Welcome to the trip report of my recent trip to Spitsbergen/Svalbard! First of all, let’s see where I actually went and how I got there (image courtesy of Google Maps and gcmap.com)
The trip started off with the flights from Amsterdam to Oslo and a stopover in Copenhagen. As my first flight didn’t leave until mid-afternoon, I wasn’t in a rush. Slept in a bit, re-packed my bag, charged the final equipment and slowly made my way to the train station.
I still arrived too early and killed some time on the panorama deck on top of the terminal. 30 minutes later, it was time to check in. I ended up in quite a queue, as there was only one desk open. After a while, this got doubled and everything went a lot faster, much to the relief of everyone waiting. The time spent going through security and waiting for my flight was quite uneventful and soon it was time to board the aircraft. It was a beautiful day for flying; sunny with clear blue skies. The flight to Copenhagen was only an hour and I spent most of it looking outside. Best IFE I can think of!
When approaching Copenhagen, we had an awesome view of the city and actually circled around it during our descend into the airport. The city, shipping channel and Øresund Bridge could clearly be seen down below. After deplaning, I set off to find a comfy area where I could spend my 2h layover. I eventually found a secluded area at the head of the B-pier and just relaxed. Most of the time was taken up by looking out the windows and taking a few photos here and there.
As I had a seat behind the wing, I was able to board through the rear door of the aircraft. In this case, it involved a short walk over the tarmac and up a set of airstairs (as opposed to using a jetway). Exactly the way I prefer.
The flight to Oslo was a short one and again I spent most of it looking outside the window and listening to some music. By this time, I had already gotten pretty hungry, but I knew that once I was at Oslo, I would get some food. I would meet up with my friend there and we would grab dinner together before our flight to Longyearbyen. We ended up at O’Learys, where I settled for a plate of nachos and a nice burger & fries. With the hunger now gone, we set off to find our gate. We were the last flight of the day and it wasn’t a completely full flight. Everything went pretty smooth and soon enough we were cruising high above the Norwegian landscape.
In the summer, it is light 24/7 in these regions. Something I’ve never experienced before and I was curious to see how/what that’s all about. For the first part of the flight, I slept a bit and listened to music. When I couldn’t really sleep anymore, I started to play around with the camera to try to take a photo outside. This was hard enough already, as the window was fairly dirty and the ice crystals didn’t help either.
Atleast the light was not a problem! During our entire flight, it was still very bright outside. Perhaps a little less bright than it normally is during the day, but otherwise not that different. Despite the fact that it was now approaching midnight, it felt like midday. About 30 minutes before our scheduled arrival time, we started our descend. For the entire flight over the ocean, I had seen nothing but clouds down below and over the island was no different. We went into the cloud layer and I was very excited to see what the landscape would look like. And I was not disappointed!
When we got below the clouds, we could see the beautiful snowy mountains and rugged landscape of Svalbard. Truly breathtaking and it got me glued to the window until we touched down. I took photos and video clips of this approach and I would definitely recommend checking them out (see below).
Outside the airport there were buses waiting for all the passengers. 3 buses, each for a different part of town it seemed. We could buy a return ticket with the driver, which came down to about 120NOK per person. Since there are only 1 or 2 flights a day, the bus comes at set times for each accommodation to pick up guests. You just show your return ticket and you’re good to go. Also outside the airport was a signpost, which mentioned the distances to various places. Of course the obligatory photo was taken as well.
We got to the hotel around 01:30 and it was still very much light outside. Checking in went very smooth, as we were the only guests for this hotel (in this bus). The room looked very nice and clean and we quickly settled down to get ready for bed. We blinded the windows as much as we could, but couldn’t prevent some light sneaking into the room. However, we were tired enough to sleep. Turned out this is the best ingredient; just make sure you’re tired enough to sleep and the small amount of light is not bothersome.
The alarm sounded at 09:00 and I was still feeling quite tired. Even though in theory I could’ve gotten enough sleep, it took me a while to unwind from the day and it was hard to fall asleep in the first place. I did manage a good couple of hours though and the tiredness was fixed by a nice warm shower.
We headed down to the breakfast buffet, which was as good as one can expect. Juices, bread, pastries, cereal, some vegetables and fruits. All in all a pretty solid base to start the day with. The plan was to walk around town by ourselves and at 16:00, we would go on one of the excursions that we pre-booked. But more about that later!
After breakfast, we got our stuff and went back to the lobby to put on our shoes. Turns out, it’s customary to take your shoes off in certain places. We experienced this in the hotel, the tourist office and the museum. At the places where you need to take them off, they offer storage racks and sometimes a substitute slipper. In any case, the shoe-thing became a fixed ritual every time we went from/to the hotel.
With 2500 inhabitants, Longyearbyen isn’t a big town. As such, there aren’t many stores and walking through one of the ‘shopping streets’ doesn’t take very long. The street has some stores, restaurants and a bakery. A small square hosts a small statue of a miner, depicting the history of Longyearbyen.
When getting to the end of the street, we had a look around and noticed the incredible amount of snowmobiles that were sitting on wooden pallets. It was obvious they’re just stored like that until it gets winter again, since the valley is clear of snow in summer. It did however offer a view of the means of transportation in this town and I believe the quote “more snowmobiles than inhabitants” is very much true. Our location was still a bit uphill and we had a nice overview of the bay area, with the polar university and museum as the eye-catcher. We went down and walked by it, but saved the actual museum visit for the last day.
We went across a bridge over a small water stream and made our way to the waterside. But I couldn’t resist going off-road, so I carefully proceeded to climb the rocks that were in the stream. From the middle of the stream, I could take some nice photos and try out some long exposures, in an attempt to capture the water movement. Once I was done being a kid again, we eventually did get to the waterside. A pebble beach, with some wooden pallets in the shape of a beach chair, a fire place and an open cabin are what we found. “Hey, this is actually pretty nice!” If the weather was a bit better and the water a bit warmer, I can even imagine going for a (very) short dip.
We were just exploring the beach, goofing around, but also taking plenty of photos, some videos and in the end we spent a good amount of time there. Once done at this location, we headed back up the hill, towards the hotel. We wanted to sit down for a bit and hopped into the Svalbar (bar/restaurant) for a beer. I opted for a Norwegian weissbier, which went down well. We talked over our plans and the choice was made to walk to the West, up the hill where the old coal facility is located. We also knew that the SAS flight from Tromsø would arrive that afternoon, so we wanted to combine this. The coal facility is not in use anymore, but it was nice to see it from up close. Unfortunately the SAS aircraft was too distant, but it was fun to look at it as it crossed in front of the mountains.
During the hike back towards the town center we figured we would check out the supermarket. It’s a good sized supermarket and they have most things one could want on a trip like this. Since we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, I bought a large sandwich and 2 bottles of water. Getting back to the hotel, we took off our shoes again and went to the room to have our late lunch. At this point, we had about an hour to kill before our excursion.
Shortly before 16:00, we went outside to wait. We were expecting to see a minivan, as that is what is shown in the ads for it. A taxi arrived, so we figured he was just picking someone up. Turns out, that was for us! He said that we were the only 2 people on the tour today, so instead of a minivan, they used a normal taxi. Fine for me, as you can get a more custom tour this way.
He took us through the town first, explaining some of the history. We then proceeded towards the old coal facility that we visited earlier that day, but took a left turn to end up at the church and the plaque in memory of the founder of Longyearbyen, the American John Munro Longyear. During this trip, I’ve come to realize that “by” means city in Norwegian. Hence the name Longyearbyen (Longyear city).
After a short stop there, we proceeded to the back of the valley, as the driver/guide knew a nice spot from where we could overlook the town. On the way there, we passed the small graveyard of Longyearbyen. The driver explained that not everyone gets buried on the island and that most bodies get flown back to the mainland. If someone wants to be buried In Longyearbyen, he/she needs to have permission from the governor of the island.
We finally got to the vantage point and it really was a good lookout. The entire valley could be seen from an elevated point of view and as luck would have it, the sun came out very briefly. I had just enough time to shoot 2 panoramic photos (linked at the bottom of the page). The driver proceed to explain some history of the mines and how there are 7 in total. However, only mine 7 is still operational. Mine 1a can be seen on the slopes of the West side of town, mines 2a and 2b are on the Eastern slope. Mines 3, 4 and 5 are a bit more remote and harder to reach. Mines 6 and 7 were to the East, outside of town. We would visit them later in this tour.
Mine 1a is demolished and the remnants can still be seen on the slope. Mine 2b is much more intact and people can hike up to it and have a closer look. I would’ve loved to do this, but unfortunately we didn’t have time for that on this trip. Mine 2a is nothing more than a red scorched area on the side of the mountain. During or shortly after the war, a German battleship entered the bay and shot this mine, after which it burned for 21 years. A short ride to the back of the village, where the hostels are located, got us our first reindeer sighting. Just next to the road. They’re not very shy and it reminded me a lot of the donkeys on Bonaire.
We would now be getting on our way towards the far Eastern part of the road network. 1km outside town, we stopped for a few minutes to see the polar bear warning sign. With so many polar bears roaming the island, pretty much everywhere outside of town is a risk area. People are advised not to go there without means of protecting themselves. This means either rent a rifle (if you carry a license) or go on a guided tour. There were also many dog/husky farms along this road. You can stop and pet them at some of the farms, but again we didn’t end up doing that.
On our way to mine 6, we encountered a group of reindeer in the plains next to the road. We stopped for a few photos and after the driver mentioned you could get pretty close, I hopped out of the car to test this in the field. I could indeed get quite close, up to a few meters. Getting to mine 6 required a slight uphill drive. It’s abandoned as well, so we just had a quick look around before continuing to mine 7. This one is still operational and requires driving to an altitude of some 400m on a road that zigzags up the mountain. Once arrived at the top, we quickly drove around at the mine and then stopped at a very nice vantage point from where we could overlook the valley (panoramic photos linked at the bottom of the page!).
Now we just had 1 stop left, which was the global seed vault. Here, many hundreds of seeds from all over the world are stored. The complex is built in the permafrost, so the seeds will not spoil. Unfortunately only a select few people are allowed to enter the vault, so we only got to see it from the outside. The area in front of the vault is a good vantage point for aviation photography, as it gives a good overview of the airport. We were discussing this in the car and mentioned to the driver that we both like aviation. He then mentioned that he was a retired air traffic controller! What are the odds…
With the vault being our last stop, we drove back to the hotel and thanked the driver for a great excursion. It was now around 18:30, so we dropped our gear in the hotel and went back to the Svalbar for dinner. During dinner, we realized it was still quite early and made the plan to walk to the dog farm that we saw earlier (1km from town). There are lots of birds there and my friend wanted to have a closer look. The reason for the large presence is that their natural enemy, the arctic fox, doesn’t go near the farms because of the dogs. Photography conditions were quite challenging, but the experimenting was fun.
Walking back to the hotel, we passed the bar again and opted to sit down for a couple more drinks before calling it day. We didn’t want to make it too late, since the next day would be a long and probably fun-filled one.
After a few hours of sleep, the alarm sounded at 06:00. I hate waking up this early, but on holiday and with a fun day ahead, I usually manage just fine. During breakfast, I discovered that we could also make our own waffles. I couldn’t believe I didn’t notice that before and I took full advantage of this new find. After all, with such a long day ahead of us a good breakfast was essential.
We thought our pickup was scheduled for 08:00, but we had to wait until 08:30 for our bus to arrive. Once we were on our way, we had a few stops more before arriving at the port. Our ship, the MS Polargirl, was ready and waiting. Soon after we set off, we were called inside for a short explanation of the day. Fortunately, the guide didn’t take too long and we could go explore the ship by ourselves. The upper deck became my instant favorite spot and throughout the day I spent most of my time there. From this location, you also had a good view of the seagulls that ‘buzzed’ the ship frequently. Coming up from behind and flying next to the deck on eye level. I spent a good amount of time trying to photograph them from this close. It was quite tough to get them sharp, but I still managed a few.
The view from up there was amazing. Cruising through the blue arctic water, with the snowy mountain ranges visible in the distance, it was impossible to not have a good time. It took us a couple of hours to get to the first ‘stop’. I missed the guide explanation of this area, but I think it was some sort of bird cliff (where they nest). We carried on towards our first proper stop: Pyramiden. Pyramiden is a former Russian mining settlement. It has been abandoned since 1998 and is advertised as a ghost town. In reality, a handful of people live there now, as it is a tourist attraction. In summer, about 10 people live in Pyramiden, in winter it’s about 3. The infrastructure and buildings are still mostly intact, which does give it a bit of a ghost town vibe.
The Russian guide for this tour met us at the docks and there was a bus waiting for us to transport everyone to the entrance of the town. We got off the bus and the guide proceeded to explain a bit of the history behind the town. Most important part of all; stick together as a group, as polar bears are a real threat there. Since not many humans populate this area, polar bears roam around freely. Unfortunately we didn’t see any though. As we walked towards the buildings, we passed the heliport of the town. It looked a bit shabby, but does the trick for the few flights that arrive per month. A Mil Mi-8 helicopter is operated from Barentsburg and mostly flies in supplies.
At some point, we arrived at a building where the past inhabitants of Pyramiden could relax. It featured a movie theatre, library and indoor football field. Of course I had to try that, but sadly no-one wanted to try with me. The balls were quite low on air, so it wasn’t the success that I hope for. We only had 15 minutes to explore the buildings before we set off to the next one.
We now arrived at the indoor swimming pool. One for kids and one for adults. I didn’t have the time to see the kids version, because I spent all the time exploring the other pool. Everything did look pretty abandoned, dusty and there was no water present in any of the pools. Next stop was the kitchen, which had a beautiful mosaic hanging over the staircase. It was quite a large and impressive building. Eventually we got to the final part of the Pyramiden tour, which featured a small bar, some old leather lounge sets and a place where we could buy souvenirs. Most people opted for a shot of Russian vodka together with a pastry. I settled for a fridge magnet as a reminder of this trip. After some 30 minutes, we got on the bus and were brought back to the boat.
I was now pretty hungry, since breakfast had been my only meal so far. Luckily, lunch was ready on the aft deck of the ship! It consisted of a beef stew and some bread, quite a tasty meal. You had to be careful not to leave things lying around though, since the wind would pick up everything that wasn’t secured. We were now halfway towards the Nordenskiöld glacier, which is located opposite of Pyramiden. The sun was out and I made my way back to the upper deck. Such beautiful scenery all around! Getting closer to the glacier, we slowed down and drifted to it. A seal could be seen in the distance, sunbathing on a piece of ice. We were all really hoping to see a polar bear during this excursion, but it wasn’t meant to be.
At this point, the engine almost seemed off and it was so quiet. The scenery was breathtaking and the whole experience was a very memorable one. Life is good! Then someone pointed out that there was a seal behind the ship as well, but I didn’t have enough time to snap a good photo of it. Sadly, it was now time to get going again. We said goodbye to this impressive glacier and made our way home. I spent pretty much the entire time out on the deck, chatting with other tourists on this cruise. At some point, people start to get more comfortable and one can have good conversations and share experiences. I always love it when that happens and it made the day so much more enjoyable.
There was still one short stop to go – the official bird cliff. It was nice to see but otherwise not super spectacular in my opinion. The weather was slowly turning a bit grey again as we got closer to Longyearbyen. Others (and myself) had been on a self-assigned ‘whale watch’ for most of the day. Earlier on the trip, we learned that whales were spotted as recent as the day before, so naturally we kept our fingers crossed to experience this as well. Being close to port now, the cold finally got to me and I decided to get inside to warm up a bit. Of course a few minutes later one of the crew said that a whale was spotted! Everyone rushed outside and I managed to get my spot on the upper deck again. We slowly made our way towards the big guy and you could hear a needle drop. No-one said a word and we were all in awe of what we were seeing. The captain said it was a blue whale, the largest animal on the planet. It came up several times and made a number of water fountains. It was a bit hard to predict where it would surface, but I think I managed a few nice shots. The whale-detour was about 30 minutes and I’m very thankful that the crew gave us this unique experience.
Getting back on shore, we got onto a bus again, which went by all the hotels to drop people off. We put our stuff in the hotel room and went for dinner. The burger and fries that my friend ordered the previous day looked pretty tasty, so I chose that. Afterwards, we made use of the pool table to play a couple of games (I lost ). Upon getting back to the hotel room, I realized my throat was starting to feel a bit sore. I really hoped it wouldn’t evolve into anything more serious, but it later turned out it did. In hindsight, I probably caught a cold after being on the upper deck for so long (and in the cold wind), but it’s a price I was willing to pay for the experience. And at least I managed to have a good night’s sleep.
Since we had no real plans or pre-booked excursions for today, we could sleep in a bit and take our time. The alarm went off at 09:00 and we headed down for breakfast. While eating, we thought of what we would do today.
We had an incredibly long day ahead of us. Our flight to Oslo was leaving at 02:30 that night and the late checkout was only possible until 12:00. The same bus that brought us to the hotel would take us back to the airport. He would be at the hotel at midnight, so that left us with 12 hours to kill. We decided that after finishing breakfast, we would just stay in the hotel until noon. Charging batteries, repacking our bag and watching some TV. I also kept a close eye on the rental bikes that were across the street, at the tourist information office. The plan was to make use of those after checking out.
Once we finished our business with the hotel, we went across the street to see if we could rent the bikes. The girl behind the desk told us they’re actually free to use, we just needed to fill in some paperwork (name, hotel we’re staying at, when we would bring them back, etc.). Easy enough and within a few minutes we headed outside to our bikes. Apparently they had been previously taken out by tall people, as we had to adjust the height significantly. But soon, we were good to go. The idea was to cycle to the airport and do some spotting. Earlier we saw a freight aircraft coming in and we knew the SAS flight from Oslo and Tromsø would arrive in the afternoon as well.
The first part involved a downhill ride to the bay, after which we made a left turn towards the airport. Getting past the harbor/docks, we noticed a polar bear warning sign on this side of the town as well. Unfortunately, the ride to the airport involved some decent headwind and an uphill drive on a sand road. At one point, we ended up walking up with our bikes, since that went faster than cycling…
When we arrived at the fire trainer for the airport, we figured this would be a good spot to take photos from. The fire department was actually training at this point, so there was some smoke to take into account. Obviously we chose a place that was clear of the smoke and now the waiting game began. I decided to take a bit of a hike along the airport perimeter in an attempt to find a better spot, right across the terminal. On my way there, I encountered some more reindeer. While I was out there by myself, I was very vigilant of any polar bear activity. Every minute or less, I had a good look around me to make sure nothing could sneak up on me.
For a small airport like Longyearbyen, I suppose we got to see some decent traffic. A German registered Cessna 425 was present on the apron, the West Air freighter departed, 2 helicopters could be seen on the apron and we witnessed a Lufttransport Dornier 228 and SAS Boeing 737-800 land. Not at all a bad catch for the day!
After the SAS flight had parked on the apron, I made my way back to the bikes. We set off once again and were going downhill now. On the ‘negative’ side, we now faced the uphill battle in the town center. On the way up, the souvenir shop was a short stop. I had a look around and ended up with a nice fridge magnet as a reminder of this awesome trip. It wasn’t far to the tourist office anymore and soon enough we arrived and turned our bikes in.
In the hotel lobby we had the ability to have some coffee or tea and we made use of that to warm up a bit and to just relax for a half hour. When our break was over, we headed down towards the bay again, where the museum is located. It’s adjacent to the university, in the same building. When we entered the museum part, it didn’t seem that big, but it turned out to be pretty nice. We learned a lot about the interesting history of Longyearbyen and there were ‘real’ animals on display.
It was now around 17:00, stores and places were closed and we still had 7 hours to kill. The Svalbar seemed a good option once again and we confiscated a booth for ourselves. A late lunch/early dinner was ordered and a plan was made. The bar had a couple of board games lying around and we figured we might as well utilize those. My friend grabbed Trivial Pursuit from the pile and we played a couple of games. This was good for our general knowledge of the Norwegian language, as this version of the game was in Norwegian. We actually did pretty good in terms of translating and only had to use an online translator a few times. In between games, we killed some time by chatting, observing and browsing through our photos of the trip.
When the clock finally hit 11:30, we went back to the hotel to wait in the lobby. The bus arrived nicely on time and brought us to the airport. On our way, we saw our plane arriving and it came overhead the bus as we neared the airport. After arriving in the terminal, we could make our way through security pretty swiftly and within 15-20 minutes after getting to the airport, we were in the departure hall. At this point, it was still about an hour and a half before departure. Time was spent looking outside at the plane and the handling process. Always interesting and it turned out there was some ice on the wing, prompting the crew to decide in favor of de-icing. After a while, it was time to board, which went smoothly. My seat was just behind the right wing, which had a good view outside. Once boarding was completed, I had 3 seats to myself; jackpot! This meant that I could get fully comfortable for this red-eye flight back to the mainland.
The departure offered a good final view of the landscape, especially in between 2 cloud layers. Such beautiful scenery, I’m sure I’ll never forget that. Once we were above the clouds, it was time to sleep. I managed 1,5-2 hours and when I woke up we were slowly descending above the Norwegian landscape. The sun was still low and the clouds mostly started disappearing as what promised to be a very sunny day in Oslo. I was glued to the window again as we made our way to the airport.
My transfer was already 3 hours, but since we arrived 20 minutes early, this became even longer. I mostly sat around, got some breakfast and listened to music. I was pretty tired from the very broken night, but sleeping wasn’t really an option. It was quite a busy morning at the airport, but after the morning wave departed, it became more quiet. My flight to Amsterdam wasn’t very eventful, and I spent most of it sleeping. I woke up again when we were descending and in Amsterdam the skies were clear as well and visibility was perfect. The airport was a great sight as we were on downwind for runway 06, a sight you don’t see that often. Some 10 minutes later, we touched down and that was the end to a short but amazing trip.
During this trip, I tried to create several panoramic photos of the scenery. I’ve linked them below; when you click on a photo, it will open in a new window. You can also click to enlarge them there as they are all atleast 3000 pixels wide. Enjoy!
I didn’t just take photos during the trip, but also collected a fair amount of video clips. I’ve made 2 compilation videos, which are listed below.