From the midnight sun to the northern lights, Norway offers a radically different experience in the summer and winter. Poppy McPherson reports.
About 250,000 people visit Norway from the UK every year, and Brits spent more than half a million nights in hotels across the country in 2010.
While the bulk of those were spent snuggled under blankets in winter when the northern lights track across the sky and the slopes are primed for the swish of skis and dog sleds, Norway is more than huskies and sleighs.
The ice thaws in the summer to reveal a lush landscape ripe for hiking or cycling, as well as metropolitan cities begging to be explored.
Winter drapes the rugged peaks with thick snow and, as the temperature plummets, interest from clients soars. The mercury can drop as low as -40C in the lower inland areas, though the Gulf Stream means coastal regions are milder – often 5C-8C higher than at comparable altitude elsewhere. Oslo’s January daytime average is -2C.
Norway’s big draw in the winter is the northern lights and after Nasa predicted that 2012 would bring the brightest display for half a century, business is booming.
Sitting right in the centre of the aurora borealis zone, the city of Tromso is one of the best places in the world to spot the phenomenon, seen between October and March. Clients can hunt the lights as night falls, spend the evening in a Sami teepee, or take a rail tour of the Arctic Circle – Scandinavian-focused operator Specialised Tours’ biggest seller.
Cruise line Hurtigruten offers a programme of northern lights cruises, sailing around the northern tip of the Norwegian coast from Tromso to Kirkenes, on the Russian border, and back. Here clients are way above the Arctic Circle, and can spend the nights light-spotting and the days taking excursions such as dog-sledding or snowmobile safaris. During November and December, new charter flights will connect cruisers from Gatwick and Manchester with a five-day Arctic Highlights voyage. Prices start from £949.
With 10 resorts and the benefit of an unusually long season, ski is also a big market for Norway. "Obviously it’s changeable, but Norway can start in mid-November and will run all the way through to April," says Exodus product executive Tom Wilkinson.
Bigger operators head for popular resorts such as the oldest at Geilo, a traditional Norwegian village with easy slopes suitable for families. Neilson says 80% of its customers choose the resort. But adventure-seekers can head off-track to more remote regions on the edge of the national parks where cross-country skiing is available.
Thrill-seekers might also be seduced by ski-racing – offered for the first time by Exodus this year with a six-day departure on March 13 starting from £1,449 including flights. Skiers join the annual race, which commemorates the flight of the Birkebeiner skiers who smuggled the son of the king to safety during the Norwegian civil war.
Ski widows and widowers, or those who just fancy a change from the slopes, are well catered for. They can have a go at snow-shoeing, take horse and sleigh rides, and, by far the most popular activity, go dog-sledding. Trips ranging from half-day excursions to multi-day expeditions take clients zipping across crisp and silent icy meadows.
From June to August the days are long and bright, warm but not humid, so perfect for exploring the forests, rivers and lakes that cover the country. The fjords, gloriously deep and narrow valleys formed when glaciers cut through rock, are one of the country’s biggest selling points.
Escorted tours take clients by boat, train and coach to see the highlights of the fjord region, staying in the port of Alesund and villages that sit beside the major fjords, two of which are Unesco-listed. Longer tours of 10 to 14 days are popular with couples, and agents can enjoy a healthy commission – Inghams’ average selling price is £2,200 per booking.
The Flam Railway is a particular highlight. The 13-mile ride is one of the world’s steepest rail tracks, and whisks visitors from the mountain station at Myrdal past deep ravines, waterfalls and snow-capped mountains, and plunges into tunnels before stopping at Flam, on the Aurlandsfjord.
Those in search of adventure can trek through the mountains, while independent travellers might prefer the freedom of a fly-drive. Flying is the only way there as the last ferry from Newcastle to Bergen sailed in 2008.
Cruises let tourists see the fjords in their full splendour, navigating the waterways past waterfalls and through the picturesque fishing villages of the Lofoten Islands.
Some routes go up the coast to the far north, above the Arctic Circle, where clients can lounge on deck under the glow of the midnight sun.
Polar expeditions take groups to the far north in search of one of the 3,000 polar bears that live there. In the northernmost town in the world, Longyearbyen, the sun doesn’t set from mid-April to late August. The Svalbard archipelago is also home to walruses, Arctic foxes and huge colonies of birds. Explore offers a range of itineraries, including an eight-day trip sailing on a traditional two-masted schooner. Departures leave in September and October and start from £1,586, excluding flights.
The biggest selling point might be the fjords, but culture vultures are served just as well. Oslo, the elegant cosmopolitan capital city is small enough to explore on foot. The city boasts a range of attractions, including the world’s oldest ski museum, built inside a ski jump. At the top of the tower, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the city. Clients get free admission to most attractions with an Oslo Pass, included with every Sunvil booking.
Bergen, Norway’s bustling second city and gateway to the fjords, is another city-break alternative where tourists can potter through the rows of brightly-painted houses, explore thriving markets or visit art museums that house works by Picasso and Munch. A vintage railway links the two cities, crossing the snowy plateau and Hardangerjøkulen glacier.
Agents selling Norway in the summertime need not give up hope because of a lack of huskies. Louise Newton, marketing manager for Inghams, says its Norwegian programme sales have edged up this year. "The fjords are so inspiring and breathtaking, this is a market that will grow and grow."
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