Februrary 25, 2017 (Day 10)
- From Stamsund (Lofoten) to Tromsø by Hurtigruten
- Casual walk near the apartment
We all had a comfortable sleep and when we got up, the ship was approaching the village of Harstad, the second-most populated municipality in Troms county. It is mostly located on the large island of Hinnøya. The southbound Hurtigruten ship, Kong Harstad passed us by. The ship reached Harstad at around 645am and the weather was awful. We decided to grab breakfast. The buffet was sumptuous, Vegas style. After breakfast, we checked out the various decks of the ship. At about 10am, we walked to the small auditorium where they showed the Discovery Channel documentary of MS Fram, another cruise ship in the Hurtigruten fleet, fighting through the ice-choked fjords of Greenland. It was quite impressive.
The sky was clearing and the existence of the sun was reconfirmed when we reached Finnsnes at around 11am, the last stop before reaching Tromsø. The ship docked in the cute village for 30 minutes. While the trio took turns to take a quick shower, I grabbed my camera bag and started shooting some images from the back of the ship.
The ship promptly left at 1130am for the 2 hour journey to our destination, Tromsø. We passed some beautiful villages with awesome snow clad mountains in the background. The images below is a sampling of pictures I shot between Finnsnes and Tromsø.
The ship reached Tromsø right on time at 230pm. We unloaded our stuff and looked for a taxi to take us to the apartment which was just about 0.25 miles away. The owner of the apartment had promised to pick us up at the Hurtigruten terminal but he had rented his car to somebody else. As we each had 3 bags to carry, it was prudent to look for a taxi. The ship docked very close to the Scandic Ishavshotel and the lobby had a touch screen terminal to order a taxi. While waiting for the taxi, we grabbed a few shots of MS Nordkapp getting cleaned.
Soon, the taxi driven by a Pakistani showed up. We loaded our luggage and the ride to the apartment 0.25 miles away took 3 minutes and cost 200 NOK/US$24. The taxi charge translated to about $100/mile!!!! The apartment owner met us at the front, helped unload, and took us to the apartment on the 10th floor. It was about 330pm when we settled down. The apartment was spacious with 2 bed rooms, fully equipped kitchen, a nice living room with a giant TV, broadband internet and a big set of washer and dryer in the bathroom. There was also a small lounge area facing south with a small sofa.
About 15 minutes later, we realized that the Europcar rental car facility at the airport closed at 4pm. We frantically called the counter but nobody picked up. Later we realized that on Saturdays, it closed at 2pm. Go figure!!! Dash had prepaid for the car for over US$125/day and one day rental was down the drain. The next day, being Sunday, the counter opened only at 1pm. The moral of the story: No need to rent a car in Tromsø as the town is quite small and you can hit all the attractions by foot. Only reason we rented the car was for going to Lyngen on Monday morning. We decided to relax as it was constantly snowing. The view from the lounge area of the apartment facing south was spectacular and we all took turns to shoot some images.
Snow stopped at around 6pm. Sun had already set at 430pm. We walked around the town for about 90 minutes. MS Nordkapp left the dock towards Kirkenes at 630pm. It was windy and cold as usual. I decided not to lug around my camera gear. We returned to the apartment a little past 8pm and the Trio cooked a terrific dinner. As we carried the groceries we had purchased in Lofoten, there was no immediate need to buy more that day. The Northern Lights forecast was not favorable. We washed and dried our clothes and went to bed.
February 26, 2017 (Day 11)
- Walking around Tromsø
- The Northern Lights Chase in Tromvik
Sunday morning was cold and windy and the sun was nowhere to be seen. After a terrific Indian breakfast prepared by Dash, we left at around 9am and walked around the harbor area taking pictures.
Dash and I returned to the apartment just after Noon so that he could start cooking. The girls showed up about 30 minutes later. After lunch, all of us left for the harbor area. The girls went to see the museums while Dash and I took a taxi from the Scandic Ishavshotel to the airport to pick up the rental car. The 3.5 mile trip, most in a massive tunnel system with roundabouts, took 15 minutes and cost 260 NOK (about US$31). This ride was significantly cheaper on a per mile basis ($10/mile instead of $100/mile the day before). We got a bright turquoise blue Jeep Renegade with snow tires. The trunk size was smaller than the Mazda 6 that we rented in Lofoten but that was okay considering we were going to use the car for only 2 days.
We parked the car in the basement of the apartment and walked back to the Scandic Ishavshotel to pick up the girls. As all the stores were closed, we then grabbed some yogurt from Narvesen Convenience Store near the apartment which cost $18. Yes, these convenience are super expensive. After a quick early dinner, we walked to the Visit Tromsø building on Kirkegata to get on the Green Fox Aurora Borealis hunt in a mini-bus. Jacek, the owner/driver, was very knowledgeable and well prepared. We drove northwest about 30 miles to Tromvik. The location was terrific with minimum light pollution but the northern lights activity was sub par. We drank hot chocolate and ate a lot of cookies around a bonfire waiting for the action to start. We shot a few images. Jacek checked the latest forecast and informed us that the show as over for the night. Although his charge of $160/person was a tad higher than the average rate, he was very helpful and took a lot of effort to find the Northern Lights. I recommend him. He dropped us in front of the apartment just after 11pm and we hit the sack soon after.
February 27, 2017 (Day 12)
- Drive from Tromsø to Lyngseidet
- The Northern Lights in Lyngseidet
After breakfast, we left for Lyngseidet via Breivikeidet and Svensby. As we were staying in the same apartment from our 1-night stay at Lyngseidet, the owner was kind enough to allow us to store our luggage in the apartment so we had to carry only groceries and clothes for 1 night in the Jeep. Due to limited trunk space, this was quite helpful.
We drove past the Arctic Cathedral and got on to E8 South. We passed some beautiful villages along the western coast such as Tromsdalen to reach the first spot, a waterfall on Route 91 off of E8. When we reached the water, it was frozen with no waterflow whatsoever.
After taking some casual images, we decided to retrace our way back to shoot images in the coastal villages of Tromsdalen. Although it was quite cold and windy, the sun was shining and light was good. We were back on E8 going north and took an exit to drive south on a country road close to the strait of Tromsøysundet and parallel to E8.
We then noticed an oil rig platform being towed by a tug on its way to the Barents Sea. We spent about half hour photographing the rig.
After spending about 1.5 hrs in the Tromsdalen area, we headed to Breivikeidet to catch the 130pm ferry to Svensby. We reached the ferry terminal at about 115pm. The ferry was on time and we paid 241 NOK (about US$29) for the Jeep and 4 passengers.
The ferry crossing across Ullsfjord was smooth and lasted about 20 minutes. We located a nice red colored shed near the Svensby ferry terminal and we spent a few minutes photographing it.
We reached Lyngseidet at around 330pm. We walked around the ferry terminal area and then headed to the Extra Lyngseidet grocery store to pick up groceries for the next 2 days. We then checked in at the Magic Mountain Lodge. We got 2 spacious rooms on the 2nd floor and both rooms had terrific views of Lyngen Alps.The lodge had a common kitchen and Dash prepared a nice soup and salad followed by a marinara pasta.
After dinner, we decided to drive north on Fv311 country road along Kåfjorden towards Koppangen. It was pitch dark and we had a tough time finding a decent spot to park the car to look for the Northern Lights. The temperature had also dropped to the low 20s.
After about 30 minutes of the light show, clouds started rolling in and we decided to call it a day and returned to the Lodge. After doing some emails and image reviews, all went to bed at about 1030pm.
February 28, 2017 (Day 13)
- Drive from Lyngseidet to Tromsø
- The Northern Lights north of Tromsø
Although the sunrise was quite good, we were pretty lazy to get up and shoot to capture the golden light. The views of the Lyngen Alps from our rooms as well as from the dining area were spectacular. After breakfast, we captured some nice images right from our rooms.
Today, there was hardly any cloud over Lyngseidet. We loaded our stuff into the car at around 830 and started driving back to Tromsø on 91. Dash pulled into the gas station near the marina to fill up. Although the sun was shining, it was cold and the wind was blowing pretty hard. I took a shot of the Lyngen Alps from the road with the Norwegian flag flying high on a nearby flagpole.
After fill up, we drove along Ullsfjord stopping every 2-3 miles to shoot pictures. Due to the arctic winter sun moving across the sky in the south, you can shoot all day with nice contrast and shadows. I believe this was the first day we experienced a cloudless morning on our trip.
The next ferry to Breivikeidet was at at around 2pm and we had some time to kill. We continued to drive along Ullsfjord. It was time for a group shot. We looked for a suitable spot with a nice background to park the car. We found a spot about a mile north of the Svensby ferry terminal and took one of the rare group pictures.
We boarded the ferry on time. We went to the dining/sitting area on the top deck and ordered coffee and tea. As the ferry was leaving Svensby, I took a quick shot of a red barn in front of a mountain.
The crossing that lasted about 20 minutes was smooth and relaxing. The light started to fade and most of the sites along 91 were already in the shadows of the mountain range. We stopped for some casual spots and reached the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø at around 330pm. Dash found a spot to park nearby. Unfortunately, due to a private concert, the cathedral was closed to the public and we ended up walking around it to take pictures. Although there was a lot of traffic on the bridge near the cathedral, I got lucky to take an image with no vehicles. Cant’ complain!!!
We reached the apartment at around 430pm. The trio cooked a quick dinner and we left the apartment at about 530pm for another Northern Lights chase run by Aurora Tours. Just like on the Iceland trip in 2016, the penultimate day gifted us with a spectacular display for about 2 hours. We first stopped at Kaldfjord to take a few “insurance shots”. Due to excessive light pollution and telephone and power lines everywhere, it was bit of a challenge to take good images and I started whining to the driver/guide to take us to a better spot.
We then continued to drive north along Fv863 towards Hessfjord. We located a spot with no light pollution. We experienced a terrific show for 90 minutes. Unlike in Iceland where the Northern Lights were only visible in the north, here, it was everywhere. Higher the Kp index, broader the area in the sky the lights are visible. I believe that day the Kp index was close to 5 (on a scale of 1 to 10). Anything over 5 is pretty rare considering we are now in the waning period of the 12 year cycle that peaked in 2015. Here are 2 images from the 2nd spot.
The show took a break at around 11pm. We had seen enough. As we had to catch an early morning flight to Alta, we requested the driver/guide to take us back to the apartment. We reached the apartment just before midnight. We packed our stuff and hit the sack soon after.
March 1, 2017 (Day 14)
- Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel
- Last Aurora Borealis Experience
All of us had a 3-4 hr sleep after a spectacular Northern Lights experience and got up early in the morning to catch the 8am flight to Alta, our last stop of the trip. We had our early breakfast, cleaned the apartment, and loaded our luggage in the Jeep. The drive to the airport took 15 minutes. We dropped the girls, unloaded the luggage and Dash and I refueled the rental car and dropped it off at the Europcar parking lot. We then realized that there was nobody at the Widerøe airline check-in counters and that we had to print the baggage tags, scan them and drop the bags on the conveyor belt ourselves. We then went though security and got to the gate by 715.
The flight time to Alta, 105 miles away from Tromsø as the crow flies, was about 35 minutes. The views of the fjords and islands below were majestic.
We grabbed our checked in luggage and called the Budget Car Rental manager who brought a VW Passat station wagon. We had reservations at the famous Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel but checkin time was 2pm, a good 5 hrs away. We decided to drive north along the Altafjorden towards Russeluft, about 20 km away. It was sunny but windy and the temperature was in the mid 20s. We stopped at a few spots to enjoy the bitter cold and the scenery around Altafjorden.
Around noon, we decided to turn around and go to the Alta Museum. Just before we reached the museum, Revathy realized that she didn’t have her iphone6 with her. A mini panic set in. We drove back the whole route and checking if the phone was dropped at all the spots we are stopped till then. One of search yielded zilch. When we were all ready to give up, Dash decided to check every nook and corner of the car. Yes, he located the phone stuck inside tiny crevice between the 2 seats in the back. After a short celebration, we decide to skip the museum and drive straight to the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, about 12 miles south of the Alta airport.
Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel has been rebuilt yearly since 1999. They build the 27,000 sq ft hotel in Nov-Dec each year and everything melts away in April. It has 26 snow bedrooms, 4 decorated suites, an ice bar, and an ice chapel. It is decorated with ice sculptures and ice furnishings, including lighting systems which enhance the different types of crystalline formations. Drinks at the bar are served in glasses made of, yes you guessed it, ice. The inside temperature is at a constant 24 deg F (about -5 deg C) and guests sleep in superb sleeping bags on top of reindeer hides. The theme of the hotel changes every year and this year the theme was about animals of the Finnmark region.
In addition to the Igloo hotel, the small complex has 2 other buildings. One has a large dining area that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a living room, a storage room to store your luggage, bathrooms and toilets. There are no bathrooms or toilets in the Igloo Hotel itself. The other building has a kitchen, storage area, etc.
We checked in at 2pm and got a tour of the complex with instructions on how to get dressed to sleep in the Igloo hotel. We ate lunch in the Living Room. The igloo hotel is also open to other visitors who come just to tour the igloo hotel. I shot a few images inside the Igloo Hotel.
We had reserved dinner for 730pm but decided to have it at 6 instead. It was fixed menu and they prepared a terrific vegetarian one for us. During dinner, somebody mentioned that the Northern Lights was visible and we rushed out to capture a few pictures. We came back inside to finish the dinner.
After dinner, we spent some time in the living room chatting with others. We then stored valuables like passports, wallets, etc in a safe box, picked up our sleeping bags and went to our suites. I felt very warm and removed a layer of clothes and went to sleep. Although it was quite cold at 24 deg F, the sleep was quite comfortable.
March 2-3, 2017 (Day 15-16)
- Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel
- Alta to Oslo to Seattle (Home)
- Random tips & helpful ideas for folks visiting Northern Norway in the winter
I was one of the early ones to wake up and drop off the huge sleeping bag in the main building. I washed my face and took another private tour of the chapel and the bar area in the igloo with my camera and tripod. There was nobody else in the vicinity. An hour or so later, the trio joined me to take a few pictures.
We then finished a sumptuous breakfast and shot a few pictures outside. It was our 2nd cold but cloudless morning during our trip. There was a local Sami reindeer herder at the hotel who does a 4hr reindeer tour at around 11am. As our flight back to Oslo was at 2pm, we skipped the tour but I captured an image of him with his lead animal.
The trio did a bit of sledding while I was capturing some of the scenery around the property.
We loaded the car at 11 and drove to the Alta Museum. The trio went inside and I was looking for any photo opportunities. They finished the tour at noon and we refueled the car and dropped it off at the airport. The flight to Oslo took off right on time at 2 and landed at 430pm. As the choice vegetarians at the Gardermoen Bed & Breakfast was rather limited, we decided to have dinner at the Peppes Pizza next to the baggage claim at the airport. The 2 pizzas, 2 beers, 2 coffees, and a hot chocolate set us back 520 NOK (about US$62). After dinner, we called the hotel to send us a shuttle. It came promptly and we reached the hotel at around 8pm. After some hot chocolate and fruits in the hotel lobby, we got to our room and repacked the stuff, took care of a few calls, email, whatsapp and FB posts and went to bed.
The trio were on an 8am flight next morning to Bangalore via London and they checked out and left just before 6am. My Icelandair flight was at 2pm and I left the hotel by the shuttle at 11. The flight was on time and the 757 landed at Reykjavik at about 330pm. My connecting flight was at 445pm. The boarding area for the flight to Seattle was a zoo. There were about 5 US flights leaving at around the same time and I estimate that there were about 700 people in the small area. The flight was a few minutes late and the 7.5 hr flight back home was uneventful.
Northern Norway Winter
Northern Norway is a terrific region to experience Arctic Winter and the Northern Lights. Although it is in the Arctic Circle, it is 20 to 30 degrees warmer compared to places in Alaska (e.g. Fairbanks) at similar latitude. Most of time we were there, the temperature was in the high 20s. Tromso and Alta were 5 to 10 degrees colder compared to Lofoten. The advantage of visiting the area in Feb or March is that you have 8+ hours of daylight and get the opportunity to view the Northern Lights. It is also less crowded and relatively less expensive. Winter weather is always unpredictable and due to heavy cloud cover throughout our stay in Lofoten, we only experienced the Northern Lights for 2 nights. An unintended side benefit was that we got decent sleep most nights.
All the areas we visited were stunning. As photography was key factor, we rented a car that gave us maximum flexibility. Norway does an amazing job of snow removal that we had no snow/ice issues. Although renting a 4×4 in Northern Norway is impossible, the station wagons we got had excellent studded tires and automatic transmission. While I took care of navigation, Dash did a bang up job of driving. We got full insurance. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Although extra insurance cost us about US$20/day, every penny was worth it. In Iceland, when we returned the car, the rental car guy identified 2 minor scratches on the hood of the car. Most likely the scratches were there when we picked up the car. The charge to fix the scratches were close to US$2000. Luckily, with the full insurance package we obtained when we booked via rentalcars.com, we got 100% reimbursed. Full insurance will give you stress free driving on the winter roads.
In Norway, the rental car drop off charges are enormous and so we decided to take the Hurtigruten from Stamsund to Tromso. It was a wise choice. The experience on the ship was wonderful and relaxed. The Superior arctic cabins we reserved were comfortable and had a bathroom with shower. There are 2 dining rooms and a few lounges. The breakfast choices were plentiful and it is included in the US$220 per person fare for the trip. There were lots of photo opportunities between Harstad and Tromso at this time of the year but we missed the famous and dramatic Trollfjord as the ship passed it at 11pm. To experience this fjord, you need to go in the summer. The crew also conducts lectures in the auditorium and we found the one we attended about the Hurtigruten ship, MV From, very interesting.
You don’t need a lot of gear to do landscape photography. I carried 2 Nikon DSLR bodies, one an FX D800E with the 16-35mm f4 Nikkor and the other a DX D7100 with the 24-120mm f4 Nikkor. I used a B+W Kasemann Circular polarizer to reduce reflections and to slow down the shutter speed. A solid tripod and ballhead is a must as it is quite windy everywhere. On this trip, I carried the Feisol CT-3402 carbon fiber tripod and a Markins Q20 ballhead. I felt the Feisol was not good enough to handle the arctic winds. Next time, I will take my real workhorse, the Benro C-327 which weighs 1.5 lb more but provides much better stability. Nikon battery life was quite good as I could shoot pretty close to 2 days with a lot of chimping on a single charge. For Northern Lights photography, I used the 20mm f1.8 Nikkor on the D800E.
Location Selection Tips
Cody Duncan is an amazing photographer and workshop conductor in Lofoten. His e-book on Lofoten in Winter was my bible to plan the Lofoten portion of the trip. He provided additional ideas and guidance via email. I used Google Earth, 500px, and Flickr to identify the locations. I then added them on Google Maps that you can find here.
Northern Lights Chase Approaches
There are only 2 simple requirements to experience the Aurora Borealis in all her glory. (1) Clear skies. (2) No light pollution like city lights, cars and joggers with their head lights/lamps on. A nice foreground (e.g. a photogenic mountain) is a plus.
You have 2 options:
(1) Go on a conducted tour. Although this option is quite expensive @ about US$80-160 per person depending on the type of transport, the guides know where to go. They track cloud cover very closely and will drive even to Finland to significantly increase the odds of experiencing the light show. Mini bus tours cost about US$150 but they have more options to locate and park the vehicles at optimum spots. As the number of people in the minibus is about 10, it is much easier to decide to return early if you had a good viewing. This option will work for a majority of the people.
(2) Do your own chase. This requires a lot planning. You need to drive during day time to select spots with ample parking and good foreground. This may take you 1 to 2 days of driving. When you are ready to do the chase, go to yr.no and check out the cloud cover forecast for that night. You then drive to locations you have previously identified that have clear skies.
Food for Vegetarians
There are reasonable options for vegetarians in Leknes and Svolvaer (Lofoten) and Tromso. Everywhere else, self catering (aka cooking in your cabin) is the cheapest and best choice. The groceries in Norway in general are 2-3x as expensive as in the US but pretty much everything is available. The choices are more limited and prices are much more expensive outside of big towns and so load up on groceries before leaving. Thanks to booking.com we had excellent kitchens every where we stayed.
Yes, Norway is definitely more expensive than US. For our 15-day trip, the average cost per person including airfare from the US and India was about US$3500 broken down as follows:
|Airfare to Oslo||$700|
|Hurtigruten (Lofoten to Tromso)||$220|
|Rental Car + Insurance+Fuel||$500|
|2 Northern Light Chases||$300|
|Taxis, Trains & Shuttles||$75|