All aboard the Arctic cruise of a life time! Follow your inner explorer far north to Svalbard—land of the polar bear, tundra and midnight sun. Feel small in a landscape that dwarfs the human element with mountains, fjords and thunderous calving glaciers. You’ll be tickled at the sight—and sound!—of walrus pods with their huge tusks and big whiskers. Imagine thousands of seabirds soaring to and from their cliff-side dwellings. Svalbard travel will have you marveling at how resilient life can be in such a harsh but beautiful landscape.
A range of activities awaits you on your Arctic tour, with something for every traveler. Lace up your hiking boots for a long or short hike around a land that’s more than 60% covered by ice but is also home to seabirds, reindeer, arctic foxes, 165 species of plant life and, of course, the ice bear. Join a photography excursion to capture these dazzling sights on camera. Or take a walk to take it all in slowly. Kayaking is available on some Arctic cruises—you can set out like the explorers of old, in search of whales, seals, walrus and unmatched scenery.
Our Svalbard cruises take advantage of the brief Arctic summer, when temperatures are moderate for the region and chances of spotting a polar bear are best. Late June through mid-July is considered the best time to potentially spot this natural treasure on a polar bear tour. Though fascinating, the wildlife is elusive. But one glimpse at a mighty polar bear will fuel your travel tales for a lifetime.
Arctic cruising is just as fascinating today as it was to the first explorers to the region centuries ago—but it’s a lot more comfortable today! You’ll return home from Svalbard having discovered within yourself a sense of wonder at this land of contrasts—flowers and ice, deep fjords and towering mountains, and sunshine at night. And, maybe, you’ll even have a once-in-a-lifetime snapshot of a magnificent polar bear.
Originally known as Spitsbergen, Svalbard is an archipelago located midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. A wintery wonderland, much of Svalbard is covered with ice—and permafrost as much as 1/3 mile thick in places. The area is home to polar bears, arctic foxes, whales, seals, walrus, more than 30 species of birds, and diverse tundra plant life. There are seven national parks and more than 20 wildlife sanctuaries on the archipelago. In total, 65% of the land is protected.
Vikings likely discovered Svalbard in the 12th century. During the Age of Exploration, the islands were rediscovered by the Dutch sailing under Willem Barents in 1596 and later visited by explorer Henry Hudson in 1607. From then on, the area was frequented by whalers, hunters and adventurers alike.
Svalbard became an important base for whaling in the 17th and 18th centuries. Whalers even created the first maps of Svalbard’s coastline. Details on the area’s geography were later added by Norwegian seal hunters. The fur trade flourished during this time as well, with several countries vying for sovereignty over this resource-rich land.
Norwegians discovered coal deposits and began mining in the late 1800s, which led to the establishment of Svalbard’s first settlements. By this time, Svalbard was already a destination for Arctic tourism and exploration. Spitsbergen (now the name of Svalbard’s largest island) served as a base for many Arctic trips and expeditions. Spitsbergen travel and tourism remain vital to the archipelago’s economy to this day.
The Spitsbergen Treaty granted sovereignty to Norway in 1920, ending disputes over the land and officially renaming the area Svalbard. The treaty established Svalbard as a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone. The area remains open to workers from any of the 41 countries that signed the treaty, but currently only Russia and Norway continue to mine.
Today Svalbard retains much of the mystique that first attracted explorers—the land is largely undisturbed by humans. Spitsbergen is the only permanently populated island in the archipelago. Despite its small population (about 2000) the town boasts a lively night life—although it might still be light outside! You’ll also find tax-free shopping, whether you’re looking for handicrafts or a warm parka for your adventure.
Other settlements exist for research, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault—a project to save the world’s seeds in the event of a global crisis—and the University Centre in Svalbard, which offers coursework in Arctic Studies. Each settlement has roads, but no roads connect the settlements to one another. Off-road travel on bare ground by motorized vehicle is prohibited. People travel by snowmobile in the winter and by boat or plane in the summertime.
It is perhaps the natural wonders of Svalbard that have kept adventurers coming back for centuries despite its geographic isolation. The landscape features deep fjords, rugged mountains, and hills covered in tiny tundra wildflowers juxtaposed against icy glaciers marching toward the sea. Wildlife includes one of the largest populations of polar bears on earth.