Norway: Return ticket to the Arctic Circle

Nothern Lights and Reine, Lofoten Islands, Norway

Nothern Lights and Reine, Lofoten Islands, Norway

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You know what they say about Norway?” asks our RIB driver. “It’s Scotland on steroids.” He presses the throttle forward, and one of the girls at the front of the boat gives an excited screech as the bow lifts up and the sea turns white behind us.

We’re well inside the Arctic Circle, heading out from Bodo. In these days of low oil prices, Bodo is the new heartbeat of the Norwegian economy, centre of a massive fishing industry and the world’s biggest salmon farms, worth 15 per cent of the GDP. In a city of 50,000 it has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe. Norwegians tend not to boast about things like that – when you’re one of the world’s richest countries, with a sovereign wealth fund that effectively means each citizen is worth £100,000, you don’t need to.

But if, thanks to a prudently invested oil income, the economy is a massively bulked-up version of Scotland’s, so too is the landscape. In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a planet designer singles out his prize-winning work creating Norway’s coast (“lovely, crinkly edges”). He would presumably have been almost as proud of the sea lochs of Scotland’s west coast, but the fjords of west Norway are in a league of their own. Even up here in Bodo, where one of the world’s most northerly train journeys ends, the coastline is still dramatic enough, the horizon serrated with bare, jagged mountains rearing up from a scattering of rocky islands and knuckly peninsulas.

Our RIB is taking us to the world’s strongest maelstrom, at Saltstraumen, just down the coast, between two fjords. It’s fun to bounce about on a small boat, and it also propels shoals of surprised fish to the surface, which is good news for the waiting sea eagles. We spot one in a tree and zoom up alongside. It flies off, with a lazy shrug of its massive wings. The sea eagles reintroduced to Scotland 20 years ago came from here.

Look north and across the sea there’s what Norwegians call the Lofoten Wall (think Outer Hebrides, but wilder), an archipelago where the mountains come in even crazier wind-sculpted shapes, and in whose seas cod have come south from the Arctic to spawn since the Ice Age. And it’s the Lofoten cod that lured the Vikings, that brought – along with the herring in the mid-19th century – northern Norway’s only riches before the 1960s. Then the roads got built and the railway north from Trondheim finally got finished and the Nordland region stopped being as poor as Albania and became its 21st century steroid self.

The 450-mile train journey to Bodo from Trondheim takes ten hours, but it lives up to its billing as one of the world’s most spectacular, with the scenery varying enormously as it rolls north. The countryside in Trondelag, with its rolling meadows uninterrupted by walls or hedgerows, resembles a northern Tuscany, then the mountains begin and the tundra starts. A toot on the horn and a stop for the tourists to take pictures of a nondescript monument announcing that we’re crossing the Arctic Circle, and it’s down again to the fjords, the sea and Bodo.

Everyone will tell you that Norway is ridiculously expensive, and up to a point they’re right. You reach that point pretty quickly if you’ve got a taste for craft beer (£13 a bottle, though a pint in a bar might be £10) and only eat in restaurants, although travel and accommodation are a lot more reasonable. The most reliable statistic is the one the Norwegian tourist authorities use to calculate how much the average foreign tourist (53.8 years old) spends per day: £205, or £1,768 per stay. So yes, it’s not Benidorm bargain-basement, but here’s another key stat: 48 per cent of foreign tourists are repeat visitors. They can’t wait to go back.

I’m one of them. Because I’ve still never seen Geirangerfjord, or walked on one of the pilgrims’ paths across country to Trondheim’s amazing 12th century cathedral – along with Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem, one of the four key pilgrimage sites in Christendom. I’ve never slept on reindeer skins in the Namskogen national park and woken up to the sound of howling wolves. I’ve still not cycled on the Lofoten archipelago. I’d love to do all these things if for no other reason than everything about our train journey to Bodo – with overnight stop-offs at the nation-defining battle site of Stiklestad, Inderoy, and Mosjoen – was either culturally fascinating or impossibly scenic and sometimes both. And maybe I’m lucky, but I haven’t yet met a snooty, snitty, creepy or crawlingly subservient Norwegian.

On our last night, at Restaurant Nyt in Bodo, the seven-course tasting menu was one of the best meals I’ve had in my life. As we finished up, a friend said that his iPhone was telling him there was a good chance we could see the Northern Lights. The night sky was cloudless, and up at Tromso, they could see them already.

We went to Bodo’s only 17th floor bar, and looked north, away from the city lights to the darkness above the mountains. At first there was nothing, then, just when I was beginning to think I was hallucinating about seeing a moving white mist, it turned green and hung in the sky like blowing, luminous washing.

It’s all to do with solar wind pumped out of the sun eight minutes ago. Without the Earth’s magnetic poles holding on to it, our planet’s atmosphere would have been blasted away, leaving it just like Mars. Those lights, dancing above my head, in the upper atmosphere, are charged particles from the sun releasing energy as they meet the Earth’s magnetic shield. In a sense, they’re a sign our planet is fighting back.

So if you go to Bodo, see the Northern Lights, and the next morning board an RIB and head to the world’s strongest whirlpool, I’ll understand if you’re a little bit quieter. Because of everything you saw last night, everything you’ll see today – porpoises, whales, trees, jellyfish, sea eagles, tourists, Norway’s crinkly coast, the clean air and the northern light that lets you see further than ever – will still be around tomorrow.

FACT BOX

Norwegian flies from Edinburgh to Trondheim via Copenhagen or Oslo from £144.80 return. See www.norwegian.com/uk or phone 0330 8280854. Tickets for the Nordland Railway to Bodo cost from £23 per person booked in advance from www.nsb.no, although the Interrail One-Country Pass (from 131 Euros, see www.interrail.eu) is also worth considering. Further Norwegian holiday ideas found on www.visitnorway.com,www.trondelag.com and www.northernnorway.com

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