Tromso: Gateway to our Arctic adventures
Located over 200 miles from the Arctic circle, Tromso is a surprisingly vibrant city for such a remote location. This is arguably the most comfortable place to see the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. It is also a popular starting point for most polar expeditions.
We spent 5 days in Tromso during Thanksgiving, chasing the Northern Lights and soaking in the arctic splendor.
For two months, between November and January, the sun remains below the horizon and the daylight is well… little. This time is also called morkitiden, “the dark time”. The idea of traveling with 2 small kids to a place with unabating darkness and sub-zero weather may seem unexciting initially but it worked well for us. There is, however, something magical about a place where the sun never rises and the lights dance in the sky!
All houses and shops are lit up with tons of candles and it feels like a forever sunrise time. It is not as cold as you may think. The mild waters of the Gulf Stream give northern Norway the mildest climate on earth at this latitude. There are multiple activities to engage the kids and even though my kids are very young, aged 6 and 3, they would love to go back.
November also marks the beginning of the party season in Tromso. Most places are alive and bustling after 10 pm in the night. The main street is called Storgata and is lined with quaint shops and many salons.
The Aurora Chase
Northern Lights occur throughout the year and at all times of the day but are visible only when it is really dark and clear. So, you have to plan a visit in the darkest time of the year, and for viewing them, you need to step away from city lights.
Think of the Aurora (Borealis) as a bashful child. She may show up with all her energy or may decide to hide. Whatever said, she is a natural!
We decided to sign up for multiple activities and plan for at least two Northern lights chases. It served us well as on our first chase, the wind was so strong that it was pushing buses off the road, and the tour had to be canceled.
Most tour operators, have an English speaking guide on board the bus that takes you on the Northern Lights chase. The tours typically begin around 9 pm and last for 3-4 hours at least, so be sure to sleep in that day and be ready for the night. The tours take you to the outskirts where there are vast open areas and unrestricted views of the sky.
On our second chase, we got lucky and saw a spectacular show that lasted 30-35 minutes where the whole sky lit up. At most times, clear dark green streaks were easily visible. The lights can pick up colors from green to pink or purple depending on the atmospheric gases. While the whole world around you seems to be scrambling to take pictures of this wondrous phenomenon, my suggestion would be to soak in the magic for a bit and then take snaps.
The lights are also visible at Fjellheisen in the night. It is a short 10-min ride away on the local bus and takes you to the Tromso Gondola point. Apart from offering the best views of the city, the summit also offers the occasional view of the Northern Lights.
The tours can be booked through your hotel or Tromso Villmarkssenter.
Northern Lights photography
The Northern Lights need professional cameras to be captured properly. I am told that there are multiple iOS and Android apps too that help you capture this, but DSLR is really the king here. Be sure to carry a tripod so that you can set it up well else the pictures may be hazy.
Our guide was also the tour’s professional photographer and was able to click one photo per family. He advised us to use wide angle lens, manual mode, ISO CA 800-1600 and exposure time of 8-30 seconds for the best results.
The Husky Splendour
So many other arctic adventures to experience besides chasing the Aurora.
A popular and unique activity in Tromso is the Husky Dog Sled ride. It is debatable who enjoys the ride more – the driver or the dogs. Each sled has 5-7 huskies pulling it and 2 people riding it.
One can sense the palpable excitement in the air when you arrive at the sled, the Huskies are barking excitedly and raring to go. Once they start running, silence befalls! It is truly quiet as you slide gently along the snow filled mountains. I could see how much the dogs were enjoying the run. My kids also had a great experience.
The husky ride centers are generally outside the town so the Aurora could be visible during the husky ride if one does them late in the evening.
You could also choose to drive the sled instead of the professional musher. The dogs know the route and follow each other, so it is really quite simple. Most of the mushers are young college grads having moved in from different parts of the world to experience Norway and its beauty.
After almost an hour of dogsledding, we got a chance to meet the husky puppies. Kids were thrilled to be able to play with and hold the puppies. We gathered around the fire in the Gamme – a traditional Sami hut – and were served warm drinks and hot chocolate followed by a Sami meal. The meal had Bacalao (local stock fish prepared in red sauce) and reindeer meat and delicious brownies for dessert. Yes, there are vegetarian options available too!
Also, read – Two week itinerary for Croatia
Dancing with the Wolves
The Polar Park is 3 hours away from Tromso, in Bardu. The moment you head inland, it gets really cold as there is no gulf stream to lend the warmth. We got lucky because it was snowing when we went and not freezing.
This park has animals in their natural habitat. We saw Wolves, Brown bears, Lynx as well as their prey: Reindeers, Musk Ox, Arctic Fox, and Red Deer. The park has 12 enclosures over 112 hectares – largest area per animal across any zoo in the world.
The most memorable part for me was meeting the wolves inside their enclosure. I had a chance to step into the wolf enclosure and have a pack of wolves come up and interact with us. Bear in mind that even though the wolves are socialized they are still predators. This experience isn’t for the faint-hearted!
When the wolf comes up and puts its paws on your outstretched hands and its amber eyes make contact with yours – your breath stops flowing. At least it did for me! 🙂
They are also highly perceptive creatures and can sense discomfort. After they moved away from me, they stood next to us and some brave folks were able to play/pet them. It is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The park also offers Wolf Lodge built inside the wolf enclosure. You are able to reach the lodge through a tunnel from the outer fence.
Also, read – Photo essay: Take a scenic walk in the Vintgar Gorge
More animal adventures
Fun time with kids at the Polaria Aquarium
Our kids enjoyed the trip to the Polaria – the most northerly aquarium! The exhibits are designed to be educative and informational for the kids. There is a panoramic five-screen cinema that shows documentaries on Northern Lights as well as Svalbard.
The most sought-after attraction is the “bearded seal” show. The kids were enthralled by the show and got to see the seals up close.
For more information, check the Polaria website.
Dressing up for the arctic adventures
Warm kids are happy kids.
As one of my Nordic friends says ” There is nothing called bad weather, there is just bad clothing”.
The key to being warm and having fun is to wear layers. It will make all the difference between a good experience and a bad one. Tromso in winters can get windy too.
We used merino base layers, ski jackets, ski pants and gloves whenever we stepped out. Snow boots and woolen socks seal the deal. Cotton base layers won’t cut it. Balaclava, pashmina stoles come in handy during snow play and windy times.
There are also shops that rent out Thermal Suits and other snow gear should one need them. Most activities like whale watching, husky sledding provide snowsuits and boots as a part of the trip/package. But it is always better to be prepared for weather changes in the Arctic.
For Thermal Suit Rentals (book in advance), look up Tromso Outdoor.
Stay and Food at Tromso
Since we were traveling with the kids, we decided to splurge and stayed at the centrally located Clarion, The Edge. While the hotels are plentiful, they tend to go fast, therefore booking in advance always helps.
Our hotel served an outstanding breakfast as part of the room stay on a daily basis – given the general European fare, we were pleasantly surprised. Options ranged from waffles, pancakes, eggs to sausage, hash browns, cold cuts, salads, fruits, bread, cereals and multiple types of coffee/tea and juices. The Vitamin D booster shot was my favorite though.
This place is a Salmon lovers delight. The non-vegetarian options are plentiful, fresh and tasty but I did not find as many exciting vegetarian options. Or maybe I wasn’t looking that hard for them. There were pasta and pizza places that we enjoyed with the kids.
We had an outstanding gourmet meal with excellent pre-set vegetarian and non-vegetarian options at Mathallen. The chef paired the food perfectly with the wines and the experience was quite wonderful.
The pizza choices were plentiful at Yonas Pizzeria.
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This is a guest post by Sonal Sarin.
An ex-Googler, Sonal loves to travel and dance. After working for more than a decade, Sonal is currently enjoying her time taking care of her family and basking in the Californian sun. Her favorite destinations so far have been New Zealand, Norway, and Greece.
Have you traveled to any Scandinavian countries in winter? How was your experience?
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