TRAVEL: Northern Lights a stunning display in chilly Tromso
FED up with our stinking-hot summers? Me, too, so this year I saw the light and headed to colder climes of the far north of the planet to see the stunning Northern Lights show in northern Norway.
How does minus 11 sound?
And as a bonus you stand a great chance of seeing perhaps the greatest light show on Earth, even better than Sydney's New Year's Eve show.
We were lucky enough to see the glorious green lights swirl across the sky just outside our base in the city of Tromso in Norway's far north, inside the Arctic Circle.
The first lights night was a bit of a disappointment. We encountered only faint traces of green that were much more prominent though the lenses of cameras. The fact that it was a full moon did not help matters either.
But there were other compensations for our $160 ticket - getting up close with huskies at their base camp while we waited for the lights to appear, receiving an informative chat from a guide (a Scot who lives in the USA but visits Norway regularly), and enjoying toasted marshmallows, then a frankly average meal inside a teepee but with pleasant conversation.
It was one of more than 70 "see-the-lights” tours from Tromso, some of which go chasing the swirling spectacle in an effort to find the best possible display viewing site.
Happy but hoping for more, we tried again two nights later and the result was spectacular. It was a show of stunning greens across the sky as we stood in the snow in what appeared to be a very out-of-the way spot, Ersfjord, about 30 minutes drive from downtown Tromso.
This trip began with some reservations. We had booked from the major local website and waited at the tourist centre. Soon, a middle-aged man turned up. He spoke poor English. We went to his van, unmarked, and found that we were the only guests. We eventually arrived at "base camp” underneath a suburban house but with food (smoked salmon sandwiches, coffee etc).
Here he checked the night sky on his computer.
Then, with shoe spikes strapped on, we followed him down an icy path alongside the fjord where he built a fire and took us further down the track to await the lights which frankly took their time.
But then after an hour the show began and kept on coming. Waves of green swirling from right to left, at times dancing and prancing.
Frozen but happy we returned to the camp for more coffee and then the trip home. Along the way our host excitedly pulled the van over and pointed to yet another light show - even brighter than before. We scurried outside to take in the show.
So, in the end, a great night out after an uncertain start.
It would be wise to check out the main website (visittromso.no) before you visit, or head into the tourist office in town on arrival. The office was doing a roaring trade so be prepared to wait, or visit other providers' offices in town.
Picture-postcard Tromso, surrounded by mountains and water (it's actually an island) has other activities in winter including dog sled and reindeer riding/driving, and snowmobiles, and there are other options if you head further afield.
Don't leave Tromso without getting the best seat in town, from the lookout at the top of the chairlift above the city. We had a gloriously clear day up there. My more adventurous wife took off for a walk through at times slippery ice to get an even better view. Be warned, the ice can be treacherous. I ended up on my backside on a couple of occasions, so make sure you have sturdy, non-slip shoes. Consider buying a pair of spikes that strap onto your soles.
Another day we took to the water for a cruise around the island. There were only two other guests (an English couple) on this weird-looking catamaran. The stand-in skipper was informative, the pinks of the snowy mountains and the yellows at sunset were sights to behold and the cook's waffles weren't half bad either.
Downtown Tromso is worth a gander, too, with museums and many cute and colourful timber buildings.
We stayed in one a couple of streets from downtown - the Red Old House. We found it on booking.com and it was perfect. The owners were a delight. The house was a bit retro but homely - living room, bedroom, oldish bathroom, small kitchen but it was fine. It was good value in what is a notoriously expensive country. Even supermarkets weren't cheap. Hamburgers were $30 in eateries.
You have to rug up big time. Minus 11 is no fun if you're not prepared. For my wife and myself, it was a case of thermal undersuits, at least one pair of trousers, a couple of pairs of socks, at least a couple of jumpers, a seriously warm top coat, scarf (an absolute must) and warm beanie.
Still, for us at least, preferable to the sweaty times back home. So rug up and enjoy the greatest light show in the world.
The writer paid for his own trip.
WHEN TO GO: September to April, but preferably the first two or three months of the year.
WHERE TO GO: Lots of places in northern Norway but we decided on Tromso, supposedly the centre of the lights' belt.
HOW TO GO: We flew Norwegian Airlines from London Gatwick three-and-a-half hours, reasonable fares of $125 each way, with no dramas at Gatwick or the tiny Tromso airport.
WHERE TO STAY: Many tourists stay in major hotels in town but we went to booking.com to find The Red Old House which was great. If you go say hello to the owners who live upstairs, but watch that wobbly railing on the entrance stairs.