Deborah Stone joined a voyage on board Saga Sapphire in search of the ethereal Aurora Borealis – and discovered the joys of thrill seeking in the Arctic Circle
The Force was definitely with us as we huddled together in the yurt, sipping hot drinks and warming ourselves by the fire. Outside, it was a calm, clear night – perfect conditions for one of the most spectacular, astronomical phenomena. Every so often we stepped outside and looked up into the dark sky, expectantly, hopefully – but there was no sign of the fabled Northern Lights. After an hour of this, I was so cold I could no longer feel my face, and decided to get back on the coach to keep warm.
And that’s when they happened. Those swirling, pinkish, greenish, whitish lights, briefly flashing up in the sky and then disappearing once again. Only, of course, I didn’t see them. It was only when my fellow guests boarded the coach and showed me their photos that I realised that I should have braved the cold a little longer.
Fortunately, while the Aurora Borealis may be the main event for anyone cruising to the Arctic Circle, there are lots of other experiences on offer – dog sledding, ice hotels and reindeer rides; days when the sun shines so brightly and the sky is so blue you wish you lived in this uncomplicated place, at one with the forest, fields and mountains.
It all seemed so far from Dover, where I waved goodbye to the white cliffs from the sun deck on Saga Sapphire, unpacked my thermals and collected my complimentary Arctic coat and free snow grips for my boots.
There was a day in lovely Bergen, where you could imagine the harbour, Bryggen, in its Hanseatic League glory despite all the souvenir shops, and another in tiny Åndalsnes, gateway to fjords and mountains including Troll Wall, Europe’s tallest overhanging vertical cliff.
But it was only when we crossed the Arctic Circle on our fifth day that it felt as though we were truly north. In Tromsø the slight wind felt like needles hitting my face as I walked across the bridge to the stunning Arctic Cathedral, where a young Japanese couple were having wedding pictures taken in the snow – the bride in a long, cream,
The cathedral looks like a piece of white chocolate Toblerone (pre-shrunken bar size). The triangular front has perhaps 100 panes of glass with a concrete cross seeming to hold it up like a tent, while the sides have white concrete buttresses with glass panels, and inside there is colourful stained glass that glows when the sun shines in. The really switched-on passengers visited Tromsø’s Planetarium at the Meteorological Institute, where there’s a 360-degree multimedia screening of the Northern Lights, so you can “experience” them. Wish I’d thought to go.
But at least I had the time to wander around the city, which still has traditional buildings in muted greys, lichen green and mustard yellow, while one small central square had massive ice carvings – the owl was particularly good. Alta the next day felt like looking at the sun from the roof of the world. Shuttle buses took passengers to Alta Museum the other side of town then into Alta itself, and it was a real good-to-be-alive ride, with glorious views of snow-covered meadows and clumps of birch trees running down to Altafjord.
When the bus dropped me in town I was surprised to see dog sleds crossing the road, then discovered we were at the starting point for the biggest dog sled race in Scandinavia – Finnmarksløpet – all the way to the Finland border and back. The teams of six dogs had little blue bootees on to protect their paws and, over the three days we spent in Alta, we saw several races start, cheering on an English competitor from Hampshire who now lives in Norway (as the announcer kindly explained). The races marked the start of the annual Borealis Winter Festival, with Alice In Wonderland ice sculptures in the town square next to a market selling local crafts. I bought a silk-soft moss-green shawl for less than £10, as delicate as a spider’s web.
Lured by the aroma of freshly cooked salmon, I was handed a plate of fish with a spoon full of glistening orange cod roe and invited to join residents on straw bales covered with reindeer furs. They didn’t need to ask twice. At Alta’s centre is the 2,000-built cathedral with a circular base that builds up to what looks like a curtain of Northern Lights dancing in the sky, its titanium cladding reflecting the snow in winter and Midnight Sun in summer.
In the circular entrance chamber there’s a golden ladder – Jacob’s ladder – stretching up as if it’s hanging in the air, while in the main room lights shine down on a long mountain-shaped blue background behind the altar with strands of light – or icicles – hanging down. It’s so beautiful it stops you in your tracks.
Also astonishing are the ice sculptures at the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel where we drank vodka in ice glasses among ice trolls, animals and old hags. It was like being in Narnia, with carved snow walls depicting dragons, polar bears and trees with faces. If I’d left then it would have been magical but I opted to stay the night, sleeping on reindeer skins covering ice beds. It sounds romantic but the reality is fitful sleep in an Arctic-proof sleeping bag. It was a relief to be back on the ship, and you have to hand it to Saga Cruises, it really does do things properly.
The food is superb, particularly evening meals under French executive chef Thierry Cherronnet; the coq-au-vin in the main restaurant, Pole To Pole, was as good as anything you’ll eat in France. (Well, it is his mother’s recipe). And the afternoon teas were very welcome.
But apart from joining in Alta’s winter festival my favourite day was at the Holmen Hundesenter, a dog sledding centre beside the frozen Altaelva river where three-times champion sledder Eric Nilsen told us his former lead dog was named Ozzy Osbourne because he liked speed.
Sitting on a sledge covered in skins, an expert young racer at the controls, we raced across snow-covered fields in the bright sunshine, adrenalin pumping and feeling almost as excited as the dogs. Who needs the Northern Lights?
GETTING THERE: Saga Cruises’ Spirit of Discovery departs Southampton on 21 February 2020 for a 16-night Aurora Explorer cruise. Costs from £2,200pp based on two people sharing.
Visit saga.co.uk for more information or to book.