For bragging rights, few places can match the Norwegian Arctic territory of Svalbard. It’s far north. Really, really far north. How far, you ask? The northernmost piece of Alaska is at a latitude of 71 degrees north; Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, can be found at 78 degrees north.
After years, possibly decades of looking at Svalbard on maps, pricing flights, and perusing websites, I finally visited the territory in late April. I felt as if I was shooting into the unknown, despite my advance research and my knowledge of the territory’s tourist infrastructure. I felt a bolt of uncertainty as the plane landed, in a snowstorm no less, and then a sense of wonder as I spied enormous mountains. It was more beautiful than I’d imagined, and far quieter. The silence was a constant presence. Even the abrasive sound of a snowmobile didn’t really disturb it, not for more than a few seconds.
Administered by Norway since 1925, Svalbard has around 2,500 residents. Most live in Longyearbyen, a little valley town with a cultural and retail infrastructure typical of far larger towns: a mall, a well-stocked supermarket, an Arctic Museum, a cultural center, hotels, restaurants and bars. During my visit in late April, all were pretty lively, tourists more rare than residents.
Though a Norwegian territory, Svalbard does not belong to Norway proper. Before boarding flights from Oslo or Tromsø–and after disembarking on return to the mainland–passengers have to go through passport control. The territory is governed under the terms of the Svalbard Treaty, which allows citizens of all signatory nations to commercially exploit the land and waters around and take employment in the territory. This explains the existence of Russian mining towns in Svalbard – Pyramiden (closed in 1998) and Barentsburg, which had 380 inhabitants at last count.
As befits a place commercially open to the world, Svalbard is a rather diverse place. While most residents are Norwegian, the territory is impressively international, with tourists adding to the linguistic melee. During a short midday stroll in the center of town, I heard Norwegian, Swedish, Tagalog, Swiss German, German, English, Thai, Portuguese, French, Flemish and Polish.
During my visit, I used the world’s northernmost ATM and had a coffee at Fruene Kaffe & Vinbar, a café that bills itself as the world’s northernmost coffeehouse. I saw a handbill advertising a forthcoming Thai restaurant, which will surely be the northernmost restaurant of its kind in the world. I bought a magazine and a hot dog at the world’s northernmost convenience store. And then I sort of lost count of northernmost claims or projections. Almost everything in the territory, with the exception of snowmobiles, scientists, polar bears, and the odd research camp, is the most northerly example of its kind on earth.
What is there to do in Svalbard? The adventurous have many choices. There are all sorts of extreme skiing and mountaineering tours on offer for those interested in heading off into the wilderness with an expedition leader, gear, rifles (as protection against polar bears) and other necessities.
Many tourists overnight in Longyearbyen and take exploratory day trips. The most popular winter day tours include dogsledding, snowmobile journeys to Barentsburg (eight hours) or the east coast of Spitsbergen (ten hours), glacier hiking, and ice caving. During the summer, there are glacier hiking tours, fossil hunting trips, dogsledding (on wheels) and journeys by boat along the coast.
For the less adventurous, there is an informative two-hour taxi tour, and there is the Arctic Museum, a truly fantastic resource, devoted to Svalbard and the wider Arctic region. The museum addresses climate change, the flora and fauna of the region, the impact of human activity on the territory, and various implications of technology. Its library is wide-ranging and multilingual, with books on a huge number of Arctic topics.
*There are in fact a few inhabited places farther north than Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost settlement on Svalbard, though none of these are towns. These are Russian meteorological stations on Sredny Island and in Franz Josef Land; a Danish military base in northeastern Greenland; Alert, a Canadian military and science station; and Barneo, a seasonal Russian ice camp housed on the Arctic Ocean ice sheet.
[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]