We’re approaching the three year mark living in Geneva, which means the future and where we will be living starts to be a little uncertain for us. So with our sense of wanderlust, that means that we have been seriously assessing our bucket list and trying to cross off the things we have left that we want to see the most. Lukasz was lucky enough to cover Finland for work at one point so he has had some great experiences in the Arctic…but the boys and I haven’t and I had two dreams for an Arctic adventure-1) to see the Northern Lights and 2) to dogsled. Spoiler alert…unfortunately both of those items are still on my bucket list (!) but we had a wonderful adventure anyway in Northern Norway.
We flew into Tromsø, Norway mainly because it was the most convenient and cost effective way for us to get to the Arctic. Tromsø lies 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and is the largest city in Northern Norway. Because of its position on the sea and the warming effect of the gulf stream, Tromsø has a milder climate than other places at the same latitude. Tromsø is also known as one of the best places in Northern Norway to view the northern lights.
When we went we had the craziest February weather that the locals we spoke with had ever seen. A warm front had come through and melted all the snow just before we got there and we arrived to rain and incredibly strong winds. There is normally at least a meter of snow on the ground in February, so it was very unusual. We were a little bit panicked as to what we would do all week with no snow since all of our plans centered around snow activities, but in the end we still had a lot of fun. Here are five tips for making the most of a family trip to the Arctic no matter what the weather!
- Rent a car and stay outside of the city.
To really experience the beauty of Northern Norway (and increase your odds of seeing those magical Northern lights), you need to get out into the gorgeous countryside. We stayed three nights in one of these charming cabins on the Lyngenfjord in the tiny fishing village of Koppangen. Looking out onto the sea, it truly felt like we were at the ends of the earth and in fact I loved the directions to the cabins which included “drive until you reach the end of the road and then you have arrived.”
As I mentioned, the weather was not ideal when we arrived late Sunday night and unfortunately when we woke up Monday morning it was even worse. We spent the day getting groceries for our couple of days at the cabin and just driving around to enjoy the scenery since it was too windy and rainy to be outside.
Still gorgeous even in terrible weather!
As the sun set around 3 pm, we went back to the cabin to try and make plans for what we could do with the rest our time if the bad weather kept up. We spent the afternoon playing games we had brought to the cabin, having happy hour with Arctic beers for the grown ups, and some afternoon sauna time. All in all not a bad day.
We debated some options for the next day including driving two hours south to Northern Finland where we could take a snowmobiling tour and stay overnight the next night but the forecast looked about the same for there and we would be trading our charming cabin for more of a hostel type accommodation so we decided to just stick with where we were. We also had a better forecast for the Northern Lights were we were so we kept our fingers crossed and hoped the lights would come out for us.
2. Play in the snow and enjoy nature…and watch for those famous Northern Lights!
Thankfully on Tuesday we woke up to much better weather and those crazy winds had finally died down. This was the day we were supposed to go dogsledding (the owner of the cabins, Alf, had arranged it with a place that only takes small groups out and is much cheaper than the tours in Tromsø), but unfortunately there was not enough snow left to do it. The good news was that Alf was able to take his snowmobile and pack down some of the snow behind his house to make a sledding track for us, so we were able to take the kids out for some sledding and fun in the snow that remained. In some places it was still quite a lot of snow, but the quality of it just wasn’t good from all the rain and warm temps. You would take a step and simply sink down in it. At any rate, we spent a fun couple of hours sledding and walking on the trail along the water’s edge.
When there is much more snow, you can use these super fun looking kick sleds where the kids can sit in front and you walk/run behind it and jump on the rails for a ride when you pick up speed. The property also had snow shoes, which would be a great way to get out and explore the surrounding mountains. When researching our trip, I had read to make sure and plan plenty of activities so you’re not just sitting around waiting for the Northern Lights to show up. Alas, we tried to cover our bases-but you can’t control the weather!!! We were happy just to be able to get outside so that was a big improvement!
As for the Northern Lights, you need two things to be able to see them…1) the electromagnetic activity that causes the lights and 2) clear skies to see them. Unfortunately for us, that evening there was plenty of activity but the clouds just wouldn’t part to give us a clear view. The cabins have a hot tub that was so fun to sit out in and watch for the lights and when the activity finally started we could see the sky lighting up behind the clouds, but no clear views of them. The nice thing about renting a car for a trip like this with kids is that if there are forecasts for clear skies and high activity somewhere, you can get tips on where to drive and wait for them and the kids can just relax or sleep in the car until the lights come out. We didn’t wind up having clear skies a single night out of our trip, which is just all the more reason I need to plan a trip back to this beautiful part of the world! Next time we will stay for longer as I think that’s the best way to really increase your odds of seeing the lights.
Would have had front row seats to the show if those clouds just would have parted!
3. Take a boat ride
Since this was our second trip to Norway, we knew that one of the best ways to experience the fjords is to get out on a boat! We had read that the views of the the Lyngen Alps are stunning from the other side of the fjord so on Tuesday after playing in the snow, we headed out on a car ferry with no aim other than to see the views and drive around a bit on the other side of the fjord. The kids of course loved the car ferry…we packed lunches and ate them on board and we enjoyed the views from the top deck too, which was one benefit of having such warm temperatures!
The scenery here was absolutely breathtaking and I was in photog heaven!! It was fun to just drive around and find beauty around every corner. I can only imagine how beautiful it would be covered in deep snow!
On Wednesday we enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Tromsø, taking the slightly longer route so that we could see the scenery that had looked so gorgeous on our late night drive in when we arrived. It definitely didn’t disappoint!
4. Experience the “City”
Tromsø is certainly more of a town than a city with a population of around 75,000 but it also has the world’s northernmost university that makes it feel like a young and fun little town.
We stayed at the Radisson Blu, which was a good base for exploring the town. A highlight for the boys was Polaria, the most northern aquarium in the world. While it is quite small, there is enough to keep small children entertained for a good hour or two including a couple of movies about the Arctic and the Northern Lights, Arctic sea life, seals that have a feeding show daily, and a small play area with slides and soft toys.
After an outing for the kids, we decided we needed an outing for us as well so we ventured to Mack, the world’s northernmost brewery, for a pint.
Also worth visiting is the interesting Arctic cathedral on the other side of the bridge into Tromsø. And we really enjoyed a dinner at Da Pinocchio-service was great, pizzas were delicious, and they had a small play corner for the kids.
5. Go Meet a Reindeer
One of the first things I booked for this trip was a tour with Tromsø Arctic Reindeer Experience mostly based on their excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. The indigenous Sami people own the reindeer that roam in Northern Norway and this is an experience where you get to meet the reindeer in their winter pasture and learn a bit about the local Sami tribe. This type of thing can sometimes be a bit hokey, so I wasn’t quite sure how it would go, but I have to say it was absolutely the highlight of our trip.
You are transported by bus from the Radisson Blu to the Sami camp about 25 minutes outside of the city. Once you’re there you meet a few of the members of the Sami tribe who explain all about feeding the reindeer. Then you have about an hour to feed the reindeer and you can also choose the option of going for a ride in a sled pulled by reindeer. We had chosen to do the sledding but unfortunately no snow still! Even without the sledding experience, it was still a wonderful day.
After feeding the reindeer, the kids got to try their hand at lassoing-which they thought was so awesome! Then there was a delicious lunch around a fire consisting of reindeer stew or a vegetarian stew that was fantastic, plus cake, coffee, and hot chocolate. After lunch a member of the tribe spoke about local Sami culture and passed around some of their gorgeous handicrafts. He also led us in a joik, which is a sort of folk song the Sami express to honor someone or something in their lives. It was beautiful and quite moving. Everyone we met at this experience was so incredibly kind and welcoming and most especially, they were so wonderful with our children. I cannot say enough about how special the experience was and I would absolutely recommend it!
Sadly, we learned on the bus back into town about the perilous position this particular Sami tribe is in. The Sami people do not own the land they work, they are simply granted the rights to use the land by the government. However, the government has plans to turn this land that this particular tribe uses into an industrialized harbor. The Tromsø Arctic Reindeer Experience started as a means to use tourism to show the government that the land has value as it is and hopefully to change the government’s mind and allow the land to remain untouched. So even more reason to go visit and to support this wonderful place!
So that’s our trip and our top recommendations to have an amazing trip to the Arctic-no matter what the weather! I’ve got big ideas to hopefully return one day and do a road trip through Northern Norway and into Northern Finland and maybe we will get lucky and see those mystical lights next time. 🙂