Svalbard: An expedition cruise guide

Destination Reviews

For spectacular landscapes, raw tundra, and amazing wildlife, a visit to Svalbard is the perfect first introduction to the Arctic. Here is your Svalbard expedition cruise guide.

On an Arctic expedition cruise in the region, you'll see ice and snow, of course, but also, an extraordinary colour palette of greys and blues, an amazing glimpse of the very bones of these remote islands, with fjords, valleys and mountains, whilst glaciers cover some 60% of the land.

There is an incredible variety of wildlife, from huge flocks of birds to reindeer and arctic fox, as well as lounging walrus and seals scattered across the ice. To top it all, the Svalbard archipelago is the very best place on earth to see polar bears in the wild - in this region, polar bears outnumber humans, so always have your binoculars at the ready.

Polar bear with cub Svalbard

On the main island of Spitsbergen, to the west, a couple of so called 'towns', Longyearbyen and Ny Alesund, house scientists and a few intrepid visitors. These frontier-like settlements are remote, and also surrounded by polar bears, meaning anyone venturing beyond the boundaries must bring with them a rifle - or an armed guide. Further afield, seven national parks and 23 nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched fragile environment.

Magdalenefjord, Spitsbergen

Visitors arrive into Svalbard Airport at Longyearbyen, or by ship from a northern Norwegian town such as Tromso. From 1925 the Svalbard Act made Svalbard a full part of the Kingdom of Norway. As the largest settlement on the archipelago and the seat of the governor, Longyearbyen has much to interest tourists, as well as being an important base for scientific research, housing the University Centre in Svalbard and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, both of which play critical roles in the economy, alongside tourism. The Global Seed Vault is a seedbank which stores seeds from as many of the world's crop varieties and their botanical wild relatives as possible. In Ny Alesund, the northernmost functional civilian settlement in the world, a permanent research settlement is home to a branch of the European Space Research Organisation.

Through the 1990s, tourism increased, with an increasing number of calls from cruise and expedition ships. Numbers are closely monitored, to avoid over-tourism.

Svalbard expedition cruises Quark

Joining your Arctic expedition ship, you'll travel up to 80 degrees north, depending on the ice conditions. You might glimpse a small hut left by whalers, trappers or a scientific mission - the islands were first used as a base by the whalers who sailed far north in the 17th and 18th centuries. Once or twice, a ship might appear on the horizon. But apart from that, day after day is filled with extraordinary scenery, and amazing wildlife; although sightings are never guaranteed.

Fascinating lectures on board the ship cover such diverse topics as the race to the North Pole, the fight for ownership of the seabed beneath, the nesting habits of Arctic birds or the life of the polar bear. All come alive in the context of this amazing adventure.

Polar Bear, Spitsbergen

You will visit the Northwest Spitsbergen National Park, a wilderness of steep mountains, stark glaciers and beautiful offshore islands; the frozen seascape of Eastern Svalbard, home to the archipelago's largest population of polar bears; and maybe, ice permitting, Hornsund at the southernmost tip of the archipelago, one of Svalbard's most beautiful fjords.

In the brief summer months, snow gives way to rich, colourful vegetation backed by towering mountains, for example in Isfjord's fjord system, where you'll see immense, glacier-carved valleys rich in wildlife, vegetation and human history.

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Our expedition cruising guide to the Arctic will tell you everything you need to know, including when to visit, what to see and how to get there.

Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Adventures. Her most recent adventure was a cruise on Silver Origin and she has also sailed with Seabourn, Ponant and Aqua Expeditions. Her favourite adventure destination is the Galapagos however she's also enjoyed cruises in the Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, Brahmaputra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and the Arctic. When she’s not travelling she loves reading, food and wine.

More about Edwina

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