12384031292?profile=RESIZE_930xPhotos: David Paul Appell

Nearly 20 years ago I visited Norge for the first time – on a press trip sponsored by Visit Norway to capital Oslo, historic second city Bergen, and a Hurtigruten cruise to the fjords and up to far-northern Svalbard. It was all beautiful, of course, but it was in summertime, and over this past Christmas and New Year´s I had to privilege of coming back in winter. Naturally, it was a whole different – and a chilling yet in many ways even more enchanting – experience.

Tromsø: the ´Big Herring´ of the Arctic

From Oslo, an SAS flight of just under two hours whisked us up to the “gateway to the Arctic, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle., with a population these days of around 78,000. The area´s been inhabited since the end of the last ice age, and local archaeological sites include remnants dating back as far as 10,000 years. More “recently” (meaning a mere 3,000 years ago), it was also partially settled by the Norse and the Sami, the traditionally nomadic people

These days, with the exception of some fishing, Tromsø lives largely off tourism, with a mix of local attractions and activities (the latter of which especially recently earned it a mention as one of CNN´s “24 Places to Visit in 2024”).  The city´s Sentrum (downtown core) with its main drag Storgata.(above), is located on the island of Tromsøya, and it´s home to northern Norway´s highest collection of wooden houses, the oldest dating back to 1789. And honestly, compared to my last visit, I found it more engaging during winter – and there are a surprising number of tourists in town, thanks to all the winter activities hereabouts.



We stayed at the comfortable, modern Clarion The Edge, right across from the harbor terminal and within easy strolling distance of most everything of interest to visitors, such as the Gothic-Revival Tromsø Cathedral (Norway´s only one built of wood, in 1861); the Arctic aquarium Polaria (a modest affair but worth a visit if you don´t mind the 295NOK/$28 entry fee); and the Polarmuseet (Polar Museum, a charmingly homespun series of rooms charting the north´s settlement and early history, beginning in the 17th century – and while we were there it was hosting a fascinating temporary exhibition on the history of same-sex relations during the 19th and early 20th centuries). We did not, however, make it to the Troll Museum, the Northern Norway Art Museum, nor the Arctic University Museum of Norway.

A little farther afield, across the gracefully swooping Tromsø Bridge (though still reachable on foot, in around 20 minutes or so), the soaring, impressive Arctic Cathedral (above, with me in the foreground in a onetime phonebooth whimsically repurposed as a mini-library) built in 1965 and the nearby Fjellheisen cable car 1,381 feet (421 meters) up to the top of Storsteinen mountain, with a café and thrilling views over city, fjords, and the surrounding landscape.

12382370686?profile=RESIZE_930xThen of course there are the aforementioned myriad winter activities in the area, such as snowmobiling, boat excursions (including whale watching) on the surrounding fjords, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing (there´s also dogsledding, but personally I feel sorry for the pups). We had limited time, so our own choice was a bus tour of around three hours to a Sami settlement about a half hour´s  drive away (a hefty 1,390NOK/$131 per person, but I feel worth it). The first order of business was feeding their herd of reindeer (we were all given buckets of kibble), then we retired to the Samis´ expansive lavvu (an elaborate tent/meeting house with a wooden skeleton) for some reindeer stew and to listen to one of them talk about their history and culture and sing a jolk (traditional song). All in all an amazing experience.

Finally, there are quite a few restaurants and cafés in town – a number with international cuisine but several offering Arctic specialties including reindeer, lutefisk (whitefish), and even whale (I´d highly recommend Biffhuset Skarven, in an 1820 warehouse on the quay, and another good option is the also waterfront Kaia, which by the way also has its own small Arctic museum, including a room devoted to Sami culture and history). Our group also had a fun night bowling at Tromsø  Bowling & Biljard and belting out some tunes at Fun Pub´s Wednesday-night karaoke.


Our Little Arctic Cruise

The next two nights were spent aboard the MS Nordkapp., a 590-passenger ship that´s one of the nine currently operated by the Hurtigruten line, which plies the Norwegian coast daily. These are mostly passenger cruise ships, but also serve the vital function of transporting locals and cargo between 34 towns along the coast, some of which are otherwise fairly isolated. And they´re comfortable but hardly luxurious, without most of the bells and whistles common across the cruise industry these days. One restaurant alternates buffet and menu service, there´s a bakery/café; a lounge with a bar; a lecture room; a sauna: a fitness room; and a couple of outdoor whirlpools at the stern (back end) of the ship. Similarly, the cabins are perfectly comfy but fairly basic – ours didn´t have a TV, although some of the fancier suites do.

And it was on here that we saw our very first aurora borealis (Northern Lights) dancing in the sky above the fjord (top). Truly a magical experience - one I´d seen countless times in photos and videos and had been dreaming of for years - in person I found them even more transporting, painted across the ink-black Arctic sky. Apart from that, the ship made a port call in the town of Honningsvagen (unremarkable except for its Arctic Museum), staying for a bit over two hours to accommodate an excursion to its namesake, Nordkapp (North Cape), Europe´s northernmost point, perched on a 1,007-foot (307-meter) cliff. We passed on that one because apart from the expense it´s frankly a fairly barren, boring experience – pretty much just a field of flat stones, a couple of monuments, and a visitor center with a little museum and (of course) gift shop.


Kirkenes: Norway´s Northernmost

And now for the final stop on our Arctic itinerary: the most northerly town in Norway, with a population of around 3,500 and a mere ten minutes from the border with Russia, with locals and Russians traditionally crossing the border with ease with a “multi-visa.”  

We stayed at the modern, 143-room Hotel Thon Kirkenes, and for a couple of nights. There are few “tourist attractions” in Kirkenes as such –really just two, in fact. The Grenseland (Borderland) Museum, on a hill just outside town, sketches out the local history and culture, including that of the Sami, the mining industry, and Kirkenes´ significant strategic role in World War II (bought a very stylish reindeer-themed plate here; getting up here by taxi, though, set us back the equivalent of $20 – twice the entry fee!). Then there´s the Andersgrotta, a WWII bunker with room for 2,500 (this was one of Europe´s most bombed places during the war) and open to visitors. A bigger draw is, again, outdoor activities; in summer, these include boat excursions; e-bike tours; and mountain hiking (with huskies!). In wintertime it´s all about cross-country skiing; husky dogsledding; snowshoeing; ice fishing; Northern Lights excursions; and visiting the pretty fishing village of Bugøynes (which still boasts plenty of quaint 19th-century architecture) for its ice bathing/sauna experience and a look at the local king crab industry, including a spin on a fishing boat and a crab dinner in a local restaurant. Our own choice was a two-hour snowmobiling excursion (a little long for our taste, but exhilarating nonetheless).


But the main reason for us to come here was the Snowhotel Kirekenes, one of just a handful in the world (most of them, of course, in northern Europe, especially Scandinavia). Years ago I visited Quebec´s Hôtel de Glace, found it a fascinating experience, and proposed to a group of friends always looking for special places to spend New Year´s Eve to have it this year at the Snowhotel. The property´s centerpiece is a former barn turned complex, whose hallway is lined with an “ice bar” (above) and about a dozen rooms featuring snow sculptures depicting a range of images, from Vikings (like we had) to Arctic fauna to characters from Disney´s Frozen. That´s supplemented by the modern reception building (with some appealing Arctic art); 21 more conventional cabins with all the comforts, as well as picture windows out onto the snowy landscape; another large building with a dining room, a bar/lounge, a lounge without bar,  showers/bathroom facilities, and a sauna; a reindeer enclosure, and a large kennel area housing the huskies for the dogsledding that´s a major activity for guests (though we found it kind of sad to see them chained up in the freezing cold). The beds are of course carved out of ice but also have foam mattresses, upon which we slept cocooned in cold-weather sleeping bags – frosty yet cozy at the same time! I remember my main issue in Quebec was getting up in the middle of the nights to find the common bathrooms to pee, and since I need to go more often these days, that wasn´t something I was looking forward to here – but miraculously, my body said “no thanks!” and let me sleep through the night without having to get up once (and what a relief!). (And by the way, the hotel is now open all year long!)

Then to round out our Kirkenes caper, we also enjoyed a nice meal at Surf and Turf and drinks at the top local watering hole, Pub1. All and all, an interesting experience indeed!



Several Random Observations
We were interested to find that within the cities and towns – even capital Oslo – streets and sidewalks are usually not cleared of snow and ice. We even bought cleats for our shoes in Tromsø, but ended up using them only once, because they were a pain to constantly put on and take off, and as it turned out the icy/snowy sidewalks weren´t all that hard to navigate if you watch where you´regoing.

Another has to do with the abundance of foreigners we came across. One grand mystery, for example, was how damn many Asians we came across, especially in Tromso but also in Kirkenes. The staffer we asked about this at Clarion The Edge had no clue, but a taxi driver (from Syria!) in Kirkenes told us that some Asians like to come in wintertime because they believe that babies conceived under the aurora borealis will have good luck in life! And besides tourists, a number of others were gjestearbeider (guest workers) – among them Italians (a server), Spaniards (helping attend to us at the Sami camp), and Romanians (another server), attracted – sometimes seasonally, sometimes year-round –  by the high local wages. As for the Norwegians, we certainly found them cordial for the most part, but one Indian immigrant we met in Oslo said that on a longer-term basis, they tend to be closed and insular – during 6½ years living there he´d managed to make just two Norwegian friends.

And a caveat for those who suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder, aka the “winter blues”), as my husband José does. The “dark season” up here means depending on when in the winter, the (weak) sun is up for maybe two to four hours a day, and during a certain period not at all. This is the “polar night,” and José got along fairly well while we were there in the midst of the adventure, but the “hangover” from the lack of light hit him like a ton of bricks for weeks after our return.

Finally, another caveat: make sure your bank account is up to this trip, because everything´s hella pricey here, from taxi rides (a ridiculously short one in Oslo came to the equivalent of around $20) to restaurant meals to everyday items. Honestly, it´s a beautiful country but way overpriced; I think it´ll be quite a while before you see me back here!





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