Norway’s far north is a land of trolls, midnight sun and polar bears – Orange County Register


Picturesque Honningsvag is a sleepy Arctic fishing village overlooking a bay of the Barents Sea in Norway’s far north. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

If being in the land of demented-looking ever-present trolls wasn’t quirky enough, I’ve now entered Norway’s Twilight Zone high above the Arctic Circle. This would be Longyearbyen, the northernmost town on Earth, where you’re not allowed to die or give birth, a global “doomsday” seed vault insures the world’s food supply, the midnight sun currently glares 24 hours a day, and cats are banned to protect the array of wild birds.

Patrons also have to remove their shoes at many businesses because that’s what workers did in the coal mining days of the early 1900s; doesn’t matter your sneakers aren’t sooty in 2023. Take note too that Longyearbyen’s population — about 2,100 hardy souls from some 50 countries — is outnumbered by polar bears on this ultra remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. So everyone, including tourists, are required by law to carry a flare gun and rifle when they venture beyond the tiny hamlet. (I saw plenty of bears in town, but they were dead and stuffed.)

Longyearbyen is the world’s most northernmost settlement and one of Norway’s more unusual high Arctic towns. It is located on Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard archipelago. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Also, just like the miners of yore, locals buying booze at the liquor store must show a punch card that keeps tabs on their monthly alcohol allotment (for example, 24 cans of beer). Ironically the fine-dining Huset restaurant here features one of Europe’s largest wine cellars with over 15,000 bottles. No punch card needed for the $17,150 bottle of 2014 Romanee-Conti.

Eccentric Longyearbyen was the next-to-last stop on our 14-night strikingly scenic “Iceland & Norway’s Arctic Explorer” cruise aboard the Viking Saturn. Passengers are actually only in Iceland one full day which was enough to visit bird bonanza Vigur Island, home to just three humans, 7,000 breeding eider ducks and more than 100,000 cartoonish puffins. Indeed, this entire Viking sailing was far, far north and at times far-out.

Like much of Arctic Norway, Vestvagoy island in the Lofoten archipelago is renowned for its natural beauty. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Elsewhere in Norway, after following giant, two-toed black footprints up staircases, I encountered the (thankfully inanimate) mammoth bushy forest troll, the colossal crab-embellished sea troll, and their wart-plagued kin at the cubbyhole Troll Museum in Tromso. Another time, in the village of Gratangen, we drank sacred birch mushroom tea while an Indigenous Sami shaman howled like a wolf before performing a fire ceremony in a traditional lavvu tent. I haven’t even touched on the dreaded kraken, a legendary Norse sea monster lurking in the ocean to sink our two-month-old Scandinavian-styled ship.

The scenery in Geiranger makes you forget that monstrous trolls are supposedly hiding in caves and under rocks. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Hands down, the visual stars of this July journey were Norway’s famous, exceptionally gorgeous, fairytale landscapes. Our buoyant hotel floated through magnificent emerald-green fjords, past cascading waterfalls, shimmery glaciers, quaint fishing enclaves and jagged mist-cloaked mountains. During the early evening of day four, our Viking vessel crossed the Arctic Circle, an invisible line signified by a globe-shaped monument perched on the teeny islet of  — get this — Vikingen.

The Arctic Circle passes through Norway’s islet of Vikingen and is symbolized by a globe monument. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Several ports later, we hit Longyearbyen, the closest settlement to the North Pole 800 miles away. “You can’t die here because it’s illegal to be buried,” our local guide Erik explained. “The year-round permafrost pushes bodies out of the ground.” Officials closed the cemetery in 1950 after discovering the dearly departed don’t decompose; years afterward scientists sounded alarms when they extracted samples of the infectious 1918 Spanish flu from corpses. Residents who are elderly or terminal must relocate to the mainland.

“You also can’t be born here because there is no maternity ward,” Erik added. So again, weeks before a delivery date, bon voyage.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, stores over 1.2 million seeds from countries around the world. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Then there’s the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a mystery-shrouded triangular cement wedge jutting out of a rocky mountainside and safeguarding the world’s future food since 2008. Burrowed 400 feet underground, the vault stows more than 1.2 million seeds from almost every country — including North Korea — to be used by the depositor nation in a catastrophe. The seed bank can hold 4 million specimens; so far Syria withdrew barley, wheat and other seeds to replenish what was destroyed during their civil war. “Everyone around here keeps the vault very low-key,” Erik said low-key.

Later, sipping a latte at Cafe Huskies, I had an American to thank for fluffy all-white blue-eyed Tequila sniffing my shoeless stocking feet. Michigan businessman John Longyear founded his namesake town in 1906 as a coal mining operation; in 1916 he sold to a Norwegian company and today only one active mine remains.

Barentz Gastropub in Longyearbyen displays its claim to fame. The bar also serves Spitsbergen Pale Ale created by “the most northernmost craft brewery” just down the street. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Bragging rights abound. The Barentz bar, festooned with a polar bear’s fanged head, is the “northernmost pub in the world.” Sweet shop Fruene creates white chocolate polar bears and is the planet’s “northernmost chocolatier.” The Circle K even has a banner declaring itself the “most northern fuel station.”

Backing up, we began our cruise in the beautiful, historic — and cheeky — city of Bergen. The first thing we spotted from inside the airport jumped out across the street: 18-foot-tall vivid yellow letters spelling, “BERGEN?” No one could explain the question mark although several locals suggested it meant, “What now?” Or am I at the right airport?

The colorful UNESCO-listed buildings on the historic wharf of Bryggen were once merchant houses and part of a trading empire. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Bergen is best known for its brightly painted, UNESCO-listed, centuries-old merchant houses facing the lively harbor. It’s also where we first started being trolled by trolls. Throughout our two-week journey, the goony long-nosed, beady-eyed, frazzle-haired figures appeared everywhere, in all sizes huge and mini, outside restaurants, inside shops, along cobbled lanes, atop docks. Cute on shelves when they’re portrayed as smirking grandmas or Viking warriors, but in Norse mythology, trolls are grotesque, sinister, child-eating, and sometimes multi-headed beasts.

A trio of trolls patrol a street in the northern Norway town of Honningsvag. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

“Trolls are a big part of Norwegian folklore,” our Tromso guide Wilma said. “They are bad and they can only come out when it’s dark because when the sun shines on them, they turn into stone. That’s why so many mountains resemble trolls.”

Tromso, a colorful city above the Arctic Circle, not only boasts the offbeat Troll Museum (I learned to raise a cross if I ever meet one — and have a cross on me), but also the world’s most northerly Hard Rock Cafe (an1868-built onetime pharmacy) and the iconic 50-square-foot Raketten, heralded as “the tiniest bar in the universe.” Erected as a newspaper kiosk in 1911, the mustard-hued Raketten now serves potato salad-smeared reindeer hot dogs and Tromso-brewed beer.

Just remember these high Arctic towns with 24-hour summer sun receive 24-hour darkness in snow-blanketed winter months — that’s also when the phenomenal Northern Lights swirl through their skies.

The Viking Saturn ship can be seen in the distance from a viewpoint on Vestvagoy island, part of the Lofoten archipelago. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

For globe-trotting Viking Cruises, Norway seemed a perfect fit. Owner Torstein Hagen is a Norway native. Headless mannequins clad in Norwegian “bunad” folk costumes lined the Saturn’s third deck. An onboard Norwegian deli dished out customary heart-shaped waffles with “gjetost,” a brown goat cheese. In a ship alcove, a museum displayed Norse artifacts, such as rusty Viking helmets and ornate hair combs. Particularly impressive was that the Saturn, occupied by fewer than 800 of 930 potential passengers, had an engaging international crew and felt extremely spacious — although curiously there wasn’t a troll in sight. (Current rates for the cruise start at $6,499 but regularly offers discounts and even free airfare.)

You bet I channeled Elsa as we drifted through the stunning, lush, UNESCO-honored Geirangerfjord that inspired the fantasy kingdom in “Frozen.” From the charming village of Geiranger (population 220), our tour bus would soon navigate 11 white-knuckle hairpin turns on a steep, sheer mountain road known as “The Troll Path” and supposedly hiding the real ominous creatures in caves.

Geiranger Church, built in 1842, is nestled at the end of Geiranger’s breathtaking fjord. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Funnily, every Arctic town showed off its lofty latitude. In the picturesque fishing village of Honningsvag, a placard taped to a red enclosed structure identified it as “the northernmost phone booth.”

One afternoon, I sat on a reindeer pelt inside a towering teepee-like lavvu while a traditionally costumed Indigenous Sami shaman introduced himself: “My name is Ronald as in Ronald Reagan.” He’d finish an enlightening talk by announcing three spirits inhabited the room, including the fire-fertility goddess Saaraahka. Ronald dramatically sang cultural “joik” songs, ceremoniously drummed, and had us each throw a birch tree mushroom into the bonfire. Next he told us to quickly snap 10 photos of the blaze with our phones. A male passenger’s picture revealed a naked woman in the dancing flames. A bear was in mine.

More than 100,000 puffins populate Iceland’s tiny Vigur Island, along with nesting eider ducks and Arctic terns. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

At the cruise’s end, on our only full day in Iceland, I visited diminutive Vigur Island, owned by British polar explorer Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica. She, her husband, and young son are the island’s only human residents and each year collect naturally shed feathers left in nests by wild eider ducks when they migrate away; the soft eiderdown is sold to fill pillows. Beware of territorial Arctic terns though. My group frantically held up lengthy sticks topped with flags to fend off aggressive squawking terns who don’t like invaders and fiercely dive-bombed our heads. Safe again, we snacked on Icelandic rhubarb “Happy Marriage Cake” in Vigur’s old cow barn that housed a red antique pillar mail box. Not to be outdone by honors, a sign proclaimed it the “smallest post office in Europe.”

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