Sunday 17 December 2017

A touch of Frost

Travelling by husky? Ice hotels? Trips to the freezing arctic are hot stuff for cruise ship fans

THE thought of sleeping on a bed of ice in the Arctic Circle would send shivers down your spine, but they are nothing compared to the real deal. As holiday accommodation goes, the Snow Hotel in the Norwegian town Kirkenes doesn’t do luxuries but it is definitely unique.

I've travelled to the Norwegian-Russian border to spend a night acclimatising for a four-day mission to see the famous aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights.

Outside the temperature is close to minus 20C, but our tour guide assures us it will be a "cosy" minus six inside the Snow Hotel -- provided we are tightly packed into our animal-skin sleeping bags.

The hotel is essentially an igloo that locals carve out every winter, and includes its own bar which is made from 25 tons of ice that has been pulled from a nearby lake.

Let's be honest though, waking up in the snow hotel is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It's refreshing, but once it's done, it's done.

So with my body set for the challenge, my search for the northern lights gathered momentum as I boarded the MS Midnatsol, a ship operated by the Hurtigruten group.

As a working ship, it is far from the luxury cruise liners often associated with this type of travel, but it is a real alternative.

The MS Midnatsol makes regular stops as it travels westwards along the rim of the Barents Sea in one of the world's most profitable fishing areas.

Those looking to relax and take in the views of a winter wonderland can do so from the comfort of the restaurant, the panoramic bar or even the library. But for those of us who have been trained up at the Snow Hotel, the bizarre lure of the outdoor Jacuzzi on the ship's deck is too much to resist.

One of the advantages of the Midnatsol's regular stops is that it gives passengers a chance to hop on and hop off at Norwegian villages. On one such stop, at 1am, my group embarks on a snowmobile ride into the dark wilderness hoping that the isolation will allow us a glimpse of the lights.

Apparently, the chances of having an illuminating experience on the mountain drive from Mehamn to the fishing village of Kjollefjord are "huge", but not on this occasion.

Still, any thrill-seeker will have got enough satisfaction from the 40kph glide across the white in a race to catch the ship, which was about to depart for the northernmost city in the world.

Hammerfest was also the first town in northern Europe to get electric street lights in 1891 and has an Energy House where you can experience the technology of different energy sources.

On the final leg of my journey to Tromso, the ship's captain announces over the intercom that the lights have been spotted. There is an automatic rush to the deck by excited passengers who stand in the midnight breeze for nearly an hour, but it's a fruitless freeze.

Despite my best efforts, travelling by plane, road, husky sledge, ship, snowmobile and on foot, I failed to see the famous lights. But like all the best things in life, the fun is in the chase.

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