When I told people that I was taking our ski week vacation in northern Norway, I got more than a few questionable stares … but those who followed our trip on social media could not believe all the amazing things we experienced in one action-packed visit to the Arctic Circle. We paired a few days in Oslo with four nights on the tippy top of Norway in Alta, one of the northernmost cities in the world (the fast-growing city tagline is that it is the Northern Lights capital). If the weather behaves during the winter months, there’s a pretty darn good chance to see the lights given the latitude: 69.9550° N!
We discovered that there’s much more to this remote, icy wilderness than an epic light show, though even if the Northern Lights were the only perk, I’d still travel up there to see them — they were truly unbelievable in person. Living in and around Alta is not easy given the extreme latitude; there are periods in November and December when the sun doesn’t rise at all. But we learned how its inhabitants have adapted to this isolated environment and thrive here. The residents of Alta have a connected relationship with their land and get great joy from the wonderful outdoor adventures available in spades with little human competition for access. A week gave us a taste of what life is like in the Arctic Circle. My 14-year-old son and I, together with CB! Family Travel Advisor Sandy Pappas and her 15-year-old daughter, had one of the most authentic, eye-opening travel experiences that we’ve had to date … and just plain fun!
We discovered that when you live thousands of kilometers from agricultural land, you eat what is near you, which means the people here live on moose, elk, reindeer and fish, to name a few of the prominent options. Veggies are in short supply, as they need to be transported great distances or cleverly stored, but these Norwegians have made the most of the things they can access. We had everything from reindeer stew to just-caught haddock to multi-course gourmet experiences using pickled vegetables and arctic salt. Creativity is at work here to offer choices, but it was still a good lesson for our kids that variety is not a right — it’s a perk of living elsewhere in the world.
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We didn’t just go dogsledding, which can happen in many winter regions — we slept in a teepee at a kennel with roughly 100 dogs as company, outside the home of one of Norway’s champion dogsled racers at Holmen Husky Lodge. The experience is as unique and exhilarating as it gets … guests drive their own team of dogs through the forest. We drove ours at night with headlamps. Heart-pumping fun!
We didn’t see a soul on our snowshoe journey to a stunning backcountry lake with Glod Explorer. A well-trained dog carried our supplies and, after our cardio workout to get there, we enjoyed an incredible fresh salmon and veggie lunch cooked over an open fire. There are a shrinking number of places in the world that are like this one, relatively easy to access yet so pristine. Even the kids were captivated by the silence.
One of our trip highlights was most definitely a morning excursion with Storekorsnes Ferie & Fritid, to an isolated village with just 25 inhabitants for deep sea fishing in an icy fjord and then a feast in a cozy cabin nearby. We quickly learned that weather is not much of an activity inhibitor in this part of the world — we bundled up and went on our way in a snowstorm. And these fish didn’t require much skill to catch; we just dropped a line in the water and pulled up lunch! Once again, a big part of the joy was the opportunity to really get to know locals and understand their very different way of life from our own. Unforgettable.
Our snowmobile ride in Norway wasn’t just an hour-long excursion down a well-paved track, but a 5-hour adventure across kilometers of wilderness to a refuge and restaurant accessible only by snowmobile. The refuge owner served fresh soup and homemade bread next to an open fire. We didn’t arrive back until the sun was going down. We even had an opportunity to go off-road to see one of Northern Europe’s deepest gorges. Who knew snowmobiling could be so physically demanding? But in Alta, it’s a major crowd-pleaser.
Alta’s ice hotel, called Sorresniva, is a small and less touristy version of this popular category of frozen accommodations. We all were nervous we’d be cold during the night, but the setup here is very well done, with a comfortable (and warm) gourmet restaurant and lounge. Honestly, it’s not cold as you think it will be —my teenager slept until 9:30a. I had to beg him to get out of bed.
The night we slept in the igloo, we took an after-dinner break to join a Sami reindeer herder and his mother in a lavvu, a traditional Sami teepee with fire and reindeer skins for warmth. This evening was one of our favorite interactions of the entire trip. Despite our radically different life experiences, we shared stories and snacks, and learned about the Sami way of life. And although the Sami mother didn’t speak English, she still seemed to understand our conversation and we had many laughs together. The pinnacle of the evening was when we went reindeer sledding back to our hotel with the reindeer as our guide running through the forest … alone. We’ll be telling this story over and over again for the rest of our lives.
The stronger-than-average chance to see the Northern Lights drives many visitors to Alta. What we learned is that relying on chance — i.e. stepping outside and hoping to see them — is not the best strategy. Instead, we went out with a Northern Lights Hunter, thanks to our friends at Glod. Our guide showed us all the data they use to estimate the strength of lights on a given evening and to predict the weather, as the different microclimates create a variance in the cloud cover. The clouds parted for us, and our reward was sweet.
There is so much to see and do in Alta and northern Norway; honestly, we didn’t touch the tip of the iceberg — no pun intended — in terms of enjoying and experiencing this endless wilderness. The beauty for families is that they can integrate more leisurely adventures into the plans as well and make a longer trip of it. Alta is home to a small but beautiful local ski area at SarvesAlta with incredible views, plus snowshoeing, a winter zipline and fat tire biking.
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Editor’s Note: Ciao Bambino received a media package to explore and share what families can see and do in northern Norway in the winter. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy.
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