Svalbard is a Norwegian Island lying far in the north which is just around 1000 Km away from the North pole. It is far more north than any place that you would have heard – Canada, Alaska, Finland, Iceland and even most of Greenland! The capital of Svalbard, Longyearbyen is the northernmost town on earth. It is an arctic desert with four months of the polar night from the end of October till mid of February followed by summer months when the Sun never sets.
How to reach
Though located so high in the arctic at 78 deg North, it is not so difficult to reach this place. Direct flight connectivity makes this place less costly to reach than to any similar exotic places on earth. There are flights from the Norwegian capital Oslo or from another beautiful norwegian town, Tromso. Norwegian Airlines and SAS operates flights to the Longyearbyen airport. Theoretically, anyone with a passport can go to Svalbard. In reality, however since flights are operated only from Norway, a multi-entry Schengen visa is needed to embark on this adventure. Needless to say, we couldn’t miss the views from the plane and had booked window seats. It doesn’t matter which side you choose since both sides are equally magical.
There are not many options for accommodation, so booking in advance is not just recommended but required. Also adding to the fact that it is Norway, there is nothing cheap in this Island. Among a couple of Airbnb options and few hotels, the two cheapest options are – Coal Miners Cabin and Guesthouse 102. The prices varied a lot with dates and it is not easy to find a good combination when the hotel rates and the flights were both at their cheapest. We stayed in Guesthouse 102 which we booked through booking.com. We found that the rates were the same even directly from their website, but booking .com had free cancellation option, so we chose this way. This place, though located 2 km from the city centre, was perfect for all our needs. The rooms had all the necessary amenities. The common kitchen in the hotel was quite useful since eating out was quite expensive. The distance from the centre didn’t matter much since this hotel is also on the list of pickup points for all the activities that you would want to do. However, walking to the city centre in –25 degrees Celsius was also not a piece of cake. For those looking for a more luxurious option, there is a Radisson Blu Hotel which is right in the city centre.
The biggest advantage with booking with Guesthouse 102 is that it is located at the end of the town, hence the street lights stopped few meters from the hotel. So, you can see the northern lights right from the hotel. We saw many people who had walked up to this place to see the aurora. The nights were incredibly cold with temperature dropping to –32 degrees or lower and hence it was not so easy to stand outside to wait for or watch the lights. We were so happy that we could just walk few steps to enjoy the spectacular light show and enter our hotel back, warm ourselves and then step out again to admire the different forms adorned by the aurora.
To reach the hotel from the airport there are buses for which you can buy tickets directly from the driver. Don’t forget to buy a return ticket as it is slightly cheaper than two separate tickets. The bus stops in front of most hotels with Guesthouse 102 being the last stop. The bus timings are in tune with the flight schedules and you will surely have a seat and hence no need to rush out. Apart from this bus, there is no form of public transport and also doesn’t make any sense in such a tiny city. The main mode of transportation is snowmobiles and apparently, there are more snowmobiles than people on this Island. For all major expeditions venturing outside the city, it is the only choice. There are also taxis available in case you will need one.
There are many very unique activities to choose from, which is one of the main reasons why tourists make it to this extraordinary location. All the activities could be planned using the website visitsvalbard.com which is the official tourism website. We also found that you can also book the activities directly with the providers or even through hotel websites. Since it is a very close community, people here survive with the support of each other and hence we could feel that there was not much of competition among the various activity providers. So even the rates were fixed irrespective of how you book it. We, however, found that the activity planner from the website of Guesthouse 102 was much easier to use to make an easy comparison of the cost of various activities that we wanted to do. After lot of research, we narrowed down to the following activities:
1. Snowmobile rides: There are many options to choose from starting from a couple of hours trip to multi-day expeditions. Like most activities, they are quite expensive. If you have a few days and budget to spare, try to book a full day expedition that takes you to the Eastcoast or other two main settlements in the Island – Pyramiden or Barentsburg. A couple of friends who lives in this Island highly recommend this activity to truly enjoy the real feel of arctic wilderness. Since our schedule and budget didn’t allow us to spare enough and since we had already experienced Snowmobile ride in Finland, we didn’t choose this.
2. Husky Ride: This is another unique activity that you can enjoy only in winter destinations. The huskies were so adorable and energetic and can take you through fantastic landscapes. Again, there are many variants available. We chose a 5-hour activity which included pickup to set up the sledge and the ride. The actual ride was for around 1 to 1.5 hours. There were 5 groups each consisting of two persons on a sledge. You get a crash course on how to handle the sledge and all the required basics for a small ride. Pay attention to the details since many scenarios which they explain could actually happen from slowing down to stopping the dogs, or taking you out of the expected path or even encountering a polar bear. We booked the dog sledding offered by the company Greendog. We thoroughly enjoyed this activity. Since you are on your own on a sledge and have a great responsibility to take care of yourselves and your dogs, you feel really involved and adventurous. We felt that it wouldn’t have mattered much if we had chosen a shorter or a longer duration one or whichever company since the overall experience is going to be more or less the same. So as a tip, you could just choose the cheapest one available and that suits your timings.