Norway’s northern territories remain one of Europe’s most rugged regions, ripe for adventure and authentic experiences, says Jeannine Williamson
TELL ME ABOUT IT…
Tucked inside the Arctic Circle, Northern Norway is one of Europe’s last great wilderness areas. Home of the mysterious Northern Lights and magical Midnight Sun, visitors can follow in the footsteps of semi-nomadic tribes, discover Viking culture and try exhilarating experiences such as husky dog sledding.
This most northerly region of the world accessible to mainstream travelers is a land of mountains carved out by the ice ages, with scores of remote islands and hardy communities built on trapping and fishing industries.
January saw a 47% increase in overseas visitors to the region following a Northern Lights marketing drive, with the best viewing conditions in 50 years. Visit Norway and the Northern Norway Tourist Board are running an ongoing social media campaign to raise awareness of the phenomenon amongst US consumers.
“Nowhere is the power of nature more eminent than in the Arctic, especially in Northern Norway,” says Ingrid Shumway, president of Five Stars of Scandinavia Inc. “The harmony between indigenous people living as one with nature, the Midnight Sun in the summer, the Northern Lights over the clear winter sky, and frozen rivers and lakes, can all be experienced from the Lofoten Islands to Finnmark, and the archipelago of Spitsbergen and Svalbard.”
Summing up its thrilling appeal Elaine Peik, Scandinavia director of Borton Overseas, adds: “Visitors can journey above the Arctic Circle to a place less traveled. They can hike some of the oldest mountain ranges on earth, go whale watching, fishing or kayaking, discover local cuisine while exploring small villages, or simply relax at a seaside fisherman’s cabin.”
GIMME 5: MUST SEES
1. Tromso: For such a small city, situated on a frozen island 215 miles inside the Arctic Circle, surrounded by ice floes and fjords under cover of the Northern Lights, Tromso bustles with culture and activity. Highlights include the animated street and bar scene, the hallowed Mack Brewery, the imposing spire of the Domkirke Cathedral, the intriguing Polar Museum and the striking Arctic Cathedral, dubbed ‘the opera house of Norway’ and a modern day landmark.
2. Whale Watching: Here you’ll find some of the most reliable whale watching opportunities in Northern Europe. Several day trips and excursions operate from a variety of ports, with the largest number of options from Tromso. Humpback, Minke and Orca whales are among the common species found in Norwegian waters along with porpoises and dolphins.
3. Trondenes Church: For 750 years the tall white church at Trondenes has been reflected in the waters of Vagsfjord. The world’s northernmost medieval church, its treasures include three gothic triptychs from the Late Middle Ages and the remains of ancient chalk paintings.
4. Sami culture: Aside from adventure, one of the principal attractions of Norway is the chance to meet and commune with the Sami, the indigenous inhabitants of the northernmost reaches of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Karasjok is the Sami capital of Norwegian Lapland. Here and in surrounding villages visitors can meet Sami families to discover more about their way of life, buy authentic handicrafts or take a ride in a sled drawn by one of the 100,000 reindeer that inhabit Northern Norway.
5. Kjerringoy: Half an hour north of Bodo, this picturesque village is set against a backdrop of mountains immortalized in the novels of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. Attractions include a 17th-century trading post that remains one of Norway’s most important period buildings.
A good selection of hotels can be found in the larger towns and cities, with the biggest concentration in Tromso, Bodo and Alta. Inns, guesthouses and motels are also widely available.
The fishermen’s cabins, or rorbuer as they’re called in Norwegian, offer some of the most atmospheric lodgings. Originally built for the fishermen of Lofoten, today they’re immensely popular with Norwegians and international visitors alike and need to be booked early. Offering self-catering accommodation, they range from basic one-bedroom huts to more extravagent cabins with modern facilities, hot tubs and insulation.
In summer, campsites are a good option for families, set in beautiful locations with accommodation ranging from tents to cabins. Many have kids’ play areas and swimming pools plus canoe, kayak, rowboat, and bicycle rentals.
Fru Haugans Hotel: Mrs Haugan’s Hotel in Mosjoen is Northern Norway’s oldest hotel. Dating back more than 200 years, the 93-room property has been extensively modernized in recent years while retaining a cozy antique style. The restaurant specializes in Norwegian and European dishes. T: +47 7511 4100. www.fruhaugans.no
Kirkenes Snowhotel: First opened in 2006, the amazing Snowhotel is rebuilt each year and features 20 ‘snow suites’ where guests sleep on thermally insulated beds, along with sculptures and a bar made from blocks of ice from the nearby frozen lake. The hotel is open from December to April. T: +47 7897 0540. www.kirkenessnowhotel.com
Engholm Husky Design Lodge: Situated by the Karasjohka River near Karasjok, individually designed log cabins provide a comfortable base for winter activities such as cross-country skiing and husky sledding with teams of dogs kept on the farm. Fishing and hiking activities run in the summer months. T: +47 9158 6625. www.engholm.no
Eyewitness: Northern exposure
The ‘gateway to the Arctic’, Tromso is home to the world’s northernmost university, cathedral, brewery, botanical garden and Burger King. In addition to these curious claims to fame it’s also one of the best places to see the Northern Lights.
And within hours of landing we were lucky enough to see Mother Nature’s most spectacular show. Heading through the still, clear night, pitch black from the lack of moonlight, our driver told us the conditions were perfect for seeing the often elusive lights. No guidebook or photograph could prepare us for the true spectacle of this incredible phenomenon where a kaleidoscope of green, yellow, red and purple lights dance across the sky.
For those with a spirit of adventure, this northern corner of Norway is a destination with something for even the most seasoned traveler, and as the week unfolded we felt a real sense of connecting with nature and taking part in experiences unchanged by the passing of years.
One morning the crisp air was filled with the cacophony of barking as we joined a dog sled safari. The teams of huskies jumped impatiently in the air, straining against their harnesses, as our group of learner drivers stood on the rudimentary sled brakes and held tight. When our guide gave the signal, the howling stopped instantly and we were off, the only sounds being the swish of the sled runners, and paws across the snow.
My lead dogs pricked their ears as they spotted our guide heading into a forest, turning to follow him. By now I’d started to relax, bending my knees to cushion any bumps and leaning to maneuver corners. In the distance, across a vast snowfield, a village church tower glowed pink as the late rising sun clipped the rooftops.
The next day we swapped dog power for snowmobiles. And by the time we arrived in the log cabin where we were spending the night, the dark sky was punctuated by bright stars, with the forest still and silent. Within minutes our guide had kindled a fire, heated the sauna and neatly pegged a whole salmon to a board for roasting. As dinner cooked, we took it in turns to sauna — the Norwegian way, au naturel, was optional.
That said, I was persuaded to cool down the traditional way, by rolling in the snow. At first it took my breath away, but as we sat down to eat with glowing pink faces, it felt amazing. And it’s fair to say that with its spectacular scenery, one-off experiences and intriguing traditions, Northern Norway invigorates all the senses.
1. Reassure clients that they won’t necessarily feel chilly, the warming Gulf Stream means temperatures in the region during July and August often reach 75F and thermal clothes are usually provided for winter activities such as dog sledding.
2. October, February and March are the best months for seeing the Northern Lights. The Midnight Sun is best experienced in June and July, when the sun never completely sets, and clients might want to avoid the months of December and January, when it never rises.
3. Food and drink, particularly alcohol, is more expensive than in the US so suggest itineraries with meal plans for clients on a budget.
4. Northern Norway offers year-round unique natural attractions and outdoor adventure coupled with an authentic culture.
5. English is widely spoken in hotels and attractions in all the main tourist destinations. Norway is also considered one of the safest countries in the world with high standards of accommodation and excellent amenities.
PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2012 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork