Peter Morrell heads to Northern Norway in search of the Midnight Sun and finds a lot more besides
Standing on a promontory overlooking a fjord, dark, rocky islands floated below like whales. Above them a molten orb hovered, turning the surrounding sea into liquid gold.
I was on the island of Senja, off the coast of Northern Norway paying homage to the midnight sun, the almost mystical celestial body that, in summer, bathes the landscape with light continuously for more than 1600 hours.
At midnight, as the sun kissed the horizon before making its ascent back into the sky, I join my fellow travellers in a toast to this spectacle with Aquavit, Norway’s own ‘Water of Life’,
To get to what is almost the ceiling of the world and witness this event takes a mere three hours, flying direct from London. But there’s a lot more to do here than just look at the sun, and the perpetual daylight certainly lets you pack in a huge amount of activity.
Our base for the trip was Tromsø, a town that sits comfortably on an island in a sheltered fjord about 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle. The city has long been a magnet for fishers, hunters and explorers, to find out more about its history our first port of call was The Polar Museum
Housed in the historic Customs Warehouse, the museum, opened its doors on June 18, 1978, 50 years to the day after Roald Amundsen left Tromsø on his last expedition, to search for Umberto Nobile and the airship “Italy”, he never returned. The cleverly displayed exhibits show just how tough life was for the people who lived in the area during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
From there we walked through the centre of Tromsø with its quaint shops and Cathedral, which dates back to 1861, and is Norway’s only wooden cathedral. We were heading for Polaria a knowledge-based adventure centre showing a breathtaking panoramic film of Svalbard, the group of islands to the north of Tromsø famous for their Polar Bear population. Polaria also houses an aquarium featuring arctic fish and an entertaining show of seal feeding.
Wandering back to the middle town, down near the harbour, we saw that the trading heritage of Tromsø is still evident in the square, where street traders still sell fish but now also souvenirs.
Lunch was at Aunegården, a former butchers and one of the oldest houses in Tromsø. On the menu was the local speciality Boknafisk – half dried cod poached and served with crispy bacon, it was really quite delicious.
Next we headed off across the bridge to the mainland for a ride on a cable car which, in just four minutes, whisked us to the top of Mount Storsteinen. This provided us with unparalleled view of Tromsø island. With the backdrop of the snow-capped mountains, this was nature at its most breathtaking.
Even more stunning scenery was ahead. Heading out of town, we took a route with spectacular views of sparkling fjords and majestic mountains, to the island of Sommarøy.
Just the place for an energetic walk before enjoying a dinner of traditional salt cod in the airy restaurant of the Rica Sommaroy hotel.
But the day was not over yet. It was around 11:00pm but still light so there was time to catch a boat to the neighbouring island of Senja. This is Norway’s second largest island and has been dubbed ‘Norway in Miniature’ as it has all the geographical features of the entire country.
The one-hour boat ride on the M/S Skaaskjær along the coast from Sommarøy was a high speed, wave-running experience at 25 knots and by this time the sun was low in the sky bathing the cliffs with an orange glow. We were heading for Hamn i Senja, a medium fishing port that now plays host to a hotel with bedrooms in fishermen’s cottages. The peace and tranquillity of the place is palpable and it is where we make our acquaintance with the midnight sun.
Another day and another early start. After a hearty breakfast we donned survival suits in preparation for an hour-and a half-ride on a superfast rigid inflatable boat out into the fjord with its 98 islands. Sea birds soared and curious seals appeared like marine meerkats. Our only disappointment was that we had missed the two Orca whales seen in the fjord the day before chasing a shoal of herring.
The sea was turquoise blue and crystal clear as we landed on a deserted island with a pure white coral beach and an upturned whale skull serving as an impromptu armchair. This is about as close to nature that you will ever get.
The return journey, a little more comfortable but less adventurous than the boat ride the night before, was across a bridge to the mainland to catch the regular catamaran service from Finnsnes back to Tromsø, but as usual there was plenty of scenery to enjoy on the way.
The landing dock in Tromsø is also where the daily Hurtigruten ship ties up. This is part ferry, part cruise ship and runs between Bergen in the south and Kirkenes in the north. Stopping at more than 30 ports over a 7 day period this is a unique way of seeing the varied coast of Norway.
After the non-stop action of the morning, hunger took priority, so we lunched at the charming Emma’s Under. The menu featured the freshest local salmon with teriyaki sauce, basil aioli, roast baby potatoes and tomato salad. The word Under has a double meaning in Norwegian it means “below and “wonder”. The “below” is because it is under the main fine dining restaurant upstairs, called Emma’s Dreamkitchen.
At last there was some time for some rest and recreation and mine was found attached to the Mack Brewery, the world’s northernmost brewhouse. Ølhallen is the pub owned by the brewery and showcases all the beers that Mack produce. This had to be a during the day visit as the opening hours are a very strange 9:00am to 6:00pm.
The decor is traditional and, as no self-respecting establishment in Tromsø is without a stuffed Polar Bear, Ølhallen boasted two. This is quite apt as there is a mini shrine in one corner to Henry Rudi (1889-1970), a hunter who bagged more than 700 Polar Bears in his career. After retirement Rudi was an Ølhallen regular.
And as if one drinking establishment was not enough I also popped into Verdensteateret (The World Theatre) at the other end of the main street. This is a stylish, modern café bar inside Northern Europe’s oldest functioning cinema and dates from 1916. It has a retro charm and is well worth a visit.
After a well-deserved snooze back at the Radisson Blu hotel, our comfortable ‘home’, it was time to eat again. This time at Fiskekompaniet, a real maritime experience. The very popular harbour side restaurant uses locally sourced fish and has good views of the Arctic Cathedral, and the bridge from the island but more of this later. Dinner was a 3-course menu that included roasted scallops to start, the best monkfish I have tasted and a pudding, all the dishes were created with flair and imagination.
The constant sunlight told us it was still not time to go to bed and tiredness was fast becoming a thing of the past. So we grabbed a taxi and headed over the bridge onto the mainland to the tent shaped Arctic Cathedral to catch the Midnight Sun Concert.
Every evening the concert in the Arctic Cathedral features different performers. The music ranges from traditional Norwegian classics to Sting. The season runs from mid-May to mid-August.
On the last day we planned to go to the Reisa National Park for a river rafting expedition and in search of reindeer. This involved taking a 25 minutes plane ride on a little Dash 8 turbo prop run by Widerøe airline. From the medium plane we got some great views of the area as we came in to land at Sorkjosen, a tiny village on the Reisa Fjord.
There to meet us for our day of adventure in the National Park were two guides from Arctic Travel Guides. An overnight storm in the mountains had made the Reisa River too treacherous for rafting so we jumped into a four-wheel drive and set off into the mountains to look for reindeer.
And after a short while, as we rounded a sharp bend, we were suddenly confronted with a large herd, every size of animal from Rudolph look-alikes to babies. They scattered but stayed long enough for us to take a few shots, with a camera of course.
The rain had brought one blessing, the waterfalls were in full flow, and standing next to a raging torrent as it poured into the sea was an awe-inspiring moment. As lunchtime approached we found a sheltered spot on the shore of a fjord, built a log fire and cooked a delicious salmon stew. Another of those very close to nature moments
Reindeer in Norway can only be owned by the Sami people, a semi nomadic group that live in an area that stretches from the Norwegian coast to parts of Russia. High up in the mountains we found some now deserted old Sami huts. But nearby a group of Sami were living in more modern accommodation, we had the opportunity to buy skins, and a local delicacy, dried Reindeer heart, more tasty than it sounds.
Our day was coming to an end but there was time for a little fishing. After a couple of casts into the fjord a medium, bewildered cod was hauled out of the water but was put back to be caught on another day, when he had put on some weight.
If you want to spend longer in this part of northern Norway, and really commune with nature, then the Reisafjord hotel in Sorkjosen is cosy and well-positioned. We stopped by for an open sandwich heaped with smoked salmon before the short flight back to Tromsø.
Our final meal, although not traditional, was in the sushi restaurant Rå, which means raw. This is probably the best place on Earth to eat Sushi as the fish is fjord fresh and packed with flavour.
So what does Northern Norway have to offer? A real spirit of adventure in a great wilderness, some stunning scenery and an opportunity to re-connect with the environment. Sitting in my office back in London I found myself thinking wistfully about the snow capped mountains, white coral beaches and the pure air and water that make Norway the very essence of nature itself.
Peter Morrell was a guest of Visit Norway and Visit North Norway.
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