Norway – land of the midnight sun, northern lights, fjords, trolls and islands

4 December 2014

Maybe you’re thinking of white beaches, swaying palm trees and turquoise seas at this time of year, but consider going north for your next holiday – to Norway, land of the midnight sun. It’s a unique and unforgettable destination.

I voyaged on a big Hurtigruten mail ship (a working ship that also takes cruise passengers) up the west coast of Norway from Bergen, which is 500km from the capital, Oslo. I sailed all the way up the wild and beautiful coastline to the tiny town of Kirkenes, just a couple of km from the Russian border.

Norway by Mark Stein The art nouveau town of Ålesund. Photo courtesy of Mark Stein.

Imagine 3 000 islands. Then imagine a giant hand had picked up a handful of 3D jigsaw pieces and scattered them in a broken line from south to north – and that’s the coast of Norway. I saw high mountains, glaciers, fjords, islands, skerries, pieces of land and rocky shores – all lying haphazardly in the sea. And so many lighthouses – and tunnels.

Norway Sailing through a Norwegian fjord

One of my guides told me that they build tunnels “so that tourists can see what Norway looks like from the inside”. One tunnel I travelled along was 140m beneath the surface of a fjord.

How do you go?

The Hurtigruten mail ship service (www.hurtigruten.com) started in 1893 with one ship. Today 12 ships, carrying up to 1 000 passengers and cargo, ply the route up into the Arctic Circle, known as “the world’s most beautiful sea voyage”.

Norway boat by Mark Stein A traditional boat built in Viking style. Photo courtesy of Mark Stein.

When do you go?

In summer, as I did, for good weather and the quality of the light. One night I watched a soft pink sunset from about 10pm, then a blazing perfect full moon glittering on the silvery steel-grey sea.

In winter, go to see the aurora borealis – the northern lights – when the sky puts on a natural fireworks display. A huge belt of colour appears at great speed and forms a bow from east to west.

Aurora Borealis VI Aurora borealis in northern Norway. Photo by Trond Kristiansen.

Why do you go?

To experience the fantastically beautiful land and seascapes, to visit charming little towns and fishing villages (you can hop off the ship when it makes its 35 mail stops), and to admire the appropriately spare architecture that fits in perfectly with the rugged scenery, such as the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø.

Norway A traditional Norwegian village
Norway The Crossing the Line Ceremony at the Arctic Circle with King Neptune

Highlights

For me, Geirangerfjord, a magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site, where tumbling waterfalls, steep cliffs and majestic mountains are mirrored in the still deep water (a Game of Thrones location for ‘The Wall’).

Geirangerfjord, Norway Geirangerfjord, Norway. Photo by ser_is_snarkish.

The 2km-long Trollsfjord, where rocks resembling giant trolls loom over the water. The ship glides along silently between these “frozen” trolls – crouching, sitting, hunched up, petrified in stone.

The Arctic Cathedral is a cross between a Sami tent and an iceberg, and has a glass window that covers an area of 140 square metres..

Norway The Arctic Cathedral

Gjesvaerstappan Island is one of the world’s most exciting nature reserves. You come here for the birds – puffins, guillemots, shags, arctic skuas, huge flocks of northern gannets, purple sandpipers and sea eagles. On 14 April each year, between 3pm and 8pm, regular as clockwork, 500 000 pairs of puffins return to their nesting holes. The sky is black for hours with beating wings. In midsummer there are over 1.6-million birds on this one-and-a-half km long tiny island.

DSC_7953_DxO_130409_papagei_reduziert Puffins can be spotted throughout Norway's fjords. Photo by Heinz Hofer.

My last night on board

From my notebook:

So here I am, having just sailed past the northernmost point of Europe’s landmass. It’s 10.30 at night and I’m alone on deck. I’m watching scores of lighthouses twinkling from grey promontories, dozens of islands and skerries. It’s still light in the west and although the sea is steel grey I don’t feel cold. A lone gull accompanies the ship, its strong silent wings beating easily against the wind. All day long the air has been like champagne, and the light pure and crystal clear. It’s as if the world has just been made – perfect and pure.

Norway My boat - Midnatsol

Kate Turkington

Kate Turkington is one of South Africa’s best-known broadcasters, travellers and travel writers.