Were you to flip Norway on its head, its uppermost reaches would stretch all the way down to Rome, whereas Oslo would barely cross the North Sea. That should give some idea of the majesty and grandeur of this country’s expansive northern landscape, which many consider to rival New Zealand's South Island for otherworldly splendour...
Trolls may be a buzzword for the Twitter-fed generation, but their centuries-old antecedents, the mythical straggle-haired creatures said to terrorise the peaks and valleys of Northern Norway, have long informed the folklore of this vast swathe of Scandinavia. Stay at the fjordside Kobbelv Vertshus and you may well be treated to tales of these malevolent critters as you gaze over the tranquil waters, dining on succulent cuts of local reindeer. Fear not, though: trolls rarely make an appearance during the permabright summer months, and cynics maintain that they were invented to warn intrepid children of the winter dangers of heading unaccompanied into the lavish mountains. A canoeing excursion onto the nearby lake Sørfjordvannet requires a short hike and the surrender of photographic equipment – just in case.
Not to be confused with the flaxen-haired pop brethren of the late 1990s, Hamsun (first name Knut) was Northern Norway’s most celebrated – and debated – author, paving the way for the likes of Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemingway with his pioneering psychological writings, which at once romanticised and critiqued his formative years in the region. Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1920, but subsequently provoked widespread revulsion for his support of the German war effort and his dogged refusal to denounce Nazism. The museum and educational centre built in his memory is suitably controversial: a menacing, black cube of a building juxtaposed with the neat low-rise structures of surrounding Hamarøy.
Tranøy’s coastal sculpture park grew out of an overachieving fundraising drive originally intended to save Harald Bodøgaard’s temporary ‘Stars Fishing in the Sky’ sculpture from relocation. That rusty work now serves as a the starting point for all kinds of artsy indulgence, thanks to a rotating roster of open-air exhibits that are displayed amongst the municipality’s rocky waterside outcrops. A hearty post-trail meal at local café Dorotheas (think freshest local salmon and a house speciality cinnamon bun) should satisfy earthlier cravings before boarding the car ferry that crosses the Tysfjorden – the deepest fjord in Northern Norway – as part of the European route E06 highway.
High in Narvik
Situated well above the Arctic Circle, Narvik became the unlikely focus of the world’s attentions in April 1940 when Hitler attacked Denmark and Norway. For eight weeks solid, a bitter battle for this industrial community and its prized reserves of iron ore raged between the invading German forces and allied troops, eventually resulting in Nazi occupation. Nowadays, the majesty of this year-round, ice-free port – predominantly a conduit for Swedish trade – is best appreciated via the cable car to Fagernesfjellet, which offers stunning, peaceful views and the possibility of venturing further up into the surrounding mountains by foot.
Using locally-harvested moss as a nutritious garnish for fish from the nearby fjord, and the rhubarb that flourishes at its edges, the traditional kitchen at the Tinja Mountain Lodge, a mountainous drive from Narik, would no doubt be a Michelin star magnet were it not for its relative remoteness. A welcome drink in a traditional tepee comprises sweet coffee around a smoky campfire, swathed in the skins that have cloaked the Samis for generations. The Sami people are Norway’s indigenous, semi-nomadic reindeer herders, whose heritage has only relatively recently been recognised as a source of national pride.
Close encounters of the furred kind
The word ‘arctic’ is derived from the Greek word for bear (arktos) and there are plenty of native shaggy bear specimens to be photographed – and fed – within the vast expanses of Bardu’s amazing Polar Zoo. Elsewhere at the zoo, the slinky lynx can be glimpsed through the fences, strutting its feline stuff, but Wolf Camp is undeniably the park’s biggest draw. Offering visiting humans a rare opportunity to bond with socialised wolves and to enjoy their company, close-range, in an environment that’s as near as possible to their natural habitat, it’s a daily expedition that involves allowing wolves to lick your face, before – if you’re lucky – witnessing the almighty din of their collective howls.
Tromsø, Paris of the north
So-nicknamed because of its status as a relatively cosmopolitan, not to mention fashionable, trading post, Tromsø – Northern Norway’s most populous city, with 70,000 inhabitants – is well known as a winter base for glimpsing the Aurora Borealis, which ripples across the sky when it so chooses. In summer months, dinner at harbour restaurant Fisekompaniet offers a guaranteed, spectacular view over the prized wooden buildings of Tromsø’s historic centre and out onto a still snow-capped landscape of the surrounding mountains. Walk the bridge over to the spectacular, modernist Arctic Cathedral, designed by architect Jan Inge Hovig, for a haunting midnight concert in surreal surroundings.
It’s a dog’s life at Tromsø’s renowned Villmarkssenter, where some 300 tethered Alaskan huskies – prized in winter for propelling sleds full of tourists towards the Northern Lights – await your attention in kennels set amid a grandiose landscape, bordering an open-air restaurant and an inviting hot-tub. If you're looking for a more active time on the water, the staff here can organise a beginners' kayaking expedition on the strait between Kvaløya (The Whale Island) and Tromsø city, where the German battleship Tirpitz was destroyed by British Lancaster bombers on 12 November 1944. That around 1000 perished in these tranquil waters is almost unthinkable.
Norwegian flies from Gatwick to Oslo, then on to Bødo airport.