An Arctic adventure to Norway and beyond

By David Nudleman
This article appears on page 39 of the December 2019 issue.

Our “meet and greet” with the leader of the pack.

My wife, Elisa, exclaimed in utter disbelief, “We’re going where in December?” “Above the Arctic Circle,” I replied.

In addition to traveling above the Arctic Circle, we would journey to Svalbard, “the northernmost inhabited place on Earth.”

As we would be traveling in winter, we would have the bonus of experiencing 24-hour polar darkness.

When I showed my wife where Svalbard was located on our world globe, she simply sighed. Elisa is used to me selecting far-flung destinations — China, India and Kenya — but the thought of traveling above the Arctic Circle in December seemed quite extreme to her.

Planning the trip

As I started to plan what I thought would be a “routine” trip to Oslo, Norway, I began, as I usually do at the inception of any of our journeys, by consulting a map. Immediately I noticed that, from Oslo, going up to the Arctic Circle required just a convenient train trip. Since half the fun for us when traveling is taking trains, it was an easy decision to add this to our itinerary. As I was studying the globe, I spied Svalbard, so I googled how to get there and found that SAS had once-a-day flights to Longyearbyen at reasonable fares (about $300 round trip). At that point, Svalbard was on!

Departing out of Dallas-Fort Worth, we arrived in Oslo around 4 p.m. Once we’d gathered our baggage, we realized we had only about 15 minutes to purchase tickets and find the Airport Express Train into the city, the last train on this Christmas Eve! The race was on as we ran through the terminal, just barely making it on time to the train, where the very thoughtful conductor awarded us with a nice box of chocolates — a most unexpected treat.

Oslo

Relaxing at the Basecamp Hotel.

Once in Oslo proper, a short cab ride took us to the First Millennium Hotel (Tollbugata 25; firsthotels.com/millennium), a very clean and comfortable property with front-desk attendees who were most gracious in helping us with directions, tram advice and restaurant recommendations. (Our room cost $140 per night.)

From a taxi driver in front of the hotel, we requested a brief city tour of central Oslo (about $50). The courteous driver gave us an overview of the primary Oslo area, and seeing many of the beautiful structures lit up at night was a pleasant ending to a very long travel day.

Following a wonderful breakfast buffet in the hotel the next morning, we were ready to take on our first full day in Oslo. As it was Christmas Day, most everything was closed. Not to despair! We bought 24-hour Oslo public transportation tickets (NOK108, or $12, per adult; NOK54, senior).

Over my many years of travel, one of my favorite travel activities is to see a city via its public transportation system. I have found this offers a chance to interact with locals and allows an opportunity to really “see” a city up close and personal.

We were able to visit some beautiful, remote parts of Oslo and hopped on and off as we saw things that looked interesting. It was a most serendipitous travel day during which we were constantly rewarded with views of gorgeous architecture and quaint neighborhoods.

Svalbard

The next morning, we arose for our big adventure to Svalbard. Since we would be returning to Oslo and the First Millennium Hotel after the Arctic portion of our trip, we combined our clothing into one suitcase and stored the second suitcase with the front desk.

Our 3½-hour SAS flight to Longyearbyen was actually quite comfortable. I think this plane was roomier than our overseas flight on British Airways! I had read that the landing into the airport in Longyearbyen could be quite dramatic because of the constantly icy conditions, but ours seemed rather mundane.

A public bus takes travelers from the airport into town. After extensive research, we opted to stay at the Basecamp Hotel (basecampexplorer.com), styled in a rustic trappers’ lodge motif. The inn was very cozy, with a comfortable lobby where guests could relax and enjoy the always-available coffee, tea and cookies. Our double room ($205 per night) had bunk beds, with a nice bathroom en suite.

After we had checked in, we arranged for a local guide to give us a 2-hour tour of Longyearbyen’s highlights. In the winter, Svalbard is under 24-hour polar darkness, and it is one of the world’s best locations to take in the northern lights (though it was, unfortunately, too cloudy while we were there).

Our tour took us to see the Svalbard Church, the northernmost place of worship in the world, and we were given our first chance to tromp around in the Svalbard snow and get a taste of the cold Arctic temperatures.

Arriving back at our hotel, we were quite hungry after this exhilarating tour. We had a delicious dinner of Arctic char, which tastes and looks a lot like salmon ($65, dinner for two), at Stationen (Lompensenteret; stationen.no/en)

More adventure

The next morning, we were picked up at our hotel for our dogsledding expedition. The guides suited us up in jumpsuits that were designed for temperatures to -40°F and provided heavy-duty mittens, all-weather boots and headlamps to light our way through the cold polar darkness. Despite the temperature being -2°F, the gear kept us fairly warm.

Our excitement built as we first greeted the dogs that would be pulling our sleigh. They were very friendly and eager to go.

Each sleigh held two people; one person sat in the sleigh while the other drove. Each individual got a turn to drive.

This 2-hour excursion was one of the most exciting travel activities I have experienced through my many years of international travel. It was certainly cold, there could be no denying that, but these two Texans from the deep South still enjoyed every freezing moment of the trek!

One highlight was when everyone was instructed to turn off their headlamps and we continued in complete darkness. The total silence, other than the sound of the dogs huffing in the background, coupled with the total darkness was one of the most surreal experiences of my life — one of my all-time great travel moments.

To the Arctic Circle

The hop-on, hop-off Oslo tram.

The next day we arose early to wait outside in the cold, dark Svalbard morning for the bus back to the airport, where we would catch our flight back to Oslo. Once we touched down in Oslo, we had to transfer to the train station for our overnight journey to Trondheim, Norway, to continue the Arctic Circle portion of our journey.

Our train took off at 11:50 p.m. as scheduled, and we got situated in our sleeper compartment before heading to the dining car for coffee. While there, we were pleasantly surprised that we could see out the window into the night, the miles of snow lighting up the expansive terrain. It was quite magical seeing the nighttime views of the local homes with their Christmas decorations, getting an occasional glimpse through a window to see a fire in the fireplace.

Early in the morning, we arrived in Trondheim and transferred to another train that would take us across the Arctic Circle into Bodø. The journey through the snow-filled Arctic was sublime, and the hours passed in what seemed minutes.

Upon arriving in Bodø, we checked into the Scandic Havet hotel (Tollbugaten 5; scandichotels.com), which was comfortable and centrally located ($155 per night). The town appeared larger in size than I had imagined.

The next morning, we found ourselves walking through the fresh, falling snow as we visited the Bodø Pier. The cold was invigorating. Then we flew back to Oslo, heading back to where we started at the New Millennium Hotel.

New Year’s Eve morning, on our last day in Oslo, offered surprisingly mild weather, closer to around 40°F, a welcome respite from the cold we had been experiencing. A final dinner in the beautiful Bella Bambina, inside the Comfort Hotel Grand Central (Jernbanetorget 1, Østbanehallen), was a wonderful conclusion to this exciting Arctic adventure.

As we welcomed in 2019, we reflected on our wonderful journey through this winter wonderland, and the smile from Elisa let me know she was ready for the next exotic destination.