Head to Norway for some unique winter sports and incredible landscapes, says Pal Eriksen.
We don’t like to stint on adventure at Y. So when that summer heat kicks in and you really do fancy going to the ends of the earth then you’ve come to the right place.
Svalbard is an enchanting arctic wilderness of stunning, almost sinister beauty.
Set in an archipelago, the Svalbard Islands can be found halfway between the upper northernmost tip of Norway and the North Pole. They are home to around 3,000 people, two-thirds of whom live in the town of Longyearbyen, on Spitsbergen Island (the largest, and the only one that is permanently populated).
This is about as into the wild as you can possibly get, and is as close as you can get to the North Pole without attempting to imitate explorers like Ernest Shackleton.
Svalbard literally means “cold coast”, and a more apt name would be hard to find. There are two seasons here: spring and summer. Spring offers the remaining remnants of winter sports such as skiing, snowmobiles and sledges hauled across the steppes by packs of huskies. Summer brings longer days and warmer weather, with boat trips, walking, and excursions to glaciers, canoeing and fishing. If you were thinking of venturing to this magnificent place to see the Northern Lights, you can only do so in early spring.
In December and January, Svalbard is almost in total darkness; with just half an hour’s sunlight until the sun rises in April, which then doesn’t set again until August.
With still-frozen rivers, endless steppes, magnificent glaciers and fjords and the most impressive array of ice caves ever, this is a veritable wilderness of whiteness.
Longyearbyen is hardly the Wild West though. There are supermarkets, shops, cafes and restaurants (one of which is Thai), where your lunch-time burger might be made of reindeer meat.
My favourite place- Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet-era mining town. In its heyday it must have been the least ugly mining settlement in the world, with the magnificent Nordenskildbreen glacier to preside over it. No sovereign state had made a claim on the islands until the Svalbard treaty of 1920, which granted them to Norway while giving other countries like Russia the right to mine here, and their citizens’ right of residence. You can book a trip from Longyearbyen to this abandoned Soviet-era village, which 1,200 once people called home. It’s an eerie place: desolate homes, a gym, a theatre and a school all have a forlorn air about them, and radiate a palpable sense of foreboding. Maybe they sensed the global collapse in oil prices that sealed their doom in 1998. It certainly makes for a unique day out though.
Highlights- Who wouldn’t want to be hauled across the snow by a dozen doughty and determined huskies? But you can also book yourself a summer dog-sleighing trip to the Foxfonna glacier. All you will hear is the mushing sound of your own tentative footprints in this mind-numbingly silent environment. An ice cave is created in summer when melted water runs through a glacier. In winter, this freezes and creates icy channels and ornate crystals inside the glacier, which will always be a few degrees below freezing point, no matter what the weather is like outside. Getting to one will be an all-day excursion, best started by driving up to about 400m above sea level where you will hike (or be pulled) along towards the ice cave. There, unless you’re the claustrophobic type, you will savour so many undulating ice blue chunks of ice and water – magnificently lit – you’ll think you’ve dived into a giant bottle of Pepsi Blu. Then (after lunch) you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding fjords. For your next trip, you can’t miss the polar bears, walruses, seals and reindeer (on a guided excursion, of course).
Lowlights- None, unless you mean it literally. This is Norway and in a region as remote as this, it’s not going to be cheap. Also, do book any activities in advance because the companies who organise excursions don’t do them every day as this is not a major tourist trap, to say the least.
Souvenirs- Most of Longyearbyen’s shops are in the pedestrian-friendly town centre. You will find shops selling knitwear, crafts and outdoor gear. Svalbard is a tax-free zone so prices are lower than in mainland Norway.
Getting there- Emirates and Qatar Airways both offer the quickest flights from Muscat to Oslo (Norway’s capital) with just one stop. From Oslo, it’s a three-hour flight to Longyearbyen with Norwegian Air.
Where to stay- There is a Radisson Blu in Longyearbyen, and plenty of options to search on websites such as Booking.com, Kayak, Expedia, Trivago and Hotels.com
1. Go to a glacier cave on a husky-pulled sledge
2. Watch wildlife at Forlandet National Park
3. Take a boat trip around spectacular Tempelfjorden
4. Visit the excellent Barentsburg Pomor Museum
5. Sample some of the reindeer-based local dishes