TRAVEL // Guide to seeing the Northern Lights in Tromsø!

We all have our very own bucket list - things that we simply must do before we die. The Northern Lights has been on mine since I was a ki...

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We all have our very own bucket list - things that we simply must do before we die. The Northern Lights has been on mine since I was a kid, it's always fascinated me how these mysterious, magical, dancing lights come to be. I've seen countless photographs, videos and documentaries and read about the experiences of others who've had the privilege of seeing them. All of this only added to my desire to see them with my own eyes.

But I've always found that wanting to do something is completely different to actually going ahead and doing it. There are so many people I know who say how much they'd love to go and see the Northern Lights, but never actually get around to actually going. So I thought to myself: "I am NOT going to be one of those people."

And so it was, one evening after a day of dreaming about them at work, I said to the OH: 'Let's just book it tonight!' So shall it be written, so shall it be done! (It was never written, btw). But of course this presented us with a few dilemmas - do we go to Iceland, or do we go to Norway? And wherever we do go, it's gonna be freezing. It was clear to me then that this would be no ordinary holiday. After a few hours research, we opted for Tromsø in Northern Norway, inside the Arctic Circle. It was a tough choice in the end, but a few things swayed it for us:
  1. Northern Lights - one of the best places to see it, directly on the arctic ring where most activity occurs. If it's too cloudy though, there are options - go out in a boat in the fjords or drive around the Norwegian countryside.
  2. Whale watching - you can go whale watching in Iceland, but the chances of seeing some whales in Tromsø are about 99.99%.
  3. Polar Nights - for 40 days in November thru January, the sun doesn't rise above the horizon.
Going to Norway instead of Iceland would mean no Blue Lagoons, but we can save that for a later trip, right? Also, Norway was actually cheaper in terms of Flights & Hotels for December than Reykjavik, but as we'd find out, doing things was most certainly not cheaper! We'd settled on Norway, because the one thing you can be sure of when going in search of Aurora Borealis, is you're never guaranteed to see it. It's a natural phenomenon that we don't fully understand yet, so whilst we can have forecasts, those forecasts aren't always accurate. So you need to make sure you're going to have a fun time whether you see them or not!

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Tromsø at Night... Or Day, I can't remember.

Tromsø itself is a city of about 70,000 and is the Northernmost city on earth. It's not actually a part of the Norwegian mainland so to speak, as the Norwegian coastline is not too dissimilar to the Western coast of Scotland in that it's ragged and made up of lots of Islands close to the mainland. The city of Tromsø is spread across a couple of these Islands and surrounded by Fjords. The terrain isn't quite mountainous, but it's certainly rugged and rocky.

SAUNA, HOT TUB, TEA AND A TURKISH HAMMAM - ON A BOAT!

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Apple and Cinnamon Tea on board.

We managed to get our first glimpse of the rocky, mountainous terrain around Tromsø on our first day. Somehow we'd managed to find ourselves on a two-hour boat trip out in to the Fjord, aimed at the locals so quite cheap. But this was no ordinary boat. It began life about 50 years ago as a fishing boat, but as the fishing trade slowed, the owners began to make a loss, so it was sold to a group of entrepreneurs from Tromsø who converted it in to a floating spa! 

Inside, there was a Finnish Sauna, complete with a huge window, overlooking the passing Fjords. A Japanese-style communal area for guests to relax with some Norwegian Apple and Cinnamon tea, which led to the Turkish Hammam. Outside, on deck, there was a saltwater hot-tub, set at 40C. This boat was insane! But I have to say, it was an amazing experience, only available on Saturdays, so it was now or never, and after a day of stressful air-travel, including bad advice from the airline, a missed connecting flight and hoping that at least 9 people decided not to show up for the next, fully-booked, flight as well as having our luggage lost with nobody seeming to know where it was - this boat trip was much needed!

The Sauna was immensely relaxing, the Hammam was a little strange, but nice and warm, but the hot tub really stole the show. After emerging from the Sauna, we walked out on deck - remembering it's pitch black, probably subzero temperatures, an arctic wind, and all we're wearing is our swimming costumes - and headed towards the hot tub. Surprisingly, it didn't actually feel all that cold out on deck, but we hopped in to the Hot Tub nonetheless and this was a most bizarre thing. Sat amongst a (friendly) Norwegian family, in a hot tub, on a boat, on deck, with the freezing arctic winds blustering, wearing a beanie hat. But, it was absolutely amazing and I could not recommend it enough. The only slight downside was getting out of that Hot Tub, because all of a sudden, we realised exactly how cold it was!

NORTHERN LIGHTS HUNTING - ATTEMPT ONE
 
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A Quaint Norwegian Rural Home

Because we were traveling there in the midst of their winter, temperatures can range from -16 to +5C, there would be no direct sunlight, there's a high chance of snow, the roads would be incredibly slippery and the surrounding mountains would be covered in the white stuff. But the lack of light would provide perfect viewing conditions for the aurora - so long as the cloud cover broke up.

I did manage to learn quite a few things whilst in Tromsø - you become an expert in cloud cover for a start! Apparently, there are three types of cloud cover to look out for: high, medium and low. For perfect Aurora conditions, you need all three levels to be clear and the forecast for the first three nights was not looking good. Also, the weather in Tromsø is difficult to forecast anyway, seemingly changing on an hourly basis! We also learned about Aurorae strength, and on the 3rd day the strength was due to reach KP8 - basically meaning very, very strong, and potential even visible in Northern England!!?!!!!1!!

I also learnt to love my DSLR camera again! I bought my Nikon D7000 way back in 2011, but was beginning to fall out of love with it of late. However, after looking at a few websites giving tips on Aurora Photography and seeing the results I got, I realised that the problem was definitely me, not the camera! As for Aurora photography, I recommend you take one of the Northern Lights tours on offer. The guides are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and have their own network of scouts to help increase your chances of seeing them. They also take their own photographs, and are more than willing to help you out if you're having camera troubles. If your camera allows you to move out of Automatic settings and into Manual, you're onto a winner, if not - you need a better camera!

Unfortunately for us though, the cloud cover in Tromsø for that night was due to be thick, so there'd be no chance of seeing it above the city. This meant we'd have to book ourselves on to a Northern Lights hunt tour, and hope that our guide was an expert at seeking out gaps in the clouds! We departed at 6:30pm, though time had already become immaterial by this point, in a supremely comfortable minibus with just four other people on board. The guide gave us the lowdown on the forecasts and said that tonight we will actually be hunting the Aurora - exciting times!

To cut a long story short, we ended up under a gap in the clouds across the border in Finland! We hopped out of the minibus, looked up and saw a couple of large trails of Aurorae dancing amongst the low level clouds. It was a breathtaking sight, it was like thousands of long, thin shards of faint green light attempting but failing to hit the earth. But it didn't last too long that night, despite the high activity (trending on Twitter in the UK by the way), the cloud cover above Northern Scandinavia that night had only allowed us a tantalising little glimpse. Life can be cruel!

THE SEARCH FOR KILLER WHALES

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Orcas, getting ready for dinner.

We were actually due to go whale watching at 9am the following morning, however we arrived back at our hotel at 5am and thought better of it. This turned out to be a stroke of luck on our part though, as we spent the day strolling around the icy streets of Tromsø, ate breakfast at our hotel, had a nice lunch and dinner in the city. The next day we did go whale-watching at 9am, and this is where our luck really began to change! The crew of the Polar Explorer (the boat we'd be on) were like excited little children at the prospect of seeing the whales, so that was a good sign. As they were giving the safety induction, they mentioned the previous day that there were no Orca / Killer Whale sightings (luckily we had skipped it), but local fisherman had spotted some this morning in the Fjords.

After an hour travelling through the fjord, flanked by forested, snow-covered mountains, the captain spotted a pod of Orcas. We went out on deck, colder than anything I've ever experienced before, with strong, icy winds only making it colder, looked out ahead and saw the unmistakable fin of a Killer whale. And then another. And another. And another. Then all of a sudden there's a line of nine or ten, moving in unison towards their dinner (not us, Herring). It was simply incredible to see the iconic white patches that everyone as kids thought were the eyes.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, a pair of Humpback whales (mother and child) muscle in and steal the rest of the Orcas' fish! It was like a scene out of The Hunt, or The Blue Planet, except it wasn't on a screen, David Attenborough wasn't narrating and I wasn't sat in front of a fireplace. No, it was for fucking real, happening in front of my face! And then of course a flock of seagulls were alerted to the commotion by the Orcas slapping the sea with their tailfins, and we really were in a real-documentary, watching a feeding frenzy.

There were about 6 other boats of tourists on the same Fjord, but much further ahead of us, probably having left earlier that missed out on this, but had spotted our boat stopping, looked through their telescope, saw a few fins and raced over to see the end of the action. The frenzy died down, the Orcas moved away, but then more Orcas started appearing from all over the place, then a family of three Humpbacks, and the frenzies just kept coming! The guys leading our tour were every bit as excited as we were, running around to all sides of the boat (which was pretty big) trying to see where the action was moving to.

We got back to the dock at about 2:30pm. But from 10am onwards, it was non-stop whale action, even as we were heading back to base, the Orcas were chasing our boat, using it as a kind of training, trying to keep up with a fast-moving object, and a couple of Humpbacks where gliding away in front of us. By this time though, we were frozen to the core, so were just sat watching from the warmth of the cabin.

NORTHERN LIGHTS HUNTING - ATTEMPT TWO

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Long Exposure Shot of the Northern Lights - That's the Moon, not the Sun.

After a brisk walk around Tromsø, and a hearty meal I might add, we thought: "Fuck it, it's our last night, let's go looking for the Aurorae again!"

As magical as it was to see the Aurora during our first attempt, I'd say it felt more satisfying than anything else. Just because of the effort that was involved in seeing them. We had to traipse across the Northern regions of Norway and into another bloody country, staying awake into the early hours, braving the increasingly cold temperatures. As satisfying as it was, to have found the Northern Lights, we wanted to see them actually light up the skies above us.

Our final night in Tromsø was forecast for decent levels of Aurora activity (around 4 or 5 KP) and minimal cloud cover. But the Norwegian weather wasn't fully compliant, as we drove to our guide's 'Base Camp' about an hour north of Tromsø next to a frozen lake, we could see the aurora, pretty strong, but behind layers of streaky cloud cover. Damn you Norway!

We remained patient though, for an hour or so, before admitting defeat here and starting to look elsewhere. We embarked on a two hour drive into the middle of nowhere, on an icy road in a valley. Clear skies. I had fallen asleep by this point though, so the OH had to wake me up. I jumped out, a little bit disorientated, looked up and the Aurora was there. I was so excited that I forgot to actually look where I was going, and walked over the road onto what appeared to be a path. It was actually 3 foot ditch filled with snow, and my foot went all the way down, leaving me with snow up to my waist!!

After being hauled out of the ditch, I could see that the Aurora were fairly weak at first, though stronger than our first viewing experience, it still managed to take the breath away. But then it started to disappear, fading away in to the Arctic night sky. Only for it to reappear behind us, this time much stronger. The green light danced in the sky in front of us, before traversing the stars and creeping overhead. I was literally underneath the Northern Lights. We stayed put for maybe 3 hours, the aurora constantly around us.

It truly is a sight to behold, a shape-shifting green light in the sky. It appears to take on so many forms, but my favourite was when it appeared as a thick, bright green beam of light meandering through the star-filled sky. It was truly spectacular, and even though I'd already enjoyed my time in Norway, this was what I'd came for, and it was well, well worth it.

This is the guy we booked with for both nights: LINK - his name's Tom and his minibus is much more modern than some of the others we saw out there (including a transit van!) He's also a decent guy and was desperate to make sure we saw the Aurora on both occasions!

TRAVEL TIPS: NORWAY

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Looks like a fiery path in to Mordor. It's actually a road.

Norway is a beautiful country, the people are incredibly laid back, friendly, and they want you to enjoy your time in their country. It felt so refreshing, and it makes you realise just how uppity and unwelcoming Britain can actually be. Also, the Norwegians are experts at walking on ice, even when drunk on Friday or Saturday nights - that itself is a sight to behold!

Before travelling, we'd obviously researched the place and knew that it'd be expensive but once there it's shocking just how expensive it really is. In Tromsø, the cost of living is 25% higher than that of London. Food is very, very expensive. We looked at an Indian Restaurant and saw poppadoms priced at £8. For two. That being said, it certainly felt that small, snacky items were much more expensive, whilst actual meals didn't feel quite so bad. Meals cost about £40 - £50 for two.

It's cold. Really, really cold. My iPhone app had the temperature at about 2 - 3C most of the time we were there, which you'd think isn't all that different to a typical UK winter, but you'd be wrong. It's freezing, and there's no let up. The footpaths and roads were covered in snow and ice, and the wind can be unbearably cold. Real feel temperature was about -6 on one particular day. Then, if you want to actually go out and do something fun, be prepared for the temperature out at sea or in the countryside to dip even further. It gets to the point where checking the temperature is an irrelevance - it's either cold or f**king cold.

To help deal with this you need a few things:
  1. Waterproof walking shoes - they simply must be waterproof, they will stop your feet getting wet and freezing over.
  2. Non-cotton underlayers - cotton gets wet and turn cold, making you cold. Wool underlayers get wet and stay warm. No brainer.
  3. Wool or Fleece Layers - these layers trap in warm air and keep you nice and toasty!
  4. Windproof, waterproof jacket - this will save your life every minute of every day. In my photos I may look cold, but actually I'm pretty warm- the coldest areas are my hands and feet, everywhere else was warm! 
If you're after a Halal Holiday, I found Tromsø to be ok. There's a halal kebab shop and an Indian restaurant with some halal options - neither of which I went to - but pretty much every restaurant, cafe or gastro-bar offers decent vegetarian options. I found that the quality of the food was excellent, no cheap and dirty eateries out here thank you very much.

Also, if you love fish (which I don't), the Norwegians basically live off fish, so you'll have your fill of Cod and Salmon. The Norwegians also seem to be obsessed with Pizza, the main pizza place in Tromsø is called Peppe's, but vegetarian options there are limited. Also, the only full-on Vegan/Vegetarian cafe in town, Sivertsen's, was closed for the duration of our stay. This was disappointing, as apparently it's rather good!

Finally, when to go? Well Tromso is an all-year-round tourist destination so pretty much any time is good! However, September through to March are the only months you can see the Aurora, as there's too much light in the sky from April to August. March is apparently a good time to go as there's more chance of clear skies, however we fancied December as we were attracted by the allure of the Polar Nights. Just remember though, from May to July, they have the opposite of the Polar Nights, which is called the Midnight Sun. Basically, the sun never drops beneath the horizon! Feel free to drop me an email if you're interested in visiting and need any advice!

I'll sign off this mega-post with a few more indulgent photos of Tromsø, because why not? If you've ever thought of going, and been put off by the price, the weather or the effort required to see the Northern Lights, don't be. Just go for it, it's worth every penny, every hardship and every minute of subzero temperatures!

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Just in case you'd forgotten

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Caution - Slippery Surface

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The Arctic Cathedral - Northernmost Cathedral in the world.

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Every bit as cold as it looks...

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Christmas Decorations in Tromsø

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Fresh every morning!

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God Jul! Or Merry Christmas

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The cutest little yellow house you'll ever see.

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Pretty sure this bitch is bigger than me.

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A welcome respite from the cold

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Looking for Orcas

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Claire & Rich left their padlock on Tromsø Bridge.

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Found this in a service station toilet.

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Humpback Whale saying 'Hey!' to the Tourists.

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Like Green Fire.

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Norwegian Trolls.  Better looking than Internet Trolls.

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It's for you...

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Hotel Selfie

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People live here.

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Tromsø

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The Burning Bush?

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Had to be done, right?

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21 comments

  1. OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! Your photos are sensational! I am so jealous!!! I'd have happily swapped New York. ;-) Thank you for writing such a detailed post and for taking me on your journey. Northern Lights is on my list for 2016/17 so fingers crossed I make it over there with the wifey. I hope you will blow up your photos onto canvas! xxx

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    1. Oh, Sheenie! I do hope you and the wifey make a visit in the not too distant future. You will both love it! If you need any advise or info, let me know.

      And yes, I am getting one of the photos onto a canvas!

      X

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  2. This post is just stunning, Lima! The photos are divine. xx

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    1. Thank you, Leah! Pleased that you love the photos <3

      XO

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  3. Love this post and the pictures look amazing. I think I'd do Finland just so I could sleep in an igloo! Xx

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    1. The Igloos look fantastic in Finland but my god, the hefty price tag frightened me off, ha!

      X

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  4. Wow, the "green fire" looks pretty amazing! I would love to see it one day too.

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  5. It looks breathtaking, absolutely amazing, I really want to do this next year.

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  6. Looks absolutely phenomenal! Definitely something I want to do :) Your photography skills are out of this world :)

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  7. This is amazing and you've taken some beautiful photographs! It's definitely pushing me to sort out my trip as soon as possible.I was set on Iceland but I'm starting to wonder if Norway might be a better option. Thank you for writing this post, it'll be very helpful to refer back to. :)

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  8. er, wow! I WILL go. I will.

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  9. Epic blogpost I love it! Popadoms for £8??? Sheesh! I guess it's a delicacy. Such a great adventure & such amazing colours - I'm obsessed with the natural colours of sunset but this is on another level!

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  10. Oh wow, this is pretty much the most amazing blog post ever!! Your photos are brilliant! It pretty much has everything I'd ever want from a wintry holiday - the aurora, whales, and snow (I love the cold)... now to persuade Jon we should go! xx

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  11. Oh my gosh! Your photographs are so amazing - and I'm certain the experience was too! I love that you had thought about it and had it on your bucket list for so long and then just decided to do it. Sometimes, you just gotta do it now and worry about everything else later! : )

    Michelle -x-

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  12. What an amazing trip, a real adventure and your photos are bloody brilliant!!

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  13. This looks like an amazing place! May have just added that to my bucket list too!

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  14. Beautiful photos :)
    BLOG M&MFASHIONBITES : http://mmfashionbites.blogspot.gr/
    Maria V.

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  15. How beautiful are these images and the detailed post is amazing. Definitely a go-to for anyone looking, you covered a lot of bases. What a shame about the vegetarian/vegan restaurants being closed (trust me to notice that haha). Sensational images, it just looks so clean and mythical. xo

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  16. This is rather amazing! It's somewhere we've always talked about going, well to see the northern lights. We're actually going to start planning when we get back to Bali. I've recently realised my age and that I want to do more things before we settle down etc. I know we'll still travel, I just want to do a few more places before then. This sounded like such an adventure! Much more satisfying, getting a proper sighting of both the whales and the lights! Cannot wait to visit either Norway or Iceland - we're leaning more Iceland at the minute.

    Honestly Aine

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