Undoubtedly the most freeing form of travel is to be somewhere where no one else is, experiencing a place without competing with thousands for the best view. The Norwegian Arctic offers just this – the ultimate snow-clad great outdoors. Prepare to be outnumbered by reindeer, moose and orca and spellbound by the scale and beauty of your surroundings.
Flying into Tromso is the type of journey so exciting it pays to consider it an experience in itself. During the day, snow-peaked mountains break through clouds and fjords fall and weave down into the sea. During the night, seated on the right side of the plane, the Northern Lights paint the sky in blues, greens and purples. So, before you have even hit the tarmac, you have memories worthy to write home about.
Tromso is located high in the Norwegian Arctic, 400km north of the Arctic Circle to be precise. The city experiences seasons so dramatically, it seems extraordinary that people continue to call this place home. In summer the sun does not set, creating a phenomenon known as Midnight Sun, offering 24 hours of daylight in which to explore the great outdoors. You can hike through the night in the surrounding fjords or fish the high seas in the small hours of the morning. During the day, local fisherman proudly sell their catch of the day to be cooked and eaten fresh by harbour-side vendors and restaurants. Or if you’re thirsty? The area is becoming a popular destination for microbreweries, and with Mack Ølbryggeri recognised as the northern most brewery in the world, a visit is certainly something to add to your list of things to do whilst in the area.
My adventure to this corner of the world happened in the winter, when daylight hours are short and the stacks of snow on the ground taller than me. Under the glow of the Northern Lights, I was greeted on the runway by my host Svein Jakobsen, beaming from ear to ear. I travel a lot but this was the warmest welcome I had ever received. Svein (mortified that I was not in snow boots) held my hand as we trudged to the car for our drive west to the island of Uloya, where I was to find my temporary home for the weekend.
The island of Uloya has only twelve inhabitants in winter months, but many many friendly moose. As COVID-safe destinations go, this corner of the world is one of them. So isolated, the final part of our journey to reach the Arctic Panorama Guesthouse meant crossing the fjord by rib in the dead of night. Thankfully, a heated cabin saved us from the elements outside, as it was late and the thermometer was now hovering at -15 degrees. With strict instructions to be ready for a day of experience, I made it to bed, zonked by the exhilaration of the journey itself and excited to see the place in daylight.
When I rose, opening my curtains for my panoramic view of the fjord in front, a reindeer strutted past sniffing out their breakfast, unphased by my proximity. Behind him, the fjords majestically stood. Make no mistake, the Lyngen Alps are humbling. This area is widely seen as one of the best summit-to-sea ski destinations in the entire world, and it is not hard to see why. Pulling on some thermal layers, I prepared for the day not in the snow but on the high seas.
“I don’t call it a dark season. I call it a colourful season,” boasted Svein. The time is now 9am and the light is just enough to see the silhouette of the Lyngen Alps across the fjords, decked in their first snowy scrubs. To give him his due, between the mountains the sun was beginning to rise and painting the sky in beams of floral pinks and canary yellows. We had a small window of time to be in the great outdoors before darkness returned, around 3pm.
Svein then announced, with him as captain, that we were going to swim with the whales. I laughed at his commitment to the joke, I knew whales favoured the area, fishing for herring in the winter months. Orca and humpbacks in huge numbers enjoy the sheltered bays and feeding grounds that this corner of Norway offered them, before migrating into deeper waters in early March. Svein continued explaining that currently there were great pods of orca and independent humpbacks in the waters around us. Then the penny dropped – he was not joking, and we really were going to swim with killer whales. Still speechless, I was being thrust a dry suit before I could tell my parents I loved them.
We jetted out onto the high seas back on Svein’s rib worthy of a Norwegian James Bond, complete with beer holders and thermal hood – something I was grateful for as the sun rose and the thermostat did not, sticking smugly at minus five. As we zipped along on our inflatable vessel I felt ludicrously tiny compared to the mountains that shot up all around. We travelled at full throttle down the channel between the island and the mainland. Whilst bombing along Svein told us stories of the fjord; reindeers he had seen swim from one side to the other only to sniff the foliage, immediately lose all appetite and swim home. As he went to launch into another anecdote, something grew from the water and waved – the tail of a humpback whale playing on the surface between deep-sea dining on shoals of herring. For us on the surface, this sighting was only an appetiser.
It had been half an hour since our correspondence with a humpback when unannounced a silent army on their first charge cut through the sea towards us. Orca. The engine was cut and for a moment we were sitting ducks. It felt inevitable that our limbs would make for the special on their lunch menu. Their power through the water was overwhelming but more so was their peace and tranquillity as they tore through the ocean. The moment was the very definition of humbling. Returning to my senses I was being prodded by Svein with a bag of gear – a dry suit. Wobbling with laughter he coaxed the equipment into my hands.
Fully clothed under my extra waterproof shield of blubber I trembled to the side of the boat. I knew I had literally no choice but to get into the ocean or regret it for eternity, but with the water lapping against my flippers and the dark fins repeatedly powering towards me, I felt sick with fear. Svein let me buckle thrice before I got the impression he was losing patience with me as I rehashed breathing exercises and excuses on the side of his boat. Just my luck – as I shimmied into position, orcas fast approaching, a humpback whale surfaced as I plunged into the Arctic Ocean. As quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared – likely bugged to be straddled by a screaming woman dressed as a seal. I adjusted my mask and peered into the depths. All that stared back was a black and deafening silence. Then like the silhouettes of the mountains that had appeared from nowhere that very morning, the silhouettes of whales swimming through the depths in pods for three to five. I was stupefied.
It was clear Svein had seen guests stupefied to speechlessness hundreds of times before. With a knowing grin, he had a final trick up his sleeve. Deposited back to the warmth of the lodge it was barely gone 3pm, but the darkness was heavy. We were given a couple of hours to regroup and warm our bones before we were thrust back outside. Hiking to a vantage point, our path illuminated by the moon reflecting off the white of the snow, we stopped to catch our breath. Then, with the same unannounced arrival the of whales offered, the Northern Lights stretched brilliantly across the sky. Their greens, blues and pinks reflecting off the water in the fjords below. Svein had been right that morning – this was one of the most colourful places in the world.
Whales can be seen in Northern Norway from November through to February before they leave the fjords to the full expanse of the ocean. The season coincides with the Northern Lights and all the wonderful wintery experiences people dream to do in the Arctic. When you are not swimming with the whales you can husky sledge, summit to sea ski, snowmobile, snowshoe or just climb into the outdoor jacuzzi and take it all in.
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