Norway was recognized as the world’s happiest country in 2017. I imagined this was based on the eternal sunlight of the Scandinavian summers. I never imagined how beautiful or transformative traveling north to the arctic winter could be until I experienced it for myself. I realized that happiness grows from the harmonious balance of light and dark. Scandinavian winters should be celebrated and enjoyed in their own right.
The Legend of Darkness
As a child of the 80s, I can still remember seeing Legend for the first time at Landmark’s Esquire Theater in Denver Colorado. The Rocky Horror crowd cheered for Tim Curry in his seminal role as the Lord of Darkness. I cringed at his demonic form and the idea of a world without sunlight. My skin crawled when his deep voice boomed “Tonight the sun sets forever. There shall never be another dawn.” Why would I choose a world of darkness for my vacation?
I teetered on the edge of my seat and fawned in adolescent lust when a young Tom Cruise defeated Darkness with the last rays of the world’s final sunset. The reign of light was restored. Winter changed to summer, and all was right with the world. Warmth and sunshine were linked to good at a very early age for me.
That was the fairytale of my youth. It was Darkness’ final words that I remember today. “What is Light without Dark?” As I matured, I realized that duality forms the true beauty of the world. Light and dark. Summer and winter. Sun and snow. I jumped at the opportunity to visit Northern Norway in the winter, even though it brought me to the core of my adult sadness.
My Banishment From the Land of Snow
It wasn’t the darkness of Norway that I feared, but the snow. Growing up in Colorado, I loved the snow and skiing more than anything else. If I had to choose between skiing and sex, I would have become a nun. I stayed behind in Colorado as my family moved to California to work just one season at Keystone.
That one winter turned into a lifetime in the mountains. I worked my way around the ski mountains of the West: Crested Butte, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Copper Mountain Colorado, Crystal Mountain Washington, Stevens Pass Washington, Alta Utah, Mt. Bachelor Oregon and finally Whitefish Montana. I would still be skiing today if I wasn’t cursed with bad genetics.
After almost a dozen knee surgeries, the doctors finally realized what was going on. I had a rotation between my tibia and femur that completely destroyed my cartilage. I don’t regret the life I chose and the experiences I had. My knees would have failed during any of my life pursuits unless I was a complete couch potato, and what’s the point in that.
I was working pro-patrol at the class three avalanche area of Steven’s Pass when I got the news. I realized that I was never going to be a heliski guide. But I wasn’t ready to leave the snow. I studied massage, yoga, and personal training to learn how to extend my career. Switching to teaching advanced ski classes kept me from having to ski avalanche routes in the backcountry with 30 lbs of dynamite in my pack. I kept skiing and continued with massive rehab… anything for snow. I skied for a decade longer than doctors thought was possible until I knew I had to quit for good.
When I was 38, I left Whitefish for Tucson Arizona with two thoughts in my mind. I needed my first corporate job with insurance to get two new knees, and I had to get snow out of my reality.
Darkness from Legend came very close when he said: “The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity.” Only, it wasn’t regret that settled into my soul. It was a longing that I couldn’t introduce into my day to day reality. It is the oneness with the universe you feel as you are gliding over freshly fallen snow. I knew when I boarded my plane bound for Oslo, that I couldn’t hide from myself any longer.
Flying Premium Class Norwegian Air From New York to Oslo
I have considered Norwegian Airlines as a budget route to Europe. I can reach several European destinations for about $300 round trip direct from Orlando. I never realized how luxurious their Premium Class could be until I tried it for myself. They served me three meals and my chair reclined far enough that I could sleep on the flight. Their airport lounge in JFK wasn’t half bad either, so I boarded the plane feeling pretty good.
I was surprised to learn that Norwegian Air is working on many sustainable initiatives as well. They have reduced emissions by 30% since 2008 and strive to be carbon neutral by 2050. They have one of the youngest air fleets in the world with an average plane age of 3.7 years making it one of the greenest out there. Norwegian Air not only wants to help the planet but the people of the world as well. Norwegian and UNICEF have conducted four humanitarian aid missions since 2014 to the Central African Republic, to Syrian refugees in Jordan, to Mali, and Yemen. Together, the partners have brought emergency aid that has saved more than 100,000 children’s lives. What a perfectly sustainable way to reach the Green Capital of Europe.
Oslo Fjord Sauna – Waters of Fire and Ice
On the Flytoget train ride from the Gardermoen Airport to the Oslo city center, I marveled at my first snow in 10 years. It wasn’t a stray flake or two, but a cloak of whiteness that covered everything. Within 30 minutes, we reached our hotel, the Scandic Vulkan, near Oslo Harbor. As we headed towards the fjord, I looked out onto the frigid water with a little bit of trepidation. I knew what was in store for us, a fjord-side sauna followed by a, um, refreshing plunge.
I was on a trip with four other inspirational content creators (Kelley @kelleytravels, Lia @practicalwanderlust, Annette @bucketlistjourney, and Alice @alicesadventuresonearth. If you haven’t heard of them go check them out, they rock! 😉 ) to learn about Norwegian culture. There was no way I was going to back out of the full experience. After basking in the luxurious warmth of the Oslo Fjord Sauna, we would jump into the bitterly cold water. Some claim it’s a perfect way of cleansing your body in a great social atmosphere. It certainly was a study in contrast.
Cold water immersion stimulates blood flow to your vital organs, especially after exposure to heat. I told myself that I had enough residual heat from the sauna that it wouldn’t be bad. Let me tell you. It was cold jumping in the Oslo Fjord in January, but I absolutely wouldn’t have traded that experience….and would probably do it again! Us girls entered the sauna as a group trip but left bonded by heat and ice as friends. Community and friendship are cornerstones to happiness just as much as heat and cold are vital parts to life.
The Art of Oslo
The sun sets early during the Norwegian winters. Oslo is 6.5 degrees latitude below the arctic circle, which means there is always daylight, but the day is only seven hours long in January. By night, we could see the lights of the She Lies sculpture blazing in the harbor right next to the sauna dock. She Lies came to life out of steel and glass by artist Monica Bonvicini to explore the interface between culture and nature.
Oslo is home to many famous artists like Gustav Vigeland and Edvard Munch. Like Bonvivinci, Vigeland was a sculptor who created public works. The Vigeland installation in Frogner Park is the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist. When Vigeland’s house was demolished to build a library in 1921, he made a deal to donate all of his work to the city in exchange for housing. The result was the statue gardens at Frogner Park and the design for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Edvard Munch’s life wasn’t as cheerful as Vigeland’s. In his words “From him [my father] I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” His most famous piece, The Scream, depicts a faceless person letting go a primal scream. Following a nervous breakdown, his doctors recommended that he socialize with good friends. This advice worked for a while, and his work during this time reflected optimistic paintings of landscapes and people playing. However, the rise of Nazi Germany created a divide in his soul. In his words “All my friends are German, but it is France that I love.” For the last two decades of his life, he lived alone on his farm surrounded by his paintings.
Oslo is famous for the Nobel Peace Prize celebrating the fraternity between nations. This idea of fellowship transcends the culture of Oslo for everyone who embraces it. I think this is an important clue as to why Norwegians are so consistently happy.
Farm to Table Dining in Oslo
Going to dinner that night at the Hitchhiker, I saw the one world concept repeating itself. Hitchhiker features street food from around the globe. They invite you to take a culinary tour of humanity as if you were walking from one street corner to the next. My journey started with an Asian fusion cuisine of street tacos and sushi.
The starters were straight up delicious a sushi bowl followed by udon noodles and then a stunning pepper crab dish. Next came tacos in a bao bun and bulgogi street tacos. My eyes were saying muy delicioso, but my mouth said domo arigato. Somewhere in the babel of delight, I found food bliss. I thought I couldn’t eat another bite until the fried dumplings in peanut sauce and vanilla ice cream with graham cracker pop rocks came out. Way too good to pass up
We choose the Hitchhiker in part because it served locally sourced sustainable food. (It was the winner of Best Street Food 3 years in a row!) We had other delicious sustainable meals in Oslo as well. Ett Bord, one of Oslo’s premier restaurants, is built on a simple concept – “Sustainability and health for both people and the environment.” They feature a highly eclectic, locally sourced menu of the best ingredients they can find in Oslo. We shared a tapas dinner there that was one of my favorite meals on the trip. There were so many different and creative flavors presented as a revolving tapas meal in a creative big table concept. My group chatted and explored together as we experienced all the flavors they offered. My favorite was the gnocchi in a savory and creamy sauce with a side of organic sourdough bread.
We learned even more about each other sharing drinks at the world famous Himkok speakeasy. (Winner of the inaugural Ketel One Sustainable Bar Award). Throughout the trip, my friends were mocking me for my love of sweet drinks. Himkok not only slings shots but they produce their own spirits as well. I ordered their house made honey mead to the chagrin of my companions. That is until they tried it for themselves. At that moment, they realized that sweat liquors can have depth and character too. This toast and understanding actually was the culminating drink of our winter Norway adventures, but I digress.
Sleeping at the Scandic Vulkan – Norway’s first energy class A hotel
Writer’s Aside – I must pace my storytelling for impact and clarity. In the real world by this point of the story, I went to sleep at the Scandic Vulkan and boarded a plane heading to Alta first thing in the morning. I returned to Oslo for more adventures and stayed again at the Scandic Vulkan a second time. I’ll pull my writer’s prerogative and put both sections of the Oslo trips together for the sake of the story.
How did Scandic Vulkan become Norway’s first energy class A hotel? They put solar panels on the roof, heat with geothermal energy, and installed energy efficient windows. The results is a modern, comfortable hotel that’s almost 100% energy self-sufficient. If that’s not enough, they keep their own beehives on the roof and donate their extra food to a group called Too Good To Go to fight food waste.
The Scandic Vulkan is part of the Grünerløkka community, one of Oslo’s hippest neighborhoods. Like true hipsters, we went on a walking tour in search of great coffee and street art. We found Tim Wendelboe, an outstanding neighborhood coffee shop named after its award-winning barista/owner. I had a latte loaded with crema that stayed smooth to the final sip.My travel partner for today was Kelley, a sophisticated and hip New Yorker. We strolled through the boutiques trying on clothes and checking out the Norway fashion scene. Around each corner, we found a colorful, larger than life Oslo street art. Kelley even recognized pieces from famous artists back home. Sometimes, the world really is one big community.
Cruising Oslo Fjord on The Vision of Fjord
You might have noticed by now that there is a love affair between Oslo and her fjord. Fjord cruises are a must do Oslo activity. Being sustainable travelers, we choose to take Vision of the Fjords because of the hybrid electric design of the ship. Tourists get to look at the beautiful fjord in a smooth, modern, quiet, and efficient ship which also serves the community by delivering mail to remote homesteads.
Sailing the fjord was like a winter fairytale. Snowclad cottages dotted the shoreline. Between the bright winter sun, sparkling snow, and shimmering blue fjord the world was bright and cheery. So far my fears of snow and darkness appeared to be unfounded. We even had enough daylight to climb Karl Johan’s gate to the Norwegian Royal Palace. A fairytale day indeed.
Discovering Oslo’s Soul Walking Karl Johan’s Gate
Every city has that one road that defines its character like New York’s 5th Avenue or Paris’ Champs Elysee. Oslo Has Karl Johan’s gate, a 3 Km long route that runs from Oslo Central Station and the harbor up to the Royal Palace.
We leisurely raced sunset up the hill to the palace, passing Parliament and the University of Oslo along the way. My life as a ski bum afforded me many opportunities, but this was my first trip to Europe. Everything felt, well, European. People were in the street, even in winter and there was an energy in the air. Everything felt familiar, yet different. Perhaps, I have some Norwegian in me, or it was just my classic wool lined leather beanie, but everybody spoke to me in Norwegian at first before realizing just how linguistically challenged I really am. Being European, they could easily just switch to English and continue the conversation.
We reached the palace just in time for the changing of the guard (with a lot less pomp and circumstance than the English) and to watch night fall. It wasn’t a blazing sunset like we had in California but more of a birth of the night lights. Like the night fairies were coming out to play. We returned through the cheery twilight back down to the harbor.
I loved my time in the big community of Oslo, where light still held purchase against the dark and the buildings stood guard against the full brunt of winter. I fell asleep wondering what to expect tomorrow when we headed north of the Arctic Circle into the heart of darkness.
An Ominous Start For My Adventures in Alta
I felt too ill to leave my comfortable bed in Olso’s Scandic Vulkan, even for their incredible breakfast buffet. I called Ed back in Orlando, and he said he was feeling off, and wondering if he picked up a parting gift from Mexico. I hoped, wished, prayed I wasn’t coming down with the same thing.
My artificial knees prompted extra special service from airport security, so I barely had time to grab a muffin at the gate before getting on the commuter plane to Alta. After the short flight, we passed through the small airport and boarded our bus faster than the changing of the palace guards. Looking back, I know that I wasn’t quite right because this all seems like a feverish blur in my memories. I hoped that I would rally with the day’s activity, which almost worked.
Discovering Dog Sledding at Trasti and Trine Lodge
My first clear memory of Alta began when I was harnessing up our team of four dogs for my first ever dog sled ride with Trasti and Trine Lodge. As soon as the dogs saw the gear, they started to jump and howl with excitement. Alice and I were paired up on the sled together. She let me drive first. I was so excited. I stood up on the runners and grabbed onto the handlebar. We were ready to go.
My first misconception about dog sledding was that you were supposed to yell “mush” to start. Our dogs were trained to go on “Ok.” Of course, these pups were so excited they started running as soon as I took my foot off the break. Pulling out of camp, I could feel the dog’s power and sense how much they wanted to run. The magic happened when we hit the open trail.
The runners cracked as they glided over a light blanket of freshly fallen snow. I could feel the brisk wind blowing on my face. If I closed my eyes, it felt like I was gliding across the flats after an epic ski run on my way back to the lift line. Balancing the sled on the turns felt just like carving down a groomer. For the first time in ten years, it felt like I was skiing again. I had to blink away frozen tears in the corner of my eyes.
After our run, we returned the dogs to their kennels. All of the dogs were so smart, they knew exactly which house was theirs and lead us directly to their home. Looking down into our lead dog’s eyes, I knew that he still longed to be out on the trail running. His heart, like mine, was filled with joy as it pumped adrenaline rich blood through our veins. Unfortunately, what goes up must come down.
Seeing The Light at Alta’s Northern Lights Cathedral
On the bus ride back to Alta, I could feel the nausea set in. I trudged into the titanium-clad Northern Lights Cathedral that dominates the Alta business district. Her ultra modern design looked like something straight out of science fiction and the perfect homage to nature’s most beautiful light show.
I was thankful for a treat of vaflers, Norwegian heart-shaped waffles, that waited for us at the snack counter inside the cathedral. They settled my stomach a bit and helped me deny just how sick I was for a little longer.
I had just enough energy to enjoy the aura exhibit in the church. I learned how charged particles released from the Sun interact with the Earth’s atmosphere to form the Aurora Borealis. About once a month, particularly intense solar storms cause auroras bright enough to be seen from Oslo. This far north in Alta, they are visible on every clear night.
After vaflers and a little sightseeing, we left the Northern Lights Cathedral to travel to the world famous Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel where we would be spending the night sleeping inside a hotel made of snow.
If the Northern Lights Cathedral looked like a science fiction film, Sorrisniva looked like a fairytale. We gathered in the main lodge, a year-round wooden structure, and learned about how they rebuild the igloo every winter.
The hotel was having a party that night to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Sorrisniva. They were expecting a big crowd of well-wishers. The king of Norway loves to come up here, especially for fishing in the summer and Jeff Bezos of Amazon has been known to visit. While the crowds gathered in the main lodge, we took a moment to capture the emptiness of the igloo.
The igloo’s outside doesn’t reveal the extent of the structure. We entered through an oversized door which created the illusion of a cozy little igloo. Once inside, we saw a magical world of lights and ice. The sculptures created frozen masterpieces which, ironically, were from Frozen and many other Disney films. How crazy is it to travel from Orlando to the northern tip of Norway to stay in a Disney themed igloo? It reminded me of Crystal Arts by Arribas Brothers at Disney Springs where they turned the Disney motif in works of art. I couldn’t believe everything that was hidden inside the igloo, including my Pocahontas themed sleeping quarters.
Hibernating in an Igloo Hotel
We left the igloo to watch the celebration. The cold night air sapped all the heat from my body. No matter what I tried, I just couldn’t get warm. We all retreated to the shelter of the lodge until the fireworks started. Dinner was served after the fireworks, but I was shivering with a toxic mix of fever and chill.
I wanted to order a prime cut of reindeer or another Norwegian specialty. Unfortunately, my stomach was having none of it. I tried the mushroom risotto, but its richness forced me back to bread. Something must be seriously wrong with me to turn down a meal like this. I leaned over to our trip leader to let her know I wasn’t feeling good. She had already guessed as much by how quiet I had become.
We checked on the availability of rooms in the lodge, but they were all booked up. I returned to my Pocahontas Suite in the igloo to try and get some sleep. It was surprisingly warm and comfortable sleeping on top of a thick blanket of furs in an expedition sleeping bag. I had about six good hours of sleep before my stomach forced me into the lodge. With what was going on in my gut, I couldn’t imagine being more than 10 steps away from the bathroom. I spent the rest of the night banished on the couch in a feverish daze. By morning, I had to face the truth. I was too sick to go on the next adventure – a Sami homestay.
My Longest Night – Missing Out on the Sami Homestay
I was really looking forward to spending a couple of nights out on tundra through Visit Natives with a Sami family. The Sami are an indigenous people who have lived in the article tundra for thousands of years. Arctic life is always difficult, but in the last century, the culture was brought to the brink of extinction with WWII Nazi occupation, regional laws that forbade Sami language and traditions, and environmental pressure.
Sami heavily depend on reindeer to survive. In Norway, only the Sami are legally allowed to make a livelihood from reindeer. Their reindeer depend on lichens for food in the winter which has been severely impacted by logging and even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Global warming is forcing herd limits on reindeer which makes the problematic Sami life that much more challenging.
In more recent times, active steps have been taken to preserve and protect the Sami including their culture and language. I believe that ecotourism could be an essential tool to bring in additional income while promoting and maintaining everything that makes the Sami unique and special. I find it fitting that we were centering our Sami adventures from Alta where a dispute over the hydroelectric dam in the 70’s united the Sami politically and lead to the formation of the Sami flag, national anthem, and even parliament. My heart sank as I watched my friends leave for this epic adventure, and like you, I can only hear about it from their stories.
In the Shadow of the Northern Lights
After my friends left, I returned to Alta to convalesce in the Thon Hotel. I hate getting sick on the road, but the Thon Hotel was the perfect place to recover. The bed (I spent a lot of time in bed) was warm, snugly, with the perfect pillows. The Northern Light Cathedral sat just outside my bedroom window. Every time I left my bed I saw the Cathedral differently depending on the light.
I slept for almost 30 hours straight, only venturing out into the adjacent mall on a medicine run. After a lot of rest and Imodium, I felt almost human. The weather report called for the clouds to clear about 10:00 that night. I might not be at a Sami homestay, but there was a chance I could still see the Northern Lights. I called a friend of the group, Marianne, who lived in Alta. She agreed to take me out to a spot about a half hour outside of town. I was so excited. This was really happening!
Reflections in the Snow
I could see the lights of Alta shimmering beyond a snow-covered field. I reflected on the power of mother nature over human nature. Her ability to heal and destroy and how my happiness depends on accepting change and alternatives. I might never be the skier I once was, but I can’t stop my love for snow. I might not have made it to the Sami village, but I could still see the Northern Lights.
I thought about the interplay between light and darkness more as I set up my tripod. The sun never rose this far north, but the snow always kept it a little light. Overhead, the aurora looked like nothing more than unassuming clouds. My camera captured memories that I couldn’t perceive in real time. I could see a world of vibrant light on my pictures where only darkness existed before. Could this be my lesson from Norway? That the true enjoyment of travel comes from both the light and the dark and sometimes you can’t see it clearly at the time?
The beauty of Norway’s sustainability initiatives aren’t just for today. Everything they are doing today will help preserve this unique environment and culture for generations to come. The lessons I learned about community and friendship came to a head as I was forced to leave my crew. Even when I thought I was alone, there was somebody to help me find the light. Norway’s nature and people make it an amazing place to explore in the winter and a perfect place to experience the interplay between light and dark.
Disclosure: A big thank you to Visit Norway, Norwegian Airlines, Impact Travel Alliance, North Adventure, Visit Natives and Visit Oslo for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary! For more travel inspiration check out their websites and social networks.
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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