Sailing in Svalbard: the Northernmost Inhabited Place in the World

» Posted by on Sep 6, 2017 in Featured, long trip, svalbard

I went sailing in Svalbard last month for a week. It was the second time, I visited the small archipelago in the arctic zone. Last time I went camping and kayaking and while it was fun it did not allow me to travel long distances. This time, I chose a sailboat, first because it allowed us to travel quite a lot, secondly it was a lot more confortable, thirdly it was small enough we could get really close to any glacier.

Where is the Svalbard?

Svalbard (which means “cold coast” in Norwegian) is between 78 and 81 degrees north. The main town is Longyearbyen and is about 650 miles from the North Pole. That’s the northernmost inhabited place in the world. It’s not a big town, about 2000 people lives there year long. There is an hospital, roads, stores, university, nightclub, restaurants and that’s the only place you walk around without a rifle to protect yourself against polar bears. There are more polar bears than humans in Svalbard.

A couple cool facts: everything there is the northernmost something: church, brewery, chocolate maker, art gallery, sun clock!. A summer day will start on April 18th and last until August 23rd. That’s 128 days (or 3072 hours of sun). The sun will dip below the horizon for the first time on August 24th. After that the days are going to get shorter by as much as 27 minutes per day. In winter, the sun sets on October 27th and will rise again on February 14th.
Lastly, the town was established by an American called John Munro Longyear, whose Arctic Coal Company started coal mining operations there in 1906. The town was originally called Longyear City and was renamed Longyearbyen in 1926.

Houses in Longyearbyen, Norway.

Houses in Longyearbyen, Norway.

The town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard.

World Northermost church in Longyearbyen.


Longyearbyen was created originally as a mining settlement by the Arctic Coal Company and to this day there is still active coal mining in Svalbard. The only mining still taking place in Longyearbyen is at Mine 7 and a quarter of that production is used to power the city using the only coal-fueled power station in Norway. My top image is one of the coal tram that was originally built to transport coal from the mine to the loading dock. The building on the image looks like a transfer station/power station from one tramway line to another. I could not find a way to visit the inside.

You can see the left over from mining everywhere:

The old mining main house.


Now most the economy of Longyearbyen is tourism and in the 6 year span since my first visit, I can tell you a lot has changed. There is now one and maybe two new hotels, new restaurants, new cafes that did not exist in 2011.
When we got there, a massive cruise ship was docked and when we woke up, the town was full of tourists (about 3000 of them). So imagine a small town of a grand total of 2000 being overwhelmed by 3000 tourists. It was crazy, Longyearbyen is normally a very quiet town at the edge of wilderness and suddenly you had tons of people, some of them did not even know where they were. They simply follow the program.

Massive cruise ship docked in Longyearbyen.

One good side of more tourism, is more hotels. Longyearbyen has now four hotels, 2 to 3 hostels and even a long list of AirBnb. Our first two “nights” were spent recovering from our long flight there. Our hotel was the BaseCamp hotel, we chose it because of its name and the fact it has been done in the concept of a trapper cabin (with a lot more confort, you will be able to see what is a real trapper cabin). I took a couple pictures of our room and the lounge.

One of the rooms at the BaseCamp hotel in Longyearbyen.

One of the rooms at the BaseCamp hotel in Longyearbyen.

The lounge at the BaseCamp hotel in Longyearbyen.

After our trip, we stayed at the newest hotel, the Svalbard hotel, which is also extremely nice, more modern and recent in its feel. At the time, the hotel had even Nespresso machines in the lobby.

Let’s go north: Ny-Alysund

Longyearbyen might be the northernmost town, but it is not the northernmost permanent settlement, Ny-Alysund has this honor. Ny-Alysund is almost at 79 degrees north (78°55’35” N 11°55’58” E, to be precise) and is a permanent multi-country research station. The town is not incorporated and is administrated on by Kings Bay Corporation. The claim of fame of Ny-Alysund is that Amundsen used this town as its basecamp for his historic flight above the North Pole with the balloon Norge.

The town of Ny-Alesund

The northernmost post office in the world.

The house where Amundsen stayed during his preparation of his flight above the North Pole.

The northernmost train.

Camp Mansfield

Across the bay from Ny-Alesund, the “police station” or Sysselmannen has a summer presence for 7 weeks during the peak tourist season. We got to meet them and chat with them about what it is like to live for 7 weeks in a small trappeur cabin. Not for the faint of heart, that’s what I learn.

Camp Mansfield: Sysselmannen summer presence

Camp Mansfield, our boat and Ny-Alysund behind

This is the first post from my trip, more to come.