Svalbard or Bust!

Just a little tidbit from Wikipedia about Svalbard to give you some context

“Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Situated north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole.   Administratively, the archipelago is not part of any Norwegian county, but forms an unincorporated area administered by a governor appointed by the Norwegian government. Since 2002, Svalbard’s main settlement, Longyearbyen, has had an elected local government, somewhat similar to mainland municipalities. Other settlements include the Russian mining community of Barentsburg, the research station of Ny-Ålesund, and the mining outpost of Sveagruva. Svalbard is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population. Other settlements are farther north, but are populated only by rotating groups of researchers.”


We had a short stop over in Oslo, Norway. We stayed the night and took an early flight to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

The walk on the tarmac from the plane to the airport wakes you up quickly.  The wind was blowing, my eyes were watering and I was sure I had frost bite on the tip of my nose.  Maybe not instant frost bite but it was COLD.  And then we saw our first polar bear…stuffed on top of baggage claim.

I won’t leave you in suspense.  We never encountered a live polar bear (many skins  and stuffed ones though.) 


The only wildlife I encountered were reindeer.  25,000 roam around freely and aren’t intimidated by humans.

So back to the polar bears…people in town share many stories about polar bear sightings.  This past February, a mother and her cubs walked through town.  For 4 days, they stayed close by without intervention.  In Svalbard, it is the polar bear’s territory and people must be the ones inconvenienced, not the bears.  In the late 1990’s, there was a sad ending to a polar bear encounter.  I heard the story from several people so I’ll assume there is validity to it. 

Three women were hiking along a hilltop and came across a polar bear.  They decided it was best to split up.  One ran away, another jumped off a cliff and recovered from minor injuries in the hospital and the other froze from fear.  She was eaten by the bear. 

Svalbard mandates that unless you’re walking in the main part of town, you either carry a gun or hire a guide who carries the gun. 

For those with a gun certificate, you can rent a rifle for a couple of hours if you want to go for a hike, as Christian and Nannette did, or for longer if you’re going out on an exploration.

It’s not being over cautious though since there are approximately 2,000 people and 3,000 polar bears.

While riding in the shuttle from the airport to town I noticed an odd structure on the side of the mountain.  I overheard someone mention that that was the Seed Vault.  It was so unassuming, I didn’t expect that.  This was as close as I came.  People are not allowed to visit.

As stated on their website:

“Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault.

It is a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time — and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. The Seed Vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.” You can read more at

The town of Longyearbyen is not very big.  Most buildings are situated in a concentrated area.  This makes it very convenient to walk to stores, the museum, the university and hotels.  You’ll soon notice that there are more snowmobiles than cars, parking lots are full of snowmobiles.

 Many are outfitted with gun holders and some pull carts to carry things.

I’m not sure if this is actually a coffin or maybe a practical joke.  I didn’t open it to find out.

The first day we arrived in Svalbard was the coldest.  The wind was whipping and actually it was really only my face that was cold.  If I had a face mask, I would have been content.  I’m not someone who likes the cold and I was really concerned that I would be freezing in Iceland and Svalbard but I was never warmer!  I may have overcompensated  with layer upon layer, but it worked.

The hardest thing for me to get use to was taking off my boots every where I went.  In the US, it’s not often customary to remove your shoes when entering someone’s house.  It is in Iceland.  In Svalbard, they take it one step further.  We had to remove our boots at the entrance to the apartment building but we also did it when entering the Svalbard Museum, Galleries and some restaurants.  Thankfully we didn’t have to grocery shop in socks!  But complimentary crocks were available to wear at some places.

I loved the design of the Svalbard Museum

It was beautiful and quite informative.  It highlighted the animals in the area as well as the way of life for many residents current and past (such as coal miners, fishermen, trappers, explorers etc).

Svalbard has banned births and deaths!  The first is more practical to enforce and deaths have been banned since 1950.  Apparently, bodies were not decomposing in the cold and live samples of viruses had been found on bodies who had died decades ago.  Pregnant women 3 weeks prior to their due date leave Svalbard. If someone is contrary and “decides” to die or perhaps give birth in Svalbard, their certificates will be marked as happening in Tromsø, Norway (a northern town on the mainland.)

Dinning in Svalbard can be challenging for vegetarians and even more so for vegans. For meat lovers, I would assume, a sort of heaven. The choices were typically seal, reindeer, whale (a favorite of many) and various types of fish. All our meals, at various restaurants, were delicious. One place that stands out is Mary-Ann’s Polarriggen.

It has so much character.

 We dined in a glass greenhouse. The views were spectacular.  We were there for the first midnight sun on April 19th when the sun never goes below the horizon.  They’ll have 24 hour sun until the end of August. 

You have to be cognizant of the time because it’s easy to stay up late without realizing it.  I was surprised on one night that it was almost midnight when we were finishing our dinner. You can look out the window and see people walking their dogs, going by on snowmobiles and even hiking up the mountains.  I would think the winters, with hours of darkness, would be the most challenging.

A parked bus is a creative way to provide a smoking section to diehard arctic smokers.

There are many adventurous people visiting Svalbard.  In the lobby of Marry-Ann’s I met a Polish guy, his dog and a friend. The three were heading out on a 12 day trek!  They had skis, a couple of sleds full of supplies and of course a gun. I wondered how safe it would be sleeping in tents in the wilderness where polar bears lived.  He said his dog adds a layer of security because he may smell the bear in advance and warn them by barking.  I’m not sure how much security that would offer me but I guess it’s better than nothing. His dog was so enamored with him, I’m sure he would do his best to protect them.

Not many people are officially from Svalbard, especially since no one is officially born there!  People come for different reasons and from different regions.  Two of my favorite people from Svalbard are Nikola and Romano, they both work at Mary-Ann’s. 

Nicola Bunyan is 30 years old and was visiting from Paisley, Scotland a year ago. She fell in love with the place and decided to move there. Upon returning home, she quit her job as a graphic designer, sold most of her stuff, except for a few things she left at her mother’s, and headed to Longyearbyen with 2 suitcases. 

When asked:

What’s the best thing about Svalbard?

Nicola said that the people are friendly and the atmosphere is so relaxed.  It’s such a diverse community and you can meet people from all over the world. 

What makes you unique?

Nicola doesn’t follow the way of the world, but rather thirsts for new experiences.  She can’t accept that’s all there is and is constantly looking for more. “There is always more.  It’s never the end!”

Romano Juric is 38 years old and from Primošten, Croatia.  He came for more opportunities and plans to stay for many more years. 

When asked:

What’s the best thing about Svalbard?

Romano says it’s stress-free (I’m starting to see a theme here too!)  It’s calm and quiet and there’s no traffic or rushing around.  It’s OK if you want to be alone or if you prefer to socialize with others.

What makes you unique?

Romano is not a quitter and doesn’t like limits but instead believes he can accomplish anything in life he puts his mind to.  His goals energize him.  The challenge is being patient since he want things to happen immediately.

2 Replies to “Svalbard or Bust!”

  1. Thanks for writing all that down! Now I can send everybody the link and don’t have to tell it over and over again! Very nice to read! 🙂

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