'Take the polar bear danger seriously!'
As we passed through arrivals at Longyearbyen airport, it was clear that although we might still be in Norway, Svalbard is a unique part of Europe. With more polar bears moving through the archipelago each year than the permanent population of people, and some wandering right through the town, they are a genuine threat who have made human kills and whilst are heavily protected, are also taken very seriously as powerful predators. A stark contrast to the many tourists (including ourselves) whose main aim is to see one of these mighty bears...
We'd travelled here to embark on an Arctic cruise that would circumnavigate the archipelago - a booking we'd made months before, and excitedly saved hard for. But before making a boat our home for eleven days, we had a short amount of time to explore Longyearbyen, gateway to this part of the Arctic.
The history of Svalbard, and its main island, Spitsbergen, is utterly fascinating. With a strong tradition of exploration, hunting and coal mining, settlements were build then abandoned over the years, with Longyearbyen standing as the remaining administrative and tourism centre. It is a stark, bleak town, debris littering the coastline and the buildings ascetically unappealing but practical. The local museum is an engaging space packed with information and interactive exhibits, but there's not much to fill the days with in the town itself. The surrounding landscape, however, is dramatic and ideal for hikes, although only with an armed guide, and we spent a day on a fossil hunting trip, hiking up to the moraine right at the base of the Longyearbyen glacier and seeking out imprints of plants in the soft, crumbly rock.
Our departure time crept closer however, until at last we boarded our ship and set off, ready to see what the Arctic would choose to reveal to us.