Isfjorden, Svalbard

Photo: Wilson44691 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wilson44691 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s late October, which means everyone is starting to think about the holidays. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and even Christmas are right around the corner. Pretty soon the baking, the shopping, and the decorating will begin. But your mind is on a different type of holiday. You’re thinking about the vacation type. Specifically, where to go after all those other holidays end.

For next year, you’re thinking big. Not anywhere you can drive. Not a quick trip to the Caribbean, though that does sound quite relaxing. Not even a multi-city tour of Europe. You’re thinking about a remote island, the midnight sun, polar bears and reindeer, and a cozy lodge in the middle of nowhere. Svalbard it is.

Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world with a permanent population. The unincorporated Norwegian archipelago sits in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between mainland Europe and the North Pole. It was first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries. Coal miners and its first real settlement followed in the 20th century. It’s now an adventure-lover’s paradise, with seven national parks and 23 nature reserves. Glaciers cover 60 percent of the islands. Boats and snowmobiles are the primary modes of transportation; there are no roads between the villages. While polar bear sightings are so common that people carry rifles, just in case.

Photo: Basecamp Spitsbergen
Photo: Basecamp Spitsbergen

So don’t be alarmed when you board a boat in Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, and notice the captain is carrying a gun. You’re also given an immersion suit, to help you stay alive for one hour, should you land in the icy water. Your mind bounces between the two scenarios. Neither sounds like a pleasant way to die. But soon, you’re passing mountains and fjords. The sun reflects off the bright white snow. Northern fulmars swoop into the water and emerge with flopping capelins. Seals pop their heads above the water as they swim. And a whale is crossing the fjord up ahead.

When you finally reach Isfjorden, you’re welcomed with a warm apple drink and a roaring fire in the library. Isfjord Radio was once a radio station that connected Svalbard to the mainland and aided with sea navigation. Satellite communication rendered it unnecessary in the late 1970s. It was recently renovated into a modern hotel. The building looks basic on the outside, but inside you find squishy beds, wool and cashmere blankets, and fleece robes. Gourmet dinners feature local ingredients: cod, whale, and reindeer. While the view includes Isfjorden (Svalbard’s second-longest fjord), Alkhornet (a snow-covered mountain), and Nordre Isfjorden National Park (full of Atlantic puffins, Brünnich’s guillemots, and black-legged kittiwakes). Greenland is in the distance.

You spend the next few days hiking and riding boats through the fjord. You spot walruses, white arctic foxes, and Svalbard reindeer. You drink hot chocolate and sit in the sauna. And you eagerly anticipate your first polar bear sighting. Then this epic trip will be complete.

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