A couple in sunglasses were sipping drinks on the hotel’s veranda, enjoying the dazzling sunshine. Nothing too unusual in that – except that it was two o’clock in the morning.
This was Svalbard – Europe’s largest wilderness and as close to the North Pole as you can easily get. Here, come high summer, the sun shines as brightly at midnight as it does at midday.
I presumed the locals – all 2,700 of them who survive in this remote land – must love summer. But as I strolled round Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s unexpectedly sophisticated capital, my guide Sven told me otherwise. He lives here year round and revealed that, for many Svalbardians, their favourite month is February.
“It’s the best for the light,” he explained. “You get the blue polar light at night and, if it is clear, the northern lights. In the day the sky is pink.” The sun doesn’t appear above the mountains that surround Longyearbyen until the second week of March.
“I love the winter,” continued Sven, his eyes alight. “There’s a great feeling among the locals. And lots of snow. I like going ski-touring, staying in a tent. It’s a bit exciting – what with the polar bears.”
Ah, the polar bears – what we’d all come to see. I was keen to know all about them: would I see one? Just how dangerous are they? But Sven was rather nonchalant about the big white beasties. “As long as you are prepared, and have flares, it is fine. When there is a group of us camping, we take it in turns to have a bear watch through the night. I like that hour, by myself, just watching.”
In a land with more polar bears than humans, it’s hard to escape the topic. Rather than regular road signs, here the streets are lined with bear-related warnings. Everyone has to carry a rifle if they’re leaving the town’s boundaries and, although shooting is a last resort, each year two or three bears have to be... dispatched.
“Students from around the world come to the university here,” said Sven, “but many freak out when they discover they have to learn to shoot.”
Like most summer visitors, I had come to Svalbard to join a cruise. The MS Nordstjernen, an old coastal steamer, was set to sail from Longyearbyen up the west coast of Spitsbergen, the archipelago’s largest island. We were following the route of Svalbard’s ‘discoverer’, Willem Barents, who named the island after its striking scenery – spitsbergen means ‘pointed peaks’.
It was the dramatic Arctic landscapes and the chance of seeing polar bears that had drawn most of us to the area. But our first stop was a hop along the coast to one of Svalbard’s three human communities, Barentsburg, a Russian mining settlement with a population of around 700. A surprisingly glamorous local guide met us at the quay, wearing a bright orange jacket with a snazzy black leather-look outfit underneath. With hands on hips and a flick of her hair, she commanded us to “Pay attention!” Everyone was transfixed as, in between glaring at anything or anyone that dared to move, she extolled the virtues of the bleak-looking town where she had spent the past five years.
It was fascinating to learn more about how – and why – people live up here. You certainly need to be pretty hardy as temperatures only make it above freezing 100 days a year. When she started talking about polar bears – “an occasional unwelcome visitor” – I had to wonder who would come off worst in such an encounter.
As snowflakes drifted down the next morning, we listened attentively to the safety briefing telling us what to do should we encounter a polar bear. “Always keep behind and within 20m of your guide,” we were instructed sternly. “If we do see one, we have a signal pen, which fires about 30m and explodes with a flash to scare them away. If that doesn’t work, we have a rifle kept ‘half loaded’ – that is, with the bullets pushed down in the magazine to keep the chamber empty while being carried, but simple to arm quickly.”
Couldn’t we take the scary Barentsburg lady with us too?
With minds full of bear facts, we boarded the Zodiacs and zipped across to the eastern side of the fjord. Svalbard is semi-desert, and 60% of it is covered with ice. At first sight the landscape looks beautiful, but stark. However, we soon learned to look a little closer.
“It’s a lie that there’s no forest in Svalbard... this is our forest,” announced Eirin, our guide, as she crouched among some green plants, just a few centimetres high. “This is Salix polaris, polar willow, one of the smallest trees in the world.”
Eirin then picked up some animal droppings. “These are from reindeer. The pellets are small and dry because the reindeer have kept the moisture in their bodies – this shows it’s winter poo!” As if on cue, a reindeer – a hairy barrel on four skinny legs – appeared on the horizon.
Our stroll in the snow had encouraged our appetites, and a long and hungry queue had amassed back on board for the lunchtime buffet. However, just before it was served, an unexpected announcement came over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen: we have a polar bear!”
Food – and warm clothing – were forgotten as we stampeded to the front deck. From a vegetation-covered cliff, a polar bear was staring back at us, stark white against the green background. Although some distance away, it was by far the largest object in the landscape, and its power was immediately apparent. As it lumbered away, I couldn’t help but shiver.
That afternoon we entered Liefdefjorden and took Zodiacs to the Monaco Glacier. The glacier has been surging in recent years, and the fjord was dotted with bergs and floes that had broken off. We stopped the engine as we neared the base of the glacier and sat awestruck at the scale of the 100m-high wall in front of us.
“Bellisimo!” exclaimed fellow passenger Elena with typically Italian flair. “It’s like a giant cake!” As the snow continued to fall, the silence was punctuated only by the crack of falling ice and the keening of wheeling kittiwakes.
Our guide scooped up a deep-blue piece of ice that was floating on the water. “This is at least 3,000 years old,” he told us. “You are lucky to see it this colour – when it is cloudy it shows the blues more.” It seems every cloud actually has a blue lining.
Back on board, we headed north into open sea, and by late afternoon we could just make out a line of pack ice on the horizon. Excitement mounted as we passed more and more drifting floes, some of them mobile homes for snoozing seals. The ship edged on and the ice grew thicker – it began to look like we were sailing through a giant Slush Puppie.
At 8pm we hit 80° north. The captain and guides came out on deck and gave us all a glass of sparkling wine, which we raised to the day’s highlights – and especially the magnificent polar bear. It was thrilling to realise that, at this latitude, there were few people between us and the North Pole.
We’d barely finished our toast when a shout came from the bridge: “Walrus!”
There, in front of us on the ice, were three of the huge, tusked beasts. I was gobsmacked by their size – nearly 3m long and maybe 900kg in weight. “Walrus live off shellfish so heaven knows how they get so fat!” commented one of the ship’s waitresses. I could just imagine a flabby walrus delicately peeling a mountain of prawns one by one with its flippers.
They seemed unperturbed by our presence as the captain slowly edged the ship as close as he dared. They had their backs to us, but occasionally raised their heads to look round, giving us a good view of their tusks. To a shipful of “Oooohs”, one of them rolled around on its back, as if basking in the sun. We watched them for 30 minutes and as the ship finally backed away, the smallest, liveliest walrus raised its flipper, as if waving us goodbye.
It was the abundant wildlife that originally drew humans to this extreme place. Landing at Sallyhamna, we walked to the remains of an old cabin dating back to the 1920s, which had belonged to legendary Norwegian trapper Arthur Oxaas, who spent dozens of winters in Svalbard. Around 20 to 40 hunters would winter annually in these remote spots, laying traps for foxes and polar bears, as well as collecting down from eider ducks and blubber from seals. Some trapping is still allowed today, though there is now a total ban on the hunting of polar bears.
From the cabin we took a walk along the beach to the remains of four blubber ovens, used in the early 17th century to boil whale blubber and distil it into oil. Originally, whales were abundant in these waters, but it only took 150 years for them to become almost extinct. We had spotted a few minke whales from our ship, but none of the now-rare Greenland or ‘right’ whales.
I had just got my lunch when another polar bear was spotted. (I began to wonder if they were in cahoots with the crew to cut down the lunchtime buffet queue.) The bear was lying on the rocks but stood up as we turned towards it, gave us a glare (it had obviously been taking lessons from a certain Russian lady...) and then lay down again, head on its huge paws, looking completely disinterested. There was no doubt who considered themselves to be king of the hill.
Much of the world’s research into polar bears, and the effect of climate change on them, is carried out by scientists at Ny Ålesund, an international research station, and the most northerly community in the world. We visited a few hours later. The world’s most northerly pub, known for its cheap alcohol – “It’s to look after the people!” – was sadly closed, but we took photos of the world’s most northerly railroad, and went on a shopping frenzy in the world’s most northerly gift shop.
It had been an overcast day, but as we headed back to the ship for our last night onboard, the sun started to come out from behind the clouds and, by 10.30pm, it was the most glorious weather yet. A few of us basked on deck and some of the hardier souls even took off their woolly hats. At midnight, I was still lazing in the sun and sipping a drink cooled by ice cubes made from a 3,000-year-old glacier. It was time for another toast to the polar bear.
Get the very best of Wanderlust by signing up to our newsletters, full of travel inspiration, fun quizzes, exciting competitions and exclusive offers.