During our trip to Tromsø, in early September 2018, one of the places I was keen to visit was the Polar Museum in Tromsø, Norway.
Fresh from having binge-watched the Netflix series, The Terror, a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in 1845–1848, and my interest in Polar exploration whetted, I was eager to learn more about Arctic explorers.
Located in former Customs House on the quayside – a stone’s throw from our Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With – and dating from 1830, the polar museum in Tromsø is all about Arctic exploration and trapping.
As the centre of seal hunting in North Norway in the late 1800s, Tromsø was the “Gateway to the Arctic” and an important base for many polar expeditions.
Near the museum is a statue of Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian polar explorer who led the Antarctic expedition of 1910–12, which was the first to reach the South Pole, on 14 December 1911.
He was an important person during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration and the first person to reach both poles. He also led the first expedition to traverse the Northwest Passage (1903–06) in the Arctic.
The museum is a shrine to these courageous men and women and the ships and equipment that were essential for life both on the sea and in the Arctic.
From the remarkably life-like exhibits, which ranged from macabre to fascinating, it is obvious that life as an Arctic explorer or trapper was hard and that they must have been used to great risk, hardship, deprivation and exposure to extreme conditions.
Some of the subjects of the exhibitions included:
Overwintering in the Arctic – The trapper Henry Rudi who killed 713 polar bears
The first woman to winter in the Arctic – Wanny Woldstad
Seal hunting in the Arctic Ocean
Fridtjof Nansen’s and Roald Amundsen lives and expeditions
Helmer Hansen and Hjalmar Johansen who accompanied Amundsen to the South Pole
Svalbard, Willhelm Barentz’ discovery of the region in the 1500s, whaling in the 1600-1700s and Russian overwintering
Temporary exhibitions with Arctic content
I feel obliged to include a trigger warning for animal-lovers. Some of the exhibits of animal trapping and seal hunting were downright distressing.
Here’s a photo-essay of some of the exhibits I found most fascinating.
Many of the exhibits are not labeled in English so it was hard to figure out what they represented.
These, of course, showcase some objects used by explorers.
This exhibit contains British and Dutch graves that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
This dog accompanied Roald Amundsen at the Gjoa-expedition, the first navigation through the Northwest passage in 1903-1906.
Objects that belonged to Norwegian trapper and polar bear hunter, Henry Rudi, who was born in Tromsø.
We didn’t actually end up spending a lot of time inside the museum because the thermostat was set so high, we found it uncomfortably warm in all the layers of clothes we were wearing.
But if you like history and creepy stuff, visiting the Polar Museum in Tromsø is one of the things you might enjoy doing.
In the novel, The Drifters, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James A. Michener, the second chapter is about the flaxen-haired Britta Bjørndahl, an 18-year-old girl from Tromsø, Norway.
After finishing school, she finds a job in an office at the docks, but eventually becomes curious about the world beyond Tromsø, and goes to vacation in Torremolinos, Spain for fifteen days.
The novel follows six young characters from diverse backgrounds and various countries as their paths meet and they travel together through parts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mozambique.
When I read it a few years ago, I was as enchanted with Britta’s tales of her childhood in Tromsø, as the fictional narrator of the book, George Fairbanks.
An extract from the book reads:
Britta Bjørndahl was born more than two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle on the island of Tromsø. During World War II her father had been a notable patriot.
For three perilous years, he had resisted the German occupation, hiding out along the fjords and in the mountains to send wireless signals to London or flashlight codes to British ships as they hovered off the Norwegian coast.
At the end of the war four nations decorated him, and in the summer of 1957, the entire crew of a British destroyer flew to Tromsø to relive with him the excitement of those gallant days.
As a huge WWII history buff, I was especially fascinated with the description of the sinking of the great German battleship, Tirpitz, that would “sneak into Tromsø harbor… and hide from Allied airplanes until it was time to rush out and destroy all Allied ships.”
With the sinking of the Tirpitz in the fjords near Tromsø, Hitler lost the last influential ship of his surface battle fleet and this marked the end of Germany’s naval war in northern waters.
After the war, a Norwegian-German salvage operation recovered the remains of the great battleship, but you can see the wreck of the ‘Tirpitz’, in the waters of Tromsø Fjord, Norway, as it was in 1945 in the photo below.
When I was planning my Northern Lights bucket list tour, this is why I chose to do it from Tromsø, Norway. My fascination with the fictional young Britta’s stories, and the fact that Tromsø lies within the Northern Lights Oval made me decide that Tromsø was the place to go.
One of the places in Tromsø that I was keen to visit was the Tromsø War Museum (Tromsø Forsvarsmuseum) where the cannons of a Nazi coastal artillery battery and a restored command bunker lie.
According to the Lonely Planet, “the Tromsø War Museum also tells of the giant German battleship Tirpitz, sunk near the town on 12 November 1944, and the Nazi army’s retreat from Leningrad, when many of its 120,000 troops were evacuated by ship from Tromsø.”
The Tromsø War Museum is open on Sundays in May and September, and every day except Mondays and Tuesdays from June through August.
But on the three days that we were to visit Tromsø, the Museum was closed. Unwilling to give up on my chance to see it, I wrote to the Tromsø tourism board and they gave me the contact of the museum’s caretaker, Leif.
So I emailed Leif and asked him if I could visit the museum as I wanted to write about it. He offered to give me a private tour. Unfortunately, when I emailed him before we left, I didn’t hear back from him, so we had to skip our tour of the Tromsø War Museum.
Our Tromsø Hotel, The Clarion Collection Hotel With
It was a long, tiring journey from Pune, India, to Tromsø in Norway, in early September 2018. When we touched down in Oslo, the temperature was in the high 20s and we wondered where the Arctic chill had gone.
We reached Tromsø on a rainy evening, jet-lagged and exhausted, and checked into our charming Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With, which was right on the waterfront.
The weather was a bracing 8 to 12 degrees C, so despite our exhaustion, we decided to explore the waterfront and get our bearings in this new country.
Thanks to the lovely weather, we managed to spend a lot of time outdoors, watching the boats come in and seagulls beg for scraps in the Storgata square.
The Clarion Collection Hotel With was a fantastic choice for us. It was slightly more expensive than some of the other hotels I had considered, but it more than made up for it in terms of location and food.
The best part was that we spent absolutely nothing on our meals. Norway is an expensive place, and if we’d had to pay for our meals, it would have cost us a pretty penny.
However, at the Clarion Collection Hotel With, not only was breakfast covered, but there were free waffles in the afternoon and coffee available anytime.
To our delight – and this is the best part – we found that dinner was also on the house and it was always a delicious buffet with a fish or chicken main course. I felt like we’d died and gone to heaven!
In the afternoons, we had to make our own waffles in the waffle iron, but the hotel provided the dough and toppings.
While we were waiting for the waffle iron to heat up, an American lady came up and stood by me. She asked me if I knew how to make waffles.
Only half-joking, I said I watch MasterChef. She found that quite funny and proceeded to tell us how they saw the Northern Lights a lot in Alaska, where she lived.
Arun and I enjoyed the three autumn nights we spent at our beautiful and comfortable hotel on the waterfront.
The staff was pleasant and friendly and the hotel was very close to the Storgata (the main street) and within easy access of everything you could possibly need.
“Ahoy Matey,” I called out as I took the steering on The Golden Eagle, the yacht we boarded in central Tromsø, just a short walk from our Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With.
I would have added a more piratey “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” if I wasn’t so busy watching the horizon, hoping I wouldn’t ram us into another boat. Luckily for us all, my stint as skipper was brief and I was relieved when Tobias took the wheel again.
We were on our fjord sailing excursion from Tromsø, and I was enjoying the splendid view and the breeze hitting my face as I kept warm in my thermo suit.
When I was planning our trip to Norway, researching what to do in and around Tromsø in September, I realised that it was the perfect time for a Norwegian fjord sailing excursion.
The weather was great (between 8 and 16 degrees C), the days are not too short, and the fall colours are lovely. Sailing the fjords of Norway was one of the Tromsø excursions on my bucket list, so it was a no-brainer.
I booked our fjord excursion in Tromsø with a tour operator called Pukka Travels, that sails in the fjords 364 days a year.
After a quick breakfast at 8 am, we met the three crew members, Tobias, Nick and Jonas (I kid you not!), near their lovely little yacht parked in the Tromsø harbour alongside the Scandic Ishavshotel.
Luckily for us, early September is the lean season in Norway, so we were the only people on the excursion and got their full attention.
Tobias gave us a rundown of all the safety measures to be followed and what to do in the unlikely event that the boat sank. He offered us the thermo suits because the wind chill was brutal, despite the pleasant weather. I gladly took one.
As we set sail along the harbour, Jonas told us about the mountain peaks up ahead and about the stone-age settlements that were found there.
They also pointed out some prehistoric stone carvings on the distant shore as we sailed through the fjord.
Tobias informed us that we needed to catch some fish so they could make fish soup for lunch, or else we’d have to settle for a vegetarian soup. I don’t like to fish, but Arun was game, so Tobias gave him a quick lesson with the fishing rod.
Arun managed to get a couple of nibbles, but they got away.
Tobias caught a little fish which he let go since they’re not supposed to catch small fry. He finally managed to snag a decent-sized one for our lunch and proceeded to gut it in a bucket.
While the crew cooked our meal, Arun and I sat at the bow of our fjord sailing boat, taking photos and enjoying the journey.
Soon our lunch was ready, and the crew called us down into the dining room where they served us a piping hot fish soup, accompanied with some bread.
The fish soup was delicious and very filling, and we downed it with the bread pretty quickly. After the soup, they offered us a choice of a number of teas or coffee.
We chose the coffee and sat around the table exchanging travel stories and enjoying a few laughs. Nick happened to be an expat from Australia who moved to Norway with his wife, so we found his experiences quite unique and interesting.
Our Tromsø fjord excursion lasted around 3 hours and, although we didn’t spot any wildlife (it was too early in the year for whale-watching), we had a very enjoyable time, thanks to the amiable and funny crew of The Golden Eagle.
“How do you sleep during the Midnight Sun?” I asked GuideGunnar.
“I close my eyes,” he said, tongue-in-cheek, eliciting a laugh from us as we waited for the Northern Lights to appear at Rekvikeidet, a chilly, open plateau near Tromvik.
Arun and I shivered in the icy winds, looking to the heavens for a glimpse of the elusive Lady Aurora until I decided to stop torturing myself and put on one of the thermo suits that GuideGunnar had offered us. Arun took one too, and we both felt much more comfortable.
It was after 10 pm on the 5th of September 2018, and the long days and short nights of autumn meant we had to leave an hour later than usual on our Tromsø Aurora chase.
The Northern Lights Tromsø tour left from Guides Central, which turned out to be just behind our Tromsø hotel, the Clarion Collection Hotel With.
We were expected to report at 7.45 pm, so we left just a few minutes before that and climbed up the stairs of the two-storey building to where GuideGunnar was waiting.
He welcomed us and told us that one other couple would be accompanying us, so there’d be just four of us tourists on his small Northern Lights group tour from Tromsø.
The young Chinese couple who came in turned out to be from Hong Kong. They didn’t speak much, except to giggle and whisper to each other during the tour.
I was very curious to learn more, so I paid close attention when GuideGunnar told us what to expect on our Northern Lights Tromsø bus tour.
He explained that depending on the weather and if the clouds came in, we may have to drive for hours, and even cross the border into Finland, if necessary.
He also told us a bit about the history of Tromsø, which played a big role in World War II (more on that in another blog) and was generous in sharing his in-depth, local knowledge.
We told him about our upcoming trip to Lyngen North, and he said he knew Ola, and that his grandfather would probably be able to tell us more about the war since the Germans had built the Spåkenes kystfort in the area.
Because it was still early and quite bright, Gunnar took us first to a spot where some wild reindeer had been spotted, and we could see them grazing from afar.
When I asked him which supermarket was the best place to pick up provisions, he recommended the Eide Handel in Eidkjosen, where you can get the best quality produce. He even took a detour to Eidkjosen so we could pick up some stuff.
Since we didn’t want to be lugging big bags around on our Northern Lights chase from Tromsø, we didn’t pick up any provisions. Instead, Arun picked up some premium tobacco called Snus. Gunnar found this very funny, considering that the supermarket had some of the best produce available.
Our next stop was a scenic spot called Henrikvika by Kaldfjord, where we stopped to take photos of the beautiful bay at twilight.
After that, we made a stop at the fishing village of Ersfjordbotn, and enjoyed the sunset while Gunnar chatted with a fisherman.
Next, we drove to the top of a hill at Grøtfjord, where we waited by the side of the road wearing the luminous, reflective wristbands that Gunnar had given us for night safety.
We spent quite a while here, watching for the Aurora borealis and enjoying the fabulous view of the bay and the long sunset until Gunnar decided that it wasn’t happening and decided to take us to another location.
This involved a drive on some roads that seemed a bit unfinished, to an open and windy plateau where we would have the best chance of spotting the lights.
Here, GuideGunnar provided us with tripods, helped us set up the cameras and gave us an impromptu lesson in Northern Lights photography. He set the camera to manual, increased the exposure time and set the ISO to 800, telling us to change it as needed.
Since I had no experience with night photography, his guidance proved invaluable as darkness fell and the first wispy threads of the Aurora made their appearance on the horizon.
The Aurora borealis, when it is weak (GuideGunnar rated that night’s Aurora activity as 2/10) looks like translucent clouds with little to no colour to the naked eye. It’s only when photographed through the DSLR that the greens and purples appear.
Once I got comfortable with adjusting the camera settings to capture more light, I got much better photos.
I even tried my hand at some Milky Way photography when the Aurora took a break. It didn’t turn out too bad, even if I say so myself. 🙂
GuideGunnar set up a campfire for us and served us a delicious snack called Skattøra Lefse – Arctic Norway’s traditional and locally made pastry with cream and sweet goat cheese.
Since I’d taken a liking to the Norwegian brown cheese or Brunost, I enjoyed it thoroughly. He also served some hot blackcurrant jus, which was very welcome on that chilly night.
As we sat around the campfire in our thermo suits, Arun and I lay back in the grass and watched satellites drift slowly across the sky. With no light pollution, we could see them clearly. It was a rare sight for city folks like us.
Gunnar decided that we should wait till 1 am to see if the lights returned. Arun and I were still jet-lagged and exhausted by this time, and we had a Fjord sailing excursion planned the next morning, so we rested in the bus till it was time to go back.
According to GuideGunnar’s Aurora blog, we covered 120 kilometres and spent 6.5 hours on our Northern Lights chase from Tromsø. It was our first excursion in Norway and a very enjoyable one.
GuideGunnar was the perfect tour guide and his photography tips served me well when we stayed at Lyngen North. He also happens to be a local TV star of the Chasing the Northern lights TV series.
Tips for your Northern Lights Chase in Tromsø with GuideGunnar:
The best time to see the Northern Lights is from early September to early April. North of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not rise above the horizon during the middle of winter (from around mid-November to mid-January). This is called the Polar Night.
The Northern Lights are visible when darkness falls so you can see them from mid-August. The tour guides begin their Aurora chases from the beginning of September. However, when I tried to book an Aurora chase for my dates (5th and 6th September), GuideGunnar was one of the few tour operators in Tromsø willing to take small groups on a tour before the 15th. That’s dedication!
You can download the My Aurora Forecast app to see how likely you are to see the Aurora borealis and find out about solar wind activity (which is what causes the Northern Lights). However, no one can guarantee that you’ll see them. It takes a combination of good weather and solar wind activity to have a good chance of seeing them. Oh, and a good Aurora guide and a healthy dose of luck, too!
The Northern Lights are most likely to shine often and strongest between 8 pm and 2 am, but it’s also possible to see them before and after this period.
The nights can get pretty cold, even in early September, and when you’re chasing the Northern Lights outside Tromsø, the wind chill can get quite uncomfortable. Wear 2 to 3 layers of clothing when you go on a chase and if you’re freezing, don’t try to be brave and ride it out. Put on a thermo suit and stay warm, even if it looks a bit ridiculous.
GuideGunnar will show you a movie or two about the Northern Lights while he’s driving you in his bus. Soak it all in, including the fascinating science behind them and the strange beliefs and superstitions that people had about the lights in days gone by.
For Northern Lights photography, you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera. A mobile phone won’t cut it, no matter how good it is, as you need long exposures (some of mine were 30 seconds long). Guide Gunnar will provide the tripod so you don’t need to carry one. Follow his guidance on taking Aurora photos as he’s an expert on it.
The Northern lights danced above our heads, cascading across the clear autumn sky in an explosion of green and purple.
As they raced in an arc across the heavens, the lights waxed and waned, and I gave up trying to use a tripod in my effort to catch something of them before they completely vanished.
The amazing performance lasted about 30 minutes before it faded to a few lights glimmering on the horizon. It was our third and last night at Lyngen North and the most spectacular one by far.
We had journeyed to Norway from India in early September 2018 – a bit too early to see the Northern Lights, some would say – and we’d travelled around 200 kilometres north from Tromsø to enjoy the Aurora borealis from the unique vantage point of a glass igloo.
Ola Berg, whose family has lived for three generations at Lyngen North, picked us up from Tromsø in his Tesla Model X, and drove us to Spåkenesveien in Rotsund, where he settled us into our glass igloo at the shore of the Lyngenfjord.
Contrary to my expectations (early September isn’t the optimum season for Northern Lights), we saw the lights on 4 out of our 6 nights in Norway, despite the long days and short nights of autumn.
On our first night at Lyngen North, the sky was clear and we saw them dance above our heads from our little wooden bench on the shore of the Lyngen fjord.
We were thrilled when we saw a shooting star streak past the lights and I managed to catch it on camera.
The second morning, we awoke to a thick fog that enveloped our glass igloo in its wet embrace, leaving droplets of condensation inside my camera lens and concealing the peaks of the Lyngen Alps across the fjord.
The Northern Lights still shone from behind the fog that night, giving it a spooky and eerie glow that would not look out of place in a Stephen King movie.
On the third morning, too, we woke to a thin fog that dispersed quickly as the day progressed, but not without leaving us a magical fogbow that left us marvelling at Mother Nature’s generosity.
Sometimes called a white rainbow, a fogbow is similar to a rainbow. However, as its name suggests, it appears as a bow in fog rather than rain.
Because of the very small size of water droplets that cause fog, the fogbow has only very weak colours, with a red outer edge and bluish inner edge.
The Glass Igloo Experience at Lyngen North
A year back, when I was planning my bucket-list trip to see the Northern Lights, I decided to go via Tromsø (for reasons I explain here).
I’d read about something similar at the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finland, but the glass igloos there cost three times as much as the ones at Lyngen North. At both resorts, they tend to get sold out pretty quickly.
The glass igloos at Lyngen North are self-contained studio apartments outfitted with a kitchen with stovetop, refrigerator and electric kettle.
They also have heated floors, private bathrooms with tinted glasses for privacy, free high-speed WiFi and private parking. The bed is ultra comfortable and has a slightly oversized mattress.
As of now, the property doesn‘t feature a restaurant, but the owners were in the process of laying down the foundations for one when we were there, and Ola hopes to have it running by December 2018.
The kitchen cabinets have crockery, cutlery, coffee cups, wine glasses, salt, pepper, sugar and a few spices. But, for now, you have to carry provisions and cook your own food. Ola stopped at a REMA 1000 supermarket on the way to let us pick up groceries.
Since I don’t have much faith in my cooking skills, we mostly picked up canned food, and stuff we could use to rustle up a quick meal.
If you stay in the glass igloos in the summer (for the Midnight Sun experience) you might have trouble sleeping at night because of sunlight streaming in from the top.
We went in early autumn and the short night (most of which we spent staying up to watch the lights) made it difficult to get a sound sleep since the sun rose pretty early.
The glass igloos also act as greenhouses, trapping heat inside, which makes the afternoons quite warm. Since igloos are, for the most part, designed to keep the wind out, very little wind enters the room even if you keep the door open, which we did most of the day.
But there’s an air-conditioner to keep you cool during the warm afternoons and who wants to spend all day inside anyway, when you can sit by the shore and enjoy the breeze and the spectacular views of the Lyngenfjord and the Lyngen Alps.
Since the temperature was a very bracing 10-12 degrees C in the day, we were quite comfortable sitting outside. The nights, however, got much colder and I needed 3 layers to stay warm when I was out watching the Northern Lights.
The property also features a hot bath under the stars that you can climb into when it gets too cold. We chose not to use it because of the potential for chlorine allergies.
Activities at Lyngen North
Lyngen North is located in a remote peninsula of Norway. If you’re lucky, you may get to see moose or elk, foxes and rabbits in the nearby woods and fields.
Birdwatchers will find quite a few species to spot, from noisy seagulls squawking in the distance to ducks and many more species of birds that we couldn’t identify.
Depending on the time of year you visit, there are quite a few outdoor adventure activities you can enjoy, including snowshoeing, skiing, fishing, and visiting the Reisa national park nearby.
The owners offer boats on hire to go boating and fishing on the fjord. Not being well-versed in the art of boating, we chose to opt-out of these activities.
Instead, being the history buff I am, I wanted to visit the ruins of an old German fort near the property. The Spåkenes kystfort (Spåkenes coastal fort) is a ruined coastal fortress built by the Germans during World War II, and it has quite a fascinating history.
The Spåkenes kystfort is on the Storbakken hill, the highest point of Spåkenes and consists of four bunker complexes, each of which included a gun, ammunition bunker, trench, and infantry bunker.
The work to build the bunkers began in 1941. After the Germans left, one of the bunkers suffered extensive damage in an explosion.
Unfortunately, the Storbakken hill was rather steep for me and I couldn’t climb it thanks to an old injury, so we weren’t able to see the fort with our own eyes. Arun, being half-German, was not impressed with German fort ruins and didn’t care to climb and explore it on his own.
However, the view from the coastal road leading from Lyngen North to the fort and beyond was so amazing, we took a long walk along it, admiring the homes along the cliffs and imagining what it would be like to live in one of them.
If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’ll find a kindred soul in one of Ola’s neighbours who seems to be quite vocal about his devotion to the football team.
If you don’t want to drive or can’t drive yourself to Lyngen North (we didn’t) contact Ola directly and ask if he can pick you up. Of course, you must pay for the pickup and drop, but Ola’s a very thoughtful and accommodating young man and he’ll do what he can to help you. As a bonus, you get to ride in his Tesla. 🙂
If like us, you don’t speak or understand Norwegian, you might find it hard to read the labels on groceries in the supermarket, as some of them are not translated into English. Ask for help from the person at the counter. When we couldn’t locate the butter, we asked the lady at the checkout counter and she helped us find it. Norwegians speak English so communicating is not a problem at all.
The sale of alcohol is restricted in Norway and it’s only available in certain stores. Ask a local for help to find a store that sells it. Ola took us via the AMFI Pyramiden on the mainland side of Tromsø city where we bought some wine and a bottle of Jagermeister.
To identify the mountain peaks in the Lyngen Alps and some on the way, Arun used the PeakLens app on Google Play. It helps you precisely identify mountain peaks and hills in real-time and works online and offline with pre-downloaded maps.
To know how likely you are to see the Northern Lights, you can download the My Aurora Forecast app. It tells you exactly how likely you are to see the Aurora borealis and offers information about solar wind activity and high-resolution sun imagery. However, your chance of seeing the lights depends largely on a combination of solar activity, good weather, and a healthy helping of luck.
If you want to stay in the glass igloo at Lyngen North, you’ll have to book months in advance, as they have only two and they tend to sell out very quickly. Contact Ola if you’re not sure about availability.
Finally, do spend at least 2 to 3 nights (if not more) at Lyngen North. No photos can capture the magnificent views of the fjord and Lyngen Alps, and Lyngen North is truly one of the best places to stay in Norway to see the Northern Lights.