When you surprise someone, you want to do it properly. You want them to have no idea, to be stunned and to have that face of pure joy at the surprise. That was my face as I neared my seat, on a plane bound for Tromso, Norway, within the Arctic circle. You see, my travel buddy Liam had planned this trip from beginning to end. There were no clues. I had to lay out luggage for all eventualities – hot and cold, warm and freezing, and the rest was hidden from me. I was not allowed to know when I had to wake up until I was going to bed the night before and I was not allowed anywhere near the baggage.
So I entered a taxi with no idea which airport I was heading to, or even if I was headed to an airport at all. I arrived at Gatwick and was not allowed near the check in desk. I was wearing glasses so as we neared the gate I took them off so as not to see what the boards were saying. As I climbed the stairs to the plane, I still had no idea. And then as I was nearing my seat, the pilot announced the destination. I jumped for joy! This had been on my wish list for a long time. So, that is a how a proper surprise is carried out.
You see, Tromso is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery and is home to the Northern Lights. And we were in luck! The weather was clear for the time that we were staying, with a high chance of seeing the elusive aurora. Liam was still managing my expectations though, there was no guarantee that they would grace us with their presence. The incredibly clear weather brought with it below freezing temperatures. I have never in my life experienced -18c temps and I soon figured out that moisturizer is key!
The first day there, we spent it driving around the stunning islands that make up the Kvaloya area. In our very sexy Nissan X-Trail, there was room for the backpacks and then some. The scenery was large – it seemed like the sky went on forever and we were tripping over fjords. We laughed at the sign warning of elk in the area and secretly hoped that we would see one.
After a tasty dinner of reindeer stew and potato cakes, we headed out to Nordkjosbotn, which is about an hour out of Tromso. As we were checking in to our cabin room at Vollan Gjestestue, I asked the host, where we could go to see the lights? She advised me that she saw them every night on her way home, and that if we drove for about 15 minutes that we should be able to see them.
Top tip – you need to be away from any light pollution. We headed off – rugged up and with cameras in tow. Eventually we saw a turn off for the Northern Lights route, and whilst we were getting lost, and listening to Norske pop, they appeared. I pulled over and we stood and stared in wonder. The full moon made it very atmospheric. They streaked they sky, in a vivid green colour and at that point I felt very lucky to be witnessing this wonderful phenomenon. After a few minutes, they faded and we decided to drive further out to see what we could see. We saw a lot of stunning moonlit landscapes but no more lights, so decided to call it a night.
And then we got incredibly lucky. Between two mountains and over a still fjord, they began. We performed a hurried u-turn and parked up on the side of the road as large trucks thundered past. We stood and stared as the lights twisted and turned across the sky, as if they were dancing. I really feel as though they should be accompanied by classical music and greeted with applause. I took amateur photos on my phone and Liam took much better ones on his camera for as long as our frozen fingers could stand it and then we watched from the car. I feel like I cannot do justice to just how stunning they were and how privileged I felt to be standing there at that moment. We drove back to the hotel on a high. It was well after midnight and we had only had three hours sleep but we were buzzing! But an early morning was beckoning so we retired for the night.
The next day was full of more surprises. We were in the mountains, and surrounded by almost completely frozen fjords, so I would have put money on it that the surprise was going to be a whale watching cruise – however, we were about two weeks too late for that highlight, and I was still completely in the dark. We drove for about a half hour, with my guesses becoming more and more ridiculous as we went. And then I saw them. A team of huskies, all ready, with a sled attached. Liam laughed as I lost my mind. And then told me to get it together as we were greeted by Katherine, one half of the team at Northern Light Dog Adventures. She and her husband Thomas make up a family owned business that runs two tours a day. The difference here is that everyone gets a turn at mushing. Yep, driving a dog sled is called “mushing”.
We suited up in ski onesies, boots and gloves and headed out to greet the dogs who were eager to get going. Liam took the first turn at mushing and I settled into a fur lined sled. The dogs go really fast and Liam did a great job of taking the turns and putting on the brakes. The scenery was breathtaking and dramatic, as I am quickly learning that most of Norway is. This being my second trip to Norway, I feel that I should be less stunned, but around every turn, there is a picture more beautiful than the last.
And then it was my turn to mush. To say that Liam is a natural at stuff like this and that I am somewhat more awkward, is an understatement. I suck at this kind of stuff. I was very heavy on the brakes for the first few minutes, with Liam urging me to let the dogs go faster. The dogs felt that way too – they turn and look at you, with a face that says, “hey lets go,” or “hurry up.” I loved the experience, but I don’t think that Thomas will be calling me to mush for him anytime soon! And then all too soon, it was over. We were back home and it was time to thank the dogs for their hard work. You thank them by giving them love.
The two dogs at the back of the pack, had been baring their teeth at each other the whole way and I was a little apprehensive of them, so we started at the front and received licks to the face and lots of cuddles. As we worked our way down the dogs, and got closer to the last ones, Katherine shared with us, that one of the dogs was only two years old, and that the older dog had been keeping her in line, which was why we had found her a bit vicious. In reality, both of these dogs were anything but, as I approached the dog that I had been wary of, she rolled over and showed me her belly and we had the best cuddles, belly rubs, face licks and hugs. These dogs are just the best. I had to be strongly encouraged to leave them in favour of a hot drink and some cake. Katherine told us more about the dogs, the two day old puppies that were upstairs and about their life, including the time that they participated in a husky race that spanned over 500 kilometres. All too soon our time with the dogs was up and it was time to leave.
We were headed back to Tromso that afternoon – driving with us takes a while, we are constantly pulling over to take photos! Back in Tromso we checked into the Scandic Grand Tromso and had an early dinner, as there was one last surprise in store for me. This surprise started with being handed a sparkly pink hip flask, that Liam had pre-filled with vodka. He had a tartan one filled with bourbon. So, I was told to dress warmly and off we went.
Just outside the info centre on the harbour, we were picked up by Wandering Owl Tours. Our guide, Delphin started our tour in search of the Northern Lights by asking if we were game for a hike. We were a group of about 12, with a range of ages and abilities, but we all nodded that yes, we would happily hike to their secret spot in search of the aurora. Again, it was essential to suit up in ski suits, ski boots, hats, gloves and what felt like everything that I owned. And off we went.
Under the moonlight, which pretty much made it look like day light, we headed up a mountain. The landscape was covered in snow, there were frozen lakes around most of the turns, as well as evidence of wildlife. Delphin showed us tracks and played guessing games as to what could have made them. We saw signs of foxes and ermine. During the walk, Delphin helped everyone to set up their cameras to get the best photos of the lights. He and the other guides were fairly confident that we are going to get a show tonight. We paused on a natural clearing, and as the guides filled our cups with homemade hot chocolate, we were all staring at the sky hoping for a glimpse of green.
And just like the night before, it began slowly, a wisp on the horizon and then before we knew it, the whole sky was streaked green. We were standing right below the belt. The group were naturally quiet and it felt as though we had to whisper as the lights moved above us. After about a half hour or so, some of the group decided to climb higher. Due to my extreme FOMO, I was in their number. We were rewarded for the steep climb as we saw a show that I will remember forever. Not only was the sky streaked, but there was more of the dancing and twisting than we had seen the night before. This time, there were pink and purple tinges. Due to the angle of the mountain, had we stayed below, we would have missed out on this stunning display. Again, I had to practically be pushed down the mountain, I was so reluctant to leave. But it was time for second dinner – this time of delish lentil soup. All the food that Wandering Owl provides is homemade – the yummy biscuits, the hot choccy and the soup are all made with love.
On the walk/slide back down the mountain, I lived up to my reputation of being unsteady on the ice. There were a number of falls, but I didn’t care, I had seen the lights for the second night in a row, fulfilling one of my long held dreams. On the ride back to town, and what suddenly seemed like bright civilization, the group were rather quiet – contemplating the wonder that we had just seen.
The next day dawned bright and clear again. At this time of year, the sun rises after 8am and sets at about 3.30pm, so there are limited hours in which to see the sights. Liam and I decided to spend our last day visiting the shops of Tromso, which was once known as the “Paris of the North”. We eventually made our way to Mack Brewery. Mack is the northernmost brewery in the world. Until recently, they were entirely based in Tromso, however, as their operation has grown, they now have a plant about an hour outside of Tromso. They still microbrew in the town, as well as providing tours. So off we went.
Mack has a chequered history, passed from father to son, with fires, prohibition and near-bankruptcies in the past. However, life for Mack is currently rosy. I loved hearing the anecdotes about how they were modernizing, but still remaining true to their roots. One story about how they had a site all picked out to move into, but how when excavations began, they discovered so many Viking artefacts, that they were forced to relocate – particularly amazed me. Before long, we were in the final room of the tour in the microbrewery. Here, all the beer is brewed to long play records. The vats are painted with rock legends – Elvis, Lemmy, Patti Smith, Jonny Cash and Ringo Starr to name a few. When you buy a box of this batch beer, it comes with a QR code on the box and bottle so that you can access the Spotify playlist of what your beer listened too as it brewed. I loved this quirky detail!
And then, all too soon it was time to board the bus to the airport and my lovely surprise-a-second holiday was over. I can honestly say it took days for the comedown from this holiday to kick in. I was so excited and happy to have seen the Northern Lights, to have been husky sledding and to have been the coldest I have ever been as a Kiwi. Should you ever wish to surprise a loved one, that is how I would recommend that you do it. No details, no clues and no information. And then you will be rewarded with their face and genuine excitement at every turn.
Photos by Nicola Whyte & Liam