JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH RAGNHILD UTNE FROM LONGYEARBYEN, SVALBARD!
Ragnhild Utne is a 27 year old Norwegian living in Longyearbyen. After spending four year studying overseas in both Melbourne and London, she was missing the outdoors of Norway. Just two days after she finished her MA Communication Design degree in London she moved straight up north to Longyearbyen. Ragnhild now works as a tour and nature guide in Longyearbyen. She also freelances as a photographer, communication designer and videographer. She got her own Alaskan puppy a month ago, so it seems that mainland Norway won’t be expecting her anytime soon.
Between the mainland Norway and North Pole lies the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard which is also the most easily accessible place in the high Arctic.
Svalbard was an independent nation before minerals were found on it, after which Norway was granted sovereign control over it through the Spitsbergen Treaty. It is 60% glaciated with more than 1100 glaciers and two third of its land is covered with nature parks and reserves. Svalbard is also home to the Global Seed Vault, a back-up plan against the possibility of a global disaster.
Isfjorden is the second longest fjord in Svalbard after Wijdefjord. Around the fjord lie many of the largest settlements in Svalbard: Barentsburg, Longyearbyen (on the Adventfjorden) and Pyramiden.
Longyearbyen is Svalbard’s largest settlement and only city. The city is named after John Munro Longyear, the American who started coal mining there. Situated on Spitsbergen island, this city has all amenities like any other metropole in the world.
How difficult it is to live in Longyearbyen?
It’s not really as rough living here as some people think. It’s actually a rather normal community as you’d find other places. The main difference is that there is around 50 different nationalities in Longyearbyen among 2200-ish residents. And that is because you can both live and work here without having to apply for a visa.
Though my plan was to stay here for a few months while being surrounded by epic mountains but as it happens with most people in town that they tend to stay longer than planned, the same has now happened to me. I am about to hit that two year mark.
You can sometimes feel a little isolated. There’s about 50 km of roads which means if don’t have a snowmobile in winter or a boat in summer, it’s hard to get around and see what Svalbard has to offer.
How do locals spend their time there?
Most locals are here for the outdoor activities. Whether it be snowmobiling, dog sledding, skiing, hiking, fishing, hunting, staying overnight at one of many cabins — or just sitting right outside our apartments to enjoy those stunning mountains we’re surrounded with. No cats are allowed in Longyearbyen since they are a threat to Arctic birds hence you will see most locals have dogs as pets. It also has one of the speediest internet service in the world so we are well connected with the world too.
Excuse my ignorance, is it true that hungry polar bears are all around Longyearbyen …. how safe is the settlement ?
A polar bear will most likely be scared off by the Governor (Sysselmannen) before it’s able to wander into town. Both locals and tourists alike don’t have to carry any means of protection against polar bears in the town perimeters. However, if you do walk outside, in example passing the polar bear signs on both sides of town, it is recommenced to bring something to protect yourself. But there is no need to be scared about walking in town without it.
What according to you is the best season for tourists to visit Longyearbyen?
Svalbard has three seasons – Polar Summer, Northern lights Winter and Sunny Winter. Polar Summer lasts from middle of May to end of September. Northern Lights Winter begins when October starts and goes on till the end of February while Sunny Winter is from starting of March to middle of May.
The Sunny Winter and Polar Summer are the busiest seasons on Svalbard. However, if you’re looking for a less busy time to visit, come between September to January. It will be dark most of this time, due to the Polar Night, but it’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience.
The activities you can book through the tour operators vary a lot depending on the season. If you’re into snowmobiling, dog sledding, skiing — or winter activities in general — a visit Svalbard from mid-February to end of April is highly recommended. The summer season is perfect for hiking, going on boat trips and enjoying the midnight sun.
What are the best ways to reach Longyearbyen considering most travellers land in Oslo? What is the preferred mode of transportation in Longyearbyen?
Both Scandinavian Airlines and Norwegian Airlines fly from Oslo to Longyearbyen almost on a daily basis. If you are visiting north of mainland Norway you can also take a flight from Tromsø. There are flights from Tromsø to Longyearbyen every day and in peak season it rises to several flights a day. Note that some are non-stop while some might go all the way to Oslo and fly back to Longyearbyen.
Since Svalbard lies outside the Schengen area, read about the entry rules here.
It’s possible to rent a car at Svalbard Airport, but you can’t get very far on those 50 km of roads. Preferred mode of transport in winter is snowmobiling. You can book tours through the tour operators in town to explore a lot of what this stunning archipelago has to offer.
What are the top three things one must do on their visit to Longyearbyen?
This place is so much more than snowmobiles and dog sleds. Know about the history of Svalbard or book at least one tour of your dreams.
Visit Svalbard Museum to know the history of the archipelago. It’s actually an exhibition of life on Svalbard, Arctic wilderness and wildlife. Well preserved artefacts tell tales of life in light and ice. Learn here about North Pole expeditions, whaling, mining and scientific and tourism developments in Svalbard. Though the museum it has much to say about Svalbard’s comprehensive history (including details about WWII) and economy.
In total there are seven mines in Longyearbyen owned by the Store Norske Spitsbergen Coal Company (SNSK). However, all of them have closed down leaving only Mine no. 7 operational. One of these closed mines Mine no. 3 has opened its door for public. This low drifted mine stopped production in 1996 leaving all equipments and machineries intact in it giving you the most original feel of a mine. You must visit it to know the mining history of Longyearbyen which made people from different communities settle down here a century back. This will be at least a three hour tour and you will be given a mining suite (Lompen), headlamp and helmet.
Longyearbyen is very close to two valley glaciers – Larsbreen and Longyearbreen. You can hike on Sarkofagen mountain upto Lars glacier from Nyben (new town) with the help of a local guide. It should not be much difficult if you are properly equipped. It’s a half day hike with stunning views. To get to the Longyear glacier, you can either drive by snowmobile, snowcat, or even ski.The entrance of the cave is basically a hole in the ground, make your way inside it to see beautiful ice and rock formations.
What are the best day trips for nature, culture and history from Longyearbyen?
Visit the Russian settlements (Russian mining community of Barentsburg or the ghost town of Pyramiden). Book a boat trip in summer or go snowmobiling in winter.
Barentsburg is the second largest settlement of Svalbard and lies around sixty kilometres west of Longyearbyen. By boat it takes around an hour and a half to reach there. In contrast to Longyearbyen, Barentsburg has a Russian feel to it and most of its inhabitants are from Ukraine. Visit the Russian Orthodox Church, the mine, the brewery or just soak in the Soviet architecture and culture. The restaurants there serve traditional Russian food.
Pyramiden, named after the pyramid-shaped mountain, is an abandoned town to the north of Longyearbyen, at the foot of the Billefjord. A mining community lived here until 1998. Since the time the inhabitants left, the buildings and their belongings have all been preserved so well that you will feel lost in Pyramiden’s fascinating history. According to National Geography this town is also considered as one of the 10 ghost towns in the world you need to visit.
What adventure activities can one indulge in when visiting Longyearbyen?
There is a bunch to choose from! And the activities vary depending on the season. Some of my favourites out of the bunch are dog sledding, hiking, snowmobiling and walrus safari. Check out Visit Svalbard’s website for everything this town has to offer !
There are many dog sledding trips that you can take from Longyearbyen organised by tour companies. It’s a great way of experiencing Arctic nature.
Book a snowmobile trip to the east coast of Spitsbergen in winter. Named by its Dutch explorer, Spitsbergen in Dutch means pointed mountains. It is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago and remains covered with snow all year. To explore Spitsbergen, a snowmobile is a must. You can go snowmobiling to Tempelfjord in Spitsbergen. Templefjord is the innermost branch of Isfjord. Its beauty and proximity to Longyearbyen makes it a popular destination.
Hike to the Trollsteinen, or The Troll Rock mountain close to the Longyearbyen town. This hike starts at Nyben, the highest point of Longyearbyen. The route is same as that you would take up from Longyearbreen to reach upto Lars glacier and then cross it to get to Trollsteinen. Read this excellent guide by Oliver to know more.
Hike to Adventdalen. The Advent valley’s surreal beauty and history is sure to mesmerize you. Svalbard airport also use to be in Adventdalen before it was shifted to its present location. It is said that during WWII the German military used this airport to land but the plane crashed. The remnants of the plane can still be found in the valley. The end of this valley is near the University Centre in Svalbard. There are several closed mines to the south of the valley, one such mine is Mine no.6, the abandoned coal mine on the Bolternosa mountain between Bolterdalen and Todalen.
Walruses are the largest seal species of the Arctic and there are only around 2000 of them left in Svalbard. Take a walrus safari by boat to Poolepynten on Prins Karls Forland Island. Poolepynten is also a major attraction because of the Siberian wood found along its coast. Unbelievably these wooden logs cover the long distance from Siberia to reach Svalbard.
Which is the best time of the year to spot Aurora Borealis in Longyearbyen?
From December to March is the best time for spotting the northern lights. The northern lights can be seen from town, however if you’re looking to capture photos out in the wilderness, you can book a northern lights safari by snowcat, snowmobile, or dog sled, depending on what your physical ability is. There are several options for spotting the northern lights.
How many days are enough to see all that Lonyearbyen offers?
I have lived here for almost two years now, and I haven’t experienced all that Longyearbyen has to offer!
There is so much to see and do. Spend your time here as best as you can and plan your visit in detail before coming. Choose your favourites out of the bunch of both restaurants and excursions, and I’m sure you will have an amazing and memorable time in Longyearbyen. Also leave some room for being spontaneous. A short walk in town can offer some strange surprises. Reindeer tends to wander around town like any other local.
The weather can change rapidly and we find the weather forecast often to be incorrect. In very bad weather the tour operators can cancel the excursions you’ve booked, so don’t expect that you will experience all that you’ve planned in only a few days. Your trip can be turned on its head.
What is the most celebrated holiday or event of the year in Longyearbyen?
The most celebrated event of the year is most definitely the return of the sun or Solfestuka, what we call «the sun day» on 8 March. We spend a whole week, the sun fest week, celebrating the sun is back after a long Polar Night. This is something kids and grownups alike can enjoy.
Many more events take place in Longyearbyen throughout the year. Like the Polar Jazz festival in February, Svalbard Ski Marathon in April, Oktoberfest (beer festival) in September, TasteSvalbard (Food festival), Dark Seasons Blue Festival (beginning of Polar Winter) in October and KunstPauseSvalbard (Art festival) in November.
Svalbard Ski Marathon which is the world’s northernmost marathon held in presence of polar bear watch guards. Around 1000 participants from all over the world run this marathon.
What is the most loved local food, savory and sweet of Longyearbyen? Are there any vegetarian/vegan friendly restaurants?
In my guess that must be either the Arctic char which is a cold water fish from Salmon family or Svalbard reindeer dishes. It can’t get any more local than that.
Svalbard reindeers are northernmost herbivore mammals who have lived on Svalbard from more than 5000 years.
I’ve become a little obsessed with the sticky toffee pudding at Stationen Restaurant. People also eat ice cream when the temperature is below freezing, I’m not the only one with a sweet tooth.
Do enjoy some tasty food and drinks at one of the many restaurants in town (you can actually find one of Europe’s most well-stocked wine cellars at Huset).
You’ll find vegetarian options at most restaurants.
Any suggestion on where to stay in Longyearbyen?
The are several hotels and guesthouses in Longyearbyen to accommodate tourists.
Some locals have also listed their apartment on AirBnB.
If you’re feeling a little adventurous, stay at the camp site in summer which was created by the Norwegian state to forbid people from setting up a tent anywhere they please. The Longyearbyen Camping site can be used as a basecamp for an unparalleled experience. The site also has a fully equipped building providing all necessary facilities. To know more, visit their website.
What to pack for a trip to Longyearbyen?
Woollen thermals and thick sweaters, a wind jacket and pants, a comfy beanie and scarf, sturdy hiking boots, gloves… The average temperature in summer is 6°C, so there’s no need to bring a bathing suit (unless your planning to take a Polar Plunge in the ocean).
For winter, bring the warmest clothes you’ve got! Don’t worry about getting proper clothes for i.e. snowmobiling, as you will be provided the right clothing and equipment by the tour operators.
The locals can never get enough woollen clothes. We have a saying that «ull is gull» which basically means «wool is gold» in Norwegian. Your fleece sweaters won’t do any work here. Wool stays warm even if it’s wet.
Before we close … It is said that dying is illegal in Svalbard. What does it actually mean?
It’s not illegal to die on Svalbard, but according to Svalbard Law it is illegal to bury bodies here. That is due to the permafrost which will make the bodies very slowly decompose. However, if you’ve been a resident on Svalbard you can be buried at the cemetery in Longyearbyen, but you will have to be cremated.
Longyearbyen is not a place to grow old as we don’t have the same health care system as we do in mainland Norway. There are no elderly homes here, so if you can’t take care of yourself, or don’t find anyone who can, you will have no option other than to leave Svalbard. As a matter of fact, you can’t also be born there unless it’s urgent usually you have to leave three weeks before you’re due.
IF YOU ARE TRAVELLING TO LONGYEARBYEN OR WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT RAGNHILD’S TRAVEL EXPERIENCES THEN BE SURE TO FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM
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