The Svalbard islands, of which Spitsbergen is the largest, are at the very limit of the inhabitable world. At the last point before the Pole, a common boast pervades ... the northernmost place with a permanent population, Europe's most northerly point, the farthest north you can get by scheduled flight, the most northerly hotel, the world's most northern ATM, etc. You get the gist.
"So many bucket-list experiences on a single short-break, including the northern lights almost every night."Sophie Rowley (Warwickshire, UK)
For snow lovers, there are two seasons to consider – there is the dark winter and the light winter. Most will choose the latter, stretching from early March through until late May, when conditions are perfect to climb on to a snowmobile or dog sled and explore the tundra. Days become increasingly longer – indeed, by the end of April the midnight sun warms the still-white landscape – and temperatures are not quite as terrifying as earlier in the winter. This is when Spitsbergen is at its Arctic best ... just as the mainland Europe begins to loose its snow cover.
But also consider the ominous-sounding dark winter. Many people have the summer midnight sun on their bucket list, but consider also the other-worldly midday moon! By the end of October, the sun has shed its last rays and the islands descend into almost three months when darkness prevails around the clock. But it's not gloomy – with clear skies, starry nights, full moons and (often) the northern lights, it's more of an ethereal blue which lights up the snow. By February, a little light returns during the day, and the blue tones become a glorious pink. All through the dark winter, life does not stop for the locals – no-one hibernates on Spitsbergen – and activities continue as normal. It's quieter, it's dreamlike and it's absolutely beautiful.
Longyearbyen is the principal town, and this is where the airport is and, almost certainly, where your 'base' accommodation will be. It's a cosy town, with plenty of options for wining and dining in the evenings. But a trip to Spitsbergen is focused on getting out of the town and exploring the irresistible, treeless landscapes – there are no roads outside of the main settlements which keeps it utterly wild and totally unspoiled. There are only three species of large mammal on the islands; the reindeer, the Arctic fox and, of course, the Polar bears – which actually outnumber humans. The chance of a sighting is good (but can never be guaranteed), and this is why all guides will be carrying a gun whenever you leave town. Just in case.
Scandinavian Airlines fly to Longyearbyen from Tromsø and Olso and Norwegian Airlines fly to Longyearbyen from Oslo about three times a week. They are usually a little more affordable. From Oslo, the flight time is two hours and 50 minutes, and from Tromsø it's one hour and 40 minutes. The islands' airport is called 'Svalbard Airport Longyear' and all visitors needs to go through passport control. There is no regular boat transportation between the Norwegian mainland and Svalbard.
If we have not arranged a pick-up, there is an airport shuttle bus meeting every flight that will take you easily from the airport to your accommodation in Longyearbyen. In this main town, it is perfectly possible to walk around by yourself, but at the edges of the settlement there are large signs which warn of the dangers posed by polar bears. Do not wander beyond without the services of an experienced guide, who will carry a rifle. There are only about 25 miles of road all together in Longyearbyen and no roads are connecting different settlements on the islands.