Svalbard (that archipelago at the top of your globe) is a destination that changes depending on what time of year you choose to visit. Having never been before, having a personal mission to explore all Nordic countries and territories, and having discovered flights that were a lot cheaper than I had previously thought (thank you, Norwegian Air!), I decided to head north as soon as possible.
It was a hard pick. The sun never sets in the summer, flooding the land with light. This is the time to get out and about and explore — hike, kayak, go on boat trips, and enjoy the endless summer days.
The winter brings with it the Polar Night. The sun doesn’t rise, but your chances of seeing the Northern Lights skyrocket. Residents and visitors use this time to indulge in snow-related activities such as dog sledding and snowmobiling. The winter season is ushered in with a festival called “Dark Season Blues,” held in late October.
However, summer had passed for another year and I already had plans to move back to my home country of Australia the next winter. I knew traveling to Svalbard from the land of Oz would be next to impossible and probably drain my bank account, to boot. It was now or possibly never, so I decided to visit during the off-peak season of early October — just before the Polar Night.
So, what can you expect from visiting during the shoulder seasons? Is there much to see or do? Is it even worth going during this particular period of the year.
Here are a few suggestions.
Enjoy the constant sunrise/sunset
During the fall and spring, Svalbard is stuck in limbo — the sun will only rise so high before beginning its descent back toward the horizon. This means that sunrise and sunset seamlessly blend into one another, covering the capital of Longyearbyen and surrounding the area in soft, delicate light.
It’s a sight that can’t be missed.
Chase the Northern Lights
Although you have a much stronger chance of seeing the aurora borealis during the winter months, you may be lucky enough to catch the Northern Lights during the shoulder seasons, if conditions are right.
Organized tours depart from Longyearbyen, which will take you and a small group of other travelers out to a secluded cabin. There you’ll be given a warm meal (we had reindeer casserole), followed by coffee or tea while you wait for the lights to make an appearance.
We weren’t lucky enough to spot them, but we were able to spend an hour learning about Svalbard’s polar bear population instead.
If you’re using Longyearbyen as a home base, be sure not to go off searching for the Northern Lights beyond the city limits on your own. It’s illegal to leave the town without a gun, for danger of a polar bear attack.
Go dog sledding/carting
Svalbard is the ideal place to visit if you’re a dog lover — man’s best friend can be found everywhere on the island.
Dog sledding and dog carting, are both acceptable forms of transport. If it’s snowing, you can go for a joyride on a sled. If not, the dogs will take you carting instead. It’s not very different from sledding, except the cart has wheels so that it can navigate through terrain that’s not covered in snow.
This tour can be easily organized through your accommodation, or booked in advance online through Svalbard’s tourism website.
Take a boat trip
Depending on what time of year you visit, you may be able to hop on a boat that will take you north toward the town of Pyramiden.
Once a Russian mining settlement, Pyramiden today is largely a ghost town, though there has been a push in the last few years to open it up to more tourists.
It’s a suitable place, considering it contains the world’s northernmost swimming pool, grand piano, and statue of Lenin. If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Check out the Global Seed Vault
On top of the planet is a piece of insurance for all of humanity — the Global Seed Vault.
The vault contains samples of crops from all over the world. If there was ever an international crisis in which our food supply was wiped out, our species would be able to continue to feed itself with the seeds in this vault.
Although tourists aren’t able to go inside, you can learn about its history and how crops are cultivated in this part of the world (there are many greenhouses in Longyearbyen!). The vault itself is certainly worth seeing as well. The entryway is a piece of public art, called Perpetual Repercussion. The roof and the vault entrance are filled with mirrors and stainless steel, which reflects the light in the summer months. In the wintertime, 200 fiber-optic cables light the piece a greenish-turquoise and it looks just a little bit pretty. Light refracts off the mirrors and steel, to cast out in all directions. The vault is buried underground, deep within the permafrost, and the entrance acts as a marker for its presence, contrasting with the dramatic surrounding landscape (i.e. snow-capped fjords and the Greenland Sea, which laps upon the shores of Longyearbyen).
Visit the northernmost chocolate shop in the world
If the cold is starting to get to you and all you can think of is sitting down with a steaming mug of hot chocolate, then head straight to Fruene Kaffe Og Vinbar in Longyearbyen. The northernmost chocolate shop in the world sells an array of goodies — from hot drinks to tiny delicate chocolates shaped like polar bears.
And if you’re after a tipple, I recommend the delightfully named “Svalbar” in town for a bevvie or three. Grab a slice or two of pizza while you’re at it.
There are plenty of good reasons to consider traveling to Svalbard during the shoulder seasons. Prices aren’t as high, the weather is fairly good for an arctic desert, and the area is fairly quiet this time of the year — though I personally believe the six-hour sunrise/sunset is reason enough.