There are an awful lot of beards in Longyearbyen. I’m not even out of the arrivals hall of the airport – surely the only airport in the world to feature a luggage carousel with a stuffed polar bear baring its teeth slap in the middle of it – when I realise that Norwegian men are built on a different scale from elsewhere. All around us are great man-mountains, grizzled and perma-tanned, with the beards of Arctic explorers and faces that look as if they’ve weathered years of sub-zero temperatures and winds that have blown in straight from the North Pole.
But then they probably have. Because Svalbard is not just up north, it’s about as far north as you can possibly go. I’m still in a mild state of shock from the casual glance I took at Google Maps roughly half an hour before I caught my flight. It’s further north than most of Greenland. It’s as far north from the furthest tip of Scotland as Athens is south. It is extreme north. And yet, even more incredibly, it’s just two shortish flights from London. One minute you’re wondering around Heathrow Terminal Five looking at designer sandals and a few hours later you’re plunged into the kind of landscape that’s vaguely familiar from documentaries about doomed men stranded on pack-ice trying to decide whether to eat their dogs or each other.
It is, says Brita, the managing director of Basecamp Explorer, the company I’m travelling with, a “borderline place”. The weather can change in an instant, which means that when we arrive at Longyearbyen airport, though the sun is shining and the sky is clear, we’re led off to be kitted out in vast insulated drysuits. They’re like huge, orange Babygros and we waddle off, sweating, to our boat – a rubber rib – that is going to take us to Isfjord Radio, a remote former radio station that Basecamp has turned into a hotel.
In fact, it takes about 10 seconds to be grateful for the survival suits. The sun may be shining and the sea sparkling but it’s an optical illusion of the Arctic variety: it’s properly freezing out on the water as we bounce over the waves, guillemots and puffins circling overhead. A couple of hours later, we see the transmitter masts and vast satellite dishes of Isfjord Radio, defunct now but preserved as a reminder of Svalbard’s past, when it was a crucial communications centre. It’s impressive that such recent history has been protected – the station stopped functioning only in 2004 when fibre optic cable arrived, and Svalbard some of the fastest broadband in the world. But then when it comes to history in Svalbard, most of it is recent.
Trappers have been coming to the archipelago since the 15th century and, later, whalers but they didn’t leave many marks and it was only in 1920 that it was formally recognised as part of Norway. Mining became its mainstay with Longyearbyen a company town, a legacy that lives on today in that it has no old people: they’re shipped to the mainland.
It’s always been a peripheral place, pitch dark for four months of the year, and simply brutally difficult for most of the rest of it. Although, on a bright July day, it’s also breathtakingly beautiful. Deceptively so. We gaze over the shimmering water at the ice-capped mountains on the other side of the fjord but when I stride off towards the hotel to dump my bag, Camilla, one of the women who works there, comes running after me, a rifle in her hand. It’s a distance of only 100 yards but she tells me: “You mustn’t walk alone. In case of the polar bears.” It is, in many ways, a preposterous place for a hotel. And yet, this being Scandinavia, it’s not even just any hotel, but a really rather delightful one, all soft greys, polished wood, cashmere throws and comfy armchairs. It’s the world’s most northerly boutique hotel.
“We’d never have been able to build a hotel here,” says Brita. “It’s only because all the infrastructure was in place because of its history. And even then … ” and she tails off, the memory of working out the logistics of shipping every single last fork and plate to a remote Arctic outpost,78.08 degrees north, seemingly still just a little bit painful.
Right outside the front door are two eider duck nests – they feel safer, apparently, being close to people, although they quack indignantly and waddle off any time anyone opens the door. Offshore, we spot a pod of whales passing by. Outside on the tundra, plump, stocky reindeer wander, and out on the boat, we see a magnificent pair of walruses. And then, of course, there are the polar bears. Theoretically, at least.
“Which direction do they come from?” asks Hanne, a Norwegian who works with the country’s tourist board. “Any direction,” says Brita. Hanne, who I’m suspecting may have spent too long in London, looks slightly less than comforted by this answer.
We’re here in June and even Brita is amazed by the weather: it’s so clear and still, with hardly a breath of wind. Most astonishing of all, though, is the light. The amazing Arctic light. It’s the kind of light that makes you feel disoriented, drunk, off-kilter; like being on mild hallucinogens.
On our first evening we eat a fine three-course meal of Norwegian specialities, but then, though it’s been a long day, it seems out of the question to go to bed. It’s 11pm but still full daylight so we go for a walk with Martin, our guide. At midnight it still feels like two in the afternoon: the sun has barely dipped. Even the eider ducks look confused, wandering around, quacking disconsolately instead of being tucked up in their nests asleep. But then it’s not hard to see why. This isn’t like the “white nights” of St Petersburg or Helsinki; it’s full-on daylight. The next day we meet a band of volunteers who’ve come to repaint one of the buildings in return for food and board, and one of them, another of the man-mountains, Terje, tells me how the night before they’d gone to camp beside a neighbouring fjord. “And it’s the only time in my life that I’ve had to apply suntan cream before I went to bed.”
They’re all a bit emotional, the volunteers. They had a bit of a weep beside the fjord, they tell us. Svalbard is a special place by anybody’s reckoning but it seems to have a mystical hold over Norwegian hearts. Terje, a carpenter, is on a true busman’s holiday: he’s come to work as a carpenter for a week. But Svalbard is special, he tells me: it’s so peaceful. “Oh,” I say, “where do you live normally?” thinking that he must live in downtown Oslo, or the one vaguely traffic-filled street in its second city, Bergen. “On top of a mountain outside Stavanger,” he says.
They’re not quite as hard as they look though. Brita suggests a swim in the morning but only the British visitors show up. But then, it’s just possible that we’ve all been gripped by a touch of polar madness. There’s a touch of grim Shackleton-like do-or-dieness about us as we plunge into the freezing water, swearing, while Camilla stands guard with her rifle. She’s a crack shot, it turns out, having hunted as a child. What did you hunt, someone asks her. She’s a typically pretty, milk-faced Norwegian girl. “Bunny rabbits,” she says.
Toughing it out in Svalbard through the polar night, from November to March, takes a special sort of person. What’s it like when the winter darkness descends, I ask Martin, our guide. “We get drunk,” he says. “Very drunk.”
In summer though, it’s simply a special sort of idyllic. Most people come for two or three nights, spending their time on guided hikes and boat trips, bird-watching or just listening to the Arctic silence. We take the boat over to a nearby fjord, Trygghaven, and it’s so sparklingly perfect, so white and pristine, with a snow-topped mountain reflected into the still blue waters, that it’s hard not to come over a touch Norwegian and have a bit of a weep. Mark, one of our group who went to Antarctica on his honeymoon, says: “Basically, it looks the same. There are different seals and penguins instead of puffins, but that’s about it.”
Except flying to Antarctica takes forever and costs the earth, and Svalbard is right here, at the top of Europe, just a few hours away. None of us want to leave Isfjord Radio, it’s such a strange, otherworldly place. But then, the whole of Svalbard is a strange, otherworldly place. On the way back we stop to stare at Barentsburg, a depressing-looking town in the middle of nowhere. It’s wholly Russian, a little bit of the Soviet Union left stranded in Norway. The rights of the Russians were enshrined in the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, and they’ve clung on, even as the USSR collapsed, though the statue of Lenin still stands.
By the time we return, Longyearbyen, which had seemed so tiny and ramshackle when we arrived, now looks like a heaving metropolis. And although it’s liberating to be able to walk around unaccompanied by a woman with a gun – the city limits are considered a polar bear-free zone – it’s not without its dangers.
In a shack above Longyearbyen, I’m just about to tuck into a plate of reindeer stew when a smell of burning fills the air. I’ve brushed against a candle, it turns out, and my hair is on fire. It’s a rough and dangerous place, Svalbard: forget the polar bears, though, what you really want to look out for are the Ikea tea-lights.
A four-night package with Basecamp Explorer (www.basecampexplorer.com) costs from NOK 10,930 (£1,228), with two nights in Longyearbyen and two at Isfjord Radio. Scandinavian Airlines (www.flysas.com) fly to Longyearbyen from Oslo. See also www.visitnorway.com