Photography by Tim White.
It was 10 years ago this month that English actor Joanna Lumley gave one of her hammier performances — and, in the process, sparked a winter tourism boom deep in the Arctic Circle. “Thank you . . . thank you!” she cried, literally, upon seeing the Northern Lights near Tromso in the BBC’s Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights, soundtracked by soaring orchestral music. “I can die happy now.”
There were 36,000 visitors to Tromso in the winter of 2008/09; by 2016/17, the number had soared to 194,000, as the Northern Lights became a bucket-list staple across the world. While just about every tour operator here will tell you that Joanna Lumley lit the fuse, there were other factors at play: Norwegian’s new direct flights from London in 2008, for example, or the launch of Instagram in 2010.
“The one-upmanship of social media has definitely helped us,” says Chris Hudson, the Manchester-born chief executive of Visit Tromso. “You get serious points for a selfie under the Northern Lights. It’s more exotic than lying on a beach.”
You get serious points for a selfie under the Northern Lights. It’s more exotic than lying on a beach.
So could Tromso — a compact, modern waterfront city of 76,000 or so people, surrounded by fjords and close to the soaring Lyngen Alps — become the next Reykjavik? There, tourism has transformed the economy, with 2.2m foreign visitors to Iceland in 2017 (up from 464,000 in 2009), almost all of them spending time in the capital.
Unlike in Iceland, the Tromso locals aren’t restive about sharply rising visitor numbers — to date, the self-styled capital of the Arctic has remained first and foremost a working city, rather than a tourist town. It is home to Norway’s biggest fishing port and a university that’s a global leader in Arctic research. It’s a place soaked in the history of the area’s Sami reindeer herders and polar explorers, notably the great Roald Amundsen, who lived here and launched his fateful final voyage from the city in 1928.
Visitor guides tend to play up Tromso’s 19th-century moniker, “the Paris of the north”, and the Nobel Prize-winning writer Bjornstjerne Bjornson once wrote that it “is all champagne and spectacle”. If that might be pushing things today, the city is home to a thriving cultural scene, with its own philharmonic orchestra and an unusually broad range of cultural festivals, including an international film festival in January, centred on Norway’s oldest cinema, which opened in 1915. It’s spawned good pop music over the years, too, from electro acts such as Bel Canto and Royksopp in the 1980s and 1990s to Dagny, a recent sensation who follows in the Scandi-pop mould of singers like Robyn and Annie.
All of this means that the town rarely feels like it’s trying too hard, notwithstanding a few souvenir shops selling trolls and ugly Northern Lights merchandise. Like in Reykjavik, there’s a shabby-chic, hygge vibe to a lot of the cafés and bars in town, a nod, perhaps, to its 16,000 students. On a visit last month, I was happily eating an Astroburger and nodding along to the Dead Kennedys at Bla Rock, a likeably grungy rock bar where Dagny once worked in the kitchen, when the place inexplicably became overrun by little groups of well-lubricated students tied together with string.
But there are plenty of more grown-up places to eat and drink. At Restaurant Smak, an elegant, dark-lit place that serves Michelin-worthy set menus focused squarely on local ingredients such as Arctic reindeer or skrei cod, the clientele consisted mostly of well-heeled locals. Eva-Linda Ramnestedt, who opened the restaurant with her chef husband Espen last year, told me: “We’re not trying to be touristy. We just want to showcase Arctic cuisine, and make food we’d want to eat.”
On the other side of town, the Olhallen (Beer Hall) is owned by the town’s celebrated Mack brewery, and has been open since 1928. It’s not the tourist trap that it could be. On another visit a few years back, I met 89-year-old Ivar Rornes, who told me he’d been drinking in the same corner of the Olhallen since 1941, through the days when women were banned and the locals included Henry Rudi, the infamous Norwegian hunter who killed more than 700 polar bears.
While Rornes always orders the signature house blend of Mack Bayer and Pils, the bar also has 67 taps serving craft beers from across Norway, including experimental concoctions from Mack’s own microbrewery, just above the bar. It’s just one of three microbreweries in town, including Bryggeri 13, a cycling-themed bistro bar where you can watch the brewers poke around in the homemade vats as you eat and drink.
But if this vibrant town is a treat, Tromso is more than a city break. At Visit Tromso, they use “urban Arctic” as shorthand for combining bucket-list adventures with a nice dinner and comfy bed. Luckily, as visitor numbers have boomed, so have the number of things to do in an area where the natural advantages include mountain-to-fjord skiing in the Lyngen Alps, and watching the humpback whales who come to gorge on herring in the winter.
While one tour guide tells me that, pre-Lumley, winter tourism here was “basically three guys with minibuses”, today operators are competing to create ever more elaborate ways to see the Northern Lights. With Pukka Travels, a slickly branded new company, you can choose to watch from a catamaran or a Tesla Model X, with its aurora-friendly glass roof. If you want extra Instagram points, you can also now stay overnight at the Tromso Ice Domes, which opened last year in the Arctic wilderness, and is adding seven ice-sculpted rooms for overnight stays this winter.
One of the earliest pioneers of creative Tromso tourism is Erlend Mogaard-Larsen, an electronic producer and rock musician from Oslo who had fallen in love with the Arctic, launching a 2003 music festival on the remote archipelago of Traena. In 2006, he was on an absinthe-driven night out in Tromso when he got talking to a former whaler at the next table. As he recalls: “When I woke up, I told my wife I’d had a dream that I’d bought a boat in a pub. Except it wasn’t a dream.”
When I woke up, I told my wife I’d had a dream that I’d bought a boat in a pub. Except it wasn’t a dream.
After picking up his 1957 whaling boat, Mogaard-Larsen renamed it the Vulkana, and hired modish Finnish architect Sami Rintala to turn it into a hedonistic spa, complete with on-deck saltwater hot tub, sauna, steam room and modern kitchen, as well as cosy cabins for up to 12 passengers. After opening in 2009, this winter the rustic Vulkana will offer spa and lunch cruises, and Northern Lights evening trips that include a locavore three-course meal. In the spring, it will take guests on overnight ski tours around the Lyngen Alps. Jumping off the boat is optional, but encouraged.
Mogaard-Larsen’s wild ideas haven’t stopped. In 2015, he launched the RakettNatt (Rocket Night) music festival around the little rocket-shaped Tromso kiosk he’d bought and turned into a hot dog stall serving gourmet reindeer hot dogs. The acts this August included local girl Dagny and grungy Swedish pop star Tove Lo. He’s also produced two volumes of his own tongue-in-cheek city guide, A Poor Man’s Connoisseur Guide to Stargazing, Trailblazing and Hellraising in the Coolest City in the North, except perhaps Reykjavik, with grateful thanks to the Gulf Stream.
But perhaps the most prolific mover-shaker in Tromso tourism is Hans-Olav Eriksen, a tall, bald-headed local doctor who has the air of a friendly Bond villain. As well as GP duties, he also co-owns the fjord-side Malangen Resort, an hour south of the city, and runs Lyngsfjord Adventure, whose offerings include reindeer sledding with a Sami reindeer herder, and wilderness stays in Sami-style tents.
His newest venture is the Aurora Spirit Distillery, which opened in 2016 by a stunning fjord deep in the Lyngen Alps, around 90 minutes east of Tromso. Initially inspired by a whisky tour in Scotland, Eriksen partnered up with local businessman Tor-Petter Christensen and Tor’s wife Anne-Lise to build the state-of-the-art distillery for NKr20m (£1.85m). They’re already churning out vodka, aquavit and award-winning gin under their Bivrost brand, with whisky maturing in casks. Each drink is created with fresh Arctic water and native ingredients.
But Aurora Spirit goes further than anything you’ll find on Speyside or Islay when it comes to attracting visitors. The place lays on snowshoeing hikes, axe-throwing lessons, boat trips and tours of the spooky cold war bunker a hundred yards from the distillery (the Nazis and Nato used the area to guard against potential Russian invaders). This winter, the team are adding a barrel-shaped sauna to the existing hot tub, as well as 10 modern cabins right on the water.
“Years ago, before I started Lyngsfjord Adventure, I got thrown out of a restaurant because I was arguing with friends from the south who said that Tromso was a backwater,” Eriksen told me on my most recent visit, looking out over the fjord through the distillery’s glass wall, with a Bivrost gin in hand. “It was ignorant then, but it’s even more ignorant now. Our tourism has evolved so quickly, but it’s still an authentic destination which hasn’t become Disneyfied.”
The Northern Lights may have inspired his drinks brand (Bivrost means the “shaky road” linking heaven and earth in Norse mythology), but Eriksen insists they’re not all the area is about. “If the Northern Lights are the reason people come, that’s great. But, really, they’re the icing, not the cake.”