Matthew Brace braves the frozen expanses of Norway and Iceland in mid-winter on a romantic Arctic odyssey in search of the Northern Lights.
We stood on the tip of a frozen jetty overhanging the coal-black water of the Oslofjord. It was 5.30pm but felt like midnight. The sun had been down for more than an hour and the temperature was plummeting. We could have chosen Bora Bora for our January break – or balmy Barbados – but instead we were in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, in mid-winter, dressed in full Arctic gear, catching snowflakes on our tongues. Clearly this was going to be a very different kind of romantic getaway.
We woke the next morning enveloped in the sheets and kitten-soft blankets of the magnificent Thief Hotel and threw back the curtains to find Oslo quilted with more than a foot of snow. More was falling as we sat in our polo-necks and enjoyed possibly the best hotel breakfast known to travelling kind: local cheeses, nutty breads, crisp bacon, fluffy scrambled eggs, rich warm paté (made in the depths of the polar night), yoghurts and homemade fruit juices and bowls of sharp-sweet Scandinavian berries.
The Thief is a gloriously welcoming hotel that makes you want to spend the day inside, cocooned with a book by the fireplace, taking afternoon tea or an early evening Linie aquavit in the lobby, and admiring the weather from the comfort of an armchair. But we only had a day in Oslo so we had to forgo the cosiness and get out there. By the time we had squeezed ourselves into our thermals and layered up with jumpers and jackets, the sun had come out and the city was Christmas-card pretty.
We crunched through the snow, dropping in at the amazing Viking Ship Museum (temporarily closed until 2025), catching a tasty (if expensive) lunchtime snack at the Mathallen food hall off Maridalsveien, window-shopping in the Grünerløkka district and warming up with coffee and cake (and a local beer called Aass) at the Fuglen Café on Universitetsgata (look for the flying bird sign). Fuglen doubles as a vintage furniture store, with some amazing chairs and lamps.
A day later, our freshly de-iced Norwegian Air 737 was flying high over the wondrous fjords, carrying us north to the Arctic city of Tromso. Tromso sits at 69oN, 350km north of the Arctic Circle, and is known as one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, but our bed for the night was even further north, another hour by local taxi towards the fishing village of Hansnes. We arrived at Hav Og Fjell just before dusk and were welcomed by the owner Marit, who showed us to our cabin, one of only five. When I say ‘cabin’, what I really mean is a luxuriously cosy, fully functioning, beautifully designed, two-storey, four-bedroom, pine-wood chalet with in-house sauna, fitted kitchen, underfloor heating, pot-bellied stove, fjord-side deck and cute Juliet balcony.
To cap it all, Marit offers great food in the main house next to the cabins. On our first evening, we slithered over the icy driveway to the house, clinging to each other like first- time skaters. High above the cold, dark fjord and the snow- flecked mountains, the Northern Lights were warming up. Their peppermint green candle-flames grew slowly and then blossomed across the sky, billowing like curtains in a breeze, spreading themselves across the heavens, and then retracting and fading to a dull horizon glow. We dined by candlelight on delicious halibut (caught in the fjord), broccoli and locally grown Arctic potatoes, and sipped dark Norwegian beer, before slithering out again and hanging onto some obliging birch trees to watch the lights once more before bed.
We caught the bus into Tromso the next morning (yes, there’s a bus and it stops just by the cabins) to stock up on food, check emails and buy some handwoven blankets as souvenirs. But for the four days after that we did nothing but sleep, cook, eat, poach ourselves in the sauna, read books by the log fire and gaze through the large picture windows across the waters of our tranquil fjord (it was definitely “our” fjord by now).
At night we rugged up and walked down to the little fjord beach to watch the Northern Lights, gloved hand in gloved hand. On some nights they barely showed while on others they were vibrant, dancing and swirling like dervishes. Then we raced back to the front door, bundled in and sipped Linie aquavit nightcaps by the fire.
Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland
It was a wrench leaving Hav Og Fjell but we had more excitement to come on the second part of our Arctic odyssey, as we flew across the Norwegian Sea to Iceland and headed inland from the capital, Reykjavik, to the rift valley of Thingvellir. This is one of only a few places in the world where you can witness two major tectonic plates (in this case, Eurasia and North America) emerging from the earth and tearing apart from each other. All other so-called divergent zones on land are elsewhere in Iceland and in the Great Rift Valley in Africa – the rest are under the oceans.
Don’t expect fireworks and lava flows, however, because the pace of separation is glacial, but it’s still thrilling to stand on this geologically powerful spot. It’s difficult to get a sense of the breadth of the valley from the ground and impossible to know where Eurasia ends and North America begins so forget the geology and instead take a picnic and find a good vantage point on Highway 36 as it climbs the eastern slopes of the valley. There are some parking places and you can explore (carefully!) the amazing split rocks and chasms.
On previous trips to Iceland we’ve always driven back to Reykjavik in the evening but this time we were booked at a fabulous Design Hotel on the edge of the rift valley, called Ion Adventure Hotel. Iceland is famous for its amazing design and the hotel is a perfect example of imaginative architecture in a challenging environment.
The hotel reaches out from the base of an ancient lava cliff, its weight carried on steel and concrete pillars. At the far end is a glass box, which houses the Northern Lights Bar and hovers above the hotel’s spa and its outdoor hot-spring pool.
We dined in Silfra restaurant on cured Arctic char and tender, succulent cod (the hotel’s New Nordic cuisine is already famous) and sipped a recent invention: the Northern Light cocktail. The culinary team told us they had created it after much “fun experimentation and several group hangovers”. It comes in a tall champagne flute and perfectly reproduces the graded greens, blues and purples of the magical lights. Ion’s remote location means there are no artificial lights to spoil the view outside so its icy car park is where everyone goes after supper to watch for the lights.
On our last night we put on every single piece of warm clothing we had and out-stayed the other couples outside, and were rewarded with a dazzling, 60-second burst of lights, flickering, swooping and spiralling… just for us. A thrilling finale to our romantic Arctic adventure.
Related: Chasing Waterfalls in Iceland
NEED TO KNOW
MORE INFO: Visit Tromso
SLEEP: The Thief
SHOP: Grünerløkka district and Karl Johan’s Gate.
SLEEP: Hav Og Fjell; self-catering and small restaurant.
SHOP: Arts and crafts shops near visitors centre and on Storgata. Get fish for your cabin kitchen from a fish van parked in Erling Bangsunds Plass most days (sometimes there’s a full market).
SEE/DO: Statue of famous Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (in park off Kaigata) and the stunning Arctic Cathedral.
THINGVELLIR, ICELAND SLEEP: Ion Adventure Hotel
EAT + DRINK: The hotel’s Northern Lights Bar and Silfra restaurant.
SEE/DO: Drive to the amazing waterfall of Gullfoss and the Strokkur geyser.
REYKJAVIK STOPOVER STAY: Reykjavik Residence.
Fine dining at Borg Restaurant in Borg Hotel on Póshússtræti.
SHOP: Best two streets for Icelandic arts, crafts and fashion are Laugavegar and Skólavörðustígur.
SEE/DO: Hallgrímskirkja church, the metal Viking ship statue ‘Sun Voyager’ and the literary relics in the National Center for Cultural Heritage.