"The light is extreme, the weather is extreme, the nature is extreme," says Ronny Brunvoll, "That's why I love it here." Brunvoll has worked for four years in Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost settlement that warrants the term "town." Longyearbyen is tucked into the Adventfjord on Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
"Polar day" lasts from mid-April to mid-August, the peak tourist season. But Longyearbyen attracts hardy travelers seeking unusual experiences in a distinctive environment all year round.
Try dogsledding, fishing, or snowmobiling, then having dinner at Huset (The House). Established in 1951 as a gathering place for coal mine owners, managers and miners, Huset now houses upscale dining spaces, elegantly outfitted in Scandinavian Modern design, and a wine cellar rated among the top 300 in the world. Wealthy gourmands and oenophiles fly in to dine and imbibe here. For any visitor, an evening spent at Huset is worth swallowing the Norwegian prices in order to enjoy such arctic specialties as reindeer sausage, raw halibut and bearded seal.
Or consider kayaking on the fjord or hiking at any summertime hour in the tundra-clad mountains, then visiting Galleri Svalbard. Not to be missed are Kåre Tveter's ethereally lit paintings of far northern landscapes and the gallery's extensive Arctic map collection. The Svalbard Museum, which houses the tourist information center, is the place to head upon arrival in Longyearbyen for historical and cultural context as well as safety information.
In Longyearbyen, one does not blithely camp, hike, dogsled, kayak, bike or run, even within sight of the small town. In any season, survival gear is essential because the weather changes extremely fast. Having a local guide is not only wise, but also a great way to learn about this fascinating, often mystical, place and its people.
The headline grabbing extremes of Svalbard include arctic terns that peck people's heads and polar bears content to eat humans when they can't get their paws on the seals they prefer. Residents are required to carry rifles when outside the town center, to fend off polar bear attack.Defense against arctic terns is easier. Long red plastic poles are provided near the terns' nesting grounds in the fjord's delta. Holding the poles (or a fist, preferably gloved) straight up keeps the feisty flyers circling and diving but not pecking.
For defense against natural or human-made disaster, Longyearbyen is home to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the entrance to which juts from a mountain side. You will not gain admittance no matter who you are, but you can pay homage to the scientists who are preserving backups of the world's crop seeds, while you take in views of extreme natural beauty well worth protecting for future generations.