Legendary polar explorers, Sami culture and perhaps the world’s best place to see the northern lights – north Norway makes for the coolest winter break
Norway will be raising a glass to its national hero, polar explorer Roald Amundsen, throughout 2011: 100 years ago, on 14 December 1911, Amundsen reached the South Pole, becoming the first to reach the planet’s southernmost point. Celebrations kick off in January in Tromsø. Dubbed the gateway to the Arctic, Amundsen spent a lot of his time here, preparing for expeditions.
2011 is also prime time for the northern lights – 2012-2013 is the next solar maximum in their 11-year cycle. Tromsø is bang in the middle of the ‘aurora-belt’, and from 6pm to midnight you can watch the light show.
By day, peruse the city – start at the Polar Museum, to learn about the country’s expedition history (www.polarmuseum.no). Also, tick off the world’s ‘northernmosts’: Tromsø claims to be home to the most northerly botanical garden, brewery, university, mosque, Carmelite nunnery and Burger King.
In the afternoon, when the city’s bathed in magical light, admire the Arctic Cathedral before riding the cable car up Mt Storsteinen (421m) for a great view of Tromsø’s surrounding fjords and mountains.
Head to spellbinding Senja Island – the coastal route takes you past mountains carved with fjords. Stay in luxurious fishermen’s huts at Hamn where you can loll in a hot tub while looking up at the sky for those lights (www.hamnisenja.no).
You can also reach North Cape, mainland Europe’s northernmost point. Board the northbound Hurtigruten coastal voyage (www.hurtigruten.com) to reach 71° north, then travel through Finnmark, home of the Sami people (www.finnmark.com).
The Rica Ishavshotel has a bar with panoramic windows so you don’t miss the aurora borealis.
Or learn how to survive the Arctic night with Tromsø Wildlife Centre; in the morning they’ll cook you breakfast and take you dogsledding (www.villmarkssenter.no).
A three-hour direct flight from Gatwick costs from £53 one way (www.norwegian.com); flights from Edinburgh go via Oslo. SAS has daily direct flights from Heathrow, four-weekly from Manchester (via Oslo).