Tuesday 6 December 2016

Northern delights

A glimpse of the Northern Lights in Norway's Arctic leaves Thomas Breathnach with a warm glow

Published 11/12/2011 | 06:00

It's not every day you get to see the Northern Lights, unless perhaps you're Father Christmas, or Bjork. But with the heavens witnessing the most active solar cycle in a generation, the odds of viewing this celestial skydance have never been greater. With this in mind, I ventured to the Norwegian Arctic to chase down the Aurora Borealis in all her glory.

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Our gateway to the Arctic was the city of Tromso. A fusion of traditional Nordic life and Norwegian liberalism (think fishmongers and fuzzy head shops), the town boasts the world's most northerly cathedral, university, and indeed Burger King.

Britta, our guide, sporting a dashing pair of seal-skin boots, led us to the town's Polar Museum (€8). A massive harpoon erected outside was a little foreboding. "Now this is where we Norwegians love to come," she beamed, guiding us through the fascinating exhibits.

"Look," piped Britta, as we entered the gruesome trapping section, "there's Henry Rudi -- he killed 713 polar bears!"

Along with a penchant for oil-refinery and cross-country skiing, taxidermy, it seems, is just another string to the Norwegian bow.

Later that evening, a bellowing foghorn across Tromso harbour heralded the arrival of our Hurtigruten liner. Once a transport lifeline for Norway's remote fishing villages, today the ships are best known for their voyages through the nation's rugged fjords.

After settling into my cabin -- a pocket-sized suite peeping over a twinkling Tromso -- the city slowly drifted by and we were off. In the silent night, we journeyed north along Norway's coast, stopping at tiny hamlets along the way, offloading cargo, boarding Norwegian commuters. From one of the ship's plush lounges, I peered out on to a vast winter landscape, while inside, whiskey in hand, the sense of utter toastiness was sublime.

Dinner on board was a delicious smorgasbord of game, berries and seafood. For entertainment, a spangly-dressed diva slalomed her way through a multilingual set list with the vain hope it might spark a pan-European sing-song. It didn't, though she eventually silenced her critics with a rousing salvo of 'Je ne regrette rien'. Touché, Helga!

The next morning we awoke, drifting through deep blue waters, along a rugged ivory shoreline as plumes of snow blazed across the tundra. Now virtually at the top of Europe, we docked in the fishing village of Honningsvag, dotted with timber-panelled homes splashed in primary colours like a snow-capped Legoland.

We'd only ventured around the town for a matter of minutes before the blue skies were blanketed by a howling whirlwind blizzard. News soon reached us that much of the country was being battered by storms and avalanches, and with all roads from Honningsvag blocked, our snowmobiling and North Cape excursions were, alas, cancelled.

With little on the evening agenda, bracing the glacial temperature for the outdoor jacuzzi seemed like a good alternative adrenaline fix. Thinking our Northern Lights hopes had been put on ice, we watched in surprise as the clouds slowly cleared to reveal a magnificent starry sky.

Suddenly, a curious streak, a broad arc of vanilla light, appeared over the heavens. Why it's Aurora herself! Not quite the National Geographic cover shot we expected -- but it was early days.

Arriving in Kirkenes, our final stop, there was a real sense of the final frontier. Just a snowball's throw from the Russian border, Cyrillic signs lined the slushy streets towards our winter wonderland retreat -- the dreamy Snowhotel (€139 per room per night).

Built entirely from snow and ice each year, the Snowhotel is a magical domed cavern where silent passages lead to a network of snowsuite rooms. They are seasonally themed, from snowmen to Santa Claus, but after much deliberation (and a welcome shot in the Ice Bar) I eventually settled on a cosy chamber adorned with elaborate carvings of Arctic fauna.

The homeland of the nomadic Sami people, Kirkenes is sledding country, and outside the hotel, a 50-strong pack of yapping, blue-eyed huskies were waiting.

Once our rider, known as a musher, gave the Aha! ("let's go!" in Sami), silence descended on the pack and our sled was whisked over a course of frozen lakes and sparse woodland with exhilarating haste.

Midway, there was time for a cup of crowberry tea, when we got to know the beautiful dogs -- among them Pekka, the world's only blind lead-dog.

Supper was in the hotel's candle-lit pine cabin, peppered with displays of native wildlife. Our Russian waitress crept up to identify a fearsome stuffed wolverine above our heads.

"Be careful when you walk in the woods, for they will jump from tree and attack," she warned, with the same Slavic nonchalance she'd announced the soup of the day. After a delicious feast of salmon, baked in the open fire, she returned with a more welcome tip-off: the lights are back!

Rushing outside, a green ray beamed across the sky, rippling into shades of pink and amber. Now in full flight, the lights kaleidoscoped above us with the mesmerising surreality of a Jean Michel Jarre concert, all synched to our gasping chorus of oohs and aaahs. "This must be at least a seven on the Aurora scale," our guide informs us. Aah, seventh heaven!

Cocooned into my sleeping bag that night -- an exquisite ice sculpture of a swan at my feet -- my Arctic voyage had reached the ultimate oasis of calm. My Hurtigruten experience delivered an unforgettable Nordic dream, but it was Aurora who had been the true showboater. I imagined she was still perhaps dancing in the skies outside. If only igloos had windows.

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