Bask in the northern lights during a never-ending night.

When it comes to far-flung destinations, there’s remote—and then there’s Svalbard. Although technically a Norwegian territory, the three main islands of this isolated archipelago are actually closer to the North Pole than they are to mainland Europe. So removed is it from civilization that scientists entrusted the region with the Global Seed Vault: a long-term repository to ensure the replanting of Earth in the event of global catastrophe that looks like a Bond villain lair and is likely just as secure. 

Many tourists flock here simply to say they’ve visited the world’s northernmost permanent settlement. Or drank a beer at the world’s northernmost brewery. Or stayed at the world’s northernmost hotel. Yes, virtually everything you do here will be the world’s northernmost example of whatever it is you’re doing. 

But this place is so much more than mere novelty. With unfettered access to icebergs, glaciers, polar bears, and snowmobiles, it’s an adventure lover’s dream. The primary population center of Longyearbyen—a ‘city’ of some 2,700 year-round residents—affords a disproportionate allotment of culture and haute cuisine. And the Northern Lights? Come during winter and you can peep them at lunchtime. Just don’t forget to catch the rest of these can’t-miss experiences while you’re here: they’d be unforgettable even if they weren’t the northernmost experiences.

antarctica
Get ready to feel very, very tiny. | David Merron Photography/ Moment/ Getty Images

Take a fjord cruise toward the Nordenskiöld Glacier

Between the end of May and August, Svalbard’s sun-soaked polar summer never gets darker than dawn. Temperatures climb to a downright balmy 45-degrees Fahrenheit. Tropical it is not, but the permanent daylight allows for night kayaking, midnight seal-spotting, and hours-long glacial excursions courtesy of the world’s northernmost fjord cruise. This engaging voyage embarks every morning out of Longyearbyen on its way up to where a massive ice field adjoins the Arctic Ocean. On the return you’ll snack on some marinated whale meat for lunch before stopping in Pyramiden—an abandoned Russian coal-mining settlement. Obviously, that’s even more visceral under a night sky blanketed with aurora.

Get up close and personal with the local wildlife. | Jami Tarris/ Photodisc/ Getty Images

Head out on a polar safari 

Make no mistake, you’ll see wildlife on any maritime adventure in this part of the world. Whales, puffins, polar bears, even narwhals—the environment is awash in activity, and that’s to say nothing of the reindeer and foxes on land. But if you’re in search of walruses, specifically, there’s a safari just for you. The outspoken, blubbery mammals love to congregate, particularly in the summer months when they flock to the beach for prolonged sunbathing. Walruses: they’re just like us! Traverse the Isfjord on a speedboat to arrive at Poolepynten on Prins Karls Forland, among the world’s largest colonies of tusked pinnipeds.

Longyearbyen is the last “major” city before the North Pole. | Sandra Leidholdt/ Moment/ Getty Images

Explore—and eat through—Longyearbyen 

In recent years, Svalbard has fallen prey to the same nordic dining trends that have captivated much of its southerly Scandinavian neighbors. That means an emphasis on purity, simplicity, and freshness. It’s on display at myriad restaurants dotting the surprisingly dense downtown promenade. At Stationen, an open kitchen plates its Moby Dick Burger, made from whale and served with pea puree and lingonberry spread. A charcuterie menu features cured Norwegian meats, which are often paired alongside a local craft ale or lager from Svalbard Bryggeri (you better believe it’s the world’s most northerly beermaker). 

Hire a taxi—or a bike in the summer—and ride uphill to the edge of town for gastronomic bliss at Gruvelagret. Built into a converted wooden mining house, the kitchen here offers refined tasting menus. Reindeer, foraged mushrooms, and mosses make frequent appearances. Just down the street is Huset, where you can enjoy the house-baked rye underneath a tartare of bearded seal. It’s also home to the largest wine cellar in all of Scandinavia.

Hot jazz, cold nights. | Polar Jazz Festival

Attend a jazz festival underneath the aurora

As magical as the midnight sun can be in summer, it comes at a price. Namely: polar night, which extends annually from October 26th through February 15th. To help bolster tourism during these dark days, a few local jazz enthusiasts came up with the bright idea of launching a wintertime music festival. That was all the way back in 1997. Ever since, the first weekend of February has been dedicated to the melodious jamboree known as the Polar Jazz Festival, which now attracts performers from across the globe. Scandinavian Airlines helps sponsor the festival, flying musicians up for free from the Norwegian capital of Oslo. But even if you’re not stepping on stage, it’s still easy to shuttle on up as a paying passenger. The three-hour-long flight departs daily. And, yes, as you might have suspected, it is the world’s northernmost jazz festival. 

During the endless dark, these are your nightlights. | Ingeborg Klarenberg/ Moment/ Getty Images

Experience a greatest-hits collection of polar adventure

Book a stay at the Basecamp Explorer and get a taste for the town’s coal-mining roots—with a decidedly more decadent spin. The lodge flaunts a log cabin aesthetic, with cozy bunks featuring fur rugs and driftwood-fashioned furnishings. More than just a clever name, Basecamp is part hotel, part adventurer’s hub. A special concierge hooks guests up with exclusive immersions within the surrounding wilderness. Dog-mushing, snowmobiling, and aurora tours are popular in the winter months, while kayaking, and arctic sailing trips open up in the summer. Considering Svalbard is overflowing with opportunities for adventure, using this as your central hub means you cram as many expeditions and experiences as possible… and with an expert on hand to ensure you return from the ice fields to do it all again.

what are the northern lights

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Brad Japhe is a freelance journalist with a wicked case of the get-up-and-gos. He enjoys his whisky neat and his IPA hazy. He’s usually found at the junction of food, booze, and travel. Follow him @Journeys_with_Japhe.



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