I'm not sure exactly why I am so fascinated by the polar regions. Maybe it's the beauty of the mountains, snow, fjords, glaciers and icebergs. Having flown over/near the arctic circle a number of times on my way home from Europe, I always wondered what these islands below looked like at sea level. It could also be the allure of the polar bears.
I'm not alone in having an interest in the arctic, seeing how tourism to the region has really grown over the past several years. One area that has been attracting a lot of interest these days is Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago located about 800 miles south of the Arctic circle, and more specifically, the island of Spitsbergen.
Spitsbergen, a Dutch word meaning "pointed peaks", is the largest and only permanently inhabited island in the Svalbard archipelago. Although 60% of the island is covered by glaciers, it is a quite diverse wilderness, home to over 4000 polar bears, as well as walrus, artic fox, reindeer, seals and whales. But no penguins! You'll only find them south of the equator.
Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost city, is the main city on Spitsbergen with 2000 permanent residents. Originally a company town for mining operations, it now largely supports tourism and research. One would think a town of this size might not have much to offer, but this is not the case. Spitsbergen has become a primary destination for adventure travelers. Longyearbyen offers regular flight connections to mainland Norway, a number of excellent hotels (including a 4-star Radisson) and restaurants, as well as a wide range of activities to suit all types of tastes during all seasons. Summer activities include hiking, fossil hunting, polar cirkel trips, an Isfjorden safari and summer dog-sledding. Winter activities include exploring glaciers and ice caves, snowmobile safaris, dog sledding and aurora watching.
One would think being so far north the weather would be unbearably cold, but this is not the case. Similar to Iceland, it actually is quite temperate due to the Gulf Stream. Over the course of a year, temperatures typically range between 2°F to 48°F and is rarely below -18°F or above 54°F.
Aside from the sheer beauty of the region, the main reason most people come to Spitsbergen is because the area is considered to have some of the best, if not the best, polar bear viewing in the world. With over 4000 bears, one can understand why. The bears are highly protected, and thus their numbers have grown over the years. Great for the species, and equally great for those of us wanting to observe and photograph these majestic animals in their natural habitats. Though never guaranteed, the chances of seeing the bears in the wild are high, especially in the summer months. On a recent call with Hurtigruten, they said they saw bears 9 times on a 9 day cruise. Pretty awesome!
That said, one of the best ways to see Spitsbergen, the fjords, glaciers, bears and other wildlife is on a cruise that circumnavigates the island. Most of these sailings are 7 - 9 days between July - August. The best time to see the bears is in the summer when bears are more concentrated than in the winter due to less ice pack. You normally will not see any bears near the towns, especially Longyearbyen, as they are rather shy and don't like the noise. However they are curious animals. Check out one of Lindblad's encounters.