Longyearbyen – From Coal to Diamonds

Photo: Spitsbergen Travel/Ragnar Hartvig

A hummer, three snowmobiles and a half-track armored car occupy the car park of the Radisson in Longyearbyen. There would be huskies, as well, but they just left a trek into the high mountains. The keys are left inside the vehicles since no roads lead outside this 4 mile square town…a fact that will result in my stealing a car later in the trip!

The Radisson is a five star haven in this idyllic town. Only here can you get a real espresso, an essential fact for Italian photojournalists trying to wake up. I am staying in a guesthouse for explorers but my morning coffee is at the Radisson!

Outside the window, a baby reindeer is hiding from the wind and a polar bear in the lobby reminds me not to wander to far from town taking photos. Finishing my double-espresso (I was awake all night with Norwegian explorers singing next to my room until 3am), I set out to capture this once industrial, coal town.

While there remains a Russian coal mine outside town, coal production ceased to be the main income for this region some years ago. Today, Longyearbyen is a year round destination for vacationers with a winter season second to none and summer glacier hiking revered by Norwegians.

The beauty of this place is the simplicity with which visitors can enjoy the range of activities.

  • feel like snowmobiling…in 15 minutes, you will find yourself speeding up the snow covered valleys;
  • fancy a ski…no lift lines, in fact, no lifts…you will be driven up the side of a mountain by snowmobile where you will be free to descend in any manner that suits you…forget ‘off piste”, how about “no piste”;
  • ice caving, husky sleds, polar bear watching…whatever you want is only a phone call away!

The food is not to be missed either. Restaurants cater to local tastes (whale steak) and foreign appetites (asian fusion). Bars are plentiful where you can rub shoulders with Yorkshire coal engineers, Italian students taking a semester break and local residents of Svalbard…but please don’t ask them if they like living there. This has become such a cliche’ that one establishment frequented by locals has printed a t-shirt:

“Yes, I like living here.”

To see a gallery of photos from Longyearbyen, see http://www.markabouzeid.com/north_pole/longyearbyen/index.html