Svalbard – and why it’s not what you expected

We took the whole N by Norwegian team to Svalbard to make our special May issue, meeting many of its biggest characters and soaking up one of the most beautiful and surprising places we’ve ever visited. We expected a ‘Holy crap’ destination – but it’s better than that

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, May 2014)

A lot of people in Svalbard call it the Arctic Bug – when you come here, they say, you feel this intense urge to come back. As a team, we didn’t expect to catch it. We made the decision to do a special Svalbard issue mainly because we’ve been fascinated by it since we made it the cover story of our first issue in January 2013.

It was the the polar bears, the shotguns, the windswept glaciers and the abandoned Russian mining towns that piqued our interest. We expected it to be spectacular – but also a sort of novelty trip, where we’d take Instagram photos of polar bear warning signs and send postcards from the Arctic.

We found all this, but it was just a fraction of what makes Svalbard such an exciting and special place. Yes, there’s a “Holy crap” around every corner: the muffled beauty of travelling by dog sled; the sheer joy of putting pedal to metal on a snowmobile and whizzing through gigantic glacial valleys; the weirdness of finding toys in abandoned Pyramiden – but it’s so much more than that.

One thing we definitely didn’t expect was that the main town of Longyearbyen – a town built on mining, which has also become a hub for science and tourism – would be quite so cosmopolitan and sophisticated. The food and service at Huset, the best restaurant in town, would stand up to scrutiny in London or New York, not to mention the wine cellar, which boasts 25,000 bottles and a Two Wine Glass rating, the wine equivalent of two Michelin stars. In town, the Karlsberger Pub looks at first like a classic man pub, with rock ’n’ roll playing on the stereo and Rankin-esque black-and-white portraits of miners on the walls – but then you look behind the bar and see northern Europe’s widest range of single malt whiskies and Cognacs. You can find Thai or sushi here; artisanal chocolates and great lunches at Fruene; tasting menus at the Funktionærmessen Restaurant (which also boasts more than 70 types of  Champagne); and dishes like the stunning smoked whale at the wood- and fur-bedecked Kroa. These are not small-town venues, and there’s not a Peppe’s Pizza or T.G.I. Friday’s in sight.

Then there are the hotels. Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg is the town hostel, but really defies categorisation. The theatrical Mary-Ann is a wonderfully colourful character, and has poured all of that into this old miner’s rig, dotted with bizarre calendar shots of naked women with polar bears and Mary-Ann herself in full vaudeville mode. There’s great food (including the obligatory seal and whale); a wood-fired outdoor hot tub overlooked by a busty statuette; a smoking area in an old mining bus; and, of course, a stuffed polar bear watching over the fun from his permanent seat at the dining table.

Quirk aside, the Radisson Blu, Trapper’s Hotel and Spitspergen Hotel are all world class, and the second place we stayed – the new Svalbard Hotell – is a smart, modern mid-range hotel, all WiFi, Nespresso and clean, airy design.

But what really blew us away were the people, who were remarkably kind and obliging to a slightly clueless and overenthusiastic magazine team. Take Jason Roberts, an Australian who’s been here for 24 years. If you’ve ever seen a polar bear on screen, from the BBC’s  Frozen Planet to Hollywood movie Far North, he probably helped film it. He took the time to don an outfit based on the anorak worn by Amundsen during his South Pole conquest, and drove us out of town so that we could get the perfect shot.

There’s a high turnover of people here, with the average resident staying for six-and-a-half years. There aren’t generations of locals, and there aren’t too many older folk, with little in the way of care for the elderly (the more mature folk we did meet are formidable characters, though). It’s not necessarily easy living here, but what it means is a young, dynamic and interesting population of self-starters, not least because most of them made the decision to move to the world’s northernmost permanent town. There’s zero unemployment, practically zero crime; the average age is 34 and the average income is 23 per cent higher than mainland Norway, helped by the fact there’s no VAT and minimal income tax. One caveat is that it’s expensive, even without tax on alcohol and other goods.

The university, UNIS, is doing world-leading research into everything from glaciology to climate change and Arctic technology – the vibe is very much MIT with snowmobile suits and Fjällräven jackets, and the whole thing looks exciting and great fun. Competition for places at UNIS is intense – around 16 people apply for every position – so what you get are the brightest and the best. At SvalSat, the world’s biggest satellite station a 20-minute drive from town, people walk around with “KSAT in Black” T-shirts (after the satellite company that owns it) and say their aim is to have “16 per cent more fun every day” – it’s the slightly geeky joie de vivre you imagine at Pixar or the Googleplex, and it’s hardly surprising given the sheer beauty of where they work.

Then there’s the cosmopolitanism. In Longyearbyen, the second-biggest ethnic group are the Thais, who have their own supermarket and restaurant. Ah, the ever-smiling sous-chef at Kroa, is one of many who raves about what a great place Longyearbyen is to live in, even if it’s a little different to Bangkok. What started with miners coming back with Thai brides has grown into a fully fledged community, who are welcomed as much as any group in Longyearbyen, with the caveat that every family here needs to be working.

It shouldn’t be surprising, as Svalbard in general is an international place. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 meant that 40 countries could conduct commercial activities on Svalbard without discrimination, albeit under quite strict Norwegian legislation (the governor, Odd Olsen Ingerø, admits there’s even more bureaucracy here than on the famously bureaucratic mainland). The northern research town of Ny-Ålesund, home to the world’s northernmost post office, is essentially a collection of scientists from across the world (winter population: 35; summer population: 180), while there’s a Polish research station at Hornsund at the southern end of the archipelago.

Then there are the Russians, who have been the dominant group on Svalbard for much of the time since World War II. Since the Grumant and Pyramiden mines have closed (in 1965 and 1998 respectively), leaving eerie ghost towns in their wake, Barentsburg is the only active Russian mine left. Of its 490 or so mostly Ukrainian inhabitants, it’s said three speak English and two speak Norwegian. Arriving there on a snowmobile (or a boat in summer) is a bizarre experience.

A trip to Barentsburg or Pyramiden – whose 1,000 inhabitants deserted the mine town in a single day in 1998 – makes a fascinating counterpoint to all the natural beauty on Svalbard, which is fiercely  protected by some of the strictest environmental laws on the planet. Strangely, the one thing we didn’t see on our trip was a polar bear, despite the fact that in Longyearbyen you can barely walk 10 metres without seeing a picture of one. Everyone here loves a good polar bear yarn – “This one broke my door down, that one wrecked my snowmobile” – and at the Statoil petrol station, there’s a series of photographs of a bear encircling a car with menacing intent.

For us, the weather was too bad to ride snowmobiles to the east coast, where you have the best chance of a sighting. Despite problems for the polar bear, from shrinking ice caps to oil spills and low reproductive rates, Svalbard is one of the few places where polar bear populations are actually rising (up to more than 3,000). Still, it’s said that for every one you see (and it’s not guaranteed, even on trips specifically for the purpose), nine will see you.

We didn’t see any, but it didn’t matter a bit. The polar bear may the symbol of Svalbard, but there are thousands of reasons to come here besides. Anticipating our trip, we expected to have cabin fever by the end and to be desperate to leave. Instead, we came back dreaming of snowmobile commutes, endless skies and a place where most people seem genuinely optimistic. We’ve even been daydreaming about what it would be like to permanently set up shop on Svalbard. In other words, we got it bad – we well and truly caught the Arctic Bug.

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