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Svalbard is a group of islands located between the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, and the Norwegian Sea. The islands are directly north of Norway, and under Norwegian rule since 1920.
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The islands were allegedly first discovered by Viking explorers in the 12th century. However the first recorded voyage here was by the Dutch in 1596, landing on the northwest of Spitsbergen. This coast served as an international whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries. Norway's sovereignty was recognized in 1920; five years later it officially took over the territory. However, the Svalbard Treaty gives "absolute equality" to other nations wishing to exploit mineral deposits, and Russia continues to maintain a significant population on the island. Although part of Norway, Svalbard remains a neutral territory.
There is a currently standing treaty that any sign of human presence from before 1946 must remain untouched, including loose objects. For this reason, the area around Longyearbyen, and several other parts of the archipelago, are littered with interesting artifacts including disused mining equipment, bits of rope and shovels, etc.
Svalbard literally means "cold edge", an apt name for this northern land. The climate is Arctic, tempered by warm North Atlantic Current. Summers are cool (July average 6.1°C) and winters are cold (January average -15.8°C), but wind chill means that it usually feels colder. The North Atlantic Current flows along west and north coasts of Spitsbergen, keeping water open and navigable most of the year. The peak travel season for boating and cruise is during Svalbard's brief summer, from June to August, when it's light and not too cold outside. The "light winter" period (March-May) is the high season for fly and stay guests, when there is both sunlight and snow, is also increasingly popular for winter sports.
Svalbard features the midnight sun from April 20 to August 23. Conversely, the sun stays under the horizon during the polar night from October 26 to February 15.
Svalbard is barren, rugged and desolate. Its mountains look like giant, precipitous slag heaps: steeply piled stacks of rubble, eroded by rain with peaks jutting out at improbable angles. Higher mountains are permanently covered in snow and many valleys are filled with glaciers. There are no trees on the islands and the most common vegetation is a brownish green moss, the color of dead grass, that sprouts patchily up the mountainsides. However, many exotic Arctic flowers bloom here during the warm season.
Food on Svalbard is expensive for most visitors, as it is anywhere in Norway. Local specialities include seal and reindeer, served at restaurants in Longyearbyen.
Alcohol is duty-free on Svalbard. If you´ve arrived from Norway the bars will seem refreshingly cheap but are still equivalent to London prices. If you head over to Barentsburg, Russian vodka can be outright cheap.
A popular party trick for glacier cruises is drinks served with glacier ice, purified by natural processes over thousands of years.
The currency is the Norwegian krone (NOK), and this is also accepted in the Russian settlements. Svalbard is a tax free zone so a number of shops in Longyearbyen display various items for sale at prices well below mainland Norway's.
Svalbard is by most measures horribly expensive: mainland Norway is bad enough, but on Svalbard everything costs even more. Accommodation in cheap guesthouses costs on the order of 500 kr/night and sit-down meals nudge up closer to 100 kr each - both figures you can very easily double if you want to stay in a full-service hotel. Guided activities start at about 500kr per day (e.g. trekking and kayaking) but can go to 1000kr and above for tours requiring specialist equipment.
One way to cut costs significantly is to camp and self-cater, bringing all your supplies from the mainland. There is, however, a full service grocery store in Longyearbyen. Frozen and dry goods are on par with or even a little cheaper than in Norway, while perishable items arrive via air freight and are more expensive.
Svalbard's duty-free status means that alcohol and sports clothing, etc. are actually much cheaper than on the mainland.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Svalbard on Wikivoyage.
Cities in Svalbard
Points of Interest in Svalbard
Svalbard's visitors come mostly to experience Arctic nature at its rawest and most powerful. The islands feature untouched glaciers and craggy mountains, but also polar bears, caribou, a peculiar short legged reindeer, polar foxes, whales, seals and walruses. Svalbard is renowned for its variety of birds, including Arctic Terns, Arctic Fulmar and Puffins. Whales can be spotted off the coastlines particularly during late summer. Humpback whales, Orcas, Beluga Whales, and Narwhals all frequent the ocean waters near Svalbard.
During the short summer, the melting snow in the milder parts of the islands gives place to vast stretches of tundra vegetation, sometimes dotted with delicate flowers.
Note that although it is technically possible to prepare your own excursion while on Svalbard, the lack of infrastructure, the necessity of carrying (and knowing how to use) a rifle outside the settlements, as well as the harshness of the environment even during the summer make pre-organized activities with professional guides a necessity for most visitors. Activities can be booked online or in Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen has a couple of museums and the world's northernmost church. The Soviet-era settlements of Barentsburg, still running fitfully, and Pyramiden, abandoned in the 1990s, make offbeat attractions, being home to (among other things) the world's two northernmost Lenin statues. Both can be visited by cruise or snowmobile from Longyearbyen.