What is 78° North? That's likely the closest you can get to the North Pole and call it a holiday! Imagine living in a place where winter months have no daylight hours and summer has sunshine all day. Welcome to Svalbard; the northernmost city in the world.
Two blogs in and its another cold destination, you're probably thinking does she only travel to strange places at the ends of the earth? Well yes strange sometimes but no not always cold. These winter destinations are great so if you're planning a trip over I can only hope to try and help you.
Now it's not to say you need to go all the way out there to enjoy the midnight sun or polar nights, these natural phenomena can be experienced in the Arctic circle in places like Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Canada too so take your pick. BUT Svalbard has its own charm. I mean seriously, even the flight over was something else - pay the extra for a window seat, its worth every penny! You know you're getting closer as the hues change and you start to see slightly darker shades of blue as you come in to land. I found myself snapping away as soon as I set foot on the tarmac and learnt very quickly, you have about 20 seconds before your fingers will freeze. Literally. Leave the gloves ON, use a camera, if you are going to use your phone invest in gloves which will let you poke the screen without having to take them off. They are not going to be much use in the cold realistically, you will need windproof and waterproof clothing, but for short bursts they will do the job.
Arriving at Longyearbyen airport was a great experience, one of the quickest baggage pick-up and immigration clearances I have ever done. Also the quickest check-in when we left, we were the only one's in the queue! On arrival we found you can get a cab to the hotel or jump into the bus which would do a few drop off's. Its worth remembering there are not many hotels in town so this is probably a good option as it does not take much longer if the bus is literally waiting outside. Just tell the driver which hotel, it is far cheaper and they are really welcoming.
In a strange way, Svalbard made you feel right at home as you walked into your hotel or even restaurants when grabbing a bite to eat. Like I said it had its own charm.
When we arrived at the hotel we were surprised to see a sign at the door after entering to remove our boots. Yep you read that right - they had 2 rooms, one on either side of the entrance just for this. You are expected to remove boots on arrival and not wear them until you are ready to leave, it is common decency to do this. Basically, don't bring the snow in and create a mess, its warm inside so of course will turn into puddles everywhere. We soon found this to be common practice, including in restaurants. Actually it was quite nice and you could walk around in slippers or just your comfy socks indoors and no one cared. It was 'normal.'
Other than the restaurants - which they have a nice selection, walking distance or a cab ride from the hotel. There are other things you can do locally in Longyearbyen which are either free or pretty cheap (considering costs for the usual excursions!). You can visit the world's northernmost brewery and have a drink after the tour - has a great story to this as well. Walk around the town and see the northernmost post office, ATM, church and museums.
Of course this is not all, depending on when you travel to Svalbard there are numerous other things to see and do too. I had booked my trips with tour operators as car hire seemed daft with extreme weather conditions, also there are not many roads within the town of Longyearbyen so best to walk or get a cab locally. It is also not advised to leave the town due to polar bears, you need to be armed or be with someone that is if doing so. Its not common to see them close to town but they can stray in search of food so best to be safe!
You can book tours to see the best bits of Longyearbyen, hike, photography tours, boat tours to get out and see the fjords or get to other parts of Svalbard like Pyramiden or Barentsburg, you may see whales, polar bears or other arctic animals too if you're lucky - Beluga's do like to say hello here. You can also see the northern lights during the winter months, but if these come out to play just sit down, look up and enjoy the show! It is good to know that many trips can also be over a day if you have a multi-day boat trip or travel east for example - these are usually on a snowmobile, you will need a licence to drive one of these, but if you plan in advance you can book accommodation accordingly.
Longyearbyen also is the home of the Global Seed Vault also known as the 'doomsday vault' by some where countries across the world have provided a sample of seeds to be stored in case of a man made or natural disasters destroying crop. They call it the final back up in case of any future disasters. You can't go inside but you can visit it from the outside as part of a tour or by taxi. Not something most people will visit will nice to have seen it and know I am in a minority.
The best thing about Svalbard is the landscapes. Take out time to just soak in the natural beauty of the country. Personally this was the most rewarding aspect of Svalbard, ok its because I didn't see any polar bears or beluga's but really I wasn't going to in winter so I'll be back to see those in the summer months. But it was relaxing to just sit back and do nothing and look at the views.
Hotel: I stayed at the Radisson Blu and truly recommend it, breakfast in the morning was really good and we tried the dinner here on our first evening before venturing out the following days.
Places to eat: Coal Miners' Cabins, Restaurant Kroa, Barentz Pub and Spiseri. We didn't get round to trying the Karlsberger Pub but this was because we got snowed in on the night it was planned. Maybe you can let me know if its worth doing on my next trip?
Remember to check out the photo's under Travel Snapshots, I have an album for Svalbard.