Longyearbyen: Pleasures and Polar Bears in Norway
By Monique Burns
You’ll find Longyearbyen at the Arctic Ocean’s southern fringe, 600 miles from the North Pole and 600 miles from the Norwegian mainland. The world’s northernmost settlement with a permanent population, it’s a quirky little place that tends to capture visitors’ imaginations in a big way. Not long ago, I took a three-hour Norwegian Air shuttle flight from Oslo, the Norwegian capital, to Longyearbyen and spent an unforgettable 24 hours there before boarding ship for my Arctic Explorer Voyage aboard Norway’s Hurtigruten cruise line.
Situated well above the Arctic Circle, at 78 degrees north latitude, Longyearbyen is the main city, or administrative center, of Spitsbergen, largest island in Norway’s remote Svalbard archipelago. Discovered in 1596 by Dutchman Willem Barents on his third voyage seeking the Northeast Passage, Spitsbergen quickly became a whaling, and walrus and seal-hunting center, drawing Norwegian, Russian, Dutch and English adventurers.
In the 1890s, Norwegians and Russians arrived to tap into the area’s rich coal veins. Michigan industrialist John Munro Longyear and Lowell, Massachusetts mill owner Frederick Ayer set up the Arctic Coal Company offices in Boston, and built docks and housing on Spitsbergen’s west side, near the Adventfjord. They named their company town Longyear City or, in Norwegian, Longyearbyen. In the hills above Longyearbyen, you still can see the weathered mineshafts of the Arctic Coal Company, operating between 1906 and 1916.
Tourism has largely replaced coal-mining in Longyearbyen, but the little town retains its individualistic attitude and frontier vibe. With roughly 2,075 residents and 3,000 polar bears, Spitsbergen has more polar bears than people. Landing at Longyearbyen’s Svalbard Airport, I see my first polar bear—a huge taxidermied specimen atop a baggage carousel. A five-minute bus ride away, another stuffed polar bear looms over the lobby of the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, with 95 contemporary-style rooms, a sauna, and two dining rooms—Restaurant Nansen for reindeer, whale and Arctic char, and Barentz Pub & Spiseri for pizza, burgers and steaks. Next door, Spitsbergen Travel, which runs kayaking and hiking expeditions, sports a big blue banner emblazoned with yet another polar bear.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Longyearbyen residents have a love-hate relationship with the polar bear—isbjørn in Norwegian, and ursus maritimus in Latin, owing to its fondness for hunting ringed seals from atop Arctic ice floes. By law, residents are required to carry rifles outside town limits to take down the big white bears, if they become aggressive. Polar bears, it should be noted, are believed to be the only bear species that stalk humans for food. Which makes one wonder, somewhat perversely, whether we taste more like seal than, say, chicken.
But polar bears are no laughing matter in Longyearbyen where each year at least one person is killed. Nonetheless, Longyearbyen residents have embraced the polar bear as their town’s cuddly mascot. Much as we Americans adopted teddy bears after President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 black bear-hunting expedition in Mississippi. Walking around Longyearbyen, I count no fewer than 25 taxidermied polar bears, as well as another dozen photos, posters and stuffed toys of the bears, adorning shop windows, hotels, the Coop department store and even the lobby of the local hospital. That, I suspect, is just the tip of the iceberg.
With no trees, gritty black roads that recall the town’s coal-mining heritage and low-slung buildings with corrugated tin roofs, Longyearbyen still looks like a frontier outpost. There are only a handful of main streets, all marked by numbers rather than names. As one rugged resident explained: “Grown men do not build houses in streets named Blueberry Road or Teddy Bear Yard.” At least not in the Arctic.
Despite that down-to-earth attitude, Longyearbyen is, in many ways, quite cosmopolitan. Just downhill from the Radisson Blu, the contemporary-style University Centre in Svalbard attracts students from around the world, especially to programs focusing on Arctic wildlife and geology. Next door, at the award-winning Svalbard Museum, well-imagined exhibits trace the archipelago’s history from its early whaling days to its incarnation as a coal-mining center. The gift shop sells local crafts, including tiny, finely tooled, polar-bear stud earrings. A superb collection of books, for children and adults alike, focuses on Arctic history, ecology and wildlife. Among them, you’ll find what might be the world’s largest collection of titles about—what else?—polar bears!
Behind the university is the North Pole Expedition Museum. Also known as the Spitsbergen Airship Museum, its exhibits chronicle blimp expeditions to the North Pole, including three tries in the early 1900s by American journalist and explorer Walter Wellman, financed in part by the Chicago Record-Herald newspaper.
Uphill from the Radisson Blu, a pedestrian mall has a few blocks of bars, restaurants and gift shops as well as a couple of small hotels and outfitters. There’s also a bank, post office, and an old-fashioned barber shop with the spa-like moniker of Body & Soul. At the Coop department store, which happens to be the only liquor store in the entire Svalbard archipelago, you also can buy snacks, ready-made foods, souvenirs and electronics. Or just photograph the big stuffed polar bear growling above the entrance.
The talk of the town is Fruene, a stylish café billing itself as the world’s northernmost chocolatier. Relax at a blond-wood table, beneath a red Plexiglas hanging light, and enjoy coffee and pastries while gazing at stunning black-and-white photos of Arctic wildlife. Fruene makes 18 different chocolates, all preservative free, with evocative names like Northern Lights, Arctic Chill and Sea Kiss. The top seller? The cute little white-chocolate polar bears with beady dark-chocolate eyes.
Steps from Fruene, Sushi Kita gets high ratings from diners as does Taste of Thai near the Karlsberger Pub. At the other end of town, Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg, which also has a spa and four-room guesthouse, serves Thai curries and other international fare in two dining rooms: The Shang-Po-lar, decorated like an old mining camp, and the glass-enclosed Winter Garden, resembling a lush tropical rainforest, a seductive fantasy in winter when it’s snowing up a storm and you haven’t seen the sun for five months.
But Longyearbyen’s biggest claim to culinary fame is Huset, which means “the house” in Norwegian. An easy 20-minute walk from the town center, the big white Art Deco manse sits across the Longyear River, below mine-pocked hills. At various times, Huset has been a movie theater, a primary school, a coal-miners’ canteen and a post office. Now it’s two New Nordic restaurants in one: a laid-back bistro where anyone can drop in and an elegant establishment that must be booked weeks in advance.
Both draw an interesting cross-section of Norwegian movers-and-shakers as well as local residents. Outside the formal restaurant, I speak with one of Norway’s leading literary lights, Kjartan Fløgstad, who frowns and assures me that he’d rather be flogged—my words, not his—than write one of those Scandinavian crime novels that everyone reads these days. Though no one names names, we are talking about books by the likes of Norwegian Jo Nesbø, author of The Bat, and Stieg Larsson, the late Swedish author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Both excellent novelists. But someone must write the kind of rarefied, socially conscious prose that wins Nobel Prizes for Literature—and it might as well be Kjartan.
Inside the bistro, I happily dig into a big bowl of reindeer stew with mashed potatoes, pickled lingonberries and sweet gherkins, and down a glass of Norwegian craft beer, while chattering with Andreas Roos, the amiable young brewmaster at Longyearbyen’s Svalbard Bryggeri. Opened in September 2015, Svalbard Bryggeri exemplifies Norway’s recent trend away from pale lagers to its traditional real-ale roots. Svalbard Bryggeri is also the world’s northernmost brewery now, having gained the title long held by Mack Brewery in Tromsø on Norway’s north coast.
After dinner, stop in the pedestrian mall in the center of town for a nightcap of wine, beer or potent Norwegian aquavit. Svalbar, a friendly, low-key, gray-frame establishment, claims to have the best burgers in town. Come back during the day and check the chalkboard outside for other specials and occasional wit and wisdom. When I was there, it read: “How much does a polar bear weigh? Enough to break the ice between us.”
Karlsberger Pub, which also serves food, is a serious drinking establishment with a long bar that snakes around the room, and shelves and shelves of liquor bottles, many filled with hundred-year-old French armagnacs and single-malt Scotch whiskies. With red walls, dark lighting, and big black-and-white head shots of crusty Norwegian working men, it looks like a gussied-up man cave. But, on the night I stick my head in, both sexes pack the joint.
Back at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, I follow Spitsbergen etiquette, placing my Helly Hansen boots in a communal rack in the vestibule before tiptoeing in stocking feet to my room. I plan to turn in early. At the crack of dawn, I’ll join Green Dog Svalbard on its “Fossil Hunt With Pack Dog” hike, one of several pre-trip expeditions that Hurtigruten can arrange before your Spitsbergen cruise.
I’ll be trekking in the scree-covered hills above town with guide Piotr Damski—a young Polish transplant wearing green-camo cargo pants and a rifle strapped across his back—and his brown-and-white Greenland dog. Joining us will be Gaby Zendejas, a young Mexican woman on leave from her father’s shoe factory, and stylishly dressed in hiking boots, a purple parka, and a blue-and-white head scarf more evocative of South of the Border than North of the Arctic Circle. Together, we’ll break open rocks with tiny hammers to find fossils of plants and sea creatures from 40 million years ago, photograph the broad Longyear Glacier, peer at the weathered wood entrances of abandoned mines, and keep an eye peeled for—what else?—hungry polar bears.
IF YOU GO
Consider booking Longyearbyen’s best full-service hotel:
Radisson Blu Polar Hotel. 47-79-02-34-50. www.radissonblu.com
Among the many cafés, bars and restaurants, don’t miss:
Fruene. 79-02-76-40. www.fruene.com
Huset. 47-79-02-50-02. www.huset.com
Be sure to visit:
North Pole Expedition Museum. 47-91-38-34-67. www.northpolemuseum.com
Svalbard Museum. 47-79-02-64-90. www.svalbardmuseum.no
Consider booking expeditions with these outfitters:
Green Dog Svalbard. 47-79-02-61-00. www.greendog.no
Spitsbergen Travel. 47-79-02-61-00. www.spitsbergentravel.com