How to Travel to Svalbard

February 18, 2021 Doug O'Neill

Polar bears thrive along the ice edge, where water meets ice. They're the largest land carnivore in the world. Photo: Hugo Perrin

A friend was puzzled when I announced I was heading off on an Arctic adventure to Norway but wouldn’t be spending much time in Oslo, the country’s cosmopolitan capital. “But…but you’ll be so close,” he protested, showing me his favorite Oslo city app on his mobile phone. That’s when I realized a quick geography (and perhaps history) lesson was in order. 

Yes, indeed, I explained, I would be passing through Oslo but only briefly. My ultimate destination was Norway’s Svalbard archipelago—north of the Arctic Circle. In fact, the remote archipelago of three islands, of which Spitsbergen is the largest, is 2,000 kilometres north of urban Oslo.

To be fair, I couldn’t really fault my friend. Svalbard didn’t officially become part of Norway until 1920. Up to that point, the remote, untouched Arctic wilderness was basically no man’s land until it was officially recognized as belonging to Norway.

To many, Norway’s chunk of the Arctic is known as the “The land of the midnight sun.” To legions of polar enthusiasts like me, Spitsbergen has long been “The Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.” (For the record, you’ll notice most travelers use the places names Spitsbergen and Svalbard interchangeably.)

Polar bears thrive along the ice edge, where water meets ice. They're the largest land carnivore
in the world. Photo: Hugo Perrin

The Best Time to Travel to Svalbard

 

Just 1,300 kilometers (roughly 800 miles) from the North Pole, Spitsbergen, the heart of Svalbard, is basically dark four months of the year. The sun’s return in April is marked by a lengthening of daylight until June when the sun never sets, prompting travelers to make the journey to Spitsbergen to observe polar bears and other wildlife, such as walruses, reindeers, arctic foxes, beluga whales, seals and seabirds in their natural setting—along with ruggedly beautiful ice-covered landscapes.

The best time to travel to Svalbard is the period from May to September, which coincides with most polar expeditions that visit the area. Polar bear sightings are fairly common at this time of the year as they appear along the melting pack ice in the search for food. As I explain in my blog, Why you should visit the Arctic in May,  springtime in Spitsbergen lends itself to incredible polar moments, something to keep in mind if you’re pondering when and how to travel to Svalbard.

 
And you don’t need to worry about crowds. You’ll never ever find yourself in a densely-populated port on a polar expedition to the Norwegian Arctic. You can read about the crowd-free benefits in my own Spitsbergen diary where I wrote about escaping the crowds in remote Spitsbergen.

 

Quark Expeditions guests get an immersive polar experience exploring
on Zodiacs in Svalbard. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Best way to travel to Svalbard

The best way to travel to Svalbard—apart from learning how to captain your very own yacht—is to explore the ruggedly beautiful Norwegian archipelago with an experienced polar operator that maintains a fleet of polar vessels—along with an experienced expedition team that includes all manner of polar experts, such as wildlife specialists, glaciologists and ornithologists, who will draw on their expertise to help you maximize your polar experience.

Quark Expeditions prides itself on staffing its fleet of polar vessels with the best trained expedition team in the business. After all, Quark Expeditions was the first-ever operator to bring commercial travelers to the North Pole in 1991. Equally important, unlike other operators who spread their attention around the globe, Quark Expeditions focuses exclusively on polar adventures in the Arctic and Antarctic.

 

Of course, another consideration if you’re grappling with how to travel to Svalbard—or anywhere for that matter right now—is staying clear of huge crowds and vessels carrying thousands of passengers. Quark Expeditions never takes more than 199 guests on their expeditions. Clearly, joining a relatively small group of polar enthusiasts—versus a mammoth floating hotel complex—is the best way to travel to Svalbard. To gain some more insight into what happens—or can happen—during an expedition, I encourage you to take a few minutes to read A Day in The Life of a Polar Expedition in Spitsbergen, Norway.

 

Another question many polar-bound travelers ask themselves is “how to travel to Svalbard without having to take a month off work?” Quark Expeditions has got you covered. Among their many voyages to Svalbard are the 14-day Spitsbergen In-depth: Big Islands Adventure  and the 12-day Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic.

 

Best things to do in Svalbard

Wildlife, course, tops the list of the best things to do in Svalbard. While polar-bear viewing and whale-watching are possible from the deck of a ship, the Quark Expeditions team will ensure you get off the ship and onto the polar landscape as often as possible. Zodiacs excursions are excellent for touring the water, fjords, inlets and coastal ways, where whales, walruses, polar bears and seals are typically spotted. In addition, Zodiacs (staffed by experienced polar guides) will transport guests ashore to see even more wildlife. If you’re lucky, perhaps the elusive artic fox will make an appearance during your visit to Svalbard.

The 14th of July Glacier stretches 16 kilometres long—seemingly impressing local wildlife, as well as polar visitors. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Glacier viewing is unrivalled in the Norwegian Arctic. There’s Monaco Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in Spitsbergen, which is about 7 kilometres wide and 60 metres high. And then there’s the 14th of July Glacier, a 16 kilometre-long glacier that covers an area of 127 square kilometres.

Polar history buffs will be smitten with such places as Smeerenburg, which translates into  “Blubber Town.” How did that name evolve? Smeerenburg was a whaling station in the 1600s and there are still remnants of rock-hard blubber from the ovens where the whale carcasses were boiled. Visitors will find a memorial at Smeerenburg that honors whalers who lost their lives in the 17th and 18th centuries.

 

One of my personal best things to do in Svalbard was to photograph reindeer, which figured in my diary entry from my own trip: “Escaping the Crowds in the Arctic in Remote Spitsbergen.”

 

Seabirds are abundant in Spitsbergen. Ornithologists estimate that about 30 or so bird species breed in the region, including Little auks, Arctic terns, Brunich’s Guillemot, gulls such as Kittywakes, Northern fulmar, Common eider, Barnacle and Pink-footed geese, and Skuas among others.  A popular birding destination in Spitsbergen is the cluster of towering basalt cliffs at Alkefjellet, which is also known as "Bird Mountain. It’s home to an estimated 60,000 Brünnich’s guillemots—and that’s just one bird species.

For more tips on the best things to do in Svalbard, take a few minutes to watch our video Why Travel To Spitsbergen.


Wildlife viewing takes places on the ships, in the Zodiacs, while out kayaking and even while
hiking on shore. Reindeers are plentiful in Svalbard. Photo: Quark Expeditions

Svalbard Travel Tips

Here’s a handful of my own Svalbard travel tips to ponder as you determine how to travel to Svalbard and make the most of your polar trip.

•Explore Longyearbyen: Be sure to allow time to explore the town of Longyearbyen (population: 2,400), the location of the port where you’ll board your polar vessel to explore the Svalbard archipelago. Longyearbyen is the northernmost town in the entire world and maintains its own school (on stilts due to the frozen tundra), church, bars, restaurants and one of the smallest universities in the world. One of my best images was the “snowmobile parking lot” outside the university entrance.

 

•Spend lots of time out on deck of your ship. On my expedition to Spitsbergen, I enjoyed standing on the deck all alone after midnight. I also made a point of getting up early (grabbing a coffee) and starting my day standing solo on the deck. It felt like I had the entire Arctic to myself. (Rest assured you won’t be cold—Quark Expeditions gives every guest their own polar parka which is yours to keep.)

 

•Spend time with the expedition team members: All staff and expedition guides eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with guests. Expect them to pull up a chair at your table. They’ll eagerly answer questions, ask about your best moments of the day and share with you stories from their careers in the Polar Regions.

 

•Consider an off-ship adventure option: Kayaking in the Arctic, SUPboarding, how about bird-watching or a guided hike. Many off-ship adventure options are included in your trip (others are paid for separately). Kayaking past walruses  as they lounge on chunks of glacier was one of my best experiences.

 

•Take a hike: Expedition team members lead a variety of on-shore hikes geared to hikers of all levels and interests. You can do a slow ramble to take lots of photos, an intermediate range hike or a faster hike.

 

•Travel with an open mind: Whatever you do, embrace whatever opportunities arise. The Arctic will cast its spell and you’ll return home with memories of polar experiences you didn’t know were possible.

 

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

A love of nature and writing has enabled Doug O'Neill to visit almost 50 countries around the world—and to immerse himself in some of the most incredible nature settings. Doug's role as Brand Copywriter at Quark Expeditions has been a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies and later a Certificate in Journalism. When not travelling, Doug is usually hiking: he's a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He's the co-author of a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” published by Firefly Books in 2019. Says Doug: "Few destinations rival the Polar Regions—not just for the staggering beauty and incredible wildlife, but for the transformative experiences that occur the moment you set foot in the most remote parts of the world."

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