Discovering Svalbard in Norway where polar bears outnumber people

The epitome of Arctic cool: Discovering Svalbard in Norway where polar bears outnumber people

  • Polar bears outnumber people in Svalbard– about 3,500 compared to 2,500 
  • Lydia Bell stayed at the Radisson Blu Polar, which has an alfresco Jacuzzi 
  • The highlight of her trip was a 50-mile snowmobile safari over the Isfjord

I am mushing through a polar landscape, led by a fluffy, affectionate canine entourage. The mercury is at a bone-chilling minus 10C, which the guide says is ‘warm’. ‘It was minus 14C yesterday,’ he trills.

It may be morning but the Norwegian landscape exudes a bluish tinge and a pink moon hangs low in the ghostly sky. On our return to camp, we warm up with cups of hot chocolate in a cabin decorated with reindeer hides.

I have longed to visit the archipelago of Svalbard since devouring Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which has now been adapted for a BBC drama.

Winter wonderland: A snowmobile trip in Svalbard

Set in a parallel universe, it follows Lyra Belacqua, who journeys to the Arctic in search of her friend and uncle. Svalbard is home of the ice bears and their ruler Iorek Byrnison.

How timely to show my nine-year-old daughter, with a deep hankering for snow, something otherworldly. We signed up for a February half-term break promising an Arctic adventure. Our nights are spent at the family-friendly Radisson Blu Polar, which has great restaurants, saunas and an alfresco Jacuzzi. Days are spent in the wilderness, cold but happy.

There is no place in the world like this. We are just 650 miles from the North Pole and the sun hangs below the horizon for four months of year. Glaciers, frozen fjords and immense ice caps form the backdrop, and this area is home to reindeer, Arctic foxes and polar bears. In fact, there are more polar bears here than people – about 3,500 compared to 2,500.

Svalbard has five main islands, but most of our action unfolds on Spitsbergen and its main town, Longyearbyen. The local museum details swashbuckling tales of the archipelago’s past, but what’s gone is also visible in the present: the graves of long-gone whalers and the remains of an abandoned mining settlement owned by the Russians from 1927 to 1998. We go down one mine, donning orange jumpsuits and head torches to venture into the gloom.

One night a guide takes us out on a Snowcat to the frozen Advent Valley to hunt for the Northern Lights. The Svalbard reindeer are out in force but the Aurora Borealis evades us. Alien greens have lit up the sky like a persistent extraterrestrial signature all season, but now it’s cloudy.

The highlight of our trip is a 50-mile snowmobile safari over the Isfjord. I’m worried my daughter won’t cope but if she’s complaining I can’t hear her. We are kitted out in giant snowsuits, balaclavas, special boots and helmets. We race through valleys, passing lone travellers mushing with dogs. We whizz past reindeer. We zoom towards a peach moon through the deepest, softest snow.

Polar bears outnumber people in Svalbard– about 3,500 compared to 2,500

Polar bears outnumber people in Svalbard– about 3,500 compared to 2,500 

Eventually we reach a place called Elveneset, from where we look out to Tempelfjellet Mountain, as the snow flies horizontally and the wind howls. The moment is euphoria-inducing in both its beauty and bizarreness.

Before we arrived in Norway, I expected the food to be rustic. But the Radisson Blu has Brasseri Nansen, which serves dishes of Arctic game, and the cosy bar-restaurant Barentz Pub, with pots rich with langoustines, scallops and fish.

In town, restaurants include Thai offerings from an unlikely emigre population. The piece de resistance is dinner at Funken Lodge, a gorgeous degustation of root vegetables, salads and rare beef.

We never visited Camp Barentz in the Advent Valley to eat reindeer stew around a campfire, and nor did we make it up to the ice cave on the Lars Glacier. But we finished satiated with adventure, bedazzled by beauty, and with a new-found appreciation for Britain’s temperate climate.

I recommend this trip to anyone with children. Just don’t forget the heated hand pads…


Lydia Bell travelled with Best Served Scandinavia (, which offers a Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights itinerary costing from £1,295 per adult and £995 for a child aged eight to 12. The price includes return flights from London to Longyearbyen, three nights’ B&B at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, and a husky sledding excursion. 



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