When people think of Svalbard they inevitably think of some icy outcrop of land that has next to nothing going for it aside from being the home of the world seed vault. It’s not unusual to come across opinions of this nature, especially by those who look at a map and see Svalbard island, tucked all the way up there, past the Arctic Circle. While it sounds like you wouldn’t find much to do in such a place, it actually couldn’t be further from the truth, and so I went up for myself to see just what you can find in the true north – even further north than the very tops of Scandinavia.
One of the real gems I discovered was a hotel and eatery known as Mary Ann’s Polarrigg. This was one of the best ways I could have possibly discovered Svalbard and gotten the absolute most out of my time there. If you’re ever trying to decide if you should visit the island, you need to stay at Mary Ann’s.
Mary Ann’s Polarrigg is conveniently located in the town of Longyearbyen, a great place to base yourself for exploring a number of the different national parks in the area as well as going on different excursions to explore the area both in and out of town. Mary Ann’s Polarrigg is perfectly located just off the main area of town, close to the water front so it’s the ideal place to explore and get to know Longyearbyen and its roaming reindeer.
Since the town of Longyearbyen is so small, location is not of much consequence but it’s useful to know that Mary Ann’s is within easy walking distance of all the major spots in town including museums, points of interest, supermarket, post office and pharmacy. Just look for the red bus outside – you can’t miss it!
There are a number of cosy rooms to choose from at Mary Ann’s Polarrigg that vary from basic camp style rooms all the way up to private apartments. The whole place used to be used by miners, so it still retains some of its old historic charm in that sense. I decided to go with the Transport Rig room which is one of the best and is a high quality almost hotel-like suite with a private jacuzzi bath and huge bed. The whole room was decorated similar to a wood cabin in the mountains with its own seating area where you can enjoy a private glass or two of wine.
The bed was absolutely fantastic with really thick winter bedding that made it seem even more like you were being enveloped by a marshmallow. I slept incredibly well at Mary Ann’s Polarrigg thanks to the bed – easily one of the most comfortable I’ve ever stayed in.
The food on offer was fantastic to say the least. The Fireplace Bar has a whole variety of options for food and breakfast was served daily in the mining-themed dining room from seven to ten in the morning. All sorts of old memorabilia from the town’s old mining days are on the walls and it’s an enjoyable place to have a meal and learn about the history of Longyearbyen and its mining industry.
Mary Ann’s Fireplace Bar is one of the cheapest places to eat in town and whether you want something simple and light or heavier and hearty, they can whip it up for you. There is also a glass enclosure known as the Winter Garden, which is decorated amazingly with plants and lanterns, all made to feel like you could be on any patio in the world with ambient lighting and an amazing vibe, until you look out the window and are reminded that you are almost, quite literally, at the top of the world.
The Winter Garden was my favourite spot at Mary Ann’s and I think I spent more time in there than I did in my own private room just soaking in the atmosphere of the place and the fact that you can watch reindeer just amble alongside the windows, making it the perfect place to relax after a long day of excursions, exploring or just ambling around town.
You might be thinking ‘Activities? In Svalbard?’, but you’d be surprised just how much there is to do on the island, especially around Longyearbyen. Of course there’s a difference between summer and winter activities and I couldn’t help myself, I just had to go in the winter when the chance of seeing the Northern Lights was highest – and it didn’t disappoint. Excursions out of town to experience the ultimate in Northern Lights viewing are available and I couldn’t miss out on this. It’s truly an experience that rivals many others on my list and is one you need to plan for if you’re interested in visiting Svalbard. The hotel itself has a pool table and dart board as well as wifi in the lobby of the hotel area. The lobby is made to be more of a common living area where you can meet other travellers and generally kickback and relax. There’s also an outdoor hot tub, but I didn’t use it this time around.
I also enjoyed some dog sledding – another common activity in the winter in Svalbard and other snowy countries. It’s an enjoyable experience to sit on the sled and let the driver and dogs do the work while you watch the scenery go zipping past. One experience I’m glad to say I had.
There are dozens of things to do in and around the town from ATV trips around and out of town, hot air ballooning and visiting ice caves. Of course, one of the most popular things to do is to watch for polar bears, and if you’re lucky one might pass by when you’re sitting in Mary Ann’s Fireplace Bar, but sadly it didn’t happen to me. Snowmobile trips can be taken to known polar bear sites, but it isn’t always guaranteed that you’ll see bears.
Honestly I have to say that Svalbard was one of the most surprising places I’ve ever visited. Not only is there so much to do and see in the area, but during the winter you can have just as much fun as during the summer, even if the temperatures are incredibly low. So if you’re looking for a really unique place for your next holiday, I really recommend Mary Ann’s Polarrigg at Longyearbyen in Svalbard.