The Polar Night in Spitsbergen
Our Product and Marketing Coordinator, Kathryn recently enjoyed a trip exploring Spitsbergen with Hurtigruten in the winter.
Read her exclusive review:
Lying near to the North Pole, Spitsbergen is the only inhabited island of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway. The island is home to just over 2,600 people and around 2,100 of those live in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city. As the ground is permanently frozen all year round, all the colourful buildings in the city are built on stilts to avoid flooding and sinking.
Spitsbergen had been the scene of intense whale hunting since the 1500s but after the whale populations declined, whalers left the island. Since then, it has also been known for its coal mining history and coal mining played a big part in the city you see today. Coal mining developed in Spitsbergen in the early 20th century and the coal entrances are still exposed in the mountainsides surrounding Longyearbyen. In the heart of the city, is ‘Huset’. This building, built to be neutral ground for miners and officials, housed a café a small kiosk selling tobacco and hunting equipment. This important place is still standing in the city, but is now home to a popular restaurant and local nightclub. Today, there is only one active mine, Mine 7, which provides all of the coal which runs the city and a small amount for export. Until the late 1980s, everything in Longyearbyen was controlled including the amount of alcohol drunk. The miners had to present an alcohol card to receive a drink or a bottle of beer and this rule still applies to local residents today when purchasing alcohol at Nordpolet.
The Coal Miners' Cabins hotel is the place to stay for those wanting to get the real experience of coal mining in Spitsbergen. The buildings which now form part of the hotel used to be barracks for the coal miners after World War II. The restaurant is known for its delicious home-cooked burgers and grill food – it is definitely worth a visit to this restaurant even if you stay elsewhere! The lounge area is a great place to relax after a day of excursions and complimentary Wi-Fi is available.
For an alternative, the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel is centrally located, and a perfect base for those who still want the extra home comforts such as a spa. It is custom before entering any public buildings including hotels, restaurants and museums to remove outdoor shoes and put on slippers, which are always provided.
Before I left for Spitsbergen, I had heard they have no daylight at this time of year due to the Polar Night. The sun sets behind the mountains for the last time on 25th October and doesn’t return fully until 8th March. The locals enjoy a big celebration when the sun returns, congregating around the steps of the old hospital which is said to be the first part of the city for the sun to shine on. After the first day, we got used to there being no daylight, although if you were out in the valley for a few hours you soon lost sense of the time of day. There is one big advantage to no daylight – a very high chance of seeing the Northern Lights as they can appear day or night. Owning a snow scooter is essential for the locals in Spitsbergen. There are no roads outside of the three main settlements (Longyearbyen, Barenstburg and Ny-Alesund) and as so much snow can fall during the winter months, it is crucial to have a snow scooter to get around. There are around 4,000 snow scooters in Longyearbyen for their 2,100 residents!
Everywhere you go in Spitsbergen, you will see photos and stuffed replicas of polar bears greeting you in the museums and hotels. It is however very rare to see a real polar bear near the centre of Longyearbyen. A sign on the road leading out of the city marks the point where polar bears might be seen, and beyond this point accompanying guides must be trained and carry the necessary safety equipment. The local government must take every possible sighting of a polar bear very seriously, so you cannot be overheard pretending to you have seen. If you do, they must conduct a search of the surrounding area until they can be sure the city is safe from any polar bears getting too close. When out in the Snowcat, we saw a white animal in the distance and hoped we could go back home saying we had seen a polar bear. Alas it was a Svalbard reindeer which are very common and it’s not unusual to see these docile animals wandering through the city.
Everyone who lives in Longyearbyen must be self-sufficient and have enough money to return to mainland Norway when required. Those close to retirement age are encouraged to move back to the mainland, those with a serious illness must also move to the mainland, and pregnant women must fly to the mainland a few weeks before their due date to give birth in case of any complications. It is said to be illegal to die in Spitsbergen as the ground is permanently frozen so bodies cannot decompose when buried.
Top Excursions from Longyearbyen
Ice Caving – Despite being a little apprehensive at first, Ice Caving was the highlight of the trip for me. The guides had built a special igloo to use as our base, which kept out the cold wind whilst preparing the equipment. We were picked up from Coal Miners' Cabins by Snowcat and experienced an exhilarating ride up to the Longyear Glacier, with fantastic views across the whole of Longyearbyen. Descending down a ladder into the glacier opened up a world of frozen beauty. Headlamps lit the way around the fascinating ice formations.
Snowmobiling – We were lucky enough to experience snowmobiling twice, once for 3 hours and once for 6 hours. The 3 hour trip is ideal for those unsure being in sole control of a snowmobile and wanting to get a flavour of the trip before embarking on a longer journey. The 6 hour trip took us right out from Longyearbyen towards Templefjorden, stopping for an expedition lunch. We were thrown in the deep end having the 6 hour trip first, but it meant by the end of the experience we had definitely got the hang of handling the snowmobile, and saw the most spectacular scenery. The Northern Lights appeared whilst out on the snowmobile so we were able to stop, lie down in the deep snow and really appreciate this natural phenomenon in total silence away from the city.
Snowcat – A knowledgeable guide takes the Snowcat out from Longyearbyen off-roading across the frozen landscape to Advent Valley. Learn about the history of Svalbard and look out for the local wildlife – it was here we saw the Svalbard Reindeer and footprints from an Arctic Fox. As the Snowcat is heated, it is a great way to experience the dramatic surroundings whilst being able to warm up in the cold weather!
Dog Sledging – The dog sledging excursion begins with harnessing the dogs, who will be very noisy with excitement! The guide leads the way from the base out into the valley, and the group follows with a driver and passenger on each sled, each led by six to eight dogs. Whilst the dogs do most of the work, pulling you across the snow and ice, you can really appreciate the area, and again we were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights up above.
Camp Barentz – A few miles from Longyeabyen, Camp Barentz is away from the lights of the city for a brilliant chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Enjoy a home-cooked meal around the warm fire in the hut and learn about the Aurora Borealis with a presentation.
Tops Tips for Visiting Spitsbergen in Winter
Clothing – It is essential to dress appropriately for the weather. It was between minus 25 and minus 30 degrees Celsius during our trip, but with the right clothes we were still reasonably warm! Good quality snow boots with a good grip are essential, but extra snow spikes are recommended. Thermal tops and trousers are also a necessity, with ski salopettes, a micro fleece and a ski jacket which has a waterproof shell and an inner insulated thermal layer.
Camera – As during the winter months in Spitsbergen there is a high chance of seeing the Northern Lights during the day or night, have a pre-set setting on the camera which has the right exposure and time lapse for capturing them. As the weather is so cold, you won’t want to be changing lots of setting on the camera whilst out in the valleys. Lining gloves also mean you can take your thicker outer gloves off, whilst still being able to change camera settings for a short period of time before getting too cold. The camera battery can quickly go down when exposed to cold, so take the battery out and keep it as close to your body as possible and just put it back in when needed. A tripod is also useful for capturing the Northern Lights in order to keep the camera still enough. The tripod needs to be robust enough to withstand being placed in deep snow. On most excursions you can take a rucksack with you to carry any extra equipment.
Alcohol card – a special alcohol card, similar to the one the miners used, can be bought in advance and will give you either five or ten glasses of wine or beer in a selection of restaurants and hotel in Longyearbyen.
Moisturiser - Before even stepping off the plane when landing in Longyearbyen, start applying moisturiser and lip balm. The extreme cold will be a shock to the skin, so regularly applying moisturiser and lip balm prevents it getting sore. A non-water based moisturiser is best, however if it contains water then apply it at least 30 minutes before going outside to allow the water to evaporate off the skin.
How to Visit Spitsbergen in Winter
During winter, Hurtigruten offer a land-based itinerary in Spitsbergen. Combine return flights from the UK to Longyearbyen with overseas transfers plus accommodation in either the Coal Miners' Cabins, Radisson Blu Polar Hotel or the Spitsbergen Hotel. We can tailor-make your trip for any date and duration plus a wide range of optional excursions are bookable in advance. From just £854pp, a 3-night adventure in Spitsbergen can be combined with a voyage along the beautiful Norwegian Coast between Tromso and Bergen. This includes two excursions in Spitsbergen and return flights from the UK can be added. Call our Norway specialists on 01756 706500 to create your winter adventure in Spitsbergen.