Northern Lights Cruise with Saga – Chapter 7

Alta and beyond

Brilliant sunshine greeted us as we woke. A few wispy clouds. And snow everywhere. Mountains reflect in the still Alta fjord. Welcome to Finnmark not to be confused with Finland. This is the remote part of Norway. A stunningly attractive area. Arctic waters , weather beaten land.

Alta Traditional mostly red (Norwegian red on the Pantone colour chart?) wooden huts known as Rorbu, hug the coast.  With grass or moss covered roofs. Home to generations of fishermen and their families. A hard life. Welcome to the ‘end of the world’ feeling. Virgin powdered snow lay all around. A white pristine desert. Polar tourism at its best. Snow piles in the port as high as bungalows. But even with this amount of snow life goes on. Back home England would grind to a halt. 

Alta is our home for the next three nights. City of the Northern Lights. 70 degrees north and down to -30C in winter. Alta is famous for three things; the Northern Lights cathedral, the ice hotel in Sorrisniva just outside the city and The Finnmarkslopet (the famous Finnmark dog sled race). 

Alta is forever associated with the Lights since the first ever Northern Lights observatory was constructed on the summit of Mount Haldde in 1899, 12 miles away. 

The city has the most northerly pine forest in Europe. And for once it is not Tromso’s claim to fame. 

This area is breathtakingly beautiful. A phrase used so often on this amazing trip. But the scenery just gets better with everyday afloat. With all the chaos and uncertainty going on in the world it seemed strange that our days were so calm, so unhurried. Comfortable days, snug and warm in our floating home. Wanting for nothing because everything is catered for. I felt so relaxed and pinched myself often for such perfect weather. And the Lights! We have seen them now on three successive nights. Amazing and life changing. Takk Aurora Borealis. 

With three days in port, Saga once again had triumphed with the choice of optional excursions. 

Alta An 11 hour trip to the North Cape, Europe’s most northerly point, was on offer. Touch the iconic globe. Mission accomplished. Gaze northwards. Only a few 1000 people between you and the North Pole and Santa and his helpers. 

Fancy an ultimate husky overnight experience? A night spent amongst the dogs and a sled ride and then bed. The clear part of the heated teepee allows you to lie in bed and watch the evening sky unfold. 

Again reindeer and dog sledding in Maze Sami village were on offer and both were very popular. 

Our first trip was to the famous Sorrisniva Igloo hotel. First impressions; neither igloo nor hotel, just a massive pile of snow. Not sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t this. I wasn’t prepared for what we saw inside! 

Designed and built from scratch every year. A team of 11 take between 4 and 6 weeks to achieve this winter paradise. 250 tons of ice and 7000 cubic metres of snow are moulded and cajoled into an amazing building. And then in May it melts. This year it is the hotel’s 18th reincarnation and the theme – The Ice Age. I was surprised that we weren’t searched for de-icer as we entered. I am sure commercial espionage is rife here in Norway.

Alta - ice hotel Intricate crystalline ice sculptures shimmer and intrigue. Mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers mingle with the visitors in minus 5 degree climate. Santa’s grotto in the co-op’s toy department it is not! The crunch of feet on snow add to the atmosphere. 

Within this 2500 square metres are 26 bedrooms, four elegant suites, an ice chapel  and ice bar. We were all served a complimentary blue vodka based drink served in a glass made of ice. Antifreeze for the soul and the frozen feet.  

Three weddings are conducted here every week. The bridal suite is gorgeous and beautifully decorated. Love in a cold climate. Reindeer furs cover the beds. Careful there are no doors on the rooms and if you need to visit the bathroom during the night then it’s a lonely trip to the permanent hotel next door. 

An enchanting wonderful creation. Glad we made the journey. In a word ‘cool’. 

Opened in 2013 the iconic Northern Light Cathedral in Alta is amazing. From a distance it looks more like a modern day crematorium with an extended shiny chimney- nudging ever closer to heaven, nearer to God, not as far to travel.

Alta - Northern Light Cathedral Inside this swirling structure it is astonishing. A modern place of worship in this modern city. A 4.3 metre high Bronze of Christ by Danish artist Peter Brandes contrasts with the rippling titanium sheets of the exterior. 

The cathedral houses a Steinway Grand Piano probably worth £200,000 or so. Stuart Anderson’s group were treat to an impromptu concert as he sat and played a moving and emotional musical set. A superb musician in a magical setting. It clearly meant a lot to Stuart who did seemed overcome but well chuffed by the reaction. Special moments do indeed happen. 

A complimentary shuttle bus service operated from ship to town centre. The start of the Finnmark 1000km dog sled race was only days away. The stage  and Alta centre were being prepared for the influx of the world media and thousands of extra tourists. This endurance race is big business.

In the centre a team of craftsmen were creating exquisite ice creations. I had a go at ice sculpture, deciding to carve my name into a foot square ice block from the nearby river. Such is my lack of artistic talent that Dave soon became Dove. I quickly added a couple of birds in flight to create artistic wizardry at the drop of an ice carver. Can you tell what it is yet? No, even I had trouble working out what it was. 

Alta It was in Alta that we first met the ship’s chaplain. Reverend Tom Leary and his lovely wife Jan were great company with a sense of humour often lacking in the religious field. Many passengers were travelling alone. Many had recently lost loved ones and Tom was kept busy with worship and his chaplain’s corner where he was available for a quiet reassuring chat. A great service that SAGA provide. 

We walked miles around Alta. After a final sit down, coffee and cake it was time to head back to our ship. A cup of hot chocolate was being served as we boarded Saga Pearl II. And very welcome too. Magically it began to snow. The crisp air full of delicate snowflakes gliding on a salty fresh breeze. 

The highlight of the trip was the complimentary ‘Hunting for Aurora Borealis’ trip . The passengers were divided into two groups. One group going out on the first night in port, the others on night two. Long johns, gloves, hats and thermal vest and socks were essential for the trip. Minus 12C tonight. 

We were taken by coach to an area away from any light pollution with a good chance of a sighting. Pitch black underfoot. Ice sparkling in the torchlight. Very nordic noir. A perfect setting for a Scandinavian subtitled drama. Alta A blood curdling cry of anguish and Kurt Wallender in a sleigh pulled by six reindeer rides to the rescue. Superb displays of lights entertained the crowd. Back on ship we too were very lucky. The lights were circling the ship like an alien invasion force. Where to look first? 

After an exhausting but exhilarating field trip SAGA once again excelled. A late night Arctic Snack attack was available for the returning group. Hot and cold dishes in abundance. And Gluhwein to warm the cockles. 

Day 9, on 8th March we had our last sighting of this amazing phenomenon. No one can guarantee that we would see the lights. In fact Miss J Lumley stayed in the area for 14 days with very little to show for it. But we had experienced four nights of extraordinary natural events producing spine tingling moments of pure joy. Memories to savour for life. This had been SAGA’s best Northern Lights cruise for ten years. We were all so happy and humbled to be part of it.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Saga Holidays

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Dave Harcombe

Travelling pharmacist

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