An Arctic drive through Lapland - Scotland on Sunday travel

Navigating an icy bridge across a frozen river, Mazda Arctic Circle Drive.
Navigating an icy bridge across a frozen river, Mazda Arctic Circle Drive.
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Five hundred miles through frozen Norway, Finland and Sweden in a Maxda MX5

The less adventurous might have packed their bags and flown home.

If conditions are right you might see the Northern Lights in the polar night sky.

If conditions are right you might see the Northern Lights in the polar night sky.

It was early March and we were on a self-drive Arctic adventure, with all of the unexpected challenges associated with driving in freezing conditions within the Arctic Circle during the winter.

Our journey would take us 500 miles, from Honningsvåg in Norway’s northern wilderness, through Finnish Lapland and onwards to Luleå in Swedish Lapland.

This epic drive is beautiful, very twisty, quite technical and a huge amount of fun, but it is not for the unprepared.

Instead of a powerful 4x4, we were driving a brand new, updated 2.0 litre rear-wheel-drive Mazda MX-5 with shiny BBS alloy wheels. The MX-5 is fun to drive anywhere, but out of its comfort zone, on compacted snow and ice roads, it’s even more enjoyable. We were daring the elements to do their worst.

Honnigsvag harbour, in the town that is the starting point in Northern Norway for the Mazda Arctic Circle Drive. Picture: Lisa Young

Honnigsvag harbour, in the town that is the starting point in Northern Norway for the Mazda Arctic Circle Drive. Picture: Lisa Young

Our starting point was Honningsvåg in Finnmark County, which is Norway’s northernmost town. Built around a pretty fishing harbour, it has a population of 3,219 – at least until the cruise ships sail in, when it rises by hundreds. There are a few guest houses and hotels as well as a handful of bars, restaurants and shops.

Nearby is Nordkapp (North Cape), arguably the northernmost point of continental Europe. In fact, Nordkapp is on an island called Magerøya, so the title holder is really Knivskjelodden, a short snowshoe trek away. However, Knivskjelodden is less attractive, harder to reach and, let’s face it, practically unpronounceable.

Surrounded by the pounding Barents Sea, Nordkapp is home to hundreds of nesting razorbills, storm petrels, auks, gannets and puffins. Whales, porpoises and dolphins are often seen close inshore too.

From Oslo Airport, a Dash 8 prop plane had transported us two hours and fifteen minutes directly north. When Nordkapp came into view it was hard to believe there was a road somewhere down there. However there is, and thousands of drivers use it during the summer months of endless daylight, when the biggest risk is a flat tyre.

On clear nights the sunset lights up the frozen lakes and rivers.

On clear nights the sunset lights up the frozen lakes and rivers.

But winter is very different. With the Arctic Circle draped in its white winter cloak the weather plays tricks on you every chance it has.

Mental endurance, good driving skills and functioning shock absorbers are required. Driving on snow and ice takes complete concentration.

The route snakes its way through stunted foliage in an otherwise empty land, with frozen lakes and rivers. You might see an Arctic fox, a grey wolf, a brown bear or perhaps a ferocious, stealthy wolverine (the animal, not Hugh Jackman). There are also moose on the loose; in some regions, they account for up to a quarter of traffic accidents.

If the conditions are right you might see the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, in the polar night sky.

We had planned a 6am departure 
from Honningsvåg’s Scandic Bryggen Hotel but a few miles out of town an avalanche had fallen across the road overnight blocking our only route out, so we waited for it to be cleared and at 9.30am joined a snowplough-led convoy of vehicles across the remains of the landslide, and then we were on our way south.

Hugging Honningsvåg’s coastline we passed rugged beaches with waves crashing against the roadside, small fishing towns and rustic houses with fish drying on racks outside.

Early morning cloud made way for a piercing sunny blue sky and we put the Mazda’s roof down. Rugged up with gloves, hats and Helly Hansen down coats, enjoying our seat warmers and heater, we didn’t notice the –20 degree chill.

Our route took us southwest towards Alta, along the E45 into Finnish Lapland, and on to Luleå in Swedish Lapland, where we could positively barrel along when we got the chance. We drove through endless stretches of beautiful, expansive, unforgiving, treeless space that’s been defined by extreme weather.

Amenities are limited on the road, but there are enough fuel stations to keep the car going, with coffee, pies, hotdogs and burgers to keep the humans going too.

We shared the driving between two. Changing drivers was comical as the road was so slippery we could barely stand. We’d get out of the car, slip-slide around to the front, grab each other, waltz around, then skate around to the sides of the car and tumble back in.

When stopping to refuel, we felt like rock stars; locals took photos of our right-hand-drive MX-5 with its roof down and us clad in black with cold pink faces.

It can be very, very cold – down to –30 degrees or less – so one needs to be prepared. Carrying survival blankets, a shovel and other breakdown gear is essential and you know always to stay with the car and keep warm if you have a problem.

We slowed down when trucks and snowploughs passed because a huge plume comes off them, causing a blinding blizzard.

The little MX-5’s studded winter tyres gripped the ice roads like a hawk’s claws clutching prey and the one-tonne car rarely slid. I never doubted that we’d make it. It was so much fun to drive, especially with the top down, until we came upon a snowplough with a bored driver looking for entertainment. As I prepared to overtake the driver turned on his blower, causing a total white-out and filling our car with snow. Pulling alongside, I could see him laughing so hard he nearly fell off his seat.

Crossing into Sweden road signs look like someone has taken a load of vowels and thrown them at the signboard, the end result is like a Countdown conundrum.

We drove our last three hours in the dark, sharing the road with huge road trains which spray snow everywhere. It was a challenge, especially in our little car; our rear lights were covered in snow and had frozen up, so our headlights were our only visible sign.

At last we rolled into Luleå, alongside the metre-thick frozen water of the Gulf of Bothnia. The sea here freezes every winter and for three months turns into a giant rink for skating, dog sledding and walking. Ice roads are used to reach some of the mostly uninhabited 1,312 offshore islands. We checked into our hotel, the Elite Stadshotellet, where we celebrated our eventual safe arrival.

There are several ways to do this trip: drive all the way in your own car from the UK or rent a vehicle in Sweden, do it in one 8 to 12-hour hit in either direction, do it in sections, or as part of a ski tour, including resorts in Finnish Lapland such as Levi, Ylläs, Kuusamo and Salla. You can avoid bad weather days and spend nights in local B&Bs or winter resorts, travelling at a relaxed pace, with winter activities thrown in. But for us, the journey was more satisfying than reaching the goal. It is a must-drive epic journey, where “four seasons in one day” is an understatement.

FACTFILE

SAS Airlines to Oslo, Luleå or Honningsvåg
www.flysas.com
Scandic Bryggen, NO-9750 Honningsvåg
www.scandihotels.no
Elite Stadshotellet, Storgatan 15, 972 32 Luleå
www.eloite.se
Fuel prices at time of drive: approximately Kr16.76 (£1.55) petrol per litre, and Kr16.31 (£1.52) for diesel per litre