When a mutual friend hit her landmark 50th birthday, eight of us gleefully boarded a Virgin Atlantic plane and jetted off to the city that never sleeps – New York, New York.
Ten years on, the question was – how to top that?
The decision naturally had to come from the birthday girl who, after several hours of dedicated research, informed us that she wanted to see the Northern Lights – and the best vantage point was Tromso, in Northern Norway.
Given that temperatures rarely rise above freezing in Tromso in December – we all gave a little shudder at the prospect but buckled down for a very different adventure. All for one and one for all and all that.
There are direct flights from Gatwick to Tromso with Norwegian almost daily and it takes just 3.5 hours to reach the frozen North. Most other airports stop off at Oslo which can mean doubling the length of the journey – but I’ve spent time in worse airports.
Stepping out of the plane onto Nordic soil – or, rather, snow – we felt a tad like we had entered the land behind CS Lewis’ famous wardrobe!
There were no roads to be seen – just a vast expanse of the white stuff – and the silence was almost as chilling as the temperature. However, the welcome was undeniably warm at the Radisson Blu Hotel, overlooking Tromso’s pretty little harbour.
Tromso is home to the fascinating Polar Museum, which tells the story of the many brave Arctic explorers who have set out from here over the centuries, armed with little to protect them from the elements – and the polar bears.
The town also boasts the magnificent modern Arctic Cathedral. Constructed in 1965, it contains one of the largest glass mosaics in Europe, added in 1972 by artist Victor Sparre, and is a sight not to be missed.
Whilst this part of Scandinavia is famed for its midnight sun, it’s a very different kettle of (smoked or salted) fish in the winter. With just four hours of daylight, this really is life in the twilight world.
The streets seem eerily deserted, with tourists forming the larger part of any pedestrians. But with temperatures this cold, most are tucked up warmly indoors, sampling the excellent local cuisine or warming wines – or out on one of the many excursions which you just have to take if you come here.
Husky sledding, whale watching and visits to a reindeer farm are among the most popular – although feeding these lovely beasts prior to tucking into a casserole containing their relatives might not be to all tastes.
Whale watching – as with Northern Light spotting – is a bit of a gamble. We were fortunate to see shoals of both humpback and Orca whales, playing joyfully in the ocean not far from our boat.
However, it’s worth taking the boat trip into the Arctic Circle just to admire the stunning scenery, while contemplating the challenges the locals face in getting to work, school – or even their nearest grocery shop!
The trip to see the Northern Lights, however, was less of a success.
With a light smattering of snow falling, our guide advised us a sighting would be rare this particular evening – although he was happy to travel two hours each way to Finland to do his best to find them! Four went for that option – and enjoyed a lovely outdoor barbecue under the stars – while the other four found a cosy bar in Tromso, sampled some warming red wine and repaired to bed, several hours sooner, feeling equally happy!
Scandinavia has never been cheap; our wine was the equivalent of £9 a glass and the barman who served us with eight coffees and eight brandy chasers the following day didn’t bat an eyelid at presenting us with a bill for £120!
The other cost you need to factor in for a trip of his type is the amount of thermal clothing, warm gloves and woolly hats you will need to buy! Although the crew aboard the whale watching boats do provide full bodysuits, you still need plenty of layers to keep out the icy blasts.
On the plus side, our hotel booking was described as Bed & Breakfast. However, with hot soup and bread served at lunchtime and a hot and cold buffet early evening, all included in the price, the trip was pretty much all-inclusive. Perhaps just as well. (Although we did allow ourselves and indulgence at one of the many local restaurants and were not disappointed, even if the price tag did top £100 a head)
The most memorable moment of the whole trip was, however, plunging into a steaming hot rooftop jacuzzi at our hotel, having first had to run across the freezing cold -10°C patch of decking to get to it!
Wearing our woolly hats and gazing up at the clear, night sky, we had to conclude it was better than midnight in Margate – Northern Lights or not.
We also concluded that probably the best way to see this elusive phenomenon is aboard one of the many Hurtigruten cruises: they guarantee you’ll see the lights and, if you don’t. you’ll get another trip free. Needless to say, planning is now taking place.
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