Norway’s Winter Wonderland

Reindeers, trolls and northern lights inject a spark of warmth into the chilly air.

“Oppmerksomhet!” The purser’s voice called out urgently in Norwegian. He then switched to English, “Attention, attention!” I was in the dining room, a forkful of baked salmon midway to my mouth. Dropping it to my plate, I dashed to my cabin, grabbed a coat and nipped out to the ship’s chilly deck.

Everyone was lined along the guardrails, staring into the inky sky where greenish trails undulated like  waves at the beach. We were up past the Arctic Circle, the air was crisp and clear, and nature was gracing us with a glorious performance of the northern lights. Swirling and dancing, the playful lights shone brightly for a moment and then poof, all that remained was a smoky vapor.

It was early March, and I was sailing north up the coast of Norway on the 600-passenger Finnmarken, one of the Hurtigruten expedition/ferry fleet.

I took this seven-day trip a few years ago and checking the website recently I saw the ship had been refurbished and renamed MS Otto Sverdrup (hurtigruten.com). But the same itinerary was available – embarking from the World Heritage town of Bergen and finishing in Kirkenes, 240 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the border of Russia.

Prior to boarding, I spent a couple of days exploring Bergen’s sweater shops, riding the funicular for a stunning harbor view, and perusing the fish market where cod tongues were stacked in a bowl (they are fried and eaten as snacks), and glistening slabs of smoked salmon lined the counters. Other highlights were the Hanseatic Museum (Hanseatics were German fish exporters who came to Bergen in 1360), as well as composer Edvard Grieg’s house located on the top of nearby Trollhogen, or “hill of the trolls.”

Trolls are integral to Norse mythology and the gift shops were stocked with them in every shape and size. I refrained from buying one, but I did pick up a recording of Grieg’s “March of the Trolls.”

I chose this trip for the Northern Lights, but also because the ship docked at around 20 ports. The towns included Trondheim, where Norwegian kings were crowned, Bodo famous for the deadly saltstraumen maelstrom (a two-way tidal current included in terrifying stories by Jules Vern and Edgar Allan Poe), Hammerfest, and The North Cape, the northernmost point of mainland Europe. Some of the stops were six hours, some were 15 minutes.

The ship was filled not only with tourists, but also locals who used it as a ferry in the winter when the roads were impassable. Along with comfortable berths, were lounges, restaurants and wide windows for sunset viewing.

The weather was mild, a few degrees below freezing thanks to the Gulf Stream. We glided by craggy points and islands, blanketed in snow. It was too dangerous to venture into the fjords, so instead we took excursions to visit historic sites like Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, and the Aviation Museum in Bodo.

In Svolvaer, I joined a few other passengers for a drink in the Magic Ice bar (made entirely of ice) where we were issued jackets to keep warm. A highlight in Tromso was Polaria’s Arctic exhibit with six bearded seals. These are the only bearded seals in captivity and the attendant told me one kissed the Norwegian Queen when she visited. I leaned over the tank to see if he’d do the same with me, but no luck.

Our excursion to North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe, was cold, around -20C with the windchill. Buses took us up a winding road as a snowplow cleared the way. At the point we climbed on the iron globe sculpture for pictures then hurried out of the biting wind to warm up in the visitor’s centre for Norwegian waffles with sour cream and strawberry jam.

At the final stop in Kirkenes I took a day excursion called Arctic Adventure. At a lakefront property just outside of town we were zipped into huge snowsuits hopped on snowmobiles for a spin. Lars, the tour operator, had a special treat for us. Changing into diving gear, he slipped into the frigid water and moments later came up grasping a king crab, its body as big as a pumpkin. Half an hour later we were seated in Lars’ sunny front room feasting on it along with fresh baked bread and melted butter.

A reindeer safari park beckoned in the afternoon. Only the Sami (Norway’s Indigenous people) are allowed to own reindeer, so the animals were on loan to the park owner. Tempting Rudolph with handfuls of moss, I was able to sneak in a few photos.

Sledding back to our bus, we were ready to eat again – Sami-style. At Neiden Mountain Lodge, 28 miles from Kirkenes, we pulled into the parking lot to a chorus of barking. Not only a Sami restaurant and cultural centre, it was also the check-in point for the Finnmarkslopet, a 1,000 km dogsled race that had attracted 27 teams from 10 countries including the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland and Germany. 

Walking past the dogs and into the restaurant, we sat down for a meal of reindeer bone marrow bouillon, roast reindeer with a dark wine gravy, boiled potatoes and green beans. Lean, and moist, it reminded me of venison. Dessert was cloudberries. They tasted like sour yellow raspberries, and were complimented with sweet whipped cream.

After dinner, some of the local Sami residents dressed in colorful clothing including felt boots and intricate head pieces, sang traditional songs, shared stories of their past and let us take pictures.

As we headed out the door, I could hear the dogs yipping, desperate to take off into the black night. A few flood lights lit the track and we lined up to see them off, the air thick with frosty puffs of dog breath. 

After watching them disappear, I looked up. The sky was alive with green swirling waves rippling and jumping. It looked as though two giants were tossing bolts of wavy fabric back and forth across the heavens. I caught my breath and stood very still. The spectacle made me want to sing, or shout with happiness.

It was a farewell gift like no other. Thank you Norway.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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