The Northern Lights are one of the world’s most remarkable attractions, but the magic of Norway extends far beyond the aurora borealis.
I never would have guessed that dashing through the snow with a view of a reindeer’s rear end could elicit so much ecstatic laughter. The combination of adrenaline and bracing cold evokes a euphoria that has my face frozen in a wide smile for the duration of my arctic sleigh ride. I don’t even feel guilty when I am handed a bowl of reindeer stew to help me defrost after the ride. The meat is surprisingly rich and tender, and I manage to gulp down a second bowl while sending a silent apology to the majestic animals that just towed me through the snow.
I am exploring the Arctic Circle and fjords of Norway on a 10-day Abercrombie & Kent itinerary, braving the elements to see reindeer and sled dogs, fjords and steep snow-capped mountains and, with any luck, the elusive Northern Lights. This adventure is the polar opposite to life as I know it in Australia.
My arctic experience begins in Northern Norway in the small town of Tromso, renowned as one of the best vantage points from which to view the Northern Lights. While I’m hoping to catch a glimpse on my first night, I seem to have underestimated the difficulty of staying awake when battling the effects of jetlag in a place where the sun barely peeks over the horizon during the day. My body clock takes a while to adjust and I often find myself checking my watch thinking it must be 10pm, only to find it’s barely past midday.
We have three days in Tromso, learning about the history of arctic explorers and the ingenious survival strategies used in the arctic, including seal hunting and dog sledding. But my favourite day is spent with the Sami reindeer herders when I take my first unforgettable reindeer sleigh ride, and eat a lunch of bidos (reindeer stew) with a local family inside a traditional tent.
On our last night in Tromso I am determined to stay up past 9pm to give myself a chance to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Battling the cold, we set out with cameras in hand and high hopes – the clouds have finally lifted and the skies are clear. We board the Tromso Safari bus and have barely left town when we see ‘the lady dance’ as the aurora starts her show. We pull over on the side of the road and watch in awe as a spectacular show of lights literally dances across the sky.
From Tromso, we fly an hour south to Svolvær in the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago of dramatic mountains and small villages where cod fishing is a major industry. The high levels of vitamin D and anti-inflammatory properties of cod liver oil make it a mainstay of the locals’ health routine and I find myself following suit, taking a shot along with my breakfast each morning.
I spend the next couple of days exploring the archipelago by car, zodiac boat and Icelandic horseback. We pass a pleasant afternoon at a Viking museum in the town of Borg, and another day sharing a home-cooked meal with locals before taking a private tour of Kaviar Factory, a contemporary art gallery housed in an old caviar factory in Henningsaer. Later that evening, we are treated to a private candlelit dinner set in a restored boatshed. We dine on a lavish array of local organic cheeses, reindeer stew, homemade bread, and brownies before spending the night in a remote cabin on the island of Gimsøya. The cabin is cosy, with a wood-burning fire blazing, spectacular views of the open sea and the clear skies treating us to another showing of the Northern Lights.
The next day it is time to leave the Arctic Circle and head further south to Bergen – Norway’s second largest city. Founded almost 1000 years ago, Bergen has a rich history and an impressive mountain landscape, with numerous dramatic fjords to explore as well as the picturesque old Hanseatic Wharf and a bustling fish market. We experience the city’s seafood firsthand at an extravagant lunch on the port, before heading to the home of famous local composer Edvard Grieg for a guided tour. On our second day we take a drive to the island of Selbjørn, where we are treated to a private cooking class with Ørjan Johannessen, the winner of the 2015 Bocuse d’Or, the culinary equivalent of the Olympics. Under Johannessen’s expert guidance we manage to create a crayfish and lobster ravioli from scratch, which we then devour in the adjacent restaurant, Bekkjarvik Gjestgiveri.
After lunch it’s back in the car for a scenic journey to Hotel Ullensvang in Lofthus, where each room boasts a view of a mountain range, glacier, or fjord. The hotel owner, Hans, welcomes us warmly before whisking us away for a scenic helicopter ride. The 20-minute journey shows off the region’s mind-blowing scenery, from towering mountains and vast glaciers to powerful waterfalls and majestic fjords.
Named the world’s most incredible train journey by Lonely Planet, the Flåmsbana (Flåm railway) ride takes us to the top of the mountains, where we spot tiny farms clinging to impossibly steep peaks, rivers rushing through deep ravines, and waterfalls thundering down the snow-capped mountains.
Inspired by the fjords we have just viewed from above, we set off to explore them up close on a two-hour cruise. We float leisurely down Aurlandsfjord and the UNESCO-listed Nærøyfjord, taking in the magnificent vistas before disembarking in the quaint village of Flam. The afternoon is spent tasting some of the renowned brews at local microbrewery Aegir, before journeying home on the Flåmsbana (Flåm railway). Named the world’s most incredible train journey by Lonely Planet, the ride takes us to the top of the mountains, where we spot tiny farms clinging to impossibly steep peaks, rivers rushing through deep ravines, and waterfalls thundering down the snow-capped mountains.
Back in Bergen for our last night, a private boat transports us to a seafood restaurant on a remote island 25 minutes from the mainland. Cornelius restaurant serves a meteorological menu, inspired by the weather of the day and crafted around what the ocean has to offer. This five-course dinner with paired wines is the finest meal on our 10-day trip. Tuna, scallops, house-smoked salmon and, my favourite, the seared pollock, are all served with perfectly matched wines, impeccable service, and detailed explanations by the chef. As we finish our meals, a serene silence descends over the table. Taking in the expanse of water against an almost unreal backdrop of mountains, fjords and skerries, a wide smile grows on my face. Though the room is perfectly heated and I am utterly still, I have been momentarily transported back to that euphoric sleigh ride in Tromso. The memory is so vivid I can feel the arctic breeze in my hair. I hope it’s a feeling I am able to hold onto when I return to the other side of the earth.