On top of the world
Thomas Breathnach goes searching for polar bears and duty-free champagne in Norway
I was seven when I got my first globe. On it, semi-concealed by the Arctic axis, was one of the places that fascinated me most: Svalbard. The Norwegian territory, with its archipelago of glacier-capped islands, icebergs and walrus-smothered skerries, appeared like the end of the Earth – and in truth it almost was.
Only 800km shy of the North Pole, Svalbard is Europe's final frontier, albeit one with a spring in its step. The end of the blue polar night sees the annual Solfest kicking off, so I ventured on an expedition north to join the celebrations and chase in the summer sun.
After almost four hours on a plane from Oslo, I awoke. Below me lay a vista of ice-packed seashores and a vast meringue-peaked wilderness.
I was on a 737 packed with chicly-clothed Norwegians straight out of an H&M winter catalogue. As we landed at Longyear Airport (to a breathtaking –26°C), we were among the most northern tourists in the world.
Established as a whaling settlement in the 1600s, today Svalbard (and its only inhabited island, Spitsbergen) is the hardy home to 2,500 inhabitants and 3,000 polar bears.
"As a result, we do recommend that if you venture outside the main settlements, you hire a weapon," advised our guide, Anika, as we bussed towards Longyearbyen. Even in this virtually crime-free part of the planet, it didn't take long until I spotted my first ice-hockey mom wielding an all-terrain rifle.
Longyearbyen, the main hub of Spitsbergen, is a well-to-do coal-mining town lined with quaint Legoland homes. It initially appeared like any other Norwegian coastal village, but all was not as it seemed.
Cats were banned to protect the fauna, and all those parked 4X4s were in fact charging off power points. And all those brightly painted homes? Longyearbyen's town council employs its own colour consultant who decides which shade goes where.
After checking into the (world's most northern) Radisson, my first adventure would be a dog-sledding trip into the wilds. Only minutes of husky-harnessing had elapsed before my digits numbed in the air. But this was no place for weakness.
"Hold the rifle!" bellowed my guide, Roger, as lead-dogs Kinder and Nema yanked our pack into the twilight abyss. "Jaaa!"
I'd previously mushed in Finnmark (in northern Norway). It was a magical event of loganberry tea-drinking and pooch- cuddling. This, however, as we trailed along the barren Arctic tundra, proved to be much more of a boreal bootcamp, with a savage Amundsen authenticity.
"It's the worst ice in 10 years" said Roger as dog packs quarrelled and a German tourist was flung from her sled. But this, surely, would prove Svalbard's very appeal: raw, hostile exhilaration.
While Spitsbergen's social calendar may be a few A-Ha concerts short of a WhazOn guide, my visit to the island coincided with Solfest, Longyearbyen's annual Return of the Sun celebration.
Akin to a Norwegian Groundhog Day, everyone gathered outside for the occasion: Svalbard's mayor, glamorously sporting the latest reindeer trends; the island's disproportionately large Thai community; and Norway's media, out in force.
As the moment drew near, local children masked with air-ventilators kept the spirits up with a Norwegian rendition of 'Mr Golden Sun'. Pre-recorded, it must be pointed out, these kids don't perform live in anything below freezing.
The sun soon appeared, crystallising the valley's slopes for the first time since the previous October. Svalbard's spring had finally sprung, by tomorrow the day would already be 28 minutes longer. And come April, the archipelago would be basking in the midnight sun. Quite the stretch.
My next escapade brought me ice-caving in the mammoth Longyear Glacier. I was chauffeured by my guide, Anne-Marten, and her articulated snowcat, an off-roader that charged through Longyearbyen's streets before piste-bashing us up Advent Valley.
Donning harnesses, crampons and miner helmets, we entered a mountainside igloo where we tentatively filed down a ladder, deep into the glacial pit.
Below (not for the claustrophobic) was a spectacular sight, a subterranean translucent iceland where meltwater channels crowned with icicles echoed like a marimba on touch. Anne Marten offered her own analogy on how Svalbard's frozen rivers snailed down the valleys through the millennia.
"You need to pour some honey on a tilted plate," she said, "then add breadcrumbs and turn on some drum and bass music as it slides down."
"For the vibrations?" I asked her, recalling a distant geography class on moraines. "No, so that you've something to listen to while you're waiting." Norwegian humour. Dry as the Arctic air.
The high-octane tundra triathlon was anchored by the highlight of my trip, a snow-mobiling safari to the frozen cape of Elveneset. Kitted out like space cowboys (and armed), our group travelled across a lost lunarscape of polar plains and narrow valleys, the odd reindeer snouting for lichen the only life to be seen.
If a polar bear was going to appear, it would have happened as we reached the coast at Tempelfjorden. But, unfortunately, they were still drifting on the iceflats.
Curiously, unlike Alaska and Manitoba, overland polar bear tourism in Svalbard is illegal. This, our guide Borre explained, is due to both conservation (bear numbers here are booming against the odds) and safety. Being the only animals who actively hunt humans (as a recent fatality here attested), polar bears, it seems, are often the ones who come looking for you.
I wrapped up my visit at Restaurant Funktionaermessen, beginning with Champagne-tasting in the chilly Nordpolet cellar. Svalbard's duty-free status means you can buy your Bolly for a less eye-popping figure than on the mainland, making it an unlikely local tipple.
"People from the mainland think that we trudge around the tundra wearing bear-skins," local man Trygve said, "but we're lounging at home in our T-shirts, drinking Champagne and watching 'The Office'." Skal (cheers) to that!
After a traditional Norwegian banquet of delicious Arctic char, flavourful venison and berries galore, it was time to mosey on to where all moon-lit, snow-mobile tracks in Svalbard lead: Nightclub Huset.
Although the 200krone (€30) charge rivalled Miami South Beach prices, it granted me an access-all-areas pass to the live folk-rockers belting out the Schlagerhits, and the pumping dance floor (Grease vs AC/DC). After a few merry hours, I air- guitared my way into the night, asking the doorman for directions back to town.
"Are you sure?" he quizzed, aghast at my late-night stroll. "Okay then, go straight, right and left," he said, pointing down the valley. "It's just like the shape of a chair." Surely only Scandinavians could correlate road directions to furniture design.
After experiencing both the unbridled luxury and the sheer exhilaration of Svalbard's polar wilds, I just wasn't sure where I should venture next.
Antarctica? Or perhaps a Virgin Galactic flight to space? Wherever it was, it was going to have to be something special to beat feeling on top of the world.