Travel: In awe of Norway’s Aurora

Tourists taking part in a traditional Norwegian Lavvo. Picture: PA Photo/Paul Goldstein/Exodus.Tourists taking part in a traditional Norwegian Lavvo. Picture: PA Photo/Paul Goldstein/Exodus.
Tourists taking part in a traditional Norwegian Lavvo. Picture: PA Photo/Paul Goldstein/Exodus.
Kids may be desperate to see Santa this Christmas, but according to a poll by Lonely Planet, an audience with the Northern Lights tops most adults’ wishlists.

Kate Whiting heads to Norway’s Vesteralen Islands in search of the often elusive display.

It’s pitch dark and I’m flat on my back on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere. Above me, it seems that almost half the sky is lit up with a sash of minty-green light that appears to ripple and dance. This isn’t some surreal dream, I’m watching the aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It’s only my second night in the Arctic Circle and it seems Lady Luck is shining on me as brightly as the aurora - most people I’ve talked to about chasing the lights have been disappointed, flying miles to cold climes only to find heavy cloud cover and a no-show. But here, in the Vesteralen Islands of northern Norway, I will see the lights throughout most of my stay.

I’m here with Exodus, who specialise in adventure travel and, if the lights had proved elusive, the trip would still have offered more than enough to make up for it. Over the course of five days, I meet Sami and their reindeer, go sledding with dogs, skate on a frozen lake, try snowshoeing, ice fishing and horse riding.

It feels as far from the humdrum of daily life as it’s possible to be, and the dreamlike quality of the whole experience is heightened by the epic landscape - think Narnia meets Lord Of The Rings - with its snow-capped peaks and great expanses of tundra giving way to wave-lapped shores and fjords.

We’re based on Langoya, one of Norway’s largest islands, in the town of Sortland, which has an impressive selection of quirky Scandi eateries and shops stocked with cosy knitwear.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But we spend little time here. Instead, night and day, we’re on the road in a minibus speeding from one adventure to the next. Our guides for the trip are Norwegians Jeremy and Matheos, who are experts at Arctic survival and have the patience of saints with a bunch of Brits for whom even a light drift of snow is a train-cancelling event.

In winter, there’s only around four hours of daylight (bluey grey, no sun), from 10am to 2.30pm, so we need to make the most of it. Clad in waterproof boots, we set off on a walk through a winter wasteland, alongside a frozen stream flanked by imposing mountains.

In a wooden shelter overlooking a lake we find Nigel from Lincolnshire, a former Royal Marine stationed in Norway who fell in love and has been living here for 20 years. He and his wife run Andoy Friluftssenter, a cosy wooden restaurant and log cabins overlooking a fjord. They own an incredible 4,000 acres and forage cloudberries used in the dishes they serve.

While Nigel cooks up a delicious lunch of moose and veggie stir-fry over an open fire in the shelter, Jeremy drills (small) holes in the icy lake and we try fishing. Half an hour later, one of our group has caught a trout.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Luckily we’re not eating fish for lunch. Nigel has driven across the tundra from his house in a tractor and lost a pack of plates on the way, so he improvises by chopping a thin plank of wood into rectangles which just adds to the rustic feel.

We need to save all our energy for the evening, when we set off on our first hunt for the Northern Lights. We arrive at a frozen lake just before the lights put on what Jeremy describes as the “brightest and best” show of the year so far.

A band of green swirls across the sky, like the blurred headlights of heavy traffic on a cosmic super-highway. It arcs and expands, then curls and morphs into endless cloud shapes. We lie on the ice and gaze upwards in awe.

The next day is overcast, so we have a later start and head to some local riding stables. Norwegian horses are beautiful and gentle creatures with spiky Mohican manes and thick creamy coats. I ride Emil, who owner Julie has reared for nine years since she set up the school. We trot to another frozen lake and suddenly Jeremy appears with snow shoes, so it’s off the horses for a giddy race across the lake.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Then it’s off to a Sami reindeer farm, where four Sami families (the indigenous people of Scandinavia) keep their herds. Laila welcomes us into her lavvo (a sort of teepee) and we sit by the fire as she introduces the Sami culture. She’s wearing traditional dress with a big red checked rug around her shoulders for warmth. She tells us men are expected to inherit the farm and her young son already has his own reindeer. Each deer has its ear clipped in a special pattern so you can identify exactly who it belongs to. Laila’s family sell the meat, and also make decorations from the antlers.

We go and feed a small herd (the rest are up the mountains). As they trot gracefully around, it’s easy to see why they were named Dancer, Prancer and Dasher in the story - and they’re perfectly adapted to Arctic conditions with a special extra toe on their hooves, so they can walk flat-footed through the snow.

Back in the warmth of the lavvo, we’re served reindeer soup and bread, and cloudberries and cream. It does feel a bit strange eating something we’ve just been petting, but the soup is yummy.

In the evening, it’s too overcast to look for lights, so we have dinner at the Isqueen, a seafood restaurant made from a whaling boat, and play charades in the snug bar.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

On our last full day, we’re off to the dogs. Thirty lean husky-type hounds are chained up in a snowy enclosure and after briefing and coffee in another lavvo, we help to put them in their harnesses.

I’m tasked with putting Secko in his - he’s the daddy dog of seven cute fluffy puppies that we’ll cuddle later. All of the dogs howl to be involved (or let off the leash that allows them to walk in a small circle around their urine-soaked kennels).

They are born to run, says the owner, which is why they’re so eager. The dogs are tied to an all-terrain vehicle and I get the coveted place in the back, as 10 of them pull us uphill into a winter wonderland.

Up on snowier grounds, we take turns sitting in a traditional sled covered with reindeer skin. It’s exhilarating, especially when the lightest of our group falls out!

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In the evening, we enjoy another meal of moose pie and cloudberry cheesecake - it’s amazing how many calories you can eat when you’re being so active - and then spend a very relaxing hour half watching the Northern Lights from the warmth of a hot tub. We’ve seen so much of them, they’re beginning to feel like a permanent fixture in the night sky.

Travel Facts - Arctic Circle

Kate Whiting was a guest of Exodus (; 0845 863 9601) which offers the five-day Arctic Circle Adventure from £2,499 pp, including return flights from Heathrow with SAS airlines, hotel accommodation and some meals.