Having never been further north than Scotland in my life, I felt slightly unprepared before my first ever trip abroad with C&IT to Longyearbyen, Norway – the northernmost town on the planet.
The first question I asked myself was: ‘How cold is -20 really?’ When I found out, my next question was obvious: Where can I find a good pair of long-johns?
The purpose of my trip was to get a first-hand experience of all that the town of Longyearbyen has to offer as a C&I destination. Longyearbyen is located in Svalbard, a series of islands that although are considered Norwegian, sit beside Greenland and 1,300km South of the North Pole. With a school, a church, a university and the world’s largest post box built specifically to send wish lists to Father Christmas, Longyearbyen is the northernmost town in the world and is populated 365 days a year.
I left for Heathrow airport from the C&IT HQ on 27 February where I met the group for the first time. Representatives from The Black Tomato Agency, Noble Events and Chambers Travel were among the eight event planners that were making the trip with me, all of which had suitcases far bigger than mine.
“Is that all you’ve brought with you?” I was asked. The naïve traveller in me burst into action and I panic bought an £80 pair of Ralph Lauren jogging bottoms. Needless to say that was money I’d never see again.
Two flights later the nine of us, along with Britt Gorniok of Innovation Norway and Birgitte Nestande of the Norway Convention Bureau, arrived in Longyearbyen, the last stop before the North Pole. It was midnight by the time we made it to the Spitsbergen Hotel and although the group was visibly shattered we stayed up to hear the story behind the bizarre and wonderful town we were staying in – as told brilliantly and enthusiastically by Anika Paust from Spitsbergen Travel, a former Aussie turned Arctic habitant
Did you know there are more polar bears than humans in Svalbard? What is more astounding is that of the 2,040 people living in Longyearbyen, give or take, there are 38 nationalities of which a large proportion are Thai and Russian. It is also illegal to die in Svalbard, as the ground is too cold to let anything decompose. Just a heads up.
We awoke the Friday morning ready to tackle the day ahead when we were truly amazed to see Longyearbyen in the daylight. As we gazed out the windows we were greeted by towering, white mountains that stretched far into the distance.
To the west of the hotel was the bay, which would eventually break out into the Arctic Ocean. Just looking at it made your lips turn blue.With breakfast scoffed and failed homemade waffles abandoned the team headed to the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen where we were given a presentation on the island’s C&I packages, which includes expeditions out into the arctic and summer hikes up the mountains. This was swiftly followed by lunch. We ate a lot on this trip. We then took a cold stroll through the centre of the town and I was amazed by how successfully 38 different nationalities had conjured such a rich community spirit in such an isolated place. London, take note.
Next up was the dog sledding. Now, I must confess-I am not a ‘dog person’ (I grew up with cats what can I say?) However, the sight of 150 blue-eyed, bushy-tailed huskies losing their minds in anticipation for being released into the arctic tundra is something I will likely never forget.
It was two to a sled with one driver and one passenger, which meant we had to partner up. I went with Paul Levien (head of group travel at BCD M&I) who took his seat and trusted me to manoeuvre both the sled and our six dogs safely.
With the boys of the pack heading up the rear, we were off. It was a surreal moment as we surfed on top of the snow between the valleys. The scenery was immense and seemed to look prettier with every glance. As our exuberant dogs circled the course and brought us home, darkness rose and we warmed ourselves beside a fire with coffee and custard creams. Day one in the arctic complete.