Holiday in Northern Scandinavia (part 1 of 2)

My 2010 summer holiday took place in the northern parts of Scandinavia*, with “northern” in this case meaning “above the Arctic Circle”. Knowing that the Arctic Circle passes through Alaska, the Yukon, Hudson Bay, Greenland and Siberia, this might sound like a winter holiday in summer, but it’s not that bad. The Gulf Stream makes the climate in Northern Europe much milder than it is at the same latitude on other continents. Daytime summer temperature are typically between 15 and 20 degrees centigrade—by no means hot, but just fine for hiking and sightseeing.

Northern Scandinavia roundtrip by bus, train and ferryThe holiday, booked through the Djoser organization, was in the form of a group tour by bus (with parts by train and ferry), with flights from the Netherlands to Finland and back. The group of 17 spanned a wide range of ages, from 27 to 72, and came from all over the Netherlands, making for a pleasantly rich mix. The map on the right shows the route we followed (also available at Google Maps). Starting from Inari in Finnish Lapland (the flag), we first went to the northernmost point of Europe, then descended down the Norwegian coast, and finally cut through Sweden to end up in Rovaniemi.

Below follows a day-by-day account of the first week, spiced up with a bunch of pictures (click to enlarge). If you want more pictures, go visit the full album. For stories of the second week, step through the door on your right.

* Actually, that’s not entirely true, because Finland isn’t really part of Scandinavia. However, it’s often taken to be, and I’ll follow that convention here. If anything, it’s easier to type “Northern Scandinavia” than “Northern Finland, Norway and Sweden”.

Day 1: Amsterdam – Inari

A mostly uneventful first day to start things off. We flew Finnair from Amsterdam to the Finnish capital of Helsinki, and from there to the small arctic town of Ivalo. Cool feature on the Finnair planes: cameras mounted in the hull—one looking straight down, the other looking straight ahead—which were fed into the plane’s entertainment system. The view ahead during the final approach and landing was particularly engaging.

Ivalo’s airport is a small enough affair that they don’t bother much with gates. The plane simply pulled up next to the terminal, a staircase was pushed up, and we were sort of left on our own to cross the tarmac and find the baggage carousel.

We got aboard our spacious bus (45 seats for 17 travelers) and drove to our hotel in Inari, where we finished the day with dinner and a round of introductions. Oh, and we saw our first reindeer less than five minutes out of the airport. Many more would follow in the days to come.

Day 2: Inari

If you say Finland, you say forests and lakes, and you say Lapland. You might also say Sápmi, which is the same as Lapland, except the Sami people consider the names Lapps and Lapland derogatory. It’s similar to the Inuit/Eskimo and Black/Negro distinctions, I suppose. Anyhow, we got to see plenty of all things Finland on our first full day up north. In the morning we visited the Siida Museum, which focuses mainly on the Sami culture and history, and also somewhat on the arctic in general. Good stuff all around.

After a cosy lunch we went for a boat trip on Lake Inari, the third largest lake in Finland and the largest lake in Sápmi. I’ll remember it for the endless expanses of water and coniferous forest, and also for the thoroughly weird new-age music played on board. We got off for a brief visit to Ukonsaari, an island holy to the Sami, though by now probably entirely desecrated by loads of tourists. The view from the top of Ukonsaari would have been impressive under clear skies.

The boat took us back to the mainland for a 7 km hike over easy terrain. At least, that’s what the brochure said. In reality, it was more like a 9 km hike over very uneven terrain. That in itself wouldn’t have been too bad, but Finland’s endless forests and lakes get repetitive quickly. The final eight kilometers offered no more variation than the first one.

Back at the hotel, the sun made an appearance across the Juutua River, and I spent a pleasant hour photographing various bits and pieces of scenery.

A decorated Sami drum in the Siida Museum
A decorated Sami drum in the Siida Museum.
A Sami tipi at the Siida Museum
A Sami tipi at the Siida Museum. The cultural and historical similarities between the Sami and the Native Americans are striking.
View across Lake Inari from the island of Ukonsaari
View across Lake Inari from the island of Ukonsaari.
The Juutua River running behind our hotel in Inari
The Juutua River running behind our hotel in Inari.
Trees on the Juutua River bank
Trees on the Juutua River bank.
Flowers on the Juutua River bank
Flowers on the Juutua River bank.

Day 3: Inari – Repvåg

Time to head further north, to the tiny fishing village of Repvåg in Norway, some 50 km short of Europe’s northernmost point. The road from Inari to Repvåg took us past the Sameting, or the Sami Parliament, in the Norwegian town of Karasjok. The Sameting building was inspired by a Sami tipi, a fitting but hardly original way of doing architecture in Northern Scandinavia if the number of tipi-inspired buildings is anything to go by. I think we even saw some tipi-inspired tipis.

Repvåg itself was even tinier than I had expected. It was raining most of the time, which made the place look more dreary and run-down than it probably was. For lack of better entertainment, we went for a short hike across the part-rocky, part-swampy peninsula that Repvåg sits on. The main course at dinner was fish, and, being in a fishing village, this sounded promising. Unfortunately, it was some anonymous white fish in a crust of breadcrumbs under a mysterious substance called “fish sauce”. I never discovered whether this meant sauce made of fish or for fish. Regardless, it sort of went well with the side dish of carrots and potatoes.

The hotel was located in an old fish processing plant, but many of the rooms weren’t. My room was essentially a converted construction trailer, which had all the charm of an actual construction trailer on a rainy shopping mall parking lot. Its most remarkable feature was that it rocked gently in the storm that blew overnight.

The village of Repvåg
The village of Repvåg.
Fog drifting in from sea near Repvåg
Fog drifting in from sea near Repvåg.

Day 4: Repvåg – North Cape – Alta

Having not quite blown off Repvåg’s peninsula overnight, we got up early to beat the day’s tourist rush at the North Cape. Rising 300 meters from sea and being connected to the rest of the world via a two-lane road, this cliff serves as a scenic and convenient marker for the northernmost point of Europe. The real northernmost point of Europe lies about four kilometers to the west and a kilometer and a half further north. However, being called Knivskjellodden, this point has considerably less marketing potential toward foreign tourists. Also, there’s no impressive cliff at Knivskjellodden, nor a two-lane road. Nitpickers might furthermore point out that both the North Cape and Knivskjellodden are on an island, so the actual real northernmost point of Europe is Cape Nordkinn, some 60 km east of the North Cape. Although boasting a quite impressive cliff, it’s even less accessible than Knivskjellodden, so it attracts few humans beyond the occasional reindeer herder.

Access to the North Cape comes at a price of some 25 euros per person, which I can only hope is put to good use in preserving the local flora, fauna and rocks. We encountered such dense fog that I could hardly see the rocks I walked on, much less whether they were well preserved or not. On top of that there was a very stiff wind blowing, sufficient to knock a man over, and nearly sufficient to blow the North Cape—sheer cliff and two-lane road and all—over to Cape Nordkinn. Amazingly, one of my travel companions managed to take a picture of me on the North Cape monument without either of us being blown into the Barents Sea.

On our way back south we encountered a small herd of reindeer at a safe position for the bus to pull over, so we spent a good ten minutes trying to get them to pose for our cameras. The weather improved with every kilometre away from the North Cape, and by the time we reached our hotel in the village of Gargia (outside the city of Alta), it felt like summer again. The hotel was run by a chap named Paul, who was also (in his own words) the head chef, waitress and cleaning lady. His two main passions were sled dogs and tourists. He seemed to care for both with equal amounts of affection and enthusiasm. Add to that his top-notch cooking (a wonderful reindeer stew and the best salmon I’ve ever had) and the beautiful location, and the Gargia Fjellstue was easily my favourite hotel of the entire trip.

Heavy fog on the island of Magerøya, en route to the North Cape
Heavy fog on the island of Magerøya, en route to the North Cape.
Me at the North Cape
Me at the North Cape.
The fog-enshrouded Children Of The Earth monument at the North Cape
The fog-enshrouded Children Of The Earth monument at the North Cape.
The Porsanger Fjord
The Porsanger Fjord.
The Porsanger Fjord
The Porsanger Fjord.
A reindeer at the side of the road from Honningsvåg to Olderfjord
A reindeer at the side of the road from Honningsvåg to Olderfjord.

Day 5: Alta

The main tourist attraction in the city of Alta is the Alta Museum, dedicated to the prehistoric rock carvings found along the shore of the nearby fjord. Named the European Museum of the Year back in 1993, it’s still pretty much everything a museum should be: focused, engaging, accessible, reasonably priced, well maintained, and so on. The rock carvings are restored to what they are believed to have looked like originally. A guide book—available in a multitude of languages, including Dutch—offers some general background on the carvings and on the people that made them, and describes each panel of carvings in great detail. It takes a 5 km hike to see all the panels, and with the weather cooperating for a change, this was every bit a pleasant activity.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped by the Canyon Huskies sled dog farm to see these powerful dogs up close. Capable of pulling sleds for hundreds of kilometers in temperatures that even a polar bear wouldn’t brave, it’s understandable they were a bit restless tied to poles. However, most of it was just an energetic playfulness, a desire to go out and have fun. Apparently they like running through the snow so much that when you tie them to a sled, you’d better got aboard quickly, or they’ll just take off on their own. The farm also had a handful of puppies, which scored very high on the cute and cuddly scale. The one below made for one of my favorite animal pictures ever.

Rock carving of a pregnant reindeer female at the Alta Museum
Rock carving of a pregnant reindeer female at the Alta Museum.
One of the dogs at Canyon Huskies
One of the adult dogs at Canyon Huskies.
One of the puppies at Canyon Huskies
One of the puppies at Canyon Huskies. Doesn’t it just break your heart…?

Day 6: Alta – Tromsø

Not much to report about this day. A good chunk of it was spent en route from Alta to the city of Tromsø. We stopped for coffee at the Gildetun pass for a splendid view over the Kvænangen Fjord under mostly clear skies. It’s at times and places like these that Norway’s beauty really comes through. Another such time and place: when we encountered a herd of reindeer on the road along the Alta Fjord.

In Tromsø we visited the Arctic Cathedral, which looks sort of like an iceberg (though, somehow, it was probably inspired by a Sami tipi) and also a lot like the protestant church in my parents’ town. The latter is probably coincidence, the former probably not. Still, as much as I liked the Arctic Cathedral, it couldn’t match the natural beauty of the Norwegian fjords.

Reindeer on the road along the Alta Fjord
Reindeer on the road along the Alta Fjord.
Kvænangen Fjord seen from Gildetun
Kvænangen Fjord seen from Gildetun.
The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø
The Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø.

Day 7: Tromsø – Hamn

Leaving Tromsø the next morning, we discovered a bit of road engineering I didn’t know existed anywhere in the world: underground roundabouts. Most of Tromsø lies on the island of Tromsøya. The easiest way to cross from east to west is to take one of the tunnels running underneath the island’s mountain ridge. Now, rather than having a few separate tunnels, the Tromsøya road authorities figured it would be a good idea to connect all of them with additional tunnels, and to use full-sized underground roundabouts as intersections. Marvellous!

Emerging on the other side, we crossed a bridge to the island of Kvaløya and continued on west to the town of Brensholmen, where we would take a ferry to island of Senja. I say would, because the ferry was out with engine failure. With some luck, the ferry company said, it would go again around 5pm. Obviously, we didn’t want to wait eight hours and run the risk the ferry still wouldn’t go. Besides, we had another ferry to catch on the other side of Senja, from Gryllefjord to Andenes, where we would spend the next two nights. Even if the Brensholmen ferry went at 5pm, we wouldn’t catch the last ferry from Gryllefjord.

So, instead of a half hour by ferry and another hour and a half by bus, we had to go the long way around and spend over five hours by bus to get to Gryllefjord. We arrived a little after 5pm, well in time for the 7pm ferry. Just to be on the safe side, our tour guide checked with the ferry company, who confirmed that the ferry had just left Andenes for Gryllefjord, and that its engines were doing fine.

We headed into a nearby coffee shop to await the ferry’s arrival. The owner overheard us talking about the problems with the other ferry and, having heard the full story, looked at us with a straight face and said, “Didn’t you hear that the ferry from Andenes just turned back because of bad weather? There won’t be a ferry from Gryllefjord anymore tonight.” We laughed and told her she shouldn’t make fun of our malady. “No, I’m serious,” she said.

And she was.

This time, going the long way around by bus wasn’t an option, so our tour guide faced the challenge of finding rooms for nineteen people on short notice in a remote part of the world. Fortunately, a hotel in Hamn, fifteen minutes outside of Gryllefjord, was able to accomodate us all. Even more fortunately, these rooms were much nicer and more beautifully situated than the ones we would have had in Andenes. Now we just had to hope the weather would improve, so we could still make it to Andenes in time for tomorrow’s whale safari.

As it happened, the weather did improve enough for the ferry to resume its service, but only barely. I thought I had a rough time on a ferry from Belgium to England many years ago, but that was smooth sailing compared to what we got the next morning. How bad was it? Find out behind this door

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