The Norwegian coastline is like an arm stretching over 1,000 miles—it hugs Sweden, Finland and sheepishly grazes nearby Russia. When making the journey from historic Bergen to the border outpost of Kirkenes, the Hurtigruten cruise line regularly crosses the Arctic Circle. At approximately 66 degrees 33 minutes north, a globe-shaped marker on the rocky island of Vikingen marks the southernmost point in the Northern hemisphere where the sun stays above or below the horizon during the respective solstices. Crossing this line is a festive occasion aboard the ship, as passengers are welcomed into a small group of humankind that has actually visited this latitude of planet Earth. One staff member dressed as Neptune (the Roman god of the sea) “baptizes” brave passengers with ice cubes poured down their clothing. But despite the region’s frigid reputation, the Arctic isn’t necessarily the barren tundra you might imagine. Here are five ways it might surprise you, should you go.
1. It’s not always snowing. Sometimes, it’s not even cold.
The temperature outside was about 63 degrees as we glided past the Arctic Circle marker around 7:15 a.m. It wasn’t quite warm enough to call King Neptune’s ice baptism refreshing, but the cubes left on the deck melted quickly in the harsh sunlight. Of course the temperatures had dropped about 10 degrees by the time we reached the North Cape, often referred to as the northernmost point in Europe. But even there, winter’s temperature lows average about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, which is considerably warmer than anywhere else at the same latitude, like in Alaska. Norwegians thank the Gulf Stream for these milder temperatures— warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico eventually travel north past the British Isles and up the coast of Norway, making their ports free of ice all year round.
2. The midnight sun appears for only a few weeks each year.
The Arctic is commonly nicknamed “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” but it’s only light at 12 a.m. from about mid-June until early July. This period gets longer, though, as you move closer to the North Pole and the sun stays out from mid-May through late July at the North Cape. The sun still stays out quite late for much of the year, setting between 9 and 11 p.m. through most of the summer. At that time, some light is still visible as the sun doesn’t go below the horizon completely. Patches of light often reflect off the twinkling black waters and highlight mountain silhouettes against the dark sky. Around the summer solstice of June 21, the area above the Arctic Circle experiences “polar day” where the sun is visible for a full 24 hours. Yet the trade-off is a long, dark winter. Around the winter solstice, there’s a polar night when it stays dark for 24 hours. These darker periods, though, are the best time to see the electromagnetic phenomena known as the Northern Lights. With the sun still staying above the horizon during the warmer months, it’s less likely—but not impossible—to see them.
3. People lead surprisingly normal lives this far north.
Even in the very northern reaches of the Norwegian coastline, you’ll find fishing villages and red-and-white clapboard houses perched in the most rugged of crags and inlets. There are sizable cities in Norway’s Arctic region, too—about 50,000 people live just past the Arctic Circle in Bodo, and over 70,000 live in Tromso, one of the largest cities that lies that far north in the entire world. The University of Tromso, one of the largest in Norway, has contributed to a lively arts culture, as well.
Visitors can check out the city’s contemporary arts scene at the Tromso Center for Contemporary Arts, which has been in operation since 1924. It’s also home to a thriving electronic music scene and hosts the Insomnia Music Festival every year. Historically, life was harsh above the Arctic Circle and Tromso’s residents haven’t forgotten it. The Polar Museum details the city’s past as a center for Arctic hunting—check it out if you want a tast of what it was like.
4. Cod is still king.
As the ship’s staff passed out “troll soup” to celebrate passing through the incredibly narrow Trollfjord, a young English passenger stated, “It’s good if you like fish but not very tasty if you don’t.” That’s Norwegian cuisine, especially above the Arctic Circle, in a nutshell. Thanks to the ever present Gulf Stream, Norway’s waters are filled with sweet shrimp, arctic char, halibut, and, king crab. Fishing boats are always in the waters and recognizable by the huge flock of squawking seagulls keeping pace with them.
If you visit the port of Finnmark, you might notice the rows of wooden racks that greet you. For over 500 years, the region has used those racks to dry cod for export to Spain, Latin America and other regions that rehydrate it to make the dish bacalao. During fishing season, you’ll probably smell the cod before you even see it. Since the 1970’s, seafood farming, especially salmon farming, has played a huge role in the Norwegian economy. The country remains the second largest exporter of seafood in the world.
5. The scenery will slowly change before your eyes.
Of course the fjords, shaped by glaciers over millions of years, are what truly draw visitors to Norway in the first place. During the winter, the craggy mountainscapes are cloaked in snow, but the summer brings strong sunlight bouncing off sapphire waters and casting shadows against a background of green. Sparkling white glaciers peek out between rocky cracks in the distance.
The terrain slowly turns earthy gray as you move north above the treeline—a region above the Arctic Circle where it’s too cold year round for trees to grow. Flocks of reindeer, sometimes called “the Arctic vacuum cleaner” by locals, also quickly eat any seeds that may drop. They wander the moss-carpeted hills near Finnmark, and, with some luck, you might see puffins, seals and the majestic sea eagle. Witnessing this ancient landscape is a humbling experience.