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Jane Archer: Tripping the light fantastic

Join Jane as she goes in search of the northern lights

Alta, Norway

Posted on

03 May 2022

I’ve had some odd experiences in my time but standing here, in a slate quarry near Alta in Norway, staring into a cloudy night sky with the temperature well into the minuses, surely takes the biscuit.

I’m in search of the northern lights and they are proving as elusive this evening as they were yesterday, when I stayed the night in a glass-roofed igloo in the wilderness outside Tromsø so I could lie in bed and watch the aurora borealis light up the dark sky.

Fittingly, I’m on this search for the aurora on Borealis, a ship that started life with Holland America Line and is now sailing to rave reviews for Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. No wonder. She is not only bigger than Black Watch, the ship she replaced (she holds up to 1,360 passengers) but quite a step up, with more balcony suites and cabins, lots of lounges and a top deck lido with a pool bar, grill and retractable roof.

There are also two speciality restaurants; Vasco is complimentary and serves Goan-style dishes, while Colours & Tastes costs an extra £5 per person - a real bargain - and serves delicious Asian cuisine. The crispy fried chilli beef was so good I went back three times!

We’re sailing round-trip from Liverpool, grabbing a few hours in Belfast before navigating around Scotland and across the North Sea to Norway. There’s a day in Ålesund, a scenic cruise along the Norwegian coast and over the Arctic Circle, then two days each in Tromsø and Alta, before we return south, with calls into Bodø, Narvik and Trondheim.

It’s a brilliant - and varied - itinerary. I enter a “time machine” in Ålesund to learn about the great fire of 1904 that left 10,000 people homeless and led to the city being rebuilt in art-deco style; and strap on a pair of crampons for a coastal hike through snow and ice near Bodø in search of white-tailed sea eagles (total tally: two).

I ride Narvik’s Ofoten Line train through a snowy landscape of mountains and fjords to Bjørnfell Station, some 1,686 feet above sea level; slip and slide over sheer ice and deep snow to reach Kristiansten Fortress in Trondheim where resistance fighters were executed by the Nazis during the Second World War (their story is told in the city’s excellent Armoury museum); and attend an organ concert at Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral, a stunning place that looks more iceberg than house of God.

But I’m really here to see the northern lights. The wilderness hut near Tromsø has failed me but surely Alta can’t. After all, it calls itself the town of the northern lights and its quirky-looking cathedral is even named in their honour. Hmmm. Seems that’s no guarantee because I am in the Paeksatun camp - aka the slate quarry - beneath a cloudy sky learning about the aurora borealis from host Ellinor instead of seeing them. It’s a shame but her talk is most interesting and at least we can warm up by a fire in a big Sami tent.

The next day, as we start to sail south, the Norwegian fishing fleet is out and so are goodness knows how many whales. There are spouts all around us and some even break the surface. It’s an incredible sight.

That evening, as we’re finishing dinner, there’s a call from the bridge. “Northern lights on the starboard side.” It’s several degrees below outside and I’m in my evening finery, sandals and all but I’m not missing this. I point my camera at the cold, dark sky - seems it can pick up colours the naked eye can’t - and snap. And there they are in my picture, the elusive lights. Mission accomplished!

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