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Sun 18 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Land of the hidden sun

Mark Jenkins goes in search of dog mushers and dancing green skies at the top of the world.

Mark Jenkins goes in search of dog mushers and dancing green skies at the top of the world.

I'd been re-acquainting myself with Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein when I got the call. "Norway, the Arctic Circle, tomorrow, have fun."

Shelley's story begins with the tortured doctor's dog-sled pursuit of his creature across the frozen wastes of an unnamed polar landscape. I'll take the book with me, I thought, it might come in handy.

We reach the top of the world not by sled, however, but on an SAS A340 to Copenhagen, then on to the capital of the north, Tromso, 350 kilometres above the Arctic Circle.

The flight into Tromso is a true spectacle. Variously known as the Gateway to the Arctic and the Paris of the North, this enchanting city nestles at the heart of a collection of fjord-ridden islands, joined to the mainland by a huge arc-like bridge, but isolated from the world by snow-covered Lyngen Alps to the East. For a city so remote, Tromso is very cosmopolitan.

Around 10,000 of its 65,000 inhabitants are university students and the Tromso International Film Festival has in recent years become an established event on the world cinema circuit.

Tromso makes much of its northerness, claiming the world's most northerly cinema, university, brewery, bishop and burger king; in fact the most northernmost things anywhere in the world.

The city is the world's primary destination for spotting the Northern Lights, the eerie greenish aurorae that dance across the polar skies on most winter evenings.Naturally, this part of Norway is also replete with activities that involve snow, and straight from the plane we head over the bridge and into the mountains for our first arctic experience: dog mushing. I try to remember which pocket I put that book into.

Tore Albrigtsen runs the Villmarkssenter, home to some 300 wailing Huskies. Each Husky has its name painted on its kennel and Tore knows every one. Grieg, Ibsen and Asterix are among the baying team of ten that pulls us up the mountain side, through the biting chill of the arctic night.

Tore is one of Europe's top competition dog mushers, competing regularly in 1000-mile dog marathons, including the fearsome Alaskan Iditarod, the Last Great Race on Earth.

He tells me that in competition, the dogs will pull the sled, and him, over 100 miles in a single day, eating 11 000 calories of raw meat along the way. Ours is a more leisurely trek, up into the hills overlooking the city lights of Tromso far below, their reflection shimmering on the blackness of the fjord.

Although it is evening, the whiteness of the landscape imparts an unearthly half-light making the peaks above just visible through the snowy gloom. My partner and I sit snug in the sled, warm under blankets and animal skins, more Zhivago than Frankenstein.

Standing behind on the runners, Tore yells commands to his enthusiastic pack; "jee" for right, "hai" for left, "stoor" to stop. This is no mere Norwegian dog-slang, it's international Husky, used by mushers across the world, hemispheres north and south.

Contrary to popular belief, the word "mush" is never used, the sound being too soft to make a distinctive command. Tore smacks his lips making a kissing sound to which the dogs react instantly, howling, straining at the harness, running faster down the hill.

An hour later we return to the warmth of the fire inside a Lavo house, a traditional tee-pee like structure made of wood and covered in turf, where we dine on steamed cod and mussels.

It's excellent fare after a bracing jaunt through the crisp night air, made all the more so by the fact that the food is from the waters at the foot of the mountain, and the chef is from France.After a short trip around a deserted late-night Tromso, where we discover more things northernmost, we join the MS Midnatsol, one of company Hurtigruten's fleet of 13 Coastal Express ships.

On what has been ambitiously labelled "The World's Most Beautiful Voyage" the ship will have begun its 12-day north-south journey in Bergen, taking six days to reach Kirkenes, close to the Russian port of Murmansk, before returning round the Polar Cape, through Hammerfest, to Tromso, where we board.

Norway's tortuous coastline favours shipping and air over road and rail to provide for the needs of its coastal population; a country of just 4.5 million inhabitants, it has over 60 airports. Hurtigruten's fleet stops at a host of fishing towns and villages along the way, delivering everything from people and mail to fruit and dried fish.

A working boat, yes, but this is no ordinary cargo vessel. Built in 2003, the Midnatsol has a capacity of 1,000 passengers and 650 luxury berths, including suites and grand suites with their own private balconies and salons.

The 9 decks are fitted out with panoramic lounges, viewing areas, restaurants and cafés, bars, gym, pool and jacuzzi, a shop, a library, a business centre... But this is no karaoke cruise; the lavish lounges, all fronted by vast window spaces, lend themselves more to the quiet contemplation of the extraordinary coastline outside rather than watching the crooners within.

MS Midnatsol. In this late arctic November, it's not so much midnight sun as midday night - the sun won't even rise above the horizon for another 50 days. That's not to say it's always dark.

At this latitude, the polar night, as it's known, allows four or five hours of weak-tea light every day. But by 2.30pm it's dark again and by three I feel oddly ready for dinner.

We stop at a procession of harbour villages, the ship docking each time in the heart of the settlement, loading and unloading cargo and passengers.

At each stop we are given anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours to venture out into the snow-lined streets, the ship sounding its foghorn when it is time to return. In the afternoon, we enter the Lofoten Islands, a 100-mile wall of island mountains surging abruptly out of the sea.Even in our winter twilight, it is a wilderness of breathtaking beauty. I stand out on the snow-covered deck, determined to enjoy the burning cold as we pick our way gingerly through sheer, narrow fjords, the icy rock walls towering above on each side of the ship.

Back inside, the ship's captain, Arild Hårvik, tells me that the Lofoten Islands are warmed by the Gulf Stream, giving them a more temperate climate than areas on similar latitudes, such as northern Greenland and Alaska. "It's only minus 2 degrees today," he tells me, "so it's quite warm." I don't feel so cold then.

We make our first Lofoten stop in the small town of Storkmarknes, the historical home of Hurtigruten and site of its Coastal Express museum. Our ship docks next to the classic steamer Finnmarken, built in 1956 and now on dry land as part of the museum.

The word Hurtigruten literally means "fast route" and since 1893 the company's fleet has ensured that the Express visits each of 34 ports between Bergen and Kirkenes twice daily, once "Nordgående" (Northbound) and once "Sørgående" (Southbound).

Later in the day, we make a major stop in Svolvaer, the capital of the Lofoten. A harbour town of 4,500, Svolvaer has for centuries been a major fishing centre.

Herring, halibut, salmon and plaice are all plentiful but it is the great cod fisheries of the winter that form the bedrock of the town's economy. Each year, from January to March, huge banks of cod, or skrei, leave the Barents Sea far to the north and, after a long and serpentine journey south through the fjords, reach the Lofoten to spawn.

And each year this is a time of suspense. Fisherman from across the north of the country come here, and wait. Traditionally, it  is the children who announce the arrival of the skrei.

And then, after the days and nights of anticipation, the town bristles with activity as the brightly painted fishing boats hasten away to seek their catch, the bacalao so prized by the Spanish and Portuguese, before it returns to the Arctic.Tourism, too, has greatly increased in recent years. Many of the old fishermen's cabins, the rorbuer, have been meticulously restored using local materials and are now available as holiday lodgings. Rock climbing, bird watching and killer whale watching are all popular activities in the Lofoten.

As we step off the ship, it's once again dark and the snow is falling heavy and silent. The street and sidewalk have merged into one, and a thick white mattress sits fat on the roofs of the rorbuer that line the harbour.

The Norwegian language no doubt has many words for snow, but I decide to call this snow magical Disney-film Christmas snow, perfect for snowballs, crunchy under foot.

As the white stuff piles up outside, we sit in the candlelit glow of the Borsen Spiseri restaurant, a former quayside trading post dating back to 1828, its tar-coated beams and ropes preserved to create that ambience of hearty camaraderie you get when the winter chill is all around. The menu includes meat, yes reindeer, but fish abounds and the local cod and smoked salmon oblige.

It's a wrench to leave the town, and the Lofoten Isles, but while the snow muffles most noise, it can do nothing to dampen the summons of our ship's foghorn.

From the warmth of my cabin I watch the mighty stern line slide through the quayside snow before slipping into the icy black waters, and for once I'm happy to be inside.

The harbour lights fade into the swirling flurry as we make our way out into the night and the open sea, returning towards the mainland.

The 2-hour overnight stop in Bodo does not intrude on my sleep and the morning brings stillness and more glacial majesty. The mountainside white is broken only by the occasional reds and yellows of the solitary wooden houses that dot the coastline and the half-light is an icy blue.At mid-morning the captain announces that we are crossing the Arctic Circle. To our west, on the rocky outcrop of Vikingen, a lonely sculpted globe marks the line of 66° 33' North, and that signals the end of our arctic experience. It's no less cold, though.

Our final night aboard, and we feast at the captain's table on a creamy fish gratin and scallops, and then retire to the Hamsun bar to watch the singer, it being too dark for any more contemplation of the wonders without.

The ship continues its journey south to Bergen, but I disembark at the ancient Viking city of Trondheim, at the mouth of the river Nid. The snow lies thick around the Nidaros Cathedral, but it's not the arctic snow I already miss.

I'm not sure that the good doctor, or his monstrous creation, would agree, but at the end of our trip down from the top of the world I am thinking that the title World's Most Beautiful Voyage may not be so far-fetched after all.

How to get there

We travelled courtesy of SAS and Hurtigruten.

SAS

Fly from Dubai to Copenhagen and on to Oslo 3 times a week, Monday, Thursday and Friday. Flights on to Bergen and Tromso are daily.

Tel: 04-3360530

www.flysas.ae

Hurtigruten

Runs a variety of winter and summer voyages and excursions along the Norwegian coastline, from trips of a few days to experience the Northern Lights to the full 12-day round trip, Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen.

They also run cruises to Spitsbergen, Greenland and the Antarctic. They will organise other additional activities, such as dog-sledding or whale watching.

Hurtigruten has a representative in Dubai; contact Sonia at Scandinavian Connections, 050-593263, email sonia@hurtigruten.ae.

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