Tuesday, 10 February 2009

A Winter Adventure in Norway!

I was so incredibly excited about visiting one of our winter destinations! I have spent countless hours looking at some of the amazing photos we have from Finland, Sweden and Norway.  So when I was told I would be visiting Norway I was desperate to experience the place for myself.

We flew out to Tromsø airport which is just over a three and a half hour direct flight from Gatwick.  Flying into Tromsø at night was very special with all of the lights from the town twinkling and reflecting in the river which runs through the town, the bridges lit up connecting the different parts of the town and the cable car station at Storsteinen which offers fantastic views over Tromsø and the surrounding area.


From the airport we picked up our car hire and set off into the Norwegian wilds following the ‘Northern Lights Route’ which weaved between the fjords and mountains.  Even in the darkness we could see the imposing scenery surrounding us.  We then arrived at the Vollan guesthouse which was a lovely cosy, quaint small hotel with just 13 rooms.  It also has a night club/ pizza bar in the basement for the opportunity to party with the locals.  We declined this opportunity however and I can safely say I did not hear a single noise from downstairs for the whole night that we stayed.

At Vollan Guesthouse we met with some of our local suppliers and ate our evening meal, which was really nice, tasty locally produced food myself and Jane had arctic char while Ali chose leg of baby goat.  When our plates were cleaned (which didn’t take long) we set off to stay at Camp Tamok which is a wilderness camp built by our suppliers in the area.  It consisted of two large covered Lavvu’s and one open air area with fireplace and seats etc.  There were then two Lavvu’s for guests to sleep in.  This was a bit of a shock at first going from my flat here in Newcastle to the middle of the Norwegian wilderness in one day however it was a truly wonderful experience.  At The White Circle make the effort to get as many staff as possible to get out and visit the suppliers, take part in their activities and stay in their accommodation.  This camp was the perfect reason why this it is so important to see the destinations first hand because, to be honest, I did not have very high expectations of the camp and was not particularly looking forward to spending the night sleeping on the ground in a cold tent.  However I could not have been more wrong. 

We were very well looked after whilst being there and guide stayed nearby overnight, the reindeer skins we slept on were extremely comfortable and I think the sleeping bags would have kept you warm anyway regardless of the small gas burner in each wooden lavvu and the hot coffee, basic continental breakfast and few inches of fresh snow fall were very welcome in the morning and I bounded out of my sleeping bag desperate to see this place properly in the light and take many photos however it was still dark.  The only disappointment with the camp was that we did not get to try the outdoor hot tub and sauna! Although Hans Olav, who is one of the owners of the company did say that while worthwhile the (optional!?) jump into the frozen river afterwards felt “like you were dead.” 

From our night in the camp we were then taken to the equipment shelter to get kitted up for our first activity.  Even this building (which looked like a garage from the outside) was beautifully decorated with reindeers skins on the wall and complete with racks and racks of all in one snow suits and snow boots to fit every size, baskets of gloves, socks and hats and also some (rather fetching!!) huge woollen, green jumpers which, honestly, I was immensely grateful for several hours later.  We were then taken on the minibus to meet our huskies and our guide named Tom Froda.  

The dogs were SO excited to be going on one of their first outings of the season.  This started with one or two whining to be let out of the transport which quickly spread to all of the 24 dogs whining and barking to free.  Then as each one was released and harnessed to the sleighs they instantly started trying to pull (I quickly realised why each sleigh was either anchored into the ground or to the nearest car or building) and the louder and the more excited the dogs got the quieter and more nervous I became.  Especially when Jane helpfully told me “If you can hold on for the first 100 metres then they will calm down and you should be able to survive the rest…” Brilliant.  

Eventually all of the dogs were harnessed in, the noise was deafening and I was starting to feel quite nauseous at the thought of being pulled by these animals who, it seemed to me, were very close to taking off with the parked van trailing behind! Me and Jane were sharing a sled so she took the reigns first while I sat in the sleigh.  As she said we set off at (what seemed like 100 mph) but once we survived the first rush then the dogs settled into a rhythm and I started to look through my fingers at the amazing mountain scenery as we were pulled across the frozen lake.  With such breath taking scenery I was perfectly happy to lean back, listen to the soft panting and footsteps of the dogs and feel completely peaceful and immersed in this completely different world which could not seem further away than my day to day.  This was of course until we reached the other side of the frozen lake and had to navigate the small forest on the other side….

The first time we fell off I just decided to roll off the sleigh and keep rolling as fast as I could off the track in an attempt to not be run over by the 4 dogs and their musher behind.  This did work however I think Jane was so shocked I had abandoned the sleigh she promptly fell off also.  We lay in the snow and started laughing at each other until Jane looked up and w every quickly realised the dogs had not stopped and were still dragging the (now empty) sleigh across the next frozen lake.  Chasing 5 fleeing huskies in a snowsuit, snow boots, hat and gloves whilst howling with laughter was not the easiest thing I have ever done however Tom Froda (I can only guess how!!) had managed to stop our run away sleigh whilst controlling his own and very soon we were off again.  I wish I could say that was the only time we had to complete the run of shame but I think the final tally was Amy and Jane – 6, Ali – 4 and even Tom Froda fell off once!  And yes, I did get my chance to take the reins for myself on the journey back and as tranquil and as vast as the scenery had seemed on the journey out controlling or ‘Mushing’ the dogs was a completely different exhilarating thrilling experience which I am still trying to describe to everyone who asks me!  It was just awesome.

Over breakfast that morning the guide explained to us that during this time of year they only have a few limited hours of ‘daylight’ now this may put many people off visiting (lets face it we get enough long dark days here at home) however as the week wore on I was amazed at the different types and colours of daylight they experience and at no point during the day is it truly pitch black. There is blue light, then day light and then a few hours of pink light in the afternoon (and then hopefully the northern lights at when it does get truly dark).  Trust me it’s an improvement on any light we have in the UK.

After stopping for a late lunch we then went back to the Vollan Guesthouse, Hans Olav had told us the day before that the company had organised a surprise for us and we had spent most of the day trying to guess what it could be.  Our guesses ranged from a special meal, night time snowmobile safari, horse riding, ice fishing to a reindeer sleigh.  So you can imagine our surprise when a lady named Tove met us who revealed that we were going to a nearby wellness centre for a water massage and to try a flotation tank.  Well after a very long day travelling, a night in camp Tamok and then a day dog sledding she was instantly mine and Jane’s new best friend! Ali did look a little less convinced however. 

Tove took us to what looked like a normal house a short walk away where we she told us they did acupuncture, aromatherapy and massage.  It was a lovely centre with state of the art facilities and completely what I needed to refresh.  We all slept very well that night indeed!

The next day we spent in the car travelling to visit Sven Engholm at Karasjok where we planned to spend the night.  It was a very long journey at just under 500 km, not helped by the fact that we got very lost and when we rang Sven and read out the names on the nearest road sign he told us ‘Just carry on, you cant get lost its one road’ unfortunately we had already gone wrong and we were actually heading in the complete wrong direction to Karasjok.  In the end we ended up around 280km away from Karasjok and, thankfully, near one of our main suppliers in Finland so we were able to stay there for the night and we set off extremely early to ensure as much time as possible with Sven. 

During this journey we stopped at a small town in Finland called Kilpisjarvi which Ali has always wanted to visit and hopefully develop a programme in the area.  We were only able to stay for an hour however this was probably the most beautiful place I have ever been.  The views from the cabins there were astounding and every window looked like a picture someone had painted.  It was breathtaking.

It was so so worth the early start to be able to meet Sven Engholm.  His reputation had already preceded him and every musher you speak to know’s Sven and you can see the respect on their faces.  He has won the longest dog sled race in Europe 11 times and he is also a top ten finisher in the ‘Iditarod’ its over 1150 miles of the wildest Alaskan terrain you can imagine.  It usually takes the mushers between 10 – 17 days! Jane was so excited to meet Sven she introduced herself as ‘Hi, I’m Amy.. erm Jane.  I’m Jane’ We stayed with Sven for several hours after looking round each of the cabins he had made and I hung off every word he said.  He was such a genuinely nice guy and I felt honoured to have spent time getting to know him.  His cabins were an absolute work of art! Each one was built and designed by Sven and each one is slightly different.  They all have different quirks for example the dining table is suspended by old chains from the ceiling or the stools are made out of tree stumps so they all look unique.  In each cabin the three of us just stood and looked and pointed things out to each other.  It was very hard to make me leave!

From Karasjok we drove to Alta, checked into our hotel and went out for dinner with Henrietta who is our rep in this area.  None of us really knew what to expect from Alta and after the previous few days it definitely had a lot to live up to and it definitely started well! We were taken to a local hotel to which is an option for the last night of our programme in Alta.  I can not recommend this meal highly enough! It was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life! King Crab starter, Reindeer steaks main course and sorbet for desert! Amazing! 

The next day we had a whistle stop tour of everything Alta has to offer.  We visited the local musher Eric and his huskies.  The dogs here had the most amazing names, in order to associate the dogs which were related the called them all similar names for example Gin and Tonic or Apple, Banana and Orange, Robbie and Justin (Robbie Williams and Justin Timberlake) I thought this was such a fun way of naming the dogs! Especially after you have used all the conventional ones such as frost, snow etc. We then went to visit where the snow hotel is built in the winter months.  Unfortunately they had not started construction however we did see the restaurant, changing rooms and other facilities there and had a very exciting meeting about the possibility of using it for winter weddings.  Here we had an equally amazing lunch (by this time we had noticed that everywhere we went we seemed to get fed! There were absolutely no complaints from us).  

We then travelled to Alta Museum where we were shown around by an extremely knowledgeable guide named Hans Christian.  He had a genuine interest and passion for his museum and he spoke about the ancient rock carvings found round the fjords at Alta and the ancient Sami lifestyle again we were all fascinated.  There was also a short exhibition about the Northern Lights and the observatory which was set up near Alta to monitor the lights hundreds of years ago.  We then ate again (obviously!) and chatted about the museum which won the European Museum of the year award in 1993.

Next on our itinerary it said pool inspection in Alta.  We assumed this would be a possible activity for our guests in the evenings and I even cheekily hoped we may be able to test the facilities ourselves!  This view quickly changed when they handed me a hard hat, steel toe cap boots and a hard hat.  The 250 million pound development should be open for the next winter season but even in its building stages you could see it was going to be very impressive complete with 25 metre swimming pool, gym, climbing wall above the pool and kids area! This job does take you to some strange places!

We went from the pool to meet some local Sami’s who had set up a centre for visitors to come and learn about their culture and the way they have survived for hundreds of years in the extreme conditions using reindeers to survive.  They had clothing made from reindeer skin, shoes, cribs for a baby and clothing.  We visited their Lavvu and ate reindeer stew (in case we were hungry!) It was very interesting and unbelievable looking at their clothes and protection against the elements when sat there in my state of the art duvet jacket how they survived.

From here we were taken back to the hotel and a few hours later we were picked up by Trygvor who was our guide to take us ‘Northern Lights Hunting’  He gave us a short description of what the northern lights are and how and why they are formed.  He also told us about some of the ancient beliefs of what the northern lights were.  Trygvor then produced a detailed weather forecast for Alta and the surrounding area and as we chose which direction to travel based on cloud cover and snow conditions I felt like a small child setting off on an adventure, it was very exciting and driving along I was craning my neck out of the car window looking for any sign of a shimmer of light.  After an hour or so of driving we stopped at a small café for coffee and waffles.  Unfortunately when we emerged half an hour later it was to a blizzard and we had to accept defeat and start the drive back to Alta.  Alas we did not see the northern lights that night however the stories and knowledge of our guide plus the excitement of exploring the new snowy dark landscape (stopping every now and then for the reindeer on the road) was an extremely memorable experience in itself.

The next morning we drove back to Tromso for our final night in Norway.  It was a very long drive and despite Ali’s snores from the back seat I thoroughly enjoyed the last few hours of the breathtaking Norwegian landscape out of the window with the imposing mountains, the vast beautifully coloured fjords and the adorable little houses which all looked so idyllic and warm and welcoming with their Christmas lights in the windows.  When we got to Tromso we had a few hours to explore by ourselves before meeting Hans Olav for our last meal.  Tromso is quite a large town or small city in comparison to the few clusters of houses strewn over the countryside with many shops.  There were lots of shops, bars and restaurants and the walk along the riverside was beautiful at night.  So after yet another amazing meal of local delicacies and wonderful new friends we had to go to bed for our very early flight in the morning and our time in Norway came to an end.

The visit was everything I expected, hoped for and couldn’t have even imagined.  The landscape was so breathtaking (There was a reason I took over 400 photos during the week), the people so friendly (I am genuinely excited for our clients to meet the people we met and to have the experiences I did) and the experiences were ones I will remember forever. 

-Amy Griffiths

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