reindeer near Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen

Longyearbyen and Its Outskirts

We enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the hotel…mostly European style. We had to check out by 11, so we packed our bags and left them in the common area for Quark Expeditions to pick up while we took a “taxi” tour with 13 others. It was more like a shuttle bus tour. I’m thankful we were able to find a short and relaxing activity before boarding the ship for our circumnavigation around the island!

Tour of Longyearbyen and Spitsbergen

Our tour of Spitsbergen began with a drive through its main town, Longyearbyen. Our driver pointed out the the old mining barracks, the elementary school, the theater center, the university, an indoor pool, and the old and new hospitals. Who knew there were so many other things to see on one main road!

The old hospital is the only building in Longyearbyen with a basement and cooling system. All other buildings are lifted off the ground to keep from melting the permafrost (soil frozen for more than two years). The cooling system in the old hospital (now apartments) kept the permafrost from melting until it was turned off two years ago.

Now the building is cracked and sinking and the residents were given only hours to leave and weren’t reimbursed by the insurance company for the foundation damage. Across from the old hospital was a building with missing a roof. Apparently, there was an avalanche this winter that destroyed 11 homes and killed 2 people.

Eiders, Ptarmigan, and Reindeer

After driving through Longyearbyen, we took the main highway away from the airport through the valley where we saw a nesting area for Eiders, large seaducks. Apparently, we were lucky to see a King Eider and a Ptarmigan that our driver pointed out, but we had know idea at the time.

Then we enjoyed watching the reindeer graze. White and unique to Svalbard, they are relatively tame as they have no predators. They can run farther and faster than a polar bear! Speaking of which, we got our token photo taken with the polar bear sign by the valley which prompted the driver to say never to go anywhere without your rifle!

The Summit

We followed the packed, gravel road past old mines and several dog sledding operations as it zigzagged up the cliff side. The dog sledding operations hang seals for dog food really high off the ground so the bears don’t get it.

The driver said in the winter once the snow kept him from turning around, so he had to reverse down the switchbacks in the shuttle bus and no one spoke for 20 minutes! I could see why…the switchbacks were numerous and steep. At the top of the mountain, we reached some giant antennas used for atmospheric research in coordination with NASA. The summit provided a lovely view of the valley and harbor.

Airports

We also passed the old airport that was built in the early 60’s and replaced in the mid 70s. The runway was sand, so it was only operable in the winter, but with the dark of winter, fires had to be set so pilots could identify the runway. The new airport has a 3,000 meter runway, 1,000 meters longer than normal to accommodate military planes that need to land in emergencies.

International Seed Bank

We returned back down the mountain, passed Longyearbyen again and headed toward the new airport where we drove up the mountainside to the international seed bank. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was established to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples, or “spare” copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seed vault’s purpose is to protect the loss of seeds in other gene banks during large-scale regional or global crises. Every country is able to store the seeds for free.

The vault, located 150 meters into mountain, is considered ideal because at 430 feet above sea level the site will remain dry if the ice cap melts. In addition, the permafrost aids in preserving the cold temperature (-0.4F) in which the seeds should be kept. Locally mined coal is also used to cool the facility.

It is thought there are about 1.5 million distinct seed samples in the world. The vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million. It currently holds approximately 1/3 of the world’s important food crop varieties. The seeds are stored in sealed three-ply foil packages and then placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks.

Because this vault was established in case of a crises, no seeds are allowed to be taken from this facility. Any seed requests have to go to one of the other 1,750 seed banks worldwide.

seed bank in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen

Old Town and Cemetery

After visiting the seedbank, we looped around on the 45kms of road in Spitsbergen and passed by the outskirts of Longyearbyen where the original town started.

The driver pointed out the northernmost church, the oldest building on the island which was a post office, and a cemetery where very few people are buried because the permafrost pushes the bodies out of the ground. Most everyone is cremated now.

We also passed a giant white building standing alone. Inside is a restaurant which used to be rated one Michelin star. Admittedly, the food has been very good here, so we may have to try it upon our return.

Lunch and Santa’s Mailbox

After lunch in town at Kroa (also good), we walked back to our hotel, but not before snapping a photo of the world’s largest mailbox which was Santa’s. We just hung out in the common room until 3:30 for our ride to the boat.

santa's mailbox in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen
Santa’s mailbox

Embarking the Sea Adventurer

Eventually we got picked up on the second bus and boarded the ship which has a capacity for 117 passengers. Only 74 people are on our voyage, so the trip should be somewhat spacious! On the boat, we turned over our passports, got our boarding card, and headed to our cabin on the third deck. The small room included twin beds, a bedside table and desk, a small bath room, two closets and a porthole. That’s about all we needed.

Unpacked, we attended a presentation and completed an evacuation drill, a requirement before the ship can leave port. Our departure time was delayed due to the SAS pilot airline strike. I guess a few people were coming from Sweden. I’m so glad that didn’t affect us!

Dinner of corn chowder, calamari salad, chicken piccata and a cheese and fruit plate was tasty. Over the next few hours, we familiarized ourselves with the boat (gym, hot tub, library, clipper room, the bridge, and salon), got briefed on kayaking, and enjoyed the scenery on the outside deck. By 11pm we turned out the lights, though it was still light outside. It was a really great day.

I really enjoyed the tour of Longyearbyen and the surrounding area of Spitsbergen. I would highly recommend it. Our driver had come to Longyearbyen for the summer to make some extra money as the pay is good and taxes are much lower than in the mainland of Norway. He ended up staying! He said several people end up doing this. Now, we are anxiously waiting to see a polar bear and a walrus in the wild! ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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