Svalbard is an assault on the senses. This wondrous archipelago is the world’s most readily accessible bit of the polar north and one of the most spectacular places imaginable. Vast icebergs and floes choke the seas, and icefields and glaciers frost the lonely heights. But under close scrutiny, the harsh conditions reveal tiny gems as the Arctic desert soil, however barren-looking, manages to sustain lichens, miniature grasses and delicate little flowers. The environment supports larger creatures too: whales, seals, walruses, Arctic foxes, squat Svalbard reindeer – and polar bears aplenty, outnumbering us humans for the moment.
Svalbard doesn’t come easy – especially on the pocket. It’s nearly a 1000km flight from the nearest major airport on the mainland and budget accommodation is very much at a premium. The independent traveller is a rare sight on islands; the vast majority of visitors arrive on an organised tour. We recommend signing up for group visits once arriving in Longyearbyen, the usual point of independent entry. Don’t discount a winter visit. There are plenty of outdoor activities to keep you rosy-cheeked and you’ll get more of a feel for Longyearbyen as a living community with a raison d’être of its own.
Gibraltar – Top of the World Arctic Circle © Monika Newbound