Gap Year Days 327 – 330
Norway was our starting point when we first came to Europe at the beginning of our gap year all the way back in April last year. We really liked Oslo and Bergen, and promised to be back. I didn’t think then that we would be visiting again before we went home, but here we are!
Tromsø is in the north of Norway, about a two hour flight from Oslo. It is about 350km north of the Arctic Circle and has a population of around 75000, a good proportion of which are students at the University there.
I started to think seriously a month or so ago that I would like to go chasing the Northern Lights. I discovered Tromsø was in the perfect location, and March was one of the best months to visit to see them. So plans were made, tickets were booked – then I checked the weather! If you have read my post on our previous visit to Norway, you will know that before then I had never seen snow! We saw a few flakes then, that melted before they hit the ground, but I was so excited. Imagine though how I felt seeing temperatures like minus 17 for Tromsø in the days before our visit! I get really cold if it goes below 15 degrees at home, how was I going to cope?
Our arrival at Tromsø was mostly one tinged with relief. We had two fights to get here from Copenhagen, and the first one was delayed, just long enough to make it a very tight connection. Oslo airport have this interesting process whereby before going through the transfer gates to the next flight, you have to wait until your checked in luggage has been customs checked. We had to stand outside the transfer gates and wait for our names to appear on the screen as the boarding time for out next flight ticked past.
It’s fairly common knowledge that Norway is not exactly the cheapest place to travel. It’s also fairly common knowledge that I’m a bit
of a tightass frugal and hate to spend an extra cent if I don’t have to so I researched public transport in advance. Jumping on a public bus from the airport in Tromsø is easy, it stops just outside of the terminal, will cost you 50NOK ($8.30AUD/$6.25USD) to buy a ticket onboard and takes about 15 minutes to get into town. But if you buy the bus ticket in advance at the shop near the baggage carousel called “Point”, then it only costs 31NOK ($5.15AUD/$3.90USD). Bargain!
I spent the whole of my visit to Tromsø just mind blown. We had fantastic weather – at least in terms of brilliant blue skies, no wind, rain or snow. It was so cold though. I am talking about minus 8 as a high during the day, and minus 14 during the night. I had my thermals and two pairs of gloves and multiple layers, but any more than about twenty to thirty minutes outside and my fingers and toes were numb and painful.
This meant we did not get to explore the town as much as I really would have liked. We did walk around the streets a little though, and it soon became abundantly clear that even walking here was a new experience. Along the footpaths, in the gutters, or just randomly on the ground, was ice! You know, that really slippery stuff that only exists in Australia in summer to cool down your drinks? Within five minutes my new goal for Tromsø was to just to leave here without falling on my butt!
Again Simon got me at a moment of weakness – I was freezing, and he pointed out we were near Polaria, which was sure to be warm inside! I don’t know what it is, but Simon loves to visit aquariums. Maybe he likes to imagine how tasty those fish and lobsters would be. To me, fish are fish, and if you’ve seen one aquarium, well, that’s plenty for quite a while. This was the second one we had visited in a week, but the promise of warmth weakened my usual resolve.
Polaria is the world’s northern most aquarium, and to be honest, it’s okay, but not amazing. They have a theatre with a wide, curved screen where we saw some stunning wildlife video, firstly of Svalbard, then of the Northern Lights. A word of warning though, if you suffer from motion sickness, the Svalbard movie may not be for you!
There are a small amount of tanks filled with fish and other sea life, and I do have to admit I was a little concerned when I first saw the fish below laying on his side. He’s a big fish, about a metre long, and I really thought he was dead. But no, he’s a wolffish, and apparently I was not the only one who was concerned for his well being, because there was a special sign on the side of the tank say he was alive. Wolffish don’t have a swim bladder, so nothing to keep them upright. They can often be seen laying on their side like this, or even completely up side down on their back!
The main attraction here are the seals. They have four, two each of two different species. Twice a day the seals are trained and fed. We were assured that while this entertained the visitors, the main reason was for enrichment of the seals’ lives and was done even when Polaria is closed.
We also visited the Polar Museum. This museum mostly covers early hunting missions into the north of Norway, particularly the islands of Svalbard. It showed how the people lived in the winter conditions. It also had a lot of information about a handful of well known explorers and expeditions that originated in Tromsø, including the ill-fated rescue mission from which famous polar explorer Roald Amundsen did not return.
On entering the museum we were given a book in English with information on the displays and expansion on some of the stories. This was fantastic, for two reasons. Firstly it translated many of the Norwegian signs (although some had English translations on the walls too), but mostly it filled in a lot of holes in my knowledge that I presume Norwegian people would naturally know as part of their own history. This is exactly what has been missing in many museums around the world that I have been to over the past few months.
We stood outside the Polar Museum and looked across the water at the Arctic Cathedral. I wanted to walk across the bridge and have a look at it and the beautiful glass mosaic in front of it, but I was already cold and it was a twenty five minute walk. Common sense told me this was a bad idea, and when my toes were really painful after the ten minute walk back to our hotel, I knew I’d made the correct choice. Besides, I needed to prepare for the main reason for our visit!
There are lots of tours to see the northern lights in Tromsø. If you are going, I suggest you either don’t book until you are there, or get one of the multi-night passes. The reason for this is the weather. If it’s cloudy, then it’s impossible to see the northern lights. This is not foolproof though, as weather changes and the lights do whatever they please, even on a night with perfect weather.
We asked at our hotel on our arrival about the upcoming days, and took a risk on the last night of our visit. This was the best night for both weather and the predicted strength of the lights. It was all or nothing, as we had no opportunity to go again. Note that if you do get a night with no lights, most operators give a large discount to go again the following night.
As we left our hotel to meet the tour, my heart sank as I looked up at the clouds that had rolled in during the hour we had spent inside. It just matched the day I had been having. That morning I had discovered my camera had died! It just wouldn’t turn on at all. Changed batteries, plugged it into the power, attached it to my computer – nothing! The one day where I absolutely needed my camera and my phone just would not do, no matter how good it is. I was going to see the northern lights with no camera!
On reaching the tour office, there was more frantic action going on – there now seemed to be an issue with the bus, and a different one was brought in. Soon we were on board, and left just a few minutes late after waiting for some tardy customers.
There are various places the tours go, depending on the weather. Some nights they will drive for only thirty minutes to the outskirts of Tromsø, others they drive for three hours all the way into Finland. We ended up with a seventy-five minute drive to the island of Sommarøya to the south west of Tromsø.
While we were driving our guide gave us a huge amount of information on the northern lights which was fantastic. There are four different “levels” of northern lights that are seen. The rarest blue version, he had only seen once in ten years of taking tours. The next rarest, seen once or twice a month, had appeared only the night before! Now I was kicking myself that we had chosen the wrong night. Was this going to be the Taj Mahal disaster all over again?
On arrival to our “spot” we all eagerly pile on our layers of clothes and jump out of the bus, carefully navigate the icy spots on the ground, and assemble on the little beach. Cameras (not mine, sniff!) were carefully set up and test shots taken. We craned our necks, looking up at the sky, and saw….nothing! Just a big, cloudless, starry, perfect-for-northern-lights sky! The waiting began – and I scuttled straight back to the bus to defrost my toes and fingers!
It was probably around 9:30-10pm when some activity started. Firstly it could be seen just with the cameras and their long-exposure shots, but it wasn’t too long before the naked eye could see what looked like white, wavy lights across the sky. The lights moved around like ribbons waving in the wind, occasionally widening into curtains and going from white to pale green.
The cameras though were capturing stunning green streaks across the sky and once again the disappointment of not having my camera hit me. Simon and I both availed ourselves of the service offered by our tour of a professional photographer taking our photos. As the shots need a long exposure to get the lovely green colours, we had to stand perfectly still for a few seconds, which with my shivering, was almost impossible.
Around midnight we started the trip back to Tromsø, but it was punctuated with an impromptu stop as the lights flared up again with some brilliant green, even to the naked eye. We were on the wrong side of the bus, to see it all, and by the time the driver stopped it had become more dull again. It was now showing minus 12 as the temperature and I was starting to think my fingers and toes would never stop hurting, so I was quickly back in the bus.
We got back into town after 1am and I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. Not in the lights though, but in my lack of camera to capture the amazing show, and my lack of resilience in the cold with most of my time spent in the bus.
As we made our way to the airport for our flight out, the brilliant blue skies and the deeper blue sea contrasted with the snow, taking my breath away every time I turned my head. It will absolutely be no chore to return to this stunning place, to not only explore some of the places we didn’t get to, but to finally take those amazing northern lights photos I dreamed of.
I don’t think it will be a surprise to hear that I really like Norway! I just need some kind of portable bubble to walk around it that stays a constant 25 degrees inside and I will be happy.
Nothing in Norway is cheap! While there are ways to help minimise costs, I suggest coming here with plenty of money and splashing out on some of the amazing activities on offer.
Wifi was readily available in all airports, attractions and restaurants. It was reliable and quick – even in the airport. I had planned to pick up a SIM card, but didn’t bother in the end.
Tromsø seemed very well set up with public transport. It’s definitely a viable budget method of getting around. They do have daily or weekly tickets available too.
Oh, and I’m sure you are all wondering how we went on the ice? I’m happy to report that while there were some close calls, we both stayed upright!
Vestregata 6, 9008 Tromsø, Norway
$1125NOK ($187AUD/$141USD) per night including breakfast
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.