Svalbard: take a family adventure to the polar realm that inspired Philip Pullman's Northern Lights

A strange, snowy wilderness at the end of the world, Svalbard is a place of myth, legend and fairytale landscapes. It’s also a great place for a family adventure.Monday, 4 November 2019

It’s 3pm, which is about the time I’m normally doing the school run. But instead, my eight-year-old daughter and I are about to jump on a snowmobile in the Svalbard archipelago and charge out across the tundra at 30mph on an epic adventure that will take us 40-odd miles through the Arctic Circle. 

I fire up the snowmobile, which takes off with a deafening roar and at alarming speed, my daughter holding on behind me. Over our ‘regular’ Svalbard clothes (thermals and outerwear suitable for skiing or sledging) we have giant weatherproof suits, boots, monster mittens, balaclavas and helmets. And we need them. The wind chill feels like -30C. In a separate bag, I have a camera. However, the chances of me taking off three layers of gloves to take a picture are zilch. The excursion goes down as being the most photogenic one I’ve ever completed, with the least amount of photographic evidence. 

As we zoom off from base camp, quickly leaving the settlement of Longyearbyen behind, we pass locals pootling along with polar dogs pulling sledges — and then we’re alone, in a valley that’s so surreal as to appear lunar. The ubiquitous snow is soft, and whiter than white. In the sky, a low, pale-gold orb of a daytime moon hangs like a children’s book illustration. Finally, we reach our destination, from which we’ll snake back. It’s a lookout point at a remote spot called Elvenset in view of Tempelfjellet, a mountain overlooking a frozen fjord where polar bears gambol. The wind shrieks in our ears. 

Svalbard really is at the ends of the earth, located halfway between northern Norway and the North Pole. It crosses the Arctic Circle and takes the better part of two hours to fly to from its nearest neighbour, Tromsø. The 3,500 polar bears living here outnumber the human population by around 1,000. Yet despite being a formidable Arctic wilderness, Svalbard is surprisingly family-friendly — partly because it’s impossible to be a freewheeling independent traveller here, so almost everything is guided and organised. 

Svalbard is about the size of Ireland, but there are only about 30 miles of road, the vast majority of which are in Longyearbyen — the largest settlement, where most residents live — and in the smaller satellite towns of Barentsburg and Sveagruva. 

The best place to get a picture of this Arctic archipelago’s history is at the Svalbard Museum in Longyearbyen. Here, we learn how Svalbard — a Norwegian territory since 1925 — was the site of a whaling operation from 1611, dominated by the Dutch and English until the 19th century, when the Norwegians took charge. From the early years of the 20th century up until the noughties — apart from a brief period when the Nazis invaded — Svalbard was essentially a mining outpost. In recent years, tourism has taken over as the main source of employment. 

Beyond Longyearbyen’s roads, travel in Svalbard is pretty much off-grid; it’s a land where polar bears roam. Winter, surprisingly, isn’t the best time to spot a bear — and, sadly, we don’t. Come summer, however, when the snow melts to permafrost, it’s possible to see them frolicking in the distance. One thing that’s a common sight year-round is locals wandering around with firearms — a legal requirement outside of settlements to protect against rogue ice bears. 

By dint of having to travel with a qualified guide, the experience of visiting the archipelago is educational, with ample opportunity to learn first-hand about the lives of people and animals, past and present. Information is freely shared about how global warming is affecting the region (in short: terribly. Permafrost is melting so much that buildings are being reinforced, and increased rain, flooding and landslides are expected in coming years). There’s much to intrigue a child. Even those who usually can’t be torn from their electronic devices should be captivated by Svalbard for its beauty and novelty, and to learn about how precious our wildernesses are. 

And of course, for fans of Philip Pullman, this is His Dark Materials terrain. Our trip, newly launched by Best Served Scandinavia, is inspired by Philip Pullman’s trilogy of fantasy novels, with a few adventurous additions thrown in. We stay at the family-friendly Radisson Blu Polar Hotel in Longyearbyen, which, along with a fine dining restaurant and a bustling informal restaurant, was a great base to try a smorgasbord of novel activities: descending down a mine; an evening spent at a camp, where we got to eat reindeer stew; a night out in a snowcat searching for the Northern Lights (we didn’t find them, the sky was too hazy); and a husky safari. 

The seasons in Svalbard can seem topsy-turvy. Midnight sun reigns from May to September, while from mid
November to late January you won’t see the sun at all. These are the ‘polar nights’ of fame, however this is also when the moon bounces light off the snow, creating a ‘day’ all of her own. 

This ‘light’ late winter is the most atmospheric time to indulge in dog mushing — a firm family-favourite activity. “Do you live here all alone, with all those dogs?” my eight-year-old daughter asks the twentysomething guide who takes us dog sledding through a snowy valley called Bolterdalen. “Yes!” he says, pointing to a wooden cottage, where his skis are stuck outside in the snow. “And my children are all these huskies.” We climb aboard his sled, led by an excitable pack of fluffy polar dogs. The mercury sits is at -10C — warmer than the snowmobiling day, but nonetheless my feeling of exhausted elation is tempered by relief when we tramp into a log cabin for hot chocolates. My daughter is handed a six-week-old husky puppy to cuddle. “Can I have one?” she asks, to which I reply with a firm ‘no’.

“Your mother is right,” our guide replies. “We cannot keep these dogs inside for more than half an hour, as it’s unhealthy for them. They can’t exist outside Svalbard.” 

And, indeed, it’s hard to believe that anything from Svalbard could exist outside of Svalbard, because there’s nowhere else like this, anywhere in the world.

Northern highlights

Northern Lights: These can appear at any time in winter, even in the morning, making an aurora hunt very family-friendly. At other times of year, you’ll have to venture out late at night. 

Flora & fauna: Forget flora in winter but look out for Svalbard reindeers and Arctic foxes. When the melt starts in May, returning mammals include walruses, seals, whales and numerous bird species.

Learning: Excursions bring to life the day-to-day struggles of the Arctic’s human residents and how they’ve adapted to these latitudes.

Snowmobiling & husky sledding: An exhilarating, traditional way to experience the Arctic landscape — at speed.

Mining: A family-friendly tour of decommissioned Mine No. 3 reveals how workers survived in harsh conditions.

Ice caves: Explore caves within a glacier, carved out by summer meltwater.

Hiking: The summit of Blomsterdalhøgda offers a bird’s-eye view of Svalbard. Visit the site of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the descent. Dug into the permafrost, it preserves an incredible array of plant species. regjeringen.no

Svalbard Museum: Charts the history and development of the archipelago, taking in everything from early industry, wildlife and population shifts to the impact of global warming.

ESSENTIALS

Best Served Scandinavia offers family-friendly tours to Svalbard, including flights, accommodation and activities. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Tour costs £1,195 per adult and £870 per child, suitable from age eight. This includes return flights, three nights B&B at Radisson Blu Polar in a standard room with an extra bed, dogsledding to an ice cave, and a ‘Northern Lights’ evening at Camp Barentz with dinner and drinks. 

More info: visitsvalbard.com

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