Svalbard feels like a place removed from time and space. Ringed by looming glaciers, the archipelago experiences long hours of daylight - or darkness - and temperatures can plummet lower than −50°F. Simply calling it ‘otherworldy’ minimizes how central polar landscapes are to human survival. Perhaps it is more accurate to call it the Earth’s frozen heart instead.
Still, it doesn’t feel quite real to be here. I've been daydreaming about Svalbard since reading Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in the US) almost two decades ago. Published in 1995, the author must have visited when the tourism industry was in its infancy here. Yet his depiction rings true today; that of an industrial outpost in the middle of the wild and stark wilderness.
I'm staying at Funken Lodge in Longyearbyen, Svalbard's main town. It was once a hub of the coal mining industry and it still retains the feeling of an industrial town today, with mining smoke stacks dotted around the landscape, half-buried under snow. In recent years though, many of the mines have closed and there is an increasing reliance on tourism and the scientific research community.
Like Longyearbyen, Funken Lodge has a shared history with the coal mining industry. Built at the foot of the now-closed Mine 2, Funken was where a lot of administrative staff once lived. It later became a social hub for meals, Christmas parties and other social events for the workers. Hurtigruten Svalbard AS, a tourism operator specializing in trips to Svalbard, bought the building in 1993 and renovated it in 2017 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of its opening. Photographs of miners, old maps and original newspaper clippings now grace the walls.
For eight months of the year, arriving into Funken Lodge is a welcome respite from the snow and polar air. The entrance is removed from the upstairs reception, allowing space to disrobe from your multiple layers of outerwear and, most importantly, swap out your shoes.
Like everywhere in Svalbard (excluding the shops), you’ll be asked to remove your shoes when entering a building. This harks back to when coal-miners were required to leave their shoes at the door to prevent black dust from getting everywhere. The hotel will provide you with basic slippers or you can bring your own. As a result you instantly feel informal, comfortable and at home.
There is a small but well-equipped gym on site - including a bicycle, weights and treadmill - which is popular with the outdoorsy types this destination invariably attracts. There’s also a sauna which was sadly out of order when I visited but would be a welcome activity after a long day in the freezing cold.
Almost everything in the hotel has been designed with comfort in mind. There are four separate lounge areas to choose from. Some have soft and plush sofas to relax with a drink from the gleaming cocktail bar (Norwegian lagers and IPAs are also on tap). Others have a library of Arctic-themed literature and tables and chairs with clean, minimal lines, perfect for getting some work done. The no-shoes policy makes it one of the most relaxing hotel common areas I’ve ever been to, feeling more like one large, impeccably designed home than a traditional hotel lounge. I was also reliably informed that an Arctic fox is spotted almost daily from the bar area but I wasn’t lucky enough to see it this time around.
Visiting in the summer, the huge, panoramic windows let endless light in, brightening the muted Scandinavian color palette. Low-hanging light fixtures with a warm glow will undoubtedly create an intimate coziness when the polar nights arrive in November.
The comfort level is elevated further in the guestroom with a mini mountain of feathery pillows and super soft bedding. With the increased hours of daylight from a polar summer, you need some help getting your full eight hours of sleep. When I visited, it was the perfect soft landing after a long day on the snowmobile. It was so comfy I wish I could transport the entire bed back home with me.
The curtains in the room, although good quality, were not full blackout curtains, which seemed an unusual oversight when the hotel sees 24 hours of daylight from May to September, nearly a third of the year. It might also be prudent to bring ear plugs in case you have a room off the lounge, like I did, as noise can travel if people stay up drinking in the daylight, although it never felt rowdy.
One thing you quickly learn in Svalbard; people who come here - either to live or visit - have a deep love for this place and come equipped to spend the maximum amount of time exploring its landscape. Expect adventurous groups of friends or adult children traveling with their parents, all dressed in layers of expensive activewear. I didn’t see any small children during my stay and there are no dedicated kids’ amenities, although they are allowed; cots are available and children up to age nine can stay for free if using an existing bed.
With 88 rooms, lots of outdoor activities to enjoy and plenty of lounge space, it’s unlikely you’ll feel too crowded while staying here, even if the hotel is full.
The on-site Funktionærmessen Restaurant is a draw for both visitors and locals, especially for a town where cuisine isn’t too high up the priority list. Given the location, local ingredients aren’t really possible so instead the menu focuses on warming comfort food elegantly styled on the plate. Beef features in multiple forms - bourguignon, steak tartare and rib steak are all on the menu - with seafood options like scallops and cod available. The restaurant also has its own wine cellar with a particularly extensive selection of champagne. An in-house sommelier is on hand to pair wines for you as well. Dining options are limited in the local area, so people will eat mostly at the hotel and locals also come to dine so book ahead to be safe.
The hotel breakfast is a good-quality buffet and there is a chef on hand to make fresh omelets. Expect the usual bacon, scrambled egg, fruit and yogurt, as well as Norwegian breakfast standards of rye bread rolls and smoked salmon. For all the wonderful presentation of the food though, the view from the restaurant is really the star of the show. Your dining companions might get forgotten for a while as your attention is stolen by the Lars- and Longyear glaciers nearby, particularly as the moving sun bathes them in stark white, golden or sometimes pastel light as it moves slowly around the sky.
Where it’s located
Sitting atop the town of Longyearbyen, almost everywhere in the hotel has stunning views of the town below, the glaciers above or the sea in the middle. The walk to the center of the town will take about 20 minutes but has a few downward slopes en route - a pair of crampons for your shoes will make navigation a lot easier and a headlight and reflective gear is essential during the winter. With the right clothing, walking is possible most of the time, although it can be slow and awkward if you’re not used to icy conditions. Alternatively the hotel has numbers for a couple of local taxi operators.
In the area
The draw of Svalbard is its wild landscape. Chances are, you’ll be using your accommodation as a launching point for a larger expedition or several shorter excursions. From here you can try spotting Arctic animals or trying to spot the Northern Lights, which will take you beyond Longyearbyen’s town limits. Once you leave the town limits, you are subject to strict safety regulations and must carry some means of scaring off a polar bear. Flare guns are essential but carrying a rifle is also recommended. Tour operators take care of this for you but independent travelers should apply in advance for a firearms permit in order to rent a gun.
For days in town, you’ll find the interesting Svalbard Museum as well as the North Pole Expedition Museum for anyone fascinated by the era of Arctic explorers. If you forget any gear, there are a few shops with everything needed to brave the temperatures and prices are generally lower here than in the rest of Norway (there is no VAT on Svalbard). Upmarket souvenirs like delicate jewelry or handmade Christmas ornaments can be found in the Lompensenteret shopping center but you can also get just about any supplies or trinkets you need - as long as you don’t mind a polar bear printed on it. Book ahead for an evening tour at the Svalbard Brewery (429 NOK per person) or pick some up cans to take home at the local department store.
What it costs
Standard double room rates start at 2476 NOK / US $254 and can go up to 4956 NOK / US $510. Some single rooms are available for cheaper; the range is between 1980 NOK / US $203 to 4100 NOK - US $421.
The hotel has a very large, accessible bedroom with a big living space and wooden floors instead of carpet for mobility. The entrance is wheelchair accessible and there is an elevator but much of the rest of the hotel is carpeted.
How to get to Svalbard
SAS and Norwegian Air run flights from Oslo (some direct, others connecting in Tromsø) several times a week. Several tour operators also run cruises that stop in Svalbard, with many connecting to more remote parts of the archipelago.
AnneMarie traveled to Svalbard at the invitation of Volvo Penta. Lonely Planet staff members do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.