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One of the few pockets of Europe that is more wilderness than civilisation, Svalbard archipelago is home to the Arctic adventure you have been dreaming of. With soaring mountains, sheer icebergs, rare wildlife and colossal ice fields, an escape to Svalbard combines history, wildlife and the welcoming hospitality of Norwegians to create an enriching Arctic experience.
Once the domain of intrepid whalers, it was not until the 1920 Svalbard Treaty that Norway gained sovereignty of the archipelago. When coal was discovered in the area the Hurtigruten ships transported supplies, people, freight and mining equipment regularly to the little inhabited land. During the 1920s both Norway and the then USSR established more permanent communities in the area.
Today, the Hurtigruten ships that visit the area in Spring and Summer time carry important cargo as well as the many guests who wish to explore this fascinating archipelago. With an abundance of wildlife and a captivating history, a voyage aboard Hurtigruten offers unique insights into this remote region.
Currently the population of Svalbard sits at about 2, 700 people with at least 3, 000–3,500 polar bears. In fact, the prevalence of polar bears means that it is illegal to go out beyond the realms of the small towns without a gun for protection!
A visit to Svalbard is truly a nature lovers dream with many examples of unique Arctic flora and fauna to be seen. Walruses, Arctic foxes, reindeer (and of course polar bears) roam the land, while in the sea many species of whales including the beluga, sperm and killer whale can be seen.
During the Springtime, Arctic ringed seals nest on ice floats in the sparkling fjords, ready to spring away at a moments notice when a polar bear comes into sight. There are also a number of puffin colonies that guests on Hurtigruten can see from onboard or up close on one of the Shore Excursions.
In the Springtime and leading into Summer, while the Midnight Sun hovers above the horizon for two whole months, wildflowers appear on the islands, dotted around year-round glaciers. 60% of the archipelago is covered in glaciers and the largest island is called Spitsbergen, which literally means pointy mountain, after the (yes, you guessed it) pointy mountain that dominates the island.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and most guests to the archipelago choose to stay here. One of the most peculiar facts about the people of Svalbard is that they can't die on the island - in Longyearbyen it is illegal. The last burial in the graveyard was about 70 years ago, nowadays if you are ill you are flown off the island to the mainland. This is largely due to the practicality of the ground being permafrost and the effect this has on bodies decomposing.
Graveyards aside, many activities such as snowmobile safaris, snow shoeing and boat trips out to puffin populations run out of Longyearbyen, so it is a good place to have as a base to explore this sparsely populated land.
In 1936, the Soviet Union acquired the rights to use Pyramiden, a small settlement at the base of a large pyramid shaped mountain, for their coal mining industry. And so a little slice of the USSR was born, in the far northern reaches of the world! Today the town stands as a relic of the Soviet world, once offering everything a small town would need.
“It was meant to be an ideal Soviet society. It was a town where any foreigner could come without a visa, so it served as an exhibition of the best of the Soviet Union."
Still owned by the Russian state-run coal company, the town has been abandoned since the late 1990s. A village frozen in time and hinting at apocalyptic disaster, the first visitors to Pyramiden could see books still on shelves, sheets folded neatly on beds, and hand fashioned coat hangers waiting for a coat. It has been named by National Geographic one of the top ten ghost towns in the world and provides a fascinating look into recent history.
In the Springtime, a large lawn grown out of imported soil still thrives, dominating the central square, replete with the most northerly bust of Lenin, and flowers that spring up in the often barren icy surrounds. The architecture is classic brutalism and all guides must carry a shotgun thanks to the visiting polar bears.