Thursday, 31 October 2013

In praise of Slarty Blartfast

Despite our late night we leave early for the short walk to the jetty to catch the 10.15 Boreal ferry service to Finnsnet. It’s a dank and dreary morning and the outward leg is by express catamaran so we don’t pay too much attention to the scenery as it whizzes by. We pay on the boat, 713KR for all 3 of us, which is around £75. It’s a comfortable service, much like the London river buses, with free wifi and a small snack bar.

We arrive in Finnsnet on time at 11.35 and exit through a modern terminal. The Hurtigruten cruiser MS Finnmarken dwarfs the catamaran and is due to leave in 10 minutes. There’s only time for a photo of the “Welcome to Finnsnes” sign before we board. We buy our tickets at reception, the exact same price as the outward leg. Alex is impressed to find himself unexpectedly on a cruise ship; Hurtigruten is the iconic shipping line of Norway, operating a service the length of the country that offers both cruises and ferry services as well as delivering mail and freight.
Simon installs himself in the observation lounge while Alex and I go in search of the swimming pool and Jacuzzi. We find them at the stern, where there are also changing rooms and a sauna. It’s raining – and the rain is very cold – so it’s a surreal experience luxuriating in the warm pool watching snow-topped mountains drift by and feeling the cold rain on our faces. I dry off in the sauna, which unusually has windows so I can enjoy the scenery, and rejoin the boys. We eat our picnic lunch and watch Norway go by, then I go on deck to take photos. It has stopped raining, but the mountain tops are still wreathed in cloud.

We arrive in Tromso around 2.30 and go back to the apartment for a pasta lunch and by the time we’ve finished eating, it’s dark. We were thinking of going to the photography museum or the gallery but by the time we get our act together it’s closing time. Instead we pick a few restaurants from TripAdvisor and go to see which one we’d prefer to eat at tonight. The most picturesque one, Aunegarden, in one of the oldest buildings in Tromso, looks cosy but has a fairly limited menu with main courses at around £30 each and it’s at the far end of town. It's raining and we're tired so in the end we decide to stay closer to home and eat in the ground floor bistro of De 4 Roser, a few doors down from our apartment. The food is really excellent and not bad value by Norwegian standards. We're really happy with our choice.

The light fantastic!

Having slept fairly badly I’m woken early by the alarm I forgot to turn off on my phone and then the sound of the construction site down the road keeps me awake. By the time the boys surface I’ve checked the weather and decided that tonight is the night. I have a shortlist of three Northern Lights guides but no real way of choosing between them. We decide to visit the tourist office after breakfast and see what they suggest.

A full cooked breakfast later – and well past midday – we take a short walk to the tourist office which is near the waterfront. The man there is really helpful. He has personal experience of Scan Adventure – run by Karina, one of only very few female aurora guides – and recommends her warmly, so we decide we will book with her. We also ask about ferry services along the fjords and we’re in luck – tomorrow there’s a service to Finnsnes by fast catamaran that gets in just in time to return on the Hurtigruten coastal cruiser, complete with heated pool and Jacuzzis.
After locating the boarding point for tomorrow’s boat trip we explore the shopping centre – which has three floors and numerous cafes as well as shops – and return to the apartment to cook an early supper and pack our warm clothes for the aurora trip. We’re interrupted several times by the fire alarm, which turns out to be caused by next door cooking.

There turn out to be two other couples on our Northern Lights trip, both English. Our guide, Karina, is also our driver. She tells us that the aurora have already been sighted and she’s hopeful of a good night. At around 7 we set off out of town and across the bridge to the adjacent island and when she stops the minibus we don’t see anything at first. Then our eyes get used to the darkness and we realise that there’s a ribbon of aurora shimmering above the lights of the houses across the water. We stay for a couple of hours watching, eating cake and fruit tea and taking photos. My compact camera isn’t really good enough but the old bridge camera picks up the green luminosity of the lights on an 8 second exposure.

During a lull in the light show Karina suggests we move to another spot and now we know what to look for we can see the lights from the minibus as we drive. They’re pretty strong. We pull over in a valley between two snowy peaks and we watch in awe the most amazing display of lights that seem to form a tent above our heads. I’ve given up taking photos by this time, there’s no way pictures could capture the magic of having this amazing natural display going on all around us.

It was past midnight when we began to work our way back to Tromso, stopping briefly beside a fjord and then at a fishing village. The lights are becoming weaker now, but there’s still a green glow on the horizon and occasional ribbons weaving above us. This has been an incredible show, exceeding all our expectations.  Karina drops us off at our apartment and we go happily to bed.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Towards Tromso

We land at Tromso airport which is almost too small to contain the passengers from our flight, which was less than half full. The lady who checks our passports is the most smiley border official I’ve ever met. It’s dark, cold and there’s snow on the ground. Our taxi takes us to the Viking Apartments and after dropping off our luggage we check out the town.

We find a supermarket and stock up on essentials; we’re self-catering in order to offset Norway’s extremely high cost of living. We plan to eat out no more than once a day and have brought staple foods with us.  Our apartment is fairly well equipped but tiny. The bedrooms are only just large enough for a bed and it lacks a dining table and the microwave is perched on top of a fridge-freezer that’s as tall as me - we have to climb on a stool to reach it. The fridge stocked, we set off to look for a restaurant.  Apparently Tromso has enough restaurants to seat one-third of its population simultaneously but it takes a while to find one that isn’t showing football and isn’t fish-oriented. Egon is a chain serving American themed favourites alongside more local dishes and it fits the bill perfectly for tonight. We pay three times for dinner what we paid for a lunch of similar standard from a pub near Gatwick.

We’re heartened to notice that the sky is fairly clear as we walk back to the apartment; we’ve also checked the weather forecast and tomorrow looks good for weather, too. Tomorrow we will plan our trip based on the latest weather forecast and whatever information we can find about solar activity.