It was easy to get to the quaint town of Harstad; a direct flight from London to Evens followed by a 35 minute drive by coach. It is a picturesque municipality of 25,000 inhabitants with numerous islands and islets with a central area, basically a square with a few connected streets leading to the harbour on one side and housing on the other. The small commercial district is refreshingly free of high street names (just an H&M and, bizarrely, a Specsavers). But it does feature some cosy tea places and a number of high end.
But we were here to explore the region and hoped to see nature’s light show – Northern Lights.
The Northern Lights
There are two dozen of us are standing on an otherwise deserted Norwegian beach in sub-zero temperatures staring up at the night sky in the hope of catching the Northern Lights.
But, the lights – or Aurora Borealis, – can be fickle. The previous group on our programme got to view them every night. Yet a couple in our party were on their fifth visit without so much as a glimpse.
In daylight, the views out to sea are stunning, particularly in the winter sun, and the freshness of the air almost makes you forget the cold as you wander its snow-lapped streets. The sky, as dusk falls is also pretty spectacular. But it’s the dark, crisp conditions that bring out the lights and the weather had not been playing ball.
So it took just two words from the Inghams rep Craig – “They’re up” – to send diners in our scurrying back to their rooms to get multi-layers of warm clothing. Then it was half-an-hour by coach to the beach during which an accompanying photographer explained how to capture the perfect image.
Should you (as we had) been seduced by descriptions of a colourful explosion of light dancing across the sky, the reality is some what different. The naked eye picks up changing spectral shapes of grey and white. Yet when we looked at the images taken on the fancy cameras, a very different skyline, illuminated by a powerful green and rich violet hue.
In Norway, Harstad is noted for its gastronomic excellence and given the high cost of just about everything – menu browsing outside a basic, I calculated that the cheapest pizza cost the equivalent of around £14 – it was good news that our tour package included dinner at Umami, across the road.
Its young chefs Sigrid Rafaelson and Kim Harvard Larsen served up an exceptional three-course meal, plus appetisers, in the intimate dining area. The menu majored on local produce with top notch champagne and paired. We were told that locals travel to Sweden to do their shopping.
We had made an early start to join Hurtigruten cruise ship passengers who were on an 11-day tour of the Norwegian coast line for breakfast and three hours of unspoilt views and to be taken on a coach trip through the spectacular island of Senja.
On the Tourist Route, we stopped off at points of incredible photo-friendly natural beauty before reaching our lunch destination, Hamn I Senja (population 10) for a fish main course in the eponymous followed by apple pie.
More refreshment was on offer in Harstad in a capacious tent with roaring, and constantly replenished, fire belonging to the Sami people, who are indigenous to the Arctic region.