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Arctic Adventure

An Arctic adventure exploring the ‘cold coasts’ 

From majestic polar bears to bracing dips, a trip to the North Pole is breath-taking in every sense.

By Jeannine Williamson

Take a three-hour flight from Oslo and you’ll reach remote Spitsbergen, the largest and only permanently populated island in northern Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.

With a population of just 2,000, drawn by the isolated landscapes and remains of the coal mining industry established in 1906 by American John Longyear, the largest town of Longyearbyen is the departure point for remarkable journeys deep into the 23,561 square mile group of islands that were first mentioned in Icelandic texts in 1194 as the “land of cold coasts”.

For much of the year Svalbard is an unforgiving and inaccessible landscape to all but the incredible species of wildlife, flora and fauna that have developed and adapted to make it their home.

The most remarkable of all is the polar bear. Descended from brown bears trapped in Siberia during the last Ice Age, they have evolved to have hollow hairs that provide an insulating layer and their metabolism can be slowed to cope with long periods without food in what is called a state of ‘walking hibernation’.

However, the summertime provides a window of opportunity for less well-equipped mortals to discover this surprisingly diverse region. Thawing ice and frozen landscapes make way for plant-rich tundra and the chance to witness incredible spectacles such as close-up views of glaciers formed thousands of years ago and hundreds of walrus basking in the Arctic sunlight.

The long hours of virtually round-the-clock daylight enhance wildlife spotting opportunities. And although nothing is ever guaranteed on expedition trips where Mother Nature sets the agenda, with the help of eagle-eyed guides you’re highly likely to see the ‘king of the Arctic’ – the world’s largest land carnivore – as an estimated 3,200 bears make up the Barents Sea population found in this region.

Journeys will take you some 600 miles from the North Pole, where the sea is covered with drifting ice floes. Exciting Zodiac trips will provide close-up views of bird and walrus colonies and towering glaciers. You might hear a thunderous roar as giant shards break away from the ice walls and crash into the sea, a phenomenon known as calving.

The craggy 300ft Alkefjellet cliffs are spectacular enough in their own right, but in the summer months every part of the rock face is teeming with an estimated 60,000 pairs of guillemots that dart in and out of nests to feed their young.

There are guided walks on some of the islands to admire hardy flowers that thrive in the most improbable places, such as the tiny Arctic poppies that cling to rocks and turn their faces to follow the sun. If you’re feeling brave enough there’s also the option to take the ‘polar plunge’ and dash into the water for the ultimate bracing dip.

You’ll be rewarded with a fiery shot of aquavit on return and the bragging rights of a commemorative certificate. Another lasting memory of an incredible expedition to one of the furthest corners of the globe.

Published 03.01.22