Almost to the North Pole ~ My adventure in Tromso

27 09 2014

The Nordic region has always been on my “to go” list. The beautiful fjords, the mysterious northern lights and the excitement of getting “almost” to the North Pole will add up to what I will call a perfect vacation. So when friends happened to be in Norway, I decided to join them and embarked on my Norway adventure 🙂

Apart from the typical Oslo to Bergen trip through the beautiful fjords (see https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/norwayinthenutshell/), I decided to make a side trip into the Arctic Circle to Tromso, often known as the Paris of the North and the gateway to the Arctic. It was a 2 hours flight from Oslo and as the plane was approaching Tromso, the view was breathtaking with beautiful fjords covered in snow. I would say that Tromso is a nice little city with scenic landscape.

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The city area is pretty small and walkable from one end to another. The most iconic sight in Tromso is the Arctic Cathedral, which stood across the Tromso bridge at the “opposite” band. Built in 1965, the Cathedral is structurally distinct, inspired by Northern Norway’s landscape. When night falls, it is beautifully lighted up and stood like a shining star in the dark Arctic night.

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Behind the Cathedral is the Fjellheisen Cable Car that takes one up the Storsteinen Hill which is 420 metres above sea level. I will highly recommend that you do this ride up as it offers breathtaking panoramic view over the city and the surrounding mountains and fjords. For museum lovers, there are many museums in Tromso and they are great places to be in when it is either too cold or too wet. Even for those who are not fans of museums, l will suggest that you check out at the information counter of the “free admission” museums. Trust me you will need them when the weather is just too miserable for you to stay out.

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If you have the time, head to the Lyngen Alps outside of Tromso is a beautiful area with awesome scenery. It is about an hour’s drive to the ferry terminal and 30 minutes ferry ride across the fjord to the Lyngen Alps. The Lyngen Alps is a great place all year round for activities. In summer, you could do hiking around the area and in winter, winter activities like snow mobile, snow shoeing, dog sledding and so on. I rode the snow mobile to get around and see the Lyngen Alps, which has beautiful frozen lake, snow cave and pristine landscape. Oh yes, 2 interesting incidents took place during my snow mobile ride. A friend lost control of her snow mobile and fell off the snow mobile. Thankfully she was not hurt but was obviously prohibited from driving the snow mobile after the 2nd fall lol. The other incident was that one of my legs got stuck and buried in the snow while attempting to climb up a hill to find the snow cave and I have to be pulled out of the snow by my friend. Interesting and hilarious experiences haha.

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I am happy to share my itinerary, just drop me a note with your email details via the comment if you are interested.

 

Tips for Tromso:
1) You can take the flybus from Tromso airport to the city centre. It costs NOK 70 and takes around 15 minutes to get to the city centre.
2) For northern nights tour, I know many people will recommend the small vans which promise to “chase” the lights. Particularly, Guide Gunnar is highly recommended by friends and family who have been on the chase with him. However, during the time that I was there, he was not available and hence I signed up with Greenfox (a small van tour operator who also promises to chase the lights) and another one with the big bus tour. After chasing 2 nights with different tour operators, I feel that there is not much of a different as big bus tour will chase the lights too and is much cheaper. Also, the big buses will have a toilet on the bus which will come in handy for a long night chase (remember you are out for at least 6 hours). For smaller vans, you just have to use the “natural toilets” aka combat style toilets so may not be convenient for ladies.
3) Friends were asking whether Norway is preferred to view the Northern Lights, or whether Iceland is better. You need clear skies and a good level of activity to see the lights. The general view is that Norway offers a better view, though if the activity is strong, Iceland could also offer equally great view. The weather in both Norway and Iceland are equally unpredictable. Thus, I typically will recommend Iceland if you have limited time as there are more things to see/do in Iceland apart from Northern lights. For Norway, you will need to fly all the way to Tromso or other parts of Lapland and there are fewer things to do there. If you have more time (2 weeks), Norway will be great as you can then combine with sightseeing in other parts of Norway such as Oslo to Bergen across the fjords. For a more stable weather (increasingly your chance to see the Northern lights), you may want to consider going to Finland and Sweden instead.
4) For dog sledding, do note that if the snow is “fresh”, it will be difficult for the dogs to pull and hence you may need to help the dogs by running along with them. This can be physically tiring so if you are not in the best shape, do let the tour operator knows so that they can see how they can help.

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5) If you are a student, remember to bring your student card (any student card issued by your institution would do). You will be entitled to discounts on transportation, entrance fees and tours. I managed to save quite a fair bit thanks to my student card 🙂
5) The power voltage in Norway is 250V. So when you bring your travel adapter, make sure it can take up to 250V, particularly for hairdryer. My friends learnt this the hard way by blowing 2 adapters lol. Alternatively (and I will recommend this), ask the hotel whether they can lend you theirs.

 

Food:
1) Many people commented that food in Norway is expensive. I agree and will say that Tromso is the most expensive place in Norway that I have been to! A simple meal of sandwiches and a drink will set you back at least USD 30-40. However, if you top up slightly (say around USD 40-50), you can get quite a decent meal of a nice main course (eg cod, salmon), drinks and possibly dessert. The fine dining restaurants seem to have comparable prices as what you would be paying elsewhere (surely cheaper than Singapore and Australia). So I suggest that if you can, just top a little for a better meal. It is much more worth the value.
2) Do try out Emma’s. It is really a nice restaurant and the price for lunch is super reasonable (around US$30 for a good meal). I highly recommend the fried cod tongue as the starter. It tastes like the fish meat so nothing offensive. Emma (the owner) was nice enough to split our starter into 3 separate portions so that we could share the food. The service was great and Emma came over to chat with us and we made friends with Emma. We find the lunch so good that we decided to go back for dinner for the next evening which is more expensive. For dinner, do try the dried cod (super yummy) as it is one of the signature Norwegian dishes. The steam cod loin and fried Char was good too. I was pleasantly surprised that Emma told her staff to give us free sparkling wine (saw that only our table has it). So it is always great to make more friends haha! Do make a reservation beforehand as it is a pretty popular restaurant.

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3) For cakes and coffee, Eli’s cafe is a nice one. They serve sandwiches too and I love their scrimps and salmon bagel.

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Accommodation:
I stayed at Viking Hotel Tromso. It is a simple 3 stars hotel, nothing fancy. The room is like the usual Norwegian standard, very small (and I stress again the “very”) but clean. It is slightly a little walk from the city centre (though not too far), around 5 minutes walk to tourist information center and 10 minutes walk to the Rica Ishavs Hotel which is the meet-up point for most tours. The one good thing about the hotel is that it served free waffles and hot drinks in the lobby for afternoon tea. I will recommend this place if you are just looking for a clean room to sleep without hurting your pockets.

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Iceland ~ Land of fire & ice, northern lights, elves, trolls and tons of fun

9 06 2013

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One of my favourite past time when I was young was to look at world maps. I know this seems like a strange past time for a young girl but I was really interested to know what are the countries in the world and where they are located (even though it may not make too much sense to me lol). “The land far far away” (aka Antartica, Iceland and Greenland) somehow caught my interest, God knows why, and I dreamt of the day that I may step foot on them and prayed also for the chance to see the northern lights (aurora borealis). Luckily for me, an opportunity to visit Iceland came, with Icelandair offering great deals with return flights from London and hotel accomodation costing only 299 pounds, with the opportunity to see the northern lights (since it’s winter months)! How can anyone resist such temptation? Surely not me 🙂

On the flight from London to Reykjavik, I was so excited that I will soon be stepping foot on Iceland, the land of ice (and fire). Surprisingly, throughout my trip, there was not much of ice in the country that is named ICE-land. I found out later that Iceland is also known as the land of fire and ice as it has lots of geo-thermal activities (the “fire”) and glaciers (the “ice”). But nevertheless, the trip was really an amazing one.

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, of which majority of the country’s 320,000 population resides in this city. But even as a capital, the city has a rather tranquil and chill feel. It was a nice walk from the top of the city centre (where the Rekjavik Church is) to the waterfront, lined with nice little houses that has colourful roottop. Even though the streets are filled with many souvenier shops selling Icelandic wool sweaters, winter wear, souveniers, etc, they were not swarmed with tourists unlike in other major cities. Icelanders believe in the existence of elves, trolls, gnomes and hidden beings and so you may want to bring some of these “little friends” back home as a souvenier 🙂

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One of the classic sightseeing route out of Rekjavik is the “Golden Circle” which includes some of Iceland’s most stunning sights. About an hour drive from Rekjavik, I reached Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park which is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the geological wonders of the world. Having studied Geography in high school, it amazed me to see the cracks caused by the tectonic plate movements as this is the place where the North American and Eurasian plates meet. I was pretty much excited to be able to walk from “Europe” (the Eurasian plate) to “America” (the North American plate). So despite the rain which caused parts of the bridge linking the 2 plates to be flooded, I still decided to do the 20 minutes walk which enables me to get up close to see (and touch) part of the plates. Interesting, this place is also where the Icelandic Parliament was founded in the 10th century.

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From Thingvellir, it was another hour drive to the magnificent Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall. This waterfall is created where the river Hvítá tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 32 m (105 ft.) deep. There is short trail out to the falls (very manageable walk) and I will recommend that you take it as the view is spectacular. Here’s also a good stop to break for lunch as it has a nice caferia where you can get free-flow of soup and bread.

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Another interesting sight along the Golden Circle route is the geysir Strokkur which shoots up into the air a column of water (up to 30 metres) every 4-8 minutes. A word of warning though – keep a close watch of the wind direction and avoid standing at the area where the wind in blowing or else be prepared to get wet!

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Before heading back to Rekjavik, I stopped by the Skálholt cathedral which, unlike the Rekjavik church, has a “simple feel”.

If you have more days to spend in Iceland, I would highly recommend a drive to the south coast of Iceland which is known as one of the country’s most scenic region. I love the Seljalandsfoss waterfall the most out of all the waterfalls that I have seen in Iceland. It is unique in that you can walk behind it and through to the other side (or more correctly climbing up rocks, walking on muddy paths behind the falls and then climbing down the rocks). It is not tedious but just that you have to be careful especially when coming down from the other side but I will say that it is well worth it and pretty fun 🙂

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The majestic and much-photographed Skógafoss waterfall, with its 60m drop is also a nice stop along the south coast drive. Here, I literally risked my life climbing up to the side of the cliff to get a nice photo shoot of the waterfall but well, it wouldn’t be fun without such little adventure right?

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I also stopped by the famous volcanic glacier Eyjafjallajökull that erupted in the summer 2010. It was amazing to see blue ice from the glacier but yet kind of sad to hear that people were buried under the glacier when the volcano erupted.

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The charming village of Vik rested at the most southern tip of Iceland. It is surrounded by beautiful high bird cliffs, beautiful black sand coastline caused by the volcanic eruption and impressive Reynisdrangar rock formations.

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Oh yes, many people has asked me why I chose the winter season to visit Iceland and my answer is the northern lights. There are many other places in the northern hemisphere that can see the northern lights but I would say that Iceland is an ideal location for those who wants to see/do other stuff on top of just seeing the lights. The Icelandair promotion came with a free northern lights tour. However, I was almost losing hope that I would see the lights due to the poor weather condition (it was unexpectedly rainy and cloudy for 2 weeks with no sightings at all), which locals said it was abnormal at this point of the year and likely a result of global warming… I prayed really hard but each evening, I was met with disappointment when I saw the sign “Northern lights tours are NOT on tonight”. Thank God, I managed to witness what I will say is an amazing natural phenomenon on my last night in Iceland! I shouted out so loudly with joy when I saw the sign at the hotel stating “Northern lights tours are ON tonight”. Even though the solar activity was not really at the best level for great sighting, I would say that seeing the lights is really the climax of my whole Iceland trip and I know surely I will be back to this wonderful country someday!

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Food:

– In Rekjavik, just opposite the Rekjavik church, there is this traditional Icelandic cafe called “Cafe Loki”. You can try a couple of Icelandic food there, such as Hakarl (cured shark which I would say is an acquired taste – a little of an ammonia ), skyr ice cream (which is said to be pretty healthy), rugbrauo (which is a sweet bread that is traditionally baked by burying it in the ground near a hot spring and it is really yummy).

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– “Sea Baron” at Reykjavik waterfront is a nice little restaurant where I will highly recommend their lobster soup! You can also try their Minke whale on a stick which is a popular Icelandic dish (as well as other seafood/meat on a stick). Everyone was telling me that I should try the whale meat but seriously I felt so guilty after tasting a small piece of the whale meat! It tastes pretty much like beef but much tougher so I really don’t see why we need to kill those whales for their meat….

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– Lamb is almost like a staple in Iceland and everywhere you go, you will see lamb soup (which if you like lamb, you will find that the soup is pretty nice).

– I highly recommend “Icelandic Tapas Bar” in Rekjavik city centre, which is a tapas place that has an Icelandic twist. This is much better than the Tapashouse. I tried their platter which includes a couple of meat and smoked puffin. I have to admit that although puffin is cute, their meat is pretty nice (taste like duck – see the top right hand dish in the picture below)… guilt level increase though…

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– Once you get out of Rekjavik, it is harder to find eateries. For the Golden Circle route, there’re a couple of eateries at the few stops (eg Gulfoss, Geysir) and the drive is pretty short so I won’t worry too much. For the south coast drive, I recommend that you plan your itinerary in a way that you arrive in Vik at lunch time as there is a nice caferia just beside the duty free shop. Do try the Icelandic burger at Vik which is really yummy 🙂

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Tips:

– Getting to/from airport and city centre: There’s a transfer service operated by Flybus which is the cheapest way to get from the airport to the city centre. There’s free wifi on the bus.

– If you prefer not to drive, there are day tours operated by Rekjavik Excursions, Gray Line and other small operators that take you out of the city to the scenic part of Iceland. Rekjavik Excursion seems to be the most popular as the coaches offer free wifi but it is also slightly more expensive than the others.

– The currency in Iceland is Icelandic Krona and the best way (and best rates) to get it is from the ATM machine at the airport. Iceland is pretty cool in a sense that almost every shop accepts credit card so if you prefer, you can choose not to change any currency and just charge everything to your card, even for a coffee at the petrol kiosk!

– Iceland is well-known for its hot spring and spa and there’s a famous one (the Blue Lagoon) which is pretty near to Keflavik Airport. Unlike hot spring in Japan, the Blue Lagoon requires patrons to put on swim wear. If you want to save cost, you can bring along your own towels and bath robes, otherwise you can just pay to rent them at the Blue Lagoon. You can request for your hotel to arrange for shuttle service for you from the hotel to Blue Lagoon and then straight to the airport (or back to the city).

– Northern lights can generally be seen from October to early April. By end February, you get around 8 hours of day light a day which is pretty decent for sightseeing (sunrise around 9 plus in the morning and sets around 6 plus in the evening). The darkest time of the year will be winter solace which is around Christmas where you get less than 4 hours of daylight, while in summer, you get long daylight hours. So end February to March may be a good time to see the lights and yet have sufficient daylight hours for sightseeing.

Accomodation

– I stayed at Icelandair Hotel Natura which is beside the domestic airport. It is a 4 star hotel and the only hotel in Rekjavik that has an indoor pool (and spa/sauna/steamroom). The hotel provides free bus card which allows you to take buses in Rekjavik for free. It is more convenient to stay in the city centre but Hotel Natura is not that inconvenient (just have to take a bus which is around 2 stops to the city centre and I love the indoor pool and spa). If you are staying in Rekjavik city centre, everywhere is pretty much walkable.