5 Tips for a Family Adventure in the Arctic

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We’re approaching the three year mark living in Geneva, which means the future and where we will be living starts to be a little uncertain for us.  So with our sense of wanderlust, that means that we have been seriously assessing our bucket list and trying to cross off the things we have left that we want to see the most.  Lukasz was lucky enough to cover Finland for work at one point so he has had some great experiences in the Arctic…but the boys and I haven’t and I had two dreams for an Arctic adventure-1) to see the Northern Lights and 2) to dogsled.  Spoiler alert…unfortunately both of those items are still on my bucket list (!) but we had a wonderful adventure anyway in Northern Norway.

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We flew into Tromsø, Norway mainly because it was the most convenient and cost effective way for us to get to the Arctic.  Tromsø lies 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle and is the largest city in Northern Norway.  Because of its position on the sea and the warming effect of the gulf stream, Tromsø has a milder climate than other places at the same latitude.  Tromsø is also known as one of the best places in Northern Norway to view the northern lights.

When we went we had the craziest February weather that the locals we spoke with had ever seen.  A warm front had come through and melted all the snow just before we got there and we arrived to rain and incredibly strong winds.  There is normally at least a meter of snow on the ground in February, so it was very unusual.  We were a little bit panicked as to what we would do all week with no snow since all of our plans centered around snow activities, but in the end we still had a lot of fun.  Here are five tips for making the most of a family trip to the Arctic no matter what the weather!

  1. Rent a car and stay outside of the city.

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To really experience the beauty of Northern Norway (and increase your odds of seeing those magical Northern lights), you need to get out into the gorgeous countryside. We stayed three nights in one of these charming cabins on the Lyngenfjord in the tiny fishing village of Koppangen.  Looking out onto the sea, it truly felt like we were at the ends of the earth and in fact I loved the directions to the cabins which included “drive until you reach the end of the road and then you have arrived.”

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As I mentioned, the weather was not ideal when we arrived late Sunday night and unfortunately when we woke up Monday morning it was even worse.  We spent the day getting groceries for our couple of days at the cabin and just driving around to enjoy the scenery since it was too windy and rainy to be outside.

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Still gorgeous even in terrible weather!

As the sun set around 3 pm, we went back to the cabin to try and make plans for what we could do with the rest our time if the bad weather kept up.  We spent the afternoon playing games we had brought to the cabin, having happy hour with Arctic beers for the grown ups, and some afternoon sauna time.  All in all not a bad day.

We debated some options for the next day including driving two hours south to Northern Finland where we could take a snowmobiling tour and stay overnight the next night but the forecast looked about the same for there and we would be trading our charming cabin for more of a hostel type accommodation so we decided to just stick with where we were.  We also had a better forecast for the Northern Lights were we were so we kept our fingers crossed and hoped the lights would come out for us.

2. Play in the snow and enjoy nature…and watch for those famous Northern Lights!

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Thankfully on Tuesday we woke up to much better weather and those crazy winds had finally died down.  This was the day we were supposed to go dogsledding (the owner of the cabins, Alf, had arranged it with a place that only takes small groups out and is much cheaper than the tours in Tromsø), but unfortunately there was not enough snow left to do it.  The good news was that Alf was able to take his snowmobile and pack down some of the snow behind his house to make a sledding track for us, so we were able to take the kids out for some sledding and fun in the snow that remained.  In some places it was still quite a lot of snow, but the quality of it just wasn’t good from all the rain and warm temps.  You would take a step and simply sink down in it.  At any rate, we spent a fun couple of hours sledding and walking on the trail along the water’s edge.

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When there is much more snow, you can use these super fun looking kick sleds where the kids can sit in front and you walk/run behind it and jump on the rails for a ride when you pick up speed.  The property also had snow shoes, which would be a great way to get out and explore the surrounding mountains.  When researching our trip, I had read to make sure and plan plenty of activities so you’re not just sitting around waiting for the Northern Lights to show up.  Alas, we tried to cover our bases-but you can’t control the weather!!!  We were happy just to be able to get outside so that was a big improvement!

As for the Northern Lights, you need two things to be able to see them…1) the electromagnetic activity that causes the lights and 2) clear skies to see them.  Unfortunately for us, that evening there was plenty of activity but the clouds just wouldn’t part to give us a clear view.  The cabins have a hot tub that was so fun to sit out in and watch for the lights and when the activity finally started we could see the sky lighting up behind the clouds, but no clear views of them.  The nice thing about renting a car for a trip like this with kids is that if there are forecasts for clear skies and high activity somewhere, you can get tips on where to drive and wait for them and the kids can just relax or sleep in the car until the lights come out.  We didn’t wind up having clear skies a single night out of our trip, which is just all the more reason I need to plan a trip back to this beautiful part of the world!  Next time we will stay for longer as I think that’s the best way to really increase your odds of seeing the lights.

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Would have had front row seats to the show if those clouds just would have parted!  

3.  Take a boat ride

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Since this was our second trip to Norway, we knew that one of the best ways to experience the fjords is to get out on a boat!  We had read that the views of the the Lyngen Alps are stunning from the other side of the fjord so on Tuesday after playing in the snow, we headed out on a car ferry with no aim other than to see the views and drive around a bit on the other side of the fjord.  The kids of course loved the car ferry…we packed lunches and ate them on board and we enjoyed the views from the top deck too, which was one benefit of having such warm temperatures!

The scenery here was absolutely breathtaking and I was in photog heaven!!  It was fun to just drive around and find beauty around every corner.  I can only imagine how beautiful it would be covered in deep snow!

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On Wednesday we enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Tromsø, taking the slightly longer route so that we could see the scenery that had looked so gorgeous on our late night drive in when we arrived.  It definitely didn’t disappoint!

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4. Experience the “City”

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Tromsø is certainly more of a town than a city with a population of around 75,000 but it also has the world’s northernmost university that makes it feel like a young and fun little town.

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We stayed at the Radisson Blu, which was a good base for exploring the town.  A highlight for the boys was Polaria, the most northern aquarium in the world.  While it is quite small, there is enough to keep small children entertained for a good hour or two including a couple of movies about the Arctic and the Northern Lights, Arctic sea life, seals that have a feeding show daily, and a small play area with slides and soft toys.

After an outing for the kids, we decided we needed an outing for us as well so we ventured to Mack, the world’s northernmost brewery, for a pint.

Also worth visiting is the interesting Arctic cathedral on the other side of the bridge into Tromsø.  And we really enjoyed a dinner at Da Pinocchio-service was great, pizzas were delicious, and they had a small play corner for the kids.

5.  Go Meet a Reindeer

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One of the first things I booked for this trip was a tour with Tromsø Arctic Reindeer Experience mostly based on their excellent reviews on Tripadvisor.  The indigenous Sami people own the reindeer that roam in Northern Norway and this is an experience where you get to meet the reindeer in their winter pasture and learn a bit about the local Sami tribe.  This type of thing can sometimes be a bit hokey, so I wasn’t quite sure how it would go, but I have to say it was absolutely the highlight of our trip.

You are transported by bus from the Radisson Blu to the Sami camp about 25 minutes outside of the city.  Once you’re there you meet a few of the members of the Sami tribe who explain all about feeding the reindeer.  Then you have about an hour to feed the reindeer and you can also choose the option of going for a ride in a sled pulled by reindeer.  We had chosen to do the sledding but unfortunately no snow still!  Even without the sledding experience, it was still a wonderful day.

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After feeding the reindeer, the kids got to try their hand at lassoing-which they thought was so awesome!  Then there was a delicious lunch around a fire consisting of reindeer stew or a vegetarian stew that was fantastic, plus cake, coffee, and hot chocolate.  After lunch a member of the tribe spoke about local Sami culture and passed around some of their gorgeous handicrafts.  He also led us in a joik, which is a sort of folk song the Sami express to honor someone or something in their lives.  It was beautiful and quite moving.  Everyone we met at this experience was so incredibly kind and welcoming and most especially, they were so wonderful with our children.  I cannot say enough about how special the experience was and I would absolutely recommend it!

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Sadly, we learned on the bus back into town about the perilous position this particular Sami tribe is in.  The Sami people do not own the land they work, they are simply granted the rights to use the land by the government.  However, the government has plans to turn this land that this particular tribe uses into an industrialized harbor.  The Tromsø Arctic Reindeer Experience started as a means to use tourism to show the government that the land has value as it is and hopefully to change the government’s mind and allow the land to remain untouched.  So even more reason to go visit and to support this wonderful place!

So that’s our trip and our top recommendations to have an amazing trip to the Arctic-no matter what the weather!  I’ve got big ideas to hopefully return one day and do a road trip through Northern Norway and into Northern Finland and maybe we will get lucky and see those mystical lights next time. 🙂

A Weekend in Bergen

After a fun and adventure-filled few days at the fjords, we headed back to Bergen to explore the second largest city in Norway.

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We loved the town…small and walkable, but hip with plenty to entertain-it was the perfect way to end our trip.  The Old Town area of Bryggen is a UNESCO world heritage site-it’s the area with those colorful wooden buildings and alleyways along the water.  Although slightly touristy, it was a nice place to wander around before stopping for an obligatory lunch at the fish market.

The market prices were hefty, but the seafood was fresh and delicious!  We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around town and into lots of adorable Scandi-chic design shops.

On our way back to our cute little Airbnb apartment we heard some really loud music that sounded familiar.  Then we saw a giant screen and after some googling, we discovered that there was a big music fest in Bergen that weekend and at that moment we were listening to their headliner, Lukas Graham, who happens to be Norwegian!  We got back to our apartment and enjoyed the concert (love the song Seven Years!) from our rooftop balcony.  It was so random and fun.

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All was going well on our lovely afternoon…the apartment manager came and joined us for a chat and a drink, he left, concert ended, and we decided we’d get ready to head out to dinner.  And then we realized we were locked out on the balcony!  The door had apparently been locked earlier and not realizing it, the guy pulled it closed on his way out.  We had our phones, but weren’t able to get in contact with anyone so after about 20 minutes I started to slightly panic.  Luckily my ingenious husband spotted the open window of another apartment that he could potentially climb into and after figuring out that no one was there I halfway hoisted him up the roof and he halfway threw himself in.  Phew.  We made it to dinner, which was clearly my biggest concern. 😉

After dinner, we stopped by the Royal Gourmetburger and Gin for the best g and t’s ever.  The prices were eye-watering so we just got one each, but they were so worth it.  Mine was some kind of cilantro, geranium concoction and I am still dreaming about it.  After the cocktails, we had gotten a tip to check out the town from the outskirts at the bar in the old sardine factory so we headed for one last drink.  Not the liveliest bar, but the views were just lovely, especially with the setting midnight sun.

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On our last day in Norway, we headed up the Floibanen funicular to Mt. Floyen.  The views were amazing and once at the top there were tons of hikes and trails to go on.  There were also playgrounds, lots of trolls and random, funny signs on trees, making for a delightful day out.  Since it was the weekend there were more locals than tourists heading up for hikes, picnics, and just to hang out.

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I was pretty stoked to finally try the “original” cinnamon roll, which apparently are a Bergen specialty…not frosted, lightly sweetened, and very tasty!

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As fun as Norway was, that evening we had a flight to catch.  We had an overnight layover in Copenhagen, so we were excited to revisit the city and see some new things there.  But before we headed for the airport we grabbed some lunch from La Taqueria to eat at the square and enjoyed the.best.tacos.in.europe…which doesn’t really say much if you have sampled much Mexican food over here.  But really, they were awesome.

One last stop at a stave church on the way out to the airport (highly overpriced, wouldn’t recommend), and we were off to Denmark.  We checked into our hotel, had some tapas in the lounge, and then took the metro in to wander around the city a bit.  We hit some of the main sites, including the Little Mermaid statue, and enjoyed a beautiful late night sunset.  Great end to a great trip!

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The Fjords of Norway

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We had such a good time on our solo trip to Iceland last summer that when it came time to plan our annual vacation sans kids, we decided to forego the beach and try another chilly but beautiful location-Norway!  I will say that Norway would be a super fun family vacation, and the city of Bergen is especially family friendly.  However, we had a great time doing things that we can’t normally do with our little ones in tow (hiking up a mountain, speed boat on the fjords, driving aimlessly from one cute village to the next, etc).  It was a fun adventure that we really enjoyed.

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We flew into Bergen late Tuesday evening just in time to see the beautiful midnight sun.  Since we got in so late, we stayed at the nearby airport hotel and on Wednesday we picked up our rental car and headed out to visit the fjords.  We were expecting a scenic drive and although there was some of that, there were mostly tunnels.  So many tunnels!  We made a couple of pit stops along the way at the Dale sweater factory, a random, pretty waterfall, and the lookout point from the Stalheim Hotel.  Our check-in was not until 5 pm, so we enjoyed taking our time and even had time for a short hike near the hotel.

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We made one last stop in the tiny village of Underdal, which has far more goat inhabitants than people and is “famous” for its goat cheese.  We bought some yummy cheese and looked for the goats, but they were all hiding out from the passing rain showers.

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Then it was finally time to check into our little cabin we found on VRBO in Gudvangen, a tiny village whose name means “God’s Place.”  Definitely easy to see why!  The views were just stunning.

We ate at the only restaurant in town, which was surprisingly decent and had a low key evening so we could gear up for the next adventure filled day.

First on our agenda the next day was a drive up the twisty, turny, narrow road to the Stegastein view point.  The ride up was a bit scary, but the views were totally worth it!

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We had read about Utternes farm on Tripadvisor and it sounded like a unique little place that offered farm cooked meals, but unfortunately it was closed for the season.  We decided to drive out that way anyway to see the old farm buildings and we had fun taking a quick look around.

Our final stop for the rest of the day was the small village of Flam, famous for its railway up the mountains.  After reading a ton about it, we decided to give it a miss because it sounded like it gets super packed and despite the wonderful scenery, the experience itself seemed quite touristy.  Since we didn’t do it, I’m obviously not sure exactly how it was, but seeing the hordes of tour groups waiting for the train when we got into town confirmed for me that we had made the right decision.  IMG_9818

Instead of the train, we had lunch at the market and sampled some tasty beers at the Aegir Bryggeri brewery.  Then we ventured out on a lovely hike to a waterfall where we had a great view of the town and said hi to some sheep just hanging out on the hill.

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Then it was finally time for the highlight of our day, a 2-hour speed boat tour on the fjords with Fjord Safari.  We got all bundled up (despite the fact that it wasn’t that cold out, once you got going fast out on the water, it was definitely nice to have all the gear!) and headed out with our informative guide.  He told us lots of information and folklore about different points along the fjord from a viking graveyard to a story about mountains that were “really” a giant troll.  We even got to see porpoises several times along the way.  We highly enjoyed this tour and were very glad we opted to see the fjords from a small speedboat versus a large ferry boat.  It was so peaceful and really gives you a perspective of just how vast the fjord system is.

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On our last day on the fjords we knew we wanted to do a big hike and thanks to the power of the interwebs, I stumbled upon a gorgeous photo of a viewpoint not far from us on the border of the Jotunheimen National Park.  I found the photos on Instagram and a lovely Norwegian girl gave me the info about how to find the trail.  I loved the idea that the hike was “off the beaten path,” but we wound up getting a bit more than we bargained for!  We basically hiked up a mountain, and 20 minutes in it started alternating between light rain and mist and didn’t stop until we were on our way down.  The trail was intense and as we got closer to the top we had to look for cairns, which are essentially stacks of rocks, to mark the trail…and then we found snow at the top.  Lots of snow.  So here we are in the rain, in our light jackets walking through snow fields and scrambling over rocks.  We got almost to the very top and then the snow was deep and the rain was coming harder…so Lukasz went up almost all the way and reported that the view was hazy and foggy anyway, so we turned back.  The whole time we encountered only two other hikers and it felt like we were in another world.  On the way down, the tiny streambed we had been following had turned into a small waterfall that we basically followed down.  When we got to the bottom we were soaked and exhausted, and alternated between talking about how awesome it was and how there were points where we thought we might not make it back down in one piece!  Yikes!  Afterwards, we came to find out that in Norway, August is considered to be THE hiking month.  Yes, apparently there’s only one month when conditions are great for hiking.  Live and learn.

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On our way home it started pouring and we were so glad that we weren’t stuck somewhere up on the mountain!  We stopped in the small town of Laerdal on the way and stumbled on a random local festival.  It was such a cute town and we were hoping to find some dinner, but there weren’t many options so we called it a night at our place with some frozen pizzas and local beer.

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The next morning it was time for us to leave the fjords, but the sun finally came out so we got a glimpse of the place in sunshine.  Gorgeous!

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I’m so glad we had the chance to explore the beautiful fjords of Norway.  I’d love to visit some of the farther flung places on the fjords like Alesund or hike the Trolltunga…maybe someday we will be back!

I’ll recap our weekend in Bergen in the next post…