When I turned 29, I decided I really wanted to turn thirty on a beautiful island with white beaches and palm trees. I spent ages researching islands in the Maldives. I bought endless pairs of flip flops. I changed my mind about snorkelling a million times.
So it was only natural that we ended up going to a completely different kind of island.1
The kind of island that’s based above the Arctic Circle. The kind where there’s no daylight at all in winter months. The kind where even the locals say there’s no such thing as wearing too many clothes.
I have never been so cold in my entire life.
Me, being the coldest I’ve ever been in my entire life.
The trip didn’t have the best start. We almost missed our train to the airport, Joe forgot his glasses, and then I realised that I forgot to pack my boots.
We landed on an iced-over runway in the dark, in freezing conditions and I was wearing the lightest memory foam Skechers. (To be fair to Skechers, they did a surprisingly good job).
We totally failed at finding the coach we needed to get to our hotel, so we ended up sharing a taxi with another couple who also happened to be staying at our hotel. But after those tiny setbacks, it was a fantastic trip all the way.
Tromso is really small, despite its city status (it’s the world’s most northern city), which made it instantly seem really friendly. By the end of the trip, we’d walk round the town bumping into people we knew. It was like we’d lived there years.
Our hotel had a harbour view over the marina, which was beautiful at all times of day and night (it was either twilight or night the whole time we were there, with maybe 3 hours a day of any kind of light):
Random person. I’m practising including people in my photos. I normally photoshop them out or wait for them to leave. It was too cold to wait for them to leave.
The first full day we were there was my birthday. We got up early to go whale watching, and it was the coldest part of the whole trip. Everything on the boat was iced over, including the metal steps to the top deck, so we were inching along trying to find space (apparently it was more crowded than usual). I was so cold I didn’t even want to hold my camera! After ages of not seeing anything, we were finally rewarded for our patience with a herd of orcas and even a humpback whale.
Apparently the orcas were actually sleeping, which is why they weren’t too active (they kind of float/swim underwater and occasionally come up for air while asleep). We also learned that they’re basically ‘the humans of the sea’, in that they’re nowhere nearest the biggest, but they are the smartest, and that’s why they rule the ocean even above humpback whales and so on. Whales haven’t been around Tromso that long, only a few years, so they’re still something of a novelty even to the locals and they’re keen to keep them around.
After whale watching, we walked back to the hotel (Tromso is super small, so our boat trip was literally a few steps from there – perfect when there’s a ton of ice and snow everywhere), and ended up getting the bus to a local shopping centre in search of a new camera battery. I have two, but one just started refusing to charge and I was panicking I’d be without a battery. Unfortunately we couldn’t get one anywhere on the island, but fortunately there was enough time between the trips we did for us to go back to the hotel and get enough charge in. I’d have hated to have missed anything!
The other advantage of going back to the hotel was that it gave us a good chance to warm up. The Tromso locals told us that there was no such things as too many clothes, and they were right. Five layers later I still wasn’t a good temperature! I think it’s the kind of thing you adapt to eventually though, given that we saw someone buying an ice cream cone from a shop.
That night we went on a northern lights hunting tour. The search for the lights is very much ‘will we won’t we’; there are various forecasting apps and big research stations, but they aren’t very accurate. In many cases local knowledge is better from what I’ve seen; the guides know the areas really well and can best judge where to go for the best chance of seeing the lights.
Our guides were amazing, and we weren’t disappointed:
They were even helpful with setting up our cameras on tripods and getting the right settings etc. I was extremely glad that all the trips we went on allowed me to borrow a tripod because I didn’t have one (I’ve bought one since!).
When the guides found out it was my birthday, they even went to the effort of lighting a sparkler for me to hold. It was an extremely special way to celebrate my 30th birthday; standing by a lake holding a sparkler, watching the northern lights by a beautiful lake and hearing whales calling in the distance.
We collapsed into bed for a few hours, but we didn’t get a chance to sleep in because the next day we were off HUSKY SLEDDING!
I’m not going to lie, this was my favourite part of the trip. I have videos that I’m going to upload at some point once I’ve had a chance to edit them. We were given a quick five minute briefing on how to drive – no steering required, two different kinds of braking, speeding up etc.) and we paired up. One person was the driver, one the passenger, and we could switch halfway through.
It was so funny, especially when our dogs got confused and went the wrong way (!) The scenery was stunning and the dogs were amazing. If you’ve ever seen a dog impatient to go for a walk and yapping, times that by about sixty and add some snow and sledges and that was basically what it was like.
Joe drove first, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted drive at the halfway point, but I decide do to face my fears and give it a go and it was completely worth it. I LOVED it, even though I fell off twice (I was wearing so many layers of clothes I didn’t actually notice till the next day, when I ached all over!)
After we got back we had a quick nap. Honestly, we were so busy that we just slept when we had a few minutes. Adding and dropping layers of clothes and snow boots and everything else all the time was surprisingly exhausting, especially when it usually takes me five minutes to get dressed. The pace of life in Tromso is very relaxed and laid back and it’s not hard to see why. You don’t want to be rushing around in ice, snow and snowstorms.
We did spend a few hours over our trip walking around the town buying things, taking photos, eating out and so on.
The city library is beautiful.
A snowman someone built in the town square.
In the evening we went on another northern lights trip. This one was a boat with another couple and a small family, but unlike the whale watching it had a super personal feel. The boat itself was owned by a couple and it was furnished like a living room, which made me feel comfortable straight away because it was so homely. We didn’t see much of the lights that night but we heard plenty of stories from the boat owner about the northern lights (parents used to tell their children that the lights would come and get them if they didn’t behave). She also cooked us freshly caught fish and cake, which were amazing.
On the final day we wandered around some museums and shops in the city. There were a few things we didn’t get a chance to see, but to be honest three or four days is enough to see and do pretty much everything.
Would I recommend going to Tromso? Absolutely. The people there are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met and always happy to chat. On average, the locals speak six languages, and every person we met spoke English fluently, which made everything a lot easier. Apparently they had trouble convincing people to move there originally, so they offered a bunch of merchants a free house each and they didn’t have to pay tax for twenty years. They had merchants from all different countries, so they encouraged them to share the languages they knew which ended up creating a really multicultural, accepting environment.
The only downside other than the freezing cold weather (complete with chance of snowstorms and avalanches) is the fact that it’s pretty expensive. Norwegians have higher than average salaries for Europe, and everything was a bit more expensive than what we’re used to. But don’t let that put you off – Tromso is an absolutely breathtaking place to visit, and the only thing better than chasing magic is actually finding it.
For more photos, check out my Tromso album on Flickr.
- Joe’s dad was really ill, and we didn’t want to be away as long or fly as far as originally planned. ↩