Travel: Kirkenes Snow Hotel, Arctic Norway

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TIME for bed. I wore merino wool base layers, pyjamas, hat, muffler, balaclava and socks enhanced by heating pads. I was snuggled into a sleeping bag capable of withstanding temperatures of –30°C. I was still cold. Understandable, perhaps, as this was the Kirkenes Snow Hotel in Arctic Norway. Ron, my partner, and I flew for about two hours from Oslo to Kirkenes, an ice-free port inside the Arctic Circle, to stay in the Snow Hotel and then view the somewhat elusive, ethereal, mysterious aurora borealis – the northern lights.

Kirkenes is in Finnmark, the most northerly, easterly county in mainland Norway. Lying 15km from the Russian border, it's excellent for exploring Sami culture and, in contrast to the Snow Hotel, its delightful Rica Arctic Hotel, with sauna and pool, was toasty and welcoming. There, the snow was reassuringly on the outside, beyond our bedroom window, which boasted Christmas-card views towards the bandstand and Monument to the Mothers of the War beyond.

Filled with a feast of a breakfast that included Greenland halibut and herring with mountain cranberries, we eager Arctic explorers stretched ice grips on to boots and strode confidently uphill towards the Borderland Museum, exhilarated by the crisp, sunny day and crackling, sparkly snow. At the museum, our guide, Steinar, told us about Kirkenes's iron ore industry, which closed in 1991, only to be resurrected three years ago with the establishment of a new company.

We also learnt about the harsh Second World War bombing and fighting, the locals who smuggled bread to the 70 war camps now being rediscovered, and the fact that the town was almost destroyed – at the end of the war only 30 houses remained. We considered the Ilyushin IL-2M3, a Russian plane shot down and found in a nearby lake, which the museum was built to accommodate. But best were the Sami exhibits, including shoes stuffed with grass for warmth, and local artist John Savio's woodcuts. And an endemic, enormous pink king crab left a crawling impression. Conserving energy, we relaxed, waiting for our 6pm coach to the Snow Hotel.

It was about –12°C when we trod softly up to the blue wooden doors of an igloo-like building and entered a dream-like, magical world. Assembling at the ice-bar, we were welcomed with shots of crowberry juice, as fur-hatted Kare, the owner, told 44 of us how to survive our –4°C rooms. “Lie on the sleeping bag, shoes on the floor. Best is naked or as little clothes as you can.” With no toilets in the Snow Hotel, we weren't reassured as he added, “When nature knocks, don't think it's too cold. At 3am, you start to quarrel with nature. It's 50m – move fast. You have to take care of yourself and your comrade.”

But before our icy overnight ordeal, there was dinner and a coach trip to catch a view of the northern lights. In the wooden, circular Gabba restaurant, we enjoyed a scrumptious meal cooked on its central fire. Guests took reindeer sausages speared on sharpened branches, roasted them in the fire and lifted them over silver-foiled potatoes. We savoured cod and salmon, as a rectangle of ice-cream was defrosted by the fire, to be plated with hot berries.

Then, with excited anticipation, I donned a blue snowsuit and we set off on a coach to Storfjell, searching for the unpredictable northern lights. Anne, our guide, sang a Sami joik to the sky, urging a sighting, but it was rewarded instead with a crescent moon and a wraparound of thousands of stars. No northern lights, but Orion thrilled us.

We moved on towards the Russian border and Pasvik valley, famous for berries, farming, fishing, and home to 60 brown bears – one of which previously strayed to Kirkenes airport. But still no lights.

It was on our return to Storefjell when we were finally rewarded. A pale curve. A gradual change. A spout. Dancing. One like a firework. A flicker of rectangles, like an address bar loading on the internet. Slowly, gently wowing us. I got excited in my stomach.

“Are you happy?' asked our guide.

We were ... but we wanted more, so decided to head out the following night before going back to the Snow Hotel, where we crunched towards the two corridors of individually themed rooms created by Chinese sculptors. Ten of the rooms have an explorer theme, such as Scott, Amundsen and Barents, and 12 are rock ’n’ roll inspired.

Blue-lit room 15 was ours. A carved, celestial angel hovered on the wall above our beds. Earlier, Kare had told me how his grandmother gave him an angel picture to put beside his bed, to ensure the right belief. So good vibes, then.

However angelic the room was, though, it was tough to dispense with outer clothes. But needs must. I pyjama'd at mega speed, adjusted my ice-crystallised cushion and buried myself in the cocoon sleeping bag. Forgetting instructions to move briskly to generate heat, I curled foetally, cherished my heat pad and slept ... finally.

Unlike Ron, who in the morning boasted of how he had braved both the Arctic night and dawn, speeding to the toilet building.

Defrosting in the welcome morning sunshine, we fed moss to Rudolf and friend at Gabba Reindeer Park, then our guide introduced us to some of the 89 huskies. Beauty sang to her, before leaning on me with his strong, front legs. Trained to be sociable, they strain to be petted.

Later that day came our next aurora quest. Our first sighting was of a whitish arc, accompanied by shooting stars. Aaron, our driver, was dissatisfied with intrusive car headlights, so minibussed us to coastal Buholmen, a darker, peaceful place where we kept warm with duty-free Tia Maria beside the minibus.

The spectacle was all ours. To my naked eye, it was like a paint chart's ‘hint of green', but in a camera viewfinder there was that familiar, vivid green and Aaron spotted a touch of red. The milky arc gradually and gently expanded into an enormous tunnel shape dominating the sky.

It was worth every degree below zero to experience the Snow Hotel and the aurora borealis. Phenomenal.

Flights

Low-cost airline Norwegian (www.norwegian.com) flies direct from Edinburgh to Oslo with fares from £36 one way, including tax. Connections from Oslo to Kirkenes are available with Norwegian or SAS (www.flysas.co.uk), and start at £112 return including tax.

Accommodation

Rooms in Rica Arctic Hotel, Kirkenes (www.rica-hotels.com), start from NOK1,175 (£126.43), including breakfast.

Borderland Museum (www.kirkenesinfo.no), entry NOK50 (£5.38).

Rooms at Kirkenes Snow Hotel (kirkenessnowhotel.com), start from NOK2,350 (£252.86) a night. The Northern Light tour costs NOK500 (£53.80) per person, through the Snow Hotel. See www.northernnorway.com and www.visitnorway.co.uk. for more tourist information.