Elliot and I have seen a lot of Europe, and for the most part our trips are to cities that are pretty well traveled. For example, my last post, about our travels through Cinque Terre and Florence, garnered a lot of "Love that place!" feedback. Every now and then, however, we venture off the beaten path. In the case of our latest adventure, north of the Arctic Circle to Svalbard, Norway, it was wayyyy off the path. Google Maps won't even let you scroll any further north. Elliot first read about Svalbard, and its main town Longyearbyen, in an airplane magazine, and he had severe wanderlust ever since. With May being the most likely time to see polar bears, and the midnight sun giving us a 24 hour opportunity to spot them, we dug out our Chicago winter wear (I had to literally dust off my boots and coat because I haven't worn them since moving), packed our bags, and set off for an arctic adventure.
Surprisingly, it's not all that difficult to get to Svalbard; most cities offer direct flights to Oslo, and from there you catch a three hour direct flight to Longyearbyen. On our way north, we took a slightly peculiar route that had us overnight in Stavanger, but it was a welcome layover because one of my besties (Melissa of Norway? Yes Way! fame) and her fam live there. They graciously hosted us, fed us snacks and wine, and drove us to the airport after only four hours of sleep; best layover ever!
Our flight to Oslo was unremarkable, but the one to Svalbard had passengers decked out in all sorts of arctic North Face gear. As our SAS flight neared the Svalbard archipelago, we could see the water below us become increasingly white and glossy with ice. When we landed at Longyearbyen's super tiny airport, it was lightly snowing and it seemed we were the only boneheads who didn't pack our coats in our carry-ons. The airport is more like a hangar, small but filled with people waiting to go on North Pole expeditions. Reminders that we were north of the Arctic Circle, like the stuffed polar bear atop the baggage carousel, abounded. The airport, like most buildings in Longyearbyen, was on stilts and surrounded by majestic snow-covered mountains. There was one two lane road that went to town, and a frequently run bus that takes you directly to your hotel. There wasn't as much English spoken here as there is in Oslo, and we wished we had some basic Norwegian because everyone was cracking up at the bus driver's commentary. On our drive, we passed the polar bear crossing street sign, famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault, docks with ice-breaking ships, and a random Toyota dealership. Longyearbyen itself consists of colorful wooden and stilted buildings set at the foot of stark white mountains.
Surprisingly to us, the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel was one of the cheapest lodging options in Longyearbyen, and it was one of the nicest hotels we've ever stayed. The hotel had a lodge feel to it (complete with its own stuffed polar bear), and all along the walls and doors were old photos of fishermen, whalers, and walrus hunters. Our room was cozy and had an incredible view of the water and mountains around us. The cold actually wasn't that bad, except for the occasional wind gust, and both Elliot and I were well-prepared with our Midwestern upbringing. There were a lot of outdoor sporting shops, a bakery, supermarket, some cafes, and restaurants and bars. People were out, walking their beautiful wolf-like dogs (it was so cool to hear them howl) on the slightly snowy road, and kids fully dressed in snowsuits were out on their bikes. We got a map from the airport that had all sorts of places advertised, which was super helpful in pointing us to the cleverly named Svalbar for lunch.
A post-lunch outdoor hot tub dip was what you'd expect: awesome. There were "No rolling in the snow!" signs, and with the accompanying sauna, we felt like the "Yoohoo!" family from Frozen. After feeling super bougie in the hot tub, we made our way to the northernmost brewery in the world, Svalbard Bryggeri. The brewery's only been open since 2015, although they'd worked for a brewing license since 2007. They ended up having to advocate to change an antiquated law so they could set up shop and brew. The brewery is run by a couple and during the summer, they open up their tasting room for people to hang out and enjoy beer. The brewery is located along the river, past the Santa Claus post box and the old cable car used for hauling coal, on a muddy industrial road. The brewery was pretty standard, but the tasting room was super cozy and overlooked the brewing kettles below. The chairs had furs draped over them, and people were already cozied up and chatting with their beers. Although they had WiFi, it occurred to us that Svalbard had better 4G coverage than most of the UK. Those Norwegians are doing something right. They also got their beer right, as the tasting we did was pretty great; the weiss and stouts in particular were our favorites. Definitely a must visit in Svalbard.
Longyearbyen, and most of Svalbard, used to be coal country, and there are many practices from the past that still live on today. Besides the aforementioned coal cable car, and some coal miners' village buildings still standing, people also take off their shoes when they enter a building to not trapse coal onto the floor. There are also signs in Russian located sporadically throughout the town, a nod to the nearby Russian owned areas of Svalbard; you can do an excursion to Pyramiden or Barentsburg, two of their (very tiny) towns. Another old habit that is still very necessary today is locking your rifle in one of the bar/restaurant/shop provided lockers at the door; although polar bears only venture into town if they're desperate for food (usually at the end of summer), residents are still prepared in case they're confronted by one. The entire area of Longyearbyen is considered "polar bear secure" on account of this, and other measures they've taken. For example, people don't lock their houses or vehicles (most ride snowmobiles; there are 4,000 snowmobiles for the 2,500 residensts of the town) so anyone fleeing a polar bear charge can find shelter and safety.
The snow had stopped at this point, so we wandered around Longyearbyen and stopped in a place called Karlsberger Pub; it had zero natural light, and there was an entire wall covered in bottles of booze. The sun DOES NOT set this time of year, so people could be doing their thing at 3:30am, and you'd think it was 3:30pm. The pub at our hotel was hopping, and we split a pepperoni and leek pizza before pulling down the blackout shades in our room and settling in for an arctic snooze.
When we pulled up the shades the next morning, we were momentarily blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the snow. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and we could better see all the incredible scenery surrounding us. It was so starkly beautiful and unlike any landscape we'd encountered before.
The breakfast buffet had some traditional Nordic staples like dill flavored salmon, brown cheese, liver pate, mackeral sauces, and this squeeze fish cheese. No, Scandinavian cuisine is not for the faint of heart. After breakfast, we met our hiking guide, Mya, outside the hotel. We drove the short distance, past the student University housing area where about 300 students go for their Masters or a year long "Arctic Guide" course, to the base of the Sarkofagen Mountain. We put slip-on snow chains on our boots, tried to cover our face as much as possible b/c we forgot sunscreen, and waited while Mya half-loaded her rifle. We were now out of the secure polar bear zone, so a guide with a rifle was necessary. She told us about how the last polar bear attack in this area was in the 90's, where two girls were hiking when they encountered a bear. One girl was killed, and the other leapt off the side of the mountain and miraculously survived. No chances need be taken when you're dealing with the most aggressive type of bear.
Since the snow was so fresh, each step sunk us about six inches into the snow. Although it wasn't a very high summit (513 meters), it was a very difficult hike because of the awkward movements we had to make and the fact that we were basically just walking up snowy hills the entire way. At some points, the snow was so deep that my leg sunk in almost to my knee. We took the river route because it was still frozen and walked past the Larsbreen Glacier, which was solid ice but covered in rocks. The ice caves were nearby, and occasionally we saw a group of people on snowmobiles whizzing towards them. Apart from some people skiing off in the distance, we were the only ones on the mountain. Apart from the Arctic Fox tracks, everything was completely undisturbed.
Once we got to the top of Sarkofagen (called so because it looks like a sarcophagus), the ground evened out and the snow was like walking on glitter. The reflection of the sun made the whole world around us sparkle. From this vantage point, we could see colorful Longyearbyen below us and all the old coal shacks now designated as protected sites. More incredibly, we could better see all the incredible snowy peaks around us, with nothing but fox and reindeer tracks to disturb the pure white. We rested a bit at the very peak of Sarkofagen, eating some of the chocolate chip cookies and hot blackberry juice that Mya brought. While we ate, Mya told us a little more about life in Longyearbyen. We already knew that no one is born or "dies in Longyearbyen", as there aren't hospital facilities on the island and the ground is too frozen to bury bodies. Surprisingly to us though, most Longyearbyen residents only live there about five years, and most move off Svalbard after they retire; there are no social benefits for them on the island, so most move to the first closest city on the mainland, Tomso. Despite the residents only living there temporarily, they live a happy one, and there are schools, a youth center, and even a sports hall with a pool. After we finished our snacks, we signed our names in the book kept in the lockbox at the peak (put there by the townspeople to encourage more residents to climb the mountains).
The "hike" downhill was more like a slide, and we basically slid down sideways like we were snowboarding. Amazingly, we didn't wipe out and made it to the bottom without incident. We thanked Mya after she dropped us off at the Radisson, and visited a few outdoor sports shops before they closed. One of them, by the Svalbar, sold a variety of furs, and I've gotta say that I've never felt anything as soft as rabbit fur. We picked up a few souvenirs, some bread and a cinnamon roll from the bakery, and took some pictures of the town before heading back to the hotel to rest. We had picked up snacks the day prior that we didn't end up eating on the hike, so back at the hotel we had some baconost (squeezable bacon cheese) and cheese slices with the bread and cinnamon roll. After another lounge in the outdoor hot tub, we got ready for dinner at the famed Mary Ann's Polarrigg. Before our trip, a Norwegian I know from work told me that the owner, Mary Ann, is one of the main stars on a show called Svalbard: Life on the Edge and has these drinks that are garnished with the penis bones of animals. You read that right. Penis bones in the drinks. The jokes just write themselves.
The Polarrigg is set up like a base camp, and it was pretty deserted except for us, the waiter, and the stuffed polar bear bursting through the wall. The walls, much like at our hotel, were decorated with old pictures of grizzly looking Svalbard residents showing off their knives and pipes. There were only three choices for dinner that night: seal steak, whale steak, and smoked cod. As much as I'd like to stick it to my nemesis, the whale, I had heard that it's really oily and gross. We opted for the seal steak, which came with au grain potatoes and some veggies. The seal was almost black, and mostly tasted like a steak. Every now and then, though, you'd get a bite that tasted fishy, and we were reminded that we were eating a sea creature.
After dinner we stopped back at the Svalbar, which was packed with locals having a beer. We tried some more Norwegian beers there and then back at the hotel pub, where the English bartender (who did some crazy trips through the US and now found himself in Svalbard) recommended a few to us. Because of the different Scandinavian beers, El was able to get the "Here come the Vikings!" badge on Untappd. The one that I had was called "Holy Moose", which led to me and him trying to say, "Hello, my name is Holy Moose" in our best Scandinavian accents. Spoiler alert: our best attempt is still pretty bad. We stayed up to see the sun, according to the weather app, "set" at midnight, but it never happened.
We didn't have long to snooze because of our early morning snowmobile trip. This was going to be our best opportunity to see polar bears, so the ten hour trip to the east coast of the island was worth it. While we waited for our guides, Elliot spotted a nearby reindeer casually munching on something; he pointed it out to the other people around us, who weren't nearly as impressed as we were. We were picked up by a young guy from Arctic Adventures who took us, and the other people joining the trip, to their office to get decked out from head to toe in extreme cold weather gear. We were introduced to Tron/Thon (Elliot and I disagree what his name was), a salty older man of few words...most of which weren't English, who was going to be our guide that day. The young guy joked that the first thing the guy who discovered Svalbard saw was Tron waving to him from the coast. We got instructions on how to operate the snowmobiles, as each of us got to ride our own, and what Tron's signals would be. I don't recall ever actually driving a snowmobile in my life, so I started off at a grandma's pace before I felt more comfortable behind the wheel. It was only minutes after we left Longyearbyen when we were surrounded by nothing but white. There were no roads to mark where we were going, but Tron knew the area so well that he didn't need roads. Apart from snowmobile tracks, there were no other signs of human travel. Snowy mountains surrounded us, and they were so incredibly stunning that I actually shouted, "This is so beautiful!" as we rode. Everything was so serene, and I realized that I'll never again see someplace this white in my life.
Despite the temperature, I didn't feel cold once that day; that cold weather gear was no joke. About ten minutes after we started, Tron signaled for us to pull over and instructed us to "ride the brake" because we were about to go down a pretty steep glacier. Although it was a little nerve-wrecking, going down that glacier was so much damn fun, and riding on flat ground afterwards seemed more blasé. Shortly after going downhill, the skies clouded up and we were riding through an actual blizzard. At one point, it was difficult to see the person in front of me (we were riding single file), and Elliot and I both admitted later that it was a pretty exhilarating experience. We stopped after driving awhile, one of the several rest breaks we'd take, to watch a group of reindeer walk by.
We continued past coal mines and houses that were literally in the middle of nowhere; these were houses that locals set up for anyone trapped in an emergency situation and in need of shelter. We drove up and down hills, across the frozen ocean where posted flags guided us, and saw abandoned buses where a town of 25 people lived. We took a break on the frozen water, and the only other female and I went behind an abandoned house to pee. Managing this while in cold weather gear was...interesting, and Rudolph and the rest of his reindeer pals would've had quite the laugh at my expense. As far as I know, I'm the only person to have potentially mooned a reindeer in the Arctic. Let me tell you, a butt is the last skin on your body that you want exposed to below freezing elements.
We were told when we left that, due to conditions, we weren't able to go all the way to the east coast but would likely see polar bears at our glacier destination. As we drove across the frozen glacier, we stopped for Tron to show us all that remained of a seal that had been a polar bear lunch earlier. We could also see (very much alive) seals and more reindeer as we drove, before parking at a bright blue glacier for lunch. From the "cargo" sled he dragged behind him, Tron served us up some dehydrated chili con carne and more of the hot blackberry juice we had on our hike the day prior. Everyone besides us and an Indian man spoke Norwegian, so the three of us missed out on most of what Tron was telling them. Everyone was very nice, but understandably inclined to talk in their own language.
After lunch, it was clear that we were heading back to Longyearbyen without having seen polar bears, although Elliot did spot their tracks at one point. We were disappointed, but still grateful to have seen what animals we did in such extraordinary conditions. We did one last extended break of Snickers bars and coffee at one of the emergency houses; we peeked inside, and it was fitted out with a stove, some pots and pans, and bunk beds, enough to keep someone comfortable in a storm. Once we neared Longyearbyen, we encountered more snowmobilers going up and down the mountains just outside the town. When we passed Sarkofagen, we saw that our tracks were still undisturbed. The whole day was incredible; we saw such unspeakably majestic beauty in the snowy mountains and frozen glaciers, and saw animals that you only normally encounter at the zoo or in Christmas carols.
When we were dropped off back at the Radisson around 7, Elliot and I had to basically wait in the hotel pub until the airport bus came at 12:15 for our 2:30am flight. Despite the sunshine, it was tough to stay awake after spending 10 hours outside on a snowmobile. It was something though to have your flight take off at 2:30 in the morning in complete sunshine.
We've been to some truly beautiful places: stunning beaches, cliffside towns, and mountain ranges that look like they're straight from a fairytale, but Svalbard was different. It was nature at its most untouched, and there's something so comforting about being in a place like that. It was an experience Elliot and I will never forget, and unfortunately for the reindeer who may have witnessed my call to nature, one they never will either...
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