LONGYEARBYEN, Svalbard (Reuters) - The guide checked his rifle once, then again, before turning around to give a reassuring smile.
“We haven’t seen many ice bears near town this year, they’re not yet hungry,” he said.
The Svalbard archipelago on Europe’s northern edge is probably the remotest and wildest place in the Arctic with regularly scheduled flights, so get there quick before the crowds discover its crystal clear waters, glaciers and wildlife.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a short stay in Svalbard.
7 a.m. - Although this guide is written for a trip in the summer, when the sun does not set, do consider visiting in the dead of winter, when darkness reigns, temperatures fall to minus 30 Celsius and the community comes together like a large, extended family.
Longyearbyen, the islands’ capital, will be your base and though the town has done good work reinventing itself, it is still mostly a mining town and not really your main attraction.
Svalbard, roughly the size of the Ireland, boasts spectacular glaciers, pristine fjords, millions of birds that feed on the fish of sea, walruses that tan on the rocks and of course, polar bears, or as the locals call them: “ice bears”.
Svalbard’s 3,000 polar bears outnumber the human population so take warnings seriously: never leave Longyearbyen without a guide because you can encounter one of the 600 kg (1,300 pound) killing machines anywhere.
Your guide will carry a rifle, will know how to use it and most importantly, will know how to scare off a bear because killing them is absolutely the last resort.
So, begin your weekend by taking one of the many organized daytrips out of Longyearbyen. The top two picks are Barentsburg, a Russian mining town left over from the days of the Soviet Union and Pyramiden, a Russian ghost town abandoned during the 1998 Russian financial crisis.
8 a.m. - On your journey across the Isfjorden, or Ice fjord, enjoy the sheer cliffs, mountains and deep blue waters, which contain so much food during the summer, many birds overeat and will have trouble getting out of the way of your ship.
Svalbard is governed by a unique treaty, which grants Norway sovereignty over the islands, but signatories to the treaty retain equal rights to residence and commercial activities.
Its natural resources, primarily coal, have been mined for decades and a handful of mines, owned by Norwegian and Russian firms, continue to operate, providing a stable living for the islands’ 2,500 people. Its capital was founded by mining proprietor John Munroe Longyear a century ago and still houses many of the miners who are flown into far away mines.
11 a.m. - As you make your way across the fjord and enjoy the scenery, you are likely to be served lunch, including whale meat. It’s best not to bring up the ethical issue of whale hunting as your guide is not likely to understand you. Whales have been hunted for centuries in Svalbard’s waters and provided a living centuries before coal was discovered.
If you decide you must see a polar bear, pick the trip to Pyramiden as bears are common on the fjord. Search for seals, which are easier to spot against the snow and ice, and chances are you will see a bear nearby.
In Pyramiden you’ll find the town just as the Russians left it 14 years ago when they left in a hurry, with the Lenin statue and house of culture still intact.
But Barentsburg may be even more interesting as the town continues to operate with a fully Russian staff, vodka bar, and socialist realist murals.
Its population has shrunk to around 400 from a peak of 700 but Russia has mined coal in the area since 1932 and is not about to give up.
It is worth breaking off from the tour group and visiting the town’s Soviet-style grocery and department stores for a peak at the harsh conditions and relative poverty resembling a world gone in most of east Europe. The town is accessible only by boat and helicopter so you are likely to be the only visitor locals see for a while.
3 p.m. - As you head back to Longyearbyen, enjoy the cliffs and look for Grumant, an abandoned town of just a few houses, which once housed over a 1,000 people in the middle of the last century. Around Grumant, you can still spot the mining shafts that lead into the mountain, seemingly drilled at random as miners followed the seam.
By the time you reach Longyearbyen, you are ready for some food and drink. For its size, Longyearbyen actually offers a good selection of high quality refreshments. Svalbar, despite the name, is a good choice and so is the Kroa and the Barentz Pub.
8 p.m. - For a drink you need to visit the Karlsberger Pub, which has around 800 types of spirits, including rare whiskies, on offer.
8 a.m. - If you think polar bears are scary, you haven’t seen the prices in Svalbard. Make sure you are sitting before you check hotel or tour rates. Norway is the most expensive country in Europe and Svalbard is the most expensive part of Norway. For $150 a night, you’ll get a hostel room converted from mining barracks. If you want upscale, you can have that too at the Radisson offers a full service hotel, but it’s going to cost you over $300 a night.
Although remote, Longyearbyen offers you all the comforts of the mainland, including a supermarket where you can buy anything from exotic fruit to local fish, a bank, post office, and a swimming pool. Cash is not necessary as you can do almost anything by card or over the internet.
For your second day, pick another trip. A good choice is kayaking on the fjord to give you a bit of a closer look at nature. Along the fjord, you will see plenty of logs piled up on the rocks. Most of them come from Russia, where loggers cut trees and float them on the rivers. Some are not caught, eventually making their way into the seas and getting trapped in the Arctic ice before they are deposited on Svalbard’s beaches.
12 p.m. - After lunch, you should head over to Svalbard museum, which has some good exhibits on the history of the islands, the area’s economic development and its wildlife. You can rest on seal fur and read about how whale hunters processed their catch in the most hostile place in Europe. The exhibit about coal mining also tells you how the industry took off and continues to sustain Svalbard.
3 p.m. - The people of Svalbard may be as interesting as its nature. Part of the population has been there for decades, moving into services after leaving the coal mines. They have many stories to tell and Longyearbyen’s bars are the place to hear them. But most of the people are there for just a few years, looking for an adventure or escaping a troubled past.
The town has a surprisingly large Thai community and you will find adventurous Europeans on every corner, all with a story to tell.
Longyearbyen’s colorful yellow, red and blue houses are also worth a bit of sightseeing and the town’s church, which also operates as a community centre and remains open 24 hours a day, is a great place for a bit of restorative peace.
Editing by Paul Casciato