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Into the wild: Northern Norway

Discover a passion for wintry activities, from snowmobiling to husky sledding, in the silent, crystallised landscapes of Northern Norway.

Into the wild:  Northern Norway

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The weekend: Four days in Northern Norway for activities ranging from dog-sledding to surfing

Requirements: A sense of adventure

Fits the bill: A trip to Tromsø and the Lofloten Islands aboard the Hurtigruten coastal cruise

Budget: £1,200 per person

“Aurora is a bit of a diva,” our guide, Knut, explains with a grin. “She appears when she wants to, and sometimes she has a tantrum and doesn’t turn up at all.” The Aurora we’re attempting to glimpse is, of course, not a beautiful, enigmatic woman but the spellbinding Northern Lights.

After landing just a short while earlier in dusk-shrouded Tromsø, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, we jump straight into the car for our first excursion, snowmobiling in the Lyngen Alps. Far out in the mountains, away from artificial light, we’re hoping to catch the Aurora Borealis, but as we drive out of the city, it’s clear the weather has other ideas. Dark grey clouds hang over the top of hulking, snow-covered, mountains while the choppy waters of the fjords are steely grey. Not ideal conditions.

At Svensby village, an hour outside of Tromsø, we don all-weather suits and, after a brief demonstration, jump onto our snowmobiles. I actually feel relieved it’s cloudy and our chances of seeing the Northern Lights are slim. With my concentration firmly on piloting the snowmobile in a straight line, the sky could have been on fire with a spectacular light show and I wouldn’t have noticed. They look effortless in films, but in reality, controlling a snowmobile is tricky. The slightest bump is enough to knock me off course, and with power coming from the rear, the steering jitters and jumps. We press on through snow-covered planes and young forests — the outlines of sharp mountains looming in the darkness — before emerging onto a viewing point overlooking the Lyngenfjord, where we stop to see if the diva will put in an appearance.

With the droning buzz of the snowmobiles suddenly gone, the silence is immense. Our guide hands us a cup of hot chocolate and we sit back to watch the sky. For a long time, nothing happens, then, off in the distance, someone spots a tinge of green. Aurora’s teasing us. We all scramble for our cameras but she disappears just as quickly. Disappointed, we fire up our snowmobiles and head back.

Being a university town, Tromsø has a buzzing nightlife, and after satisfying our rumbling stomachs with delicious fillet steaks at Biffhuset restaurant, we find ourselves at Verdensteatret — a former cinema that’s been converted into a cosy nightspot where DJs play downbeat electronica to a mixed crowd. With a cold glass of the local Mack beer in hand, I sit back for a spot of people-watching.

The next morning, we finally see the town in sunlight, on a guided tour. During the morketiden, from December to January, the sun never rises above the horizon and the  sky over Tromsø never brightens beyond a twilight blue or steely grey. Luckily, the sun is shining on this crisp February morning, coating the town in a crystal light.

The oldest part of the city is found on an island in the middle of Lyngen Fjord, and along Storgata, Tromsø’s main street, where pretty, traditional wooden houses add splashes of colour in rusty reds, mustard yellows and moss greens. Across the water, the iconic 1960s Arctic Cathedral reaches towards the sky, mirroring the soaring mountains behind.

There’s been human activity in Tromsø for over 10,000 years, although the city only really took off with the boom in arctic hunting and trapping on Svalbard in the 1850s. At The Polar Museum, a fully preserved trapping station from Svalbard reveals the harsh life of an Arctic trapper, while other exhibitions document Tromsø’s history as a launch pad for pioneering polar expeditions.

We cross the cantilever bridge connecting the city’s two halves and take the cable car up Mount Storsteinen, where we’re rewarded with stunning panoramic city views. While the centre of Tromsø has a cosmopolitan buzz, from up here it looks small against the wild expanse of mountains and water.

The sun bounces off the snow-covered peaks behind, creating a beautiful contrast with the deep blue waters of the Tromsø Sound (fjord). But it soon begins to set and we head to the evening’s activity — husky sledding. The bus makes for Camp Tamok in the southern Lyngen Alps, one of many places in the area that lay on winter activities. If you’ve got time, you can spend the night in one of its lavvu — tipi-like tents used by the indigenous Sami people — or, more comfortably, in a wooden cabin.

Husky howling fills the air as our instructor, Johann, rigs them to wooden sleds. It’s time for a crash course in driving the dogs. “It’s quite simple,” Johann explains. “This metal lever with the spikes is your brake. The dogs keep running until you stand on that. The rest of the time you balance on these two foot rests at the back.” Up above, thick cloud again seems to have ruined any chance of seeing Aurora perform — no matter, as riding the sleds proves plenty of fun. As soon as we start to move, the huskies cease yelping and the only noise to be heard is the patter of feet and the sledge slipping over the snow. Leafless boreal forests glide by in the light of our headlamps, while the outlines of alpine peaks are
just visible, framing a pitch-black sky. Soon I find a rhythm and my fear of falling off slips away. I lean low into corners, letting the dogs run as fast as I dare, and the thrilling 10-mile loop flies by.

Soon after, we board Hurtigruten’s coastal cruiser, MS Trollfjord, heading south to Svolvaer, capital of the Lofoten Islands. Although the 17-hour route now seems a leisurely affair, when it first opened commercially, in 1893 — part of round-trip from Trondheim to Hammerfest — it slashed journey times along the jagged Northern Norway coast, opening up new lines of communications. Nowadays, it’s just an incredibly scenic voyage, and after a good night’s sleep in one of the comfortable cabins, I head up to the viewing level to admire stormy seas and dramatic fjords, where snow-covered mountains drop from dizzying heights into the steely grey water. Along the shore, pretty red wooden houses and channel beacons perch on craggy outcrops. It all seems so bleak and isolated out here, and from the comfort of the boat it’s hard to imagine how people survived the long harsh winters
in the years before modern roads and communications.

The boat pulls into Svolvaer and we check into the Svinøya Rorbuer — small converted fishermen’s cabins. Their wood-lined interiors are surprisingly homely and cosy, and suddenly make sense of the dwellings lining the fjords.

Morning brings with it a cold grey sky and our chance to surf Vestvagoy Island. As it turns out, this isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. Despite sitting at roughly the same latitude as Greenland and the northern reaches of Alaska and Canada, the climate here is moderated by the Gulf Stream and isn’t as cold as you might think.

The island is also home to Unstad, one of the world’s northernmost surfing beaches. The sandy shore faces a stormy North Atlantic, and is surrounded by steep mountains, lined with veins of snow. It’s blowing a gale and white horses dance across the surface of the water. Hardly ideal conditions, but I paddle out and prepare to catch what looks like a manageably small wave. But the angle of my board is wrong and I get flung off, just managing to catch a breath and cover my head with my arms before hitting the water. After being spun around underwater like clothes in a washing machine, I’m washed ashore. After the initial shock of the cold water, the wetsuit and adrenaline do their job and suddenly I’m roasting. Exhilarated, I head out again, and immediately get flung off. It’s half an hour before I catch a wave. The force of the sea propels the board forward at shocking speed, and I land at the beach with a huge grin on my face.

That evening, heads down and hoods up, we trudge back to the cabins through hailstones and a biting wind. I chance a glance at the sky and, in a gap in the clouds, a pulsating curtain of green and blue appears momentarily before the gusty winds pull a curtain over the stage. It’s a teasing glimpse again, but as we cross the bridge through the middle of town, the diva makes her entrance. A hole appears in the clouds above us and mesmerising colours whip across the sky in violet and green, while hailstones sting our faces. The diva was giving it her all, and it was truly beautiful.

Must try: Be sure to try lefse, delicious flat cakes made from potato and filled with sugar, Norwegian brown cheese and cinnamon. Perfect with coffee as a quick snack.

The perfect day

■ 9am: Go fishing for Arctic Cod in Henningsvaer with adventure operator XXLofoten. The cod flock to the Lofoten Islands every year to spawn, and January to April are the best times to fish.

■ 12pm: Head for lunch at the historic Henningsvaer Bryggehotel, where they’ll cook up any fish you’ve caught that morning.

■ 2pm: Take a surfing lesson and catch some waves at Unstad beach with the world’s northernmost surf school.

■ 5pm: Satisfy rumbling stomachs with a traditional Norwegian meal at Kjøkkenet Restaurant.

■ 5pm: Northern Lights hunting on a nighttime snowshoe hike through the Lofoten Lowlands.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there

Norwegian flies to Tromsø via Oslo from London, Manchester and Edinburgh. www.norwegian.no

SAS flies to Tromsø via Oslo from London and Manchester. www.flysas.com

Average flight time: 6h30.

 

Getting around

Hurtigruten operates a single southbound service each day from Tromsø to Svolvaer, departing at 1.30am, with a journey time of 17 hours. www.hurtigruten.com

Car rental companies are located at Tromsø Airport and town centre, and Svolvaer town centre.

 

When to go

The Northern Lights are best seen September-March.

 

Need to know

Currency: Norwegian Krone (NOK). £1 = NOK8.70.

International dial code: 00 47.

Time difference: GMT +1.

 

Places mentioned

Lyngen Safari Skidooing. www.lyngensafari.com

Biffhusset. www.skarven.no

Verdensteatret. Storgata 93b, 9008 Tromsø.

The Polar Museum. Tollbodgata, 119008 Tromsø.

Storsteinen Cable Car. www.fjellheisen.no

Camp Tamok. www.lyngsfjord.com

Unstad Camping (includes a surf school). www.unstadcamping.com

 

Where to stay

Rica Ishavshotel. www.rica.no/ishavshotel

Svinøya Rorbuer. www.svinoya.no

 

More info

www.visitnorway.co.uk

www.lofoten.info

 

How to do it

Discover the World offers a five-night Tromsø and Lofoten Islands break with a Hurtigruten coastal voyage from £1,146 per person (two sharing). Includes all flights and two nights each at Rica Ishavshotel and Svinøya Rorbuer. www.discover-the-world.co.uk

Read the rest of this feature in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)