Ever wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, that technicolour freak show of nature, also known as the Northern Lights? Well, you might need to be patient. And, if unlike Bill Bryson, you don’t have 16 days to wait for the fickle Aurora, you’ll be glad to know there’s much else to do here at the very edge of the world.
And by here, I mean the city of Alta. We’re at almost 70° N (that’s 4° north of the Arctic Circle), yet, it’s surprisingly accessible. Crossing the Arctic Circle is just no big deal in Norway. There are several daily flights from Oslo, so if you’re so inclined, you could pop across the circle for morning coffee and be back home in time for tea.
But you don’t want to do that. You want to see what this Northern adventure city has to offer on crisp winter days, and I’m tellin’ ya, it’s a lot. Nature, culture, adventure… all here for you to explore. Just remember thermal undies. Let’s get started.
Dashing through the snow – by sleigh and on horseback
What could be more exciting than galloping through the snow, along a frozen river? Or, for the romantics amongst us, huddling close together underneath a big blanket in a horse-drawn sleigh, while someone else is taking care of the driving. Flatmoen Natur is a family operation, based out of an 18th century farmstead. Here’s papa Johnny Veidemo at the reins, son Levi and the main act, Fjellblom (meaning Mountain Flower).
Flatmoen Natur offers sleigh rides and horseback rides along Alta River, come winter, summer, rain or shine, stopping at a gapahuk (a shelter set up in the forest) to warm our hands by the bonfire and have a hot drink and snack (next to the fire here is dried heart of ox and cups of gløgg, Norwegian glühwein).
Meanwhile, Fjellblom is having a snack herself. The Norwegian Fjord Horse is a strong, steady and agile creature. She has to be, considering the mountain sides she has been climbing for centuries. She is in fact one of the oldest breeds in the world, and known for her good temperament. This is a no-stress horse.
You can also go out at night, and if you’re lucky, Aurora will make a guest appearance. But even if she decides to stay hidden, well, I probably don’t have to mention the spectacular scenery, do I? With or without Aurora, the night will be magical; the white snow brightening the polar night. Along the way – night or day – you might stumble upon a moose out wandering. King of the Forest it’s known as here. And it is indeed a majestic sight.
Prefer to be on horseback, but afraid you might fall off? Well, what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll fall softly, that’s what. All you risk, is a bit of cold snow down your back.
Photo by Alf Ove Hansen/ArgusMedia AS
Flatmoen offers various types of gear for your riding pleasure, normal (i.e. English) and Western (practically sofas, those saddles); whatever you’re comfortable with. There seems to be a fondness for the American style here, though. They organise the annual national roping championship right here on the farm. And when can I see this Arctic stampede, you ask? Why, 4th of July, of course.
Full specs, activities and prices at Flatmoen here.
Finnmarksløpet is a 1000-km trail sled dog race from Alta to Kirkenes and back. That’s about 2/3 the distance of its Alaskan sister race, Iditarod. If you’re not ready to go all in and be a long-distance musher, but just wanna drive a dog sled with eager huskies raring to go, you have various opportunities. Several companies offer dog sledding, including the good folks at Gargia Lodge and Vegard Hykkerud in cooperation with Flatmoen Natur (horse AND hound, what could be better?)
I fell in love with Vegard’s 6 gorgeous huskies, all girls, especially this beaut, Timotei!
Sledding with Rudolph and Sami culture
But what about reindeer? Aren’t they prevalent all over Northern Norway? Even eating the bushes in your garden? That’s right, my friend. And here in Alta, you can be Santa – or at least ride in his sleigh – with Sami siida, another family-run operation.
Photo by Alf Ove Hansen/ArgusMedia AS
Nils Biera Sara takes us out for a night-time journey along the river under the full moon. I ride with Nils Biera himself, which means he is inundated with questions, cause that’s just what I do. But wait a minute, you might wonder. I only see Rudolph in front of your sleigh. Where’s Comet, Vixen and all the others?
Reindeer sleigh traditions vary from country to country. Across the border in Russia, there’s often 6 reindeer, he tells me. Not in twos, one pair behind the other, but all 6 alongside each other, pulling one sledge. Here in Arctic Norway, the smaller one is the most common: one reindeer pulling a small, low-slung sledge with room for two. (And OK, maybe room for a few presents, as well.)
Back at the lavvoo (traditional Sami tent), we’re served bidos, reindeer stew. As I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’re following this blog, I’m not a keen meat eater. However, if you are, reindeer is just about the healthiest meat there is. It’s lean, high in protein, iron and Vitamin B, and it has been a staple of Sami diet for thousands of years, as well as their livelihood. They’re careful to use every part of the animal; every bit of meat is eaten (the heart is a particular delicacy) and every drop of milk is drunk. Every bit of skin, fur, antler and bone is used for clothes, shoes, knife handles, etc. And reindeer are traditionally free-roaming animals.
Nils Biera, his mum and his aunt share Sami traditions and their way of life with us. Everything on display is personal items from their family. And each item has a story. We’re enthralled. Here’s Nils Biera in his traditional Sami gákti. Notice all the details? The coat tells you that he is from Kautokeino (pattern and colours) and that he is married (square buttons on the belt instead of round).
Photo by Ann-Mari/Alltid reiseklar.
Full Sami siida specs and activities here.
Sleep on the rocks – or just have a look
The world’s northernmost ice hotel is right here in Alta, and you’ll want to check it out. There’s something so transient about an ice hotel. One minute it’s here, the next it’s gone, forever a part of history. And next year, it’s all rebuilt. Sorrisniva offers a cool place to lay your weary head, doubling as an equally cool art gallery. All the delicious details on the sleep-on-the-rocks experience in this post.
Vroom across the mountain
Much as I love animals, I’m gonna come right out and say it. My favourite thing to do in Alta is skidooing across Finnmarksvidda in this baby. Hands down! The mild wind at your back, the low sun on your face as you dash across the mountain, well, it’s just the funnest of fun! All about the Arctic snowmobiling experience in this post.
UNESCO World Heritage
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, chances are you’re interested in UNESCO World Heritage. Alta has two sites on the list:
- one of the 34 survey points in the serial, 10-country site, Struve Geodetic Arc, which represents the first accurate measures of the planet’s size and shape, and
- the very well preserved and well-presented Stone Age rock art at Alta Museum. Not strictly a winter activity, as the 3000 carvings might very well be covered in snow. Best come back in summer. Midnight sun n’all.
Where to stay
- The number 1 place up here is Sorrisniva igloo hotel, which is much more than a place to stay. But… not everyone wants to sleep on (really large) ice cubes, however exciting that is for the rest of us. If so, and if you’re here with a group, I recommend Alten Lodge. A review of this lovely property is coming up here on Sophie’s World shortly.
- If you’re off on a snowmobiling or dogsledding excursion, Gargia Lodge is a good choice.
- Other options include Glød, where you can sleep in an igloo tent and see the Northern Lights from your bed. Downtown, you’ll find the Nordic chains Scandic and Thon, as well as Canyon hotel. Haven’t tried any of these here in Alta, so can’t vouch for them.
Disclosure: The Nordic Escape and I travelled to Alta to hang out with our blogger colleague Alltid reiseklar and hopefully see the mysterious Aurora Borealis. Then one thing led to another, and before we knew it, Visit Alta, Gargia Lodge, Alten Lodge, Sami siida, Flatmoen Natur and Sorrisniva very kindly invited us to try all sorts of delightful Finnmark experiences.
As always, every word, every thought, every opinion is mine, all mine. Otherwise, this would be meaningless. Oh, and notice the headline here? City of Northern Lights? Aurora was as elusive as ever during our brief 3-night stay. But the very next night…