Going up into the arctic on vacation seems like a pretty harebrained idea at first. After all, isn’t the point of vacation to get away from the cold and the rain? What’s the point of going somewhere with no beaches, no cool architecture, no history, and no trees? Turns out that, besides the beach thing (which still exists, it’s just not awesome), you can find all of those things way up in the arctic on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. Here’s a taste of the awesome things you can do and find way up in the Arctic.
What was that about no trees? Ridiculous! They’re just a lot shorter than the ones you’re used to. The world’s northernmost tree, which grows all the way around the planet in the arctic, is the arctic willow. It’s tiny and grows close to the ground, but it’s really related to the willow, and it’s really made of wood. Reindeer and other local herbivores eat it to get a break from the other less nutritious plants growing up there.
Check Out Some Polar Bears
Polar bears are scary and enormous. Coincidentally they’re also furry and adorable and all over Svalbard. While that means that you probably shouldn’t go wandering around alone, it doesn’t mean you can’t go and see them from the safety of a boat or from the back of a snowmobile, which you can rent, along with finding someone to show you around, in Longyearbyen.
If you’re there sometime other than during the short and night-less summer it’ll be well worth your time to check the weather forecast. Arctic weather forecasts will also have a bit on the auroral oval, and whether it’s over Svalbard that night. You can check the aurora forecast here. If it’s not cloudy you’ll be treated to an incredible sight that those of us who live in warmer climes will usually go a lifetime without.
Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town and it’s the major tourist hub in the area. It’s a great place to find tour groups if you didn’t come with one, and to rent a rifle, which you need if you want to go outside the settlement. You can go on snowmobile safaris, go dog sledding (or rolling if you want to try the summer option), or even go on an arctic cruise. Whatever you do you’ll see a lot of wildlife, which is pretty dense here (for the arctic) because of the gulf stream, which keeps the climate pretty mild (for the arctic). The temperature hovers between -5 and 45 all year, which is pretty impressively warm considering that the midwest got to -40 this year.
Architecture and History
Alright so the architecture isn’t quite that exciting, but there is some stuff to look at. There are several pre-World War II coal mines as well as the abandoned settlement of Pyramiden, which has been depopulated since 1998 and now has a few permanent residents again who are responsible primarily to provide lodgings for visitors and to prevent vandalism. Historically Svalbard has been mined for coal by several signatories of the Svalbard Treaty, and its settlements were destroyed by the Germans in World War 2. In recent years the growth of tourism and the decline of coal mining in the area has transformed the area and made it much more accessible and forthcoming for visitors.
You can find more information about arctic travel at the G Adventures site, for whom Charlie Bennett is a writer. Remember to follow him on Twitter!