spirit of Svalbard compared to the other ordinarily designed chain hotels. There is only one airport in Svalbard located 3 km off Longyearbyen – the main/only city in Svalbard. There are no car rentals in the town as you can only go for about 20 km and not reach anywhere. In Svalbard, even in Longyearbyen area, you are not supposed to walk out of the town on your own due to the polar bears and there have unfortunately been some polar bear incidents. So the best option is to join daily tours which usually hosts no more than three to four people anyways. On my first day – I joined a hiking tour up to Trollsteinen. It was quite tough but very rewarding with amazing views (it sure feels like walking on some otherworldly terrain) and it is very very cold up there. People usually stop for lunch for only maybe 10-15 minutes and start the journey down right away. The next day, I took a kayaking trip. It was much shorter but it was quite nice to be so close to the arctic water.
The Contact: Isfjord Radio
The highlight of my trip was the journey to Isfjord Radio that you can reach, departing from Longyearbyen, somewhere at around 2-3 hours on a speed boat. Isfjord Radio, located in Kapp Linne, used to serve as a coast radio and weather station and has been automated and depopulated in 2004 once the fiber optic cables have been deployed between Svalbard and Norway. In our speed boat, we traveled together with two engineers from the Norwegian telecom operator Telenor who were traveling up to Isfjord Radio just to fix some things! I don’t know what it was but it sure sounded cool. We took hikes in the region and they kept fixing things and only joined us for dinner. When I say us – I mean the group of people who signed up for the trip (four in total including me). Basecamp group (also running the Basecamp Trapper Hotel in Longyearbyen) has an amazing property in Kapp Linne and here is the surprise – the hotel is the same building that was being used by the radio operators back in the day. The hotel is amazingly well designed, all Scandinavian style and has the largest windows ever so you can at all times enjoy the outside view and be surrounded by beautiful reindeers. Isfjord Radio is the #1 hotel in my list of my favourite hotels. The hotel is also famous for its gourmet style dining and they give you a set dinner/lunch menu which equals to what they serve at the very fancy restaurants in terms of quality. The room doors do not have any locks – and I was told that it is the hotel policy. Everything feels so peaceful there, you don’t even mind not having a lock on your door. There is no GSM reception in Kapp Linne but there is wi-fi.
Svalbard is definitely a place to go if you want to feel totally disconnected from the World and I sure can’t wait for a winter trip up there. I just don’t know when. And no – I have not seen any polar bears while up in Svalbard – I wish I did but from far far away.