Northern Lights top off Arctic adventure

 

GO NORWAY:It may have been minus 20 outside but Dick Ahlstromwarmed to travelling by snowmobile and dog sled on a visit to Finnmark at the northern tip of Norway

YOUR HEART races as the lead snowmobile takes off across the frozen lake and you are expected to follow suit. A twist of the wrist opens up the throttle and the speedometer nudges gradually up to 90km/h per hour.

The air is bitterly cold but you don’t feel it as you chase the snow cloud thrown up by the leader. You quickly run out of lake however and have to slow down to turn before racing back the way you came, hanging on for dear life.

The Norwegians may struggle to make the cut at Eurovision, but no one knows how to have better fun during the winter as I learned during a trip to Finnmark at the northern tip of Norway.

Our base was Alta, “the town of the Northern Lights” inside the Arctic Circle, but a chance to see that breathtaking visual spectacle was just one of the activities on the programme of a package called the “Alta Adventure”.

My trip last March included the “snowmobile safari” and a visit to the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, a visual treat in its own right. Of course a dip in the outdoor hot tub and sauna was on the cards – this is Scandinavia after all. The best fun of all though was a chance to drive a five-dog sled through the snow-covered countryside.

Scandinavian Airlines runs a regular service to Norway with our flight direct from Dublin to Oslo. There was a few hours delay before an early evening flight had us on our way to Alta, the largest town in Norwegian Lapland with 18,500 residents. It was long past dark when we arrived and as we left the plane the air was stunningly cold – sharp but invigorating. A temperature display on the arrivals building flashed minus 14 degrees and confirmed that we had arrived above the Arctic Circle.

We checked into the Thon Hotel Vica, a pleasant three-star hotel with a restaurant and bar that would serve as our base for the next three nights.

The next morning found us on the way to the Holmen Hundesenter and our dog sled adventure. I mistakenly thought the dogs would somehow resent having to pull tourists through the countryside, but you could hear their excitement even before you could see them. They were beside themselves with anticipation, yapping and tugging at their harnesses, obviously as enthusiastic as an Irish dog being offered a walk in the park. The huskies were also unexpectedly friendly, constantly looking for pets and attention.

Owner Eirik Nilsen and his crew provide you with boots, parkas and gloves to keep out the cold and then you are off, the dogs charging through the snow after the lead sled. It was amazing fun, the dogs running as fast as you allow through the use of a foot brake that holds them somewhat in check.

We followed a 9km route through forests and along frozen lakes and snow fields, with everyone getting a chance to “drive”. Once back at the centre we were offered coffee and biscuits in a “lavvu” or tepee-like tent originally used by the indigenous Sami people complete with a large warming fire at its centre.

We were treated to lunch in Alta by tourism officials and then were taken to the Alta Museum where head curator Hans Christian Søborg talked us through the displays. The most elaborate presentation describes the 6,500 Stone Age rock art carvings around Alta etched by an earlier culture dating back 4,000 to 6,000 years.

That night we enjoyed an “Arctic evening”, including a dip in an outdoor hot tub. The water kept you more than warm enough, but your hair quickly froze in the minus 15 degree air if you raised your head too far above the water. Dinner that night included king crab and reindeer steak, a local favourite.

THE FOLLOWING morning we travelled to nearby Sorrisniva for the snowmobile safari and also a tour through the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. Odd-Kristian Aune coached us on the use of the powerful snowmobiles before setting out on a 50km run through the forests and snow fields surrounding Alta. Again all specialised cold weather gear was supplied but you are also encouraged to wear multiple layers to keep warm. The snowmobiles were surprisingly simple to control but you knew you had been on a journey by the time you got back.

We then toured the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, built from 450 tonnes of lake ice and 6,000 cubic metres of snow. It offers 2,500sq m (26,910sq ft) of space, including 31 bedrooms sleeping 60 guests. It is particularly popular as a wedding destination with the ceremonies taking place in the hotel’s ice chapel and a bar made of solid ice where you can sip a blue igloo – Amundsen’s vodka and blue curacao – from an ice shot glass. Lunch was included and served in the adjoining indoor dining hall used for wedding receptions.

EACH NIGHT DURING our stay we searched the sky for any sign of the Northern Lights but could see nothing. That night after dinner we set out with Trygve Nygård who runs the adventure company Glød. It turns out that finding the lights isn’t the problem, it is seeing them in the right way.

Even before we left in his jeep he pointed out what we thought were thin clouds. “Northern Lights,” he said with a big smile before driving into the hills where we could escape the glow of the street lights.

Sure enough, the moment we climbed back out into the intense minus 20 degree cold you could see the lights spread out above you – green, purple, sometimes red, lying in curtains across the sky. He then showed us how we could take time-lapsed pictures to bring up their intensity even more. It was an amazing sight and he took us to several locations impossible for a tourist to find where we could see the lights in different settings. He even brought flasks of coffee, dried reindeer meat and biscuits as a snack.

The lights were the highlight of the trip but are never guaranteed. There is a high probability of seeing them, however, given Alta is well above the Arctic Circle. The trip with its safaris and ice hotel plus down time to visit Alta’s centre and its museum provides a real sampler of Arctic life so, even if the lights disappoint, the trip will have been well worth it.

Dick Ahlstrom travelled to Alta as a guest of Project Travel (project-travel.ie). The best time to travel is mid-December to early March. It now offers a four-night “Alta Adventure” with extra activities including a snowshoe trip, ice fishing and an Arctic lunch cooked outdoors. Prices from €1,765pps, including flights, all accommodation and activities, and some meals included.