Returning to the Arctic for a spectacular Christmas show from the Northern Lights.
My first trip to Tromsø in 2015 was a bit of a let down. I had to change plans to return home a couple of days earlier than expected and the couple of days I had in Tromsø coincided with some awful weather, meaning cloud cover, heavy snow and water too choppy for whale watching.
This meant I had to stick to the city and saw the Polaria (the Tromsø aquarium) and the Polarmuseet (Polar Museum) – both interesting but quite small, and only take up 1-2 hours each at a stretch. It also meant I had time for a wander around the city centre and a bit more time than planned eating and having a drink.
A side note about pubs in Tromsø – The city is not as good for pubs in comparison to other parts of Norway. However, some stand out bars with good beer are Ølhallen (a decent, varied list of beers from around Norway), Arctandria Restaurant (a great bottle list but many did seem to be out of stock), and Cafe Sånn, which was my favourite of the lot. Huken Pub is small and cozy (with great burgers) and Bastard Bar is good when it’s busy.
All in all, my first trip was not a memorable one for a region so geared towards the outdoors.
Second time around in Tromsø, this time for a visit over Christmas, and it couldn’t have been better. On the run up to Christmas 2016 this part of the Arctic had experienced warmer weather than usual, above freezing a lot of the time. The lack of snow became a concern for the locals relying on the white stuff to give tourism a boost. Dog sledding or snowmobile trips with no snow are harder to sell. But a snow flurry the day before I visited provided exactly what was needed to turn a grey landscape into a picture perfect one, and the bad weather held off until my last night. Perfect!
My visit was during the polar night. In Kiruna, a town lying just 60 miles above the Arctic Circle, the polar night meant hours of sunset sky each day as the sun hovered just below the horizon. Tromsø, around 150 miles further north than Kiruna, was far enough into the Arctic that polar night meant very little daylight at all. It wasn’t darkness all day but at best it was twilight.
Of course, the point of visiting somewhere like Tromsø isn’t to stay in the city and having seen plenty of the town on my last trip, I spent very little time there on this visit. This meant time dog sledding, whale watching, hiking, and plenty of aurora chases.
It was my first Christmas away from home, also meaning I was away from family. On Christmas morning I Skyped to say hello, to see my awesome little nephews excited at Santa’s visit, to say Merry Christmas to my mum, brother and sister-in-law, and then I set out for an entirely relaxed day.
There’s a fantastic spot I had visited previously that I went to again on Christmas morning; my favourite place in Tromsø. To the south of the island, which is about a 30-minute walk out of town when there’s ice and snow, is a beach front overlooking Kvaløya. It’s on a path popular with strollers and dog walkers but on Christmas morning it was wonderfully quiet. The sound of the water against the shore was the only real distraction from the snow-peaked mountains of the larger island, lit up by hints of the sun which wouldn’t properly show its face for a few weeks yet. I’ve seen my fair share of cities and do like them but, more than anything else, I love being somewhere so peaceful and switched off. I love this spot.
I had visited the island of Kvaløya for a hill climb the previous day, the first time I had tried walking in snow shoes (which made walking through three-feet deep snow very easy). The views from the top are spectacular.
Christmas dinner was a very laid back one. I’m not particularly into Christmas, hence being happy to be away over the holidays, and grabbed some food at the only place I could find which was open: an Irish pub in the town centre. My festive meal was an Irish stew, a pint and some quiet time.
Tromsø saved its Christmas present until later on that evening. I had booked a last-minute aurora chase after seeing the chance of some clear weather, and left my hotel to walk down to the meetup point. Looking up, above the town, even with street lights on and buildings fully lit, the aurora was easily visible overhead. It was the start of the best aurora show I have ever seen.
I’ve been lucky to see the Northern Lights a few times, in Luleå, a couple of times in Kangerlussuaq in Greenland, in Kiruna the previous week and even from in and around Tromsø a couple of nights prior, but I had never seen it looking this good from a city before, never so active that it was visibly bright green.
The bus left with an excited group and headed to a beautiful, quiet spot on Ringvassøya, on a snow-covered beach overlooking the sea with mountains behind us. Ribbons of the aurora came from over the horizon, some still, some dancing around, and moved overhead to behind the mountains. And then, as if someone switched on the solar lights, the sky lit up from behind as the Northern Lights – green, red, blue, purple – jumped and danced around above for a few seconds. It was so active at that moment it was barely possible to photograph it, certainly not possible to do it any justice.
It was utterly breathtaking. And 15 minutes later, it happened again. Even without those moments, the aurora activity was bewitching and when something as mesmerising as this happens then it’s only possible to look up in awe and leave the camera alone.
Quite incredibly, a few of the group, feeling they had “seen it”, sat in the bus for over an hour and missed so much of the show. For others, braving the cold for 2-3 hours straight (aided by cake and hot chocolate), it was an incredible night. I chatted with a family visiting from Chicago, their first time looking for the aurora and perhaps the best they could ever hope to see.
Towards the end of the trip to Tromsø, I headed out on a boat for whale watching. Along with a small group from that boat, we were transferred on to a RIB (dressed in very-much-needed thermal suits) and sailed out to get closer to the whales. Seeing an orca would have been incredible. Seeing an orca calf and mother just ten feet away was incredible. Seeing a pod of 20 or so orcas and a few humpback whales going crazy over the herring during peak feeding time – outstanding. And to see it so close up was remarkable.
My penultimate night was spent in a slightly more relaxed way at a Sami camp a few miles outside of the city. Entirely chilled out, a chance to be more sociable, have a drink (a few drinks), cracking food cooked by the fire, and a chance to feed a herd of reindeer. Some particularly aggressive reindeer from whom I got this look when the food ran out…
This trip could not have been any better. To see the aurora multiple times, to see spectacular Arctic scenery during hill climbs, to get such a great glimpse of the orca and humpback whales and to get up close with the reindeer – nature could not have played ball any better.