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; and £138 for a Kirkenes-Tromso-Oslo-Gatwick flight on Norwegian (0843 3780 888;

Getting around

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

More information

Visit Norway:

For our latest 48 Hours guide to Bergen, see

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?