When I’m in the middle of a job and know I won’t be able to sneak away for a few months, I satisfy the urge to escape by pouring over maps of the world.
So, as a perpetual daydreamer plagued by curiosity of places not many folks visit, and as lover of adventures in general, I’m starting a new series: Off the Map Travel. While I’m based at home, it’ll (somewhat!) satisfy my wandering mind… and perhaps yours, as well!
I’ll start with a personal favorite that gives me chills whenever I look at its location on a map… Svalbard, Norway.
Svalbard is an archipelago located inside the Arctic Circle way, way, WAY north of Europe. We’re talking further north than most of Greenland and Canada, folks! Up until a year ago, I had no idea it was an inhabitable place – and it’s possible to get there.
The main entry point into Svalbard is through Longyearbyen, a port town located towards the center of the island. With a population of just shy over 2,000, there’s somewhat of an established tourist infrastructure, plus the added bonus of the basics, such as electricity and internet. Primarily a home for those in the mining and research industries, it’s a quaint little town that serves as the gateway to the rest of the uninhabited, picturesque landscapes of Svalbard.
How to Get There
There’s a weekly boat that goes from Tromso to Longyearbyen, but the most economical and quickest option is by way of Scandinavian Airline Systems. SAS has two direct flights to Longyearbyen most days of the year, one departing from Oslo and one departing from Tromso. It isn’t a budget flight by any means, but prices can get as low as $350 roundtrip if booked far enough in advance.
Seeing the Island
The most popular way to take in the sights of Svalbard is by way of cruise – a 6-night cruise will take you all around the west and north parts of the island, showcasing glaciers and arctic wildlife that would otherwise be impossible to see if you were trying to plot the route yourself.
There are TONS of cool activities in Svalbard, albeit pricey. Day hikes, excursions, and taking a day trip via snowmobile to the last remaining Russian settlement of Barentsburg on Svalbard are just a few of the options available.
If I ever can justify the cost of getting to Svalbard, at the top of my list is checking out Pyramiden, an Arctic ghost town that used to be a bustling Russian mining town in the 70’s and 80’s, but was suddenly abandoned in 1998. It’s the definition of creepy: abandoned homes, buildings, schools, still with furniture, clothing, and schoolbooks inside – untouched since the sudden abandonment. There was barely any time to pack as the residents departed Pyramiden, giving the town a very Apocalyptic feel.
Fun fact about Pyramiden: It’s home to the northernmost statue of Lenin in the world.
When to Go to Svalbard
It depends on your sunlight preference, really. If you’re perfectly content with having sunrise and sunsets, the shoulder seasons months of March and September will suit you (although it will be chilly at around 20-30 degrees Fahrenheit).
However, if you want to experience perpetual sunlight and bask in the warmest temperatures the Arctic Circle has to offer, July is best – the high is a whopping 44 degrees.
If you could care less for actually being able to see the landscapes of Svalbard and are in it purely for the adventure, the sun sets at the end of October and doesn’t rise again until the middle of February. Bring a flashlight!
Cost & Where to Stay in Svalbard
Svalbard is NOT a budget destination by any means. Accommodation in Longyearbyen is at least $87 USD/night (cheapest rooms being at the Spitsberg Guesthouse), but most range closer to $150-$200 per night. Plus, if you want to make the most of your trip in the Arctic Circle and embark on a cruise (and why wouldn’t you?), that’ll cost another $1300 USD on the low end.
Why do I want to go there, again?
Why NOT?! It’s part of Europe, and requires no special visa for citizens of most countries. There’s spectacular mountains, valleys, and coves which very, very few people have ever laid eyes on. While I love going to destinations with warm weather and beaches, Svalbard has an undiscovered charm that’s tempting. It’s wild, it’s rugged – ripe for those with an adventurous, inquisitive spirit – and where’s a better place to see the aurora borealis than in world’s northernmost town?