I’m heading north. Almost as far north as you can go before leaving civilisation behind. My final destination is Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago sitting at almost 80 degrees north – well within the Arctic Circle. It’s late November and I’m told the polar night is in full swing, meaning the sun has taken leave and will not reappear for another 90 days.
There will be light though. Well, at least that’s what I’m searching for. It’s here that particles from the sun, attracted to the Earth’s magnetic poles, collide with the atmosphere and create a light show electrifying the long winter nights. The northern lights beckon me, and I can think of nowhere better to experience them than the unadulterated darkness of Svalbard.
American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “To find the journey’s end in every step of the road … is wisdom.” While the great Robert Louis Stevenson mused, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Both wise men echo an ancient Taoist saying: “The journey is the reward.” It’s a philosophy I strive to embrace, although I’ve had doubts ever since I suffered a 48-hour non-stop bus journey through India with my bowels begging for Bombay’s porcelain. Yet, as I sit down to lunch on board the MS Kong Harald – a Hurtigruten passenger ferry currently docked off the Norwegian coastal town of Trondheim – at the start of my journey, I embrace once again the writings of Emerson and Stevenson.
An enormous fish tank sits front and centre of Kysten restaurant, one of three on board. Inside, Norwegian red king crabs the size of steering wheels vie for space. Each crustacean has a tag with a QR code linking to information about where and when the creature was caught and details of its captor. I’ve chosen what looks to be the plumpest crab and, having scanned the code, find myself toasting a Norwegian fisherman named Ole who caught my lunch near Finnmark, the northernmost point of mainland Norway.
Ole has been a fisherman for 53 years and fancies Swedish music. Judging from his photos, I’m certain ABBA doesn’t feature on his playlist.
“Ole, my new faraway friend,” I think to myself while cracking into the crab and trying to shake the lyrics of ‘Mamma Mia’ from my mind, “this setting is not what I was expecting.”
In fact, nothing about the MS Kong Harald is as I expected. Shouldn’t riding a passenger ferry be a crowded, uncomfortable and all-round unpleasant affair? Aren’t they designed to ship passengers from A to B in a perfunctory fashion? Instead, the ship boasts a range of bars and restaurants, a bakery, an ice-creamery and two outdoor hot tubs that prove quite popular, even in the chill of winter. It is one of 11 Hurtigruten ships cruising a constant circuit and picking up and dropping off cargo along the way.
Hurtigruten has been servicing the Norwegian coast since 1893, transporting local passengers, freight, mail and visitors to 34 ports that span from Bergen in the south all the way up to Kirkenes in the north. As passenger numbers grew and freight trade slowed, the Hurtigruten team realised travellers were interested in learning more about the Nordic nation. They introduced activities for passengers at each port and now offer more than 60 experiences, ranging from snowmobiling and coastal walks to quad biking and dining like a Viking. Add in a refurbished fleet, and a ‘coastal kitchen’ policy that ensures the fresh local produce purchased at each port dictates the day’s menu, and you’ve got a journey of which Emerson and Stevenson would surely approve.
With the bow pointing north, we spend three days at sea, stopping at 13 ports on our way to Tromsø. Sometimes the ferry pauses for just 15 minutes, although more often we dock for up to four hours. Coastal port towns like Bodø and Ornes appear to have been lifted straight from the movie Frozen. Light from houses flickers off the snow and frosty peaks rise sharply behind them. I join a coastal walk in Bodø and find the path busy with locals. Not even the challenge of winter twilight is enough to keep the outdoorsy Norwegians locked up at home.
We pass through the tight fjords of the Lofoten Islands, where the dark outlines of craggy mountains loom ominously over the ship. It must be breathtaking in the light, but they hold an eerie allure in the cold darkness. One afternoon a passenger spots a sparkle in the inky sky. In an instant the decks teem with tourists and locals alike, all hoping for a glimpse of the aurora. I’m told they’re quite common on this passage. I think I see something of a shimmer, but it may just have been the reflection of a camera flash.
As November creeps to a close and we venture further north darkness devours more sunlight. The few remaining daylight hours become bitingly cold. In the south in Oslo, Norway’s small but busy capital, the sun sets after 4pm, but now, as we cruise closer to Tromsø, it pokes its head above the horizon at 9am and sinks by 1pm each day. Despite the brief window of light, the views are still spectacular.
Lengthy nights make sundowners a dangerous proposition. Inevitably, we find ourselves at the Explorer Lounge and Bar on the top deck of the ship. From here you can toast the ever-changing vistas that unfold before you. I meet Tor, who resembles a cross between Asterix the Gaul and a hipster hairdresser. Tor is returning to his village in the Lofoten Islands and has a penchant for Norwegian aquavit, a rather potent local spirit.
Sara, the Swedish bartender, teaches us a Swedish drinking song, which translates to:
“Something naked, blue and swollen,
Is hanging from the ceiling,
What could it be?
It’s old Aunt Sonya!”
While no one can explain the origins, I am rather worried about old Aunt Sonya’s family.
“It is not as strange as the one where the boy makes a poo in the waffle iron,” Sara explains earnestly. I’m not sure I agree.
As we disembark the MS Kong Harald in Tromsø I watch as a tractor, containers and a small car are loaded into the hold. A Canadian couple sporting maple leaves on their bags crosses my path as they board. “It is such a great trip!” the wife exclaims. “We haven’t been snowmobiling yet,” she tells me, “but there’s been a snowfall further north.” They are travelling all the way up to Kirkenes and back to Bergen again, revisiting all 34 ports.
After an extensive crawl between Tromsø’s craft beer joints – did I mention Arctic sundowners are dangerous? – we fly north into the dark polar nights of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost city, and the only city in Svalbard.
Longyearbyen translates to Longyear City in Norwegian, and owes its name to John Longyear, who started the Arctic Coal Company back in 1906. Mining is tough business anywhere in the world, but through an Arctic winter in 24-hour darkness? I can almost hear the miners crying, “Fuck, it’s been a long year!”
With most of the coalmines now closed tourism has become the primary industry alongside scientific research. On arrival, I join a two-hour Maxi Taxi tour with Vigor, who’s an ex-miner himself. He drives us out of the city and up a mountain pass to the Svalbard Satellite Station. In the 10am darkness I can make out two huge satellite dishes. I feel as though I’ve walked onto the set of an M Night Shyamalan film, especially when we stop at the Global Seed Vault, which turns out to be a lone door with a shining emerald glass front on an otherwise bare mountainside. The vault holds back-ups of the world’s crop collections, kept safe from any global disasters that may come to pass.
Vigor turns out to be a kind of Svalbard Siri. He knows everything there is to know about the place, including where to find the only graveyard. Apparently it’s illegal to die up here, as your body can’t decompose in the ground’s permafrost. He gives us a full rundown of the city centre’s best restaurants and bars. “Have fish of the day at Gruvelageret,” Vigor advises. “It’s whale.”
It’s an odd feeling to pass days in constant night and I can see how some people struggle to live here. So far the skies over Longyearbyen have been covered with cloud, but despite the cold there’s no sign of snow. On my hotel door is a picture of Ivan Starostin, a Russian trapper who holds the record for enduring the most winters in Svalbard. He spent 39 winters here in the 1700s, catching polar bears and Arctic foxes. In the name of Ivan I decide to toughen up.
One evening I head out of town to dine at Camp Barentsz, named after Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, who first discovered Svalbard in 1596. Winter ice crushed his ship during one expedition, and the camp hosts northern light spotting evenings in a replica of the hut his crew built from the boat’s debris. We dine on reindeer stew and sip hot wine as we hear how the pioneers huddled around a fire while frostbite nipped at their backs. One of the first things they constructed was an hourglass to give them a sense of structure in the four months of darkness. The aurora borealis must have been like fireworks to those hardened sailors as they tried desperately to survive. Tonight, however, it’s overcast and we leave camp without even seeing a star.
Anika, a Svalbard local, tells me she collapsed upon first seeing the lights when she arrived in Longyearbyen nearly 10 years ago. “Was it spiritual?” I ask her. “Is it that spectacular?”
“Not quite,” Anika says, laughing. “I just had my head back so far, staring up for so long, that I fainted from lack of blood flow.”
I ask Anika if she thinks she might break Ivan’s record of 39 winters. She chuckles but doesn’t dismiss the challenge. “There’s so much to do here,” she says. “When the snow comes we can snowmobile for days on fresh powder and sleep out in old trappers’ huts at night. There’s dog sledding into ice caves, cross-country skiing, polar bear spotting… And that’s just in winter.”
On my final evening I head to Svalbard Bryggeri, the northernmost brewery in the world. Robert, a former miner, now brew master, fought hard to change a law that barred alcohol from being manufactured in Svalbard back in 2015. This year he’s hoping to produce up to 250,000 litres of beer, brewed with 16 per cent local glacial water. Folks are thirsty up here.
Robert suggests I try a Spitsbergen stout. “Drink enough of this and you will see the northern lights with your eyes closed,” he offers.
“The lights aren’t everything, Robert,” I unconvincingly reply between sips. “The journey has been the reward.”
The Hotel Continental in Oslo is the perfect combination of old-style tradition and hip modern boutique. It has an uber cool bar, a restaurant adorned with art and close to the most comfortable beds on earth.
In Longyearbyen the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel is a centrally located, modern option with a great little bar serving typical pub grub with a Nordic twist. The fish of the day, however, could be whale.
Svalbard Bryggeri, the northernmost brewery in the world, is located about five minutes out of Longyearbyen in an industrial estate. You walk through bags of malt and barley to a tasting room upstairs that looks out over the brewery. Order a tasting paddle and enjoy the story.