Sights and lights in the far north: The Northern Lights in Norway

On a week-long ferry ride charting Norway's corrugated coastline, Simon Calder encounters wild weather, windswept Arctic communities, and sees Nature's neon spectacular in the night sky

A November journey along the coast of Norway is susceptible to two kinds of wild weather. The sort you don't want boils up in the North Atlantic and unleashes its Force-10 fury on anything that stands between the seething ocean and the ragged shore of Norway; a ferry, for instance. The type you crave begins 93 million miles away in the furnace of the Sun. Charged particles break away from the corona to rush out with the solar wind and jolt the Earth's magnetism, sending older particles down into the upper air to dance around the Poles.

To maximise the chance of witnessing the spectacle, you need to move closer to one or other end of the world. I don't recommend seeking the Southern Lights. The geography of Antarctica renders access to the promising polar region extremely difficult and expensive. In contrast, to reach the deep north you need do nothing more demanding than step aboard a red, white and black ferry at the harbour in Bergen on any night you like.

Every evening, one of the dozen ships in the Hurtigruten ("Fast Route") ferry fleet departs on a six-day voyage to the port of Kirkenes, the last port in Norway before Russia. Its primary purpose is as the nation's lifeline for passengers and freight, but tourists are welcome as financial ballast.

Hurtigruten does not hurry. Each ferry plods steadily at about 18 knots (21mph) and calls at 34 ports – most of them lonely, windswept communities whose homes huddle around a church. The typical stop lasts half-an-hour. As the gangplank is lowered for passengers, a huge door in the hull opens to reveal a cargo space that can hold anything from cars to pallets-full of Christmas candles. Synchronised fork-lifts speedily offload the essentials for northern communities, and load parcels and produce. There always seems to be a call at dawn or dusk, which I came to call the twilight of the goods. Yet besides being a quotidian component of Scandinavian logistics, the Hurtigruten offers a voyage along a corrugated coast that becomes more extreme with each passing day.

The journey into the deep north begins at precisely the latitude of the tip of Shetland, the northernmost outpost of Britain: 60.3 degrees. In summer, sailing from Bergen would be a spectacular departure from one of Europe's most beautiful harbours; in winter, darkness has long since descended, so passengers busy themselves with discovering the ship.

Finnmarken was built, without undue extravagance, a decade ago. The cabins feel like high-spec budget hotel rooms: spotlessly clean and comfortable, with a television and bathroom. There is a scattering of bars, and a shop selling souvenirs and outdoor gear. The most appealing public area, though, is the panoramic lounge giving a wide-screen view of the Norwegian coast and its never-dull weather. It perches above the bridge, commanded by the reassuring Captain Raymond Martinsen. "You need to know all the rocks and the lighthouses – 'I need to be one cable from that rock, two cables from that lighthouse'. You shouldn't need a map."

The Hurtigruten hybrid, combining public transport with a cruise-like experience, has some strange effects. Many of the northern sights are shrouded in darkness when the ship makes its daily call. On day two in Alesund, the world's northernmost Art Nouveau city, a tour with the sightseeing guide Sidsel Aurdal began long after sunset, and in the rain. She explained how the muscular flourishes of the architecture were bankrolled by Kaiser Wilhelm, who was besotted with the place. But my lasting memory was of the heated public benches where we paused beside the inner harbour.

Back on board, it was time for dinner. Tourists are treated to elaborately prepared evening meals, as well as eat-your-weight-in-salmon buffet breakfasts and lunches. In contrast, the coast-hopping locals mostly sit at the sort of café you might find on a cross-Channel ferry. The Norwegian contingent also endure journeys longer than they would otherwise be – because each day is usually punctuated by a long stay at a port to allow sightseeing.

Trondheim, the treat for day three, was glorious: the low sun beamed from an icy blue sky to ignite the gold of the wooded hills. Warehouses the colours of oxblood and ivory reflected in the river, while autumn-ripe trees framed the mighty cathedral. The city is Norway's third-biggest (after Oslo and Bergen) and was the birthplace of Hurtigruten, 120 years ago. Trondheim stands three-fifths of the way between the equator and the North Pole. In the southern half of the planet, its latitude would place it on the empty, inhospitable Antarctic peninsula. Yet the benign Gulf Stream makes it not merely habitable but a busy, cheery city – whose energy level is boosted by the Hurtigruten's daily delivery of a shoal of tourists keen to explore it.

After Trondheim, the mighty cliffs and ranges that have guarded the coastline diminish, leaving a straggle of low-lying islands and eerie moorland. The colour spectrum narrows from autumnal gold to 50 shades of wintry grey. The gloom was lightened by the Arctic Baptism, in which the ship's officers – abetted by a crew member dressed as Neptune – celebrate the crossing of the invisible line where the sun never rises on midwinter's day. The open-deck ceremony reveals the unusual spectacle of the captain dropping ice cubes down the necks of passengers, who are rewarded with a slug of Scandinavian liqueur that makes your head spin.Or is that a maelstrom? As luck would have it, the Norwegians gave the world that word for a gigantic whirlpool – of which the most powerful on Earth passed to starboard shortly afterwards, in a hailstorm. Four times each day, the tide shifts 80 billion gallons of the Atlantic in and out of a fjord, creating cauldrons of water resembling giant jellyfish.

You become sensitised to degrees: north and Celsius. The higher the latitude, the lower the temperature – though the sea never freezes. For much of the voyage, a fringe of windward isles protects the Hurtigruten from the full force of the Atlantic. But crossing an exposed patch of open sea, such as the stretch from Bodo to the Lofoten Islands, may make you long to be imprisoned by ice rather than at the mercy of the ocean. Sailing out of Bodo, the ocean initially had the reassuring look and inertia of cold steel. Ahead stood the charcoal silhouette of Landegode, a mighty isle of five peaks. Beyond these northern heights, though, a storm was brewing. Captain Martinsen addressed us. "There is a wind of between 8 and 9 from the west. It will not be much worse than this". A little later: "The wind is now Force 10".

The good ship Finnmarken rocked and rolled for three hours, coping rather better than many of the passengers. The dining-room staff waited in vain to wait on guests who had lost interest in Arctic delicacies such as smoked reindeer. Halfway through the tempest, while I was pining for the fjords and the shelter they offer, the on-board internet delivered an email: "Save up to 25 per cent on our Early Booking Offer. Book your 2014 holidays now!" With priceless timing, it was from Hurtigruten.

The Lofoten archipelago, which scythes out from the far north of Norway, forms a comforting arm to shield the northern navigator from the full fury of the ocean. So you glide from one port to the next, collecting polar superlatives as you go. Tromso is home to the northernmost ABC of aquarium, brewery and cathedral. In Hammerfest, the most northerly city in the world, whose travel agency is filled with ads for Mediterranean cruises.

At 70 north, yacht-filled bays flanked by outdoor cafés are thin on the ground. Instead, the northern soul is rewarded with possibly the loneliest landscape in Europe. Great heaving slabs of raw rock jostle for the sun, which deigns to hoist itself several degrees above the horizon for a few hours and breathe some brightness into a sky stained by winter. Trees stand like spent matches jabbed into hillsides smothered with snow. This elemental bleakness is best observed from the generously heated outdoor swimming pool, which brings a fresh dimension to the notion of steaming north. The pool and its matching pair of Jacuzzis are named for Aegir – the Norse god of the sea.

Thank gods that the skies were clear for the final 24 hours of the voyage. The ultimate extended por-of-call was Honningsvag, home to a significant Sami community of indigenous Arctic people – and one end of the northernmost public bus in Europe. Daily at noon, route 330 departs from the harbourside for the one-hour journey to North Cape. The return trip costs £50, but by the end of the journey I concluded it was a bargain. The road clambers over high passes and beside frozen lakes, all brilliantly lit by a sun that seems perpetually perched on the horizon.

North Cape is Europe's John O'Groats: a location that many people erroneously think is the most extreme point. A more northerly promontory stands a few miles to the west, but the pretender has gained a place on the tourism map by dint of being easily accessible by road. This world's northernmost swizz? No: extreme latitude with altitude. The earth ends abruptly, crumbling into a seething sea intent on claiming more land. Their elemental majesties – earth, wind and water – revel in their naked power. The setting sun acted as celestial searchlight. A massive metal globe on a concrete plinth provides a photo opportunity, while giant bronze discs mirrored the sun in both senses.

Venture due north from North Cape, and the next mainland you encounter is the northern tip of Alaska. Or hop back on bus 330 and go south to the ship for the final stretch around the brow of Norway.

Now, were you to ask my advice on seeing the Northern Lights, I would urge you instead to seek out northern sights. The weather both on the edge of the sun and above Scandinavia can be frustratingly fickle. So you should focus on daytime activities in the far north, and treat any apparition of the Aurora Borealis as a welcome extra.

The ship's officers had promised from the start to alert everyone if the Northern Lights came out to play. Four nights earlier, there had been a flurry of interest when a turquoise glimmer appeared in the sky above the Co-op in Rorvik. But no announcement was made, and no Norwegians turned up on deck to witness it. Only at 6.15pm on the final night was the first aurora bulletin broadcast.

Pandemonium at sea level, just as it was as at 80,000 feet as cosmic particles clashed with the Earth's atmosphere. Everyone stopped dressing for dinner and instead swaddled themselves against the Arctic night. Then we streamed on to deck for a close encounter with nature's neon.

A veil of green wafted above the superstructure, fluttered seductively, twirled and swirled through the heavens and then puffed itself into a great, ghostly pillow of plasma that finally melted into outer space. We were on top of the world.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Simon Calder paid £56 for a Gatwick-Bergen flight on easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and £138 for a Kirkenes-Tromso-Oslo-Gatwick flight on Norwegian (0843 3780 888; norwegian.no).

Getting around

He paid £759pp for the six-day voyage on Hurtigruten (020 3627 2176; hurtigruten.co.uk), including all meals, for a family of four.

More information

Visit Norway: visitnorway.com/uk

For our latest 48 Hours guide to Bergen, see bit.ly/Bergen48

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum