What you can see in Alesund in 1.5 days

Here is a little quiz.

Where can you find a town in Norway that has artistic characteristics?  Not sure?  How about having a look at my photo that I have taken from far:

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Ok, you get me. The title of the article has given the clue away. It’s Alesund, a sea port small town known for Art Nouveau architecture.

Map of Alesund

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Source: http://www.visitalesund.com/

The best way mode of transportation is via Hurtigruten, a passenger vessel. Hop on board to enjoy the scenic view while sipping a hot cup of coffee. If you are in a rush of time, try booking from the beautiful city of Bergen to Alesund. The departure starts at 2230 hours from Bergen and will reach Alesund at 1200 hours noon time, 13 hours voyage. So, you get to sleep at least 8 hours in the cabin. Have a hearty morning breakfast and chill out at the deck with a drink.

I think the fare is pretty reasonable for two especially it’s a ship with a long history. Even better if you travel during the low peak season. Get more details of Hurtigruten here

Weather

Typically, the weather is cool. Remember to put on your jacket (5 to 10 degrees) as you may get chilled from the strong wind. Layer-on if your body temperature needs adjustment.

Preparation details ready, it’s time to find out why I think Alesund is worth a second look.

418 steps

Steps to heaven, some may say. I think it’s a pathway to explore. The thought of finding out…so I take the time to climb the steps slowly. It’s good exercise. Furthermore you get to the top of the view point and yes, it’s simply worth it!

Panoramic view of the coast and fjords

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Alesund at the top view

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The evening sun sets in……

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Being a little adventurous, I explore the peak and snap a photo of the wind vane

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There is a cafe.

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The sights are breathtaking. I can just sit around for a few hours, keep my mind at ease and enjoy the peace and tranquility.

Walk around Alesund

There are charming shops, cafes and bars. Jump in to any of them and take a moment of “me time” without the hustle and bustle of a corporate life. Buy a hotdog and a cuppa, sit by the bench and enjoy the sea breeze. Life needs to be slow moving at times.

At least, I get to see the bird peaking at me, a picture good for a postcard.

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Catch the sunset at Alesund

My recommendation is the cafe at the Radisson Blu Hotel. It’s a stone’s throw from the port of call for Hurtigruten. Grab a seat, get a drink and soak in the evening beauty. If you feel jaded for the night, per room starts from NOK$171 ($156 after discount) – find details here

From the start:

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To the full effect:

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Can’t just miss it, wouldn’t you? I am happy to include Alesund in my itinerary.

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Things you should know before your Northern Lights tour

It’s a dream for many travellers.

The amazing green lights dance in different patterns and shapes. Illuminating under the clear and dark sky on a cold and mystic night, the world most stunning show can’t stop majestically performing.

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For me, I chase the lights across Northern Norway – Lofoten, Alta and Tromso, a total of 4 different nights in mid to late March 2016. Unfortunately, it’s snowing heavily in Lofoten. Alta has glimpses in a couple of minutes. So, I figure Tromso will be my best bet. I manage to catch the lights for two consecutive nights in Tromso. Indeed, it is very favorably located for viewing the Northern Lights.

The experience leads me to think about my friends in Asia who may need more time to adjust to the climate. I have seen folks unprepared in clothes. For instance, their gloves are meant for shopping in South Korea!

Before you get excited about it, there are few things to be aware.

Weather

My advice is to get yourself mentally (and probably physically) prepared. The harsh winds may take a toll on you. Buy quality base layer, comfortable mid layer and lastly, a thick waterproof/windproof jacket (outer shell) that are able to withstand temperature (-10 degrees). Get thick gloves and beanies. Don’t wear cotton-layered socks, go for wollen. Jeans are out of the question – wear a comfortable base layer and outer-shell.

Don’t look out for cheap pricing clothing only. Be selective, buy long-lasting gear. You can find more information here.

Usually, the staff in winter stores are able to help you. Tell them that you are heading to the Arctic Circle. I pick North Face brand due to the reliability and after-service care.

Now that you are ready:

When will Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) appear

No guarantee of course but the aurora is visible after dark, mostly between 6pm and midnight (and sometimes till 4am). In Tromso at Norway, the lights may appear occasionally between 4pm and 2am.  Best dates to see it is between late September and late March. If you ask me to pick a month, I will choose March.

The sky has to be clear, not cloudy and there must not be any rain or snow.

An interesting study done by NASA (see image below) predicts the 11 year cycle. 2011 to 2014 is the uptrend while the curve starts to decelerate in 2015. After 2016, the probability of the lights appearing is lower. This means we will anticipate almost a total shut off in 2018 to 2020 where the cycle hits rock bottom.

Considering 2014 is the peak of the cycle, using 11 years, the next peak-to-peak will be 2025. Therefore, 2025 is the highest chance to witness Northern Lights, provided there is no drastic climate change.

It also seems that each cycle quantum is getting shorter and shorter.

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Using this piece of information, it’s time for you to think of:

Self-Drive vs Land Tour 

Iceland, a vast hinterland that has the beauties of natural wonders. Majority of my friends rent a car to chase Aurora Borealis.  There is Hertz at the airport.  Great GPS signal with location-based capabilities built in and the road signs are easy to understand.

Be warned – no matter how experienced you are, if you lack practice and technical expertise to navigate snow and slippery roads (and I mean real thick wads of snow!), your car may be stuck at roads that are absolutely quiet. Surely, you do not wish to waste any time calling in for help.  Worst of all, if your car skid and you lose complete control, you pose a real danger to passengers in your car too.  Never underestimate the terrain, never be overconfident. I am not saying you should not drive but if you must, please slow down where necessary and take extra caution. Switch to lower gear around bends, step on your brake pedal intermittently but don’t slam it too hard for no apparent reason.

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My opinion is, if you are a first-timer in Iceland, it’s better to pay extra dollar to get land tours.

At least you understand the terrain and have a guide to drive you, spot the lights together. It’s going to be fun as he brings you around. Refreshments are provided

Well, I take the land tour in Tromso, signing up with different companies – one of which is Tromso Safari. Pretty decent and these guys know where to take you. They prepare hot chocolate, help you out with your DSLR camera and take free photos with the lights.

Other tours such as Chasing Lights offer campfire, so that your toes are alive. There is hot soup or Norwegian packed ration meals that taste amazingly delicious – maybe it’s the feeling of having something warm in your tummy.

Equipment

Bring along your DSLR camera and spare batteries. Point and shoot camera will not work, less than 0.1% success. Camera phone is out of the equation. If you are on a land tour, they will lend you a sturdy tripod. Make sure you ask them first before signing up.

Carry 2x portable touches, a small umbrella, a bottle of water, snack bars, bread of light pastries. Put in a small day pack. There will hardly be any nearby washrooms, no 24/7 cafes except petrol kiosks which are miles away. It’s advisable to get your necessities first.

Finally:

Be open, be curious and try to forget the cold

Imagine yourself landing in a mysterious island. The next thing that crosses your mind is to explore, investigate deeper to look for clues. Likewise, you have to search for the phenomenal Northern Lights.

Thus, you need to drive miles away unless you have an experienced “Lights Hunter” on board. Don’t give up too easily, neither you should start complaining. Instead, take this opportunity of a lifetime to  open your mind – keep looking!

Witness the most fascinating natural light show on earth. Even if you have cold feet, the moment you see the lights, you will be in the thick of action clicking away your DSLR camera. Eventually, it’s mind over body……

I have the chance to capture beautiful memories of Aurora Borealis.

I am sure you will have a wonderful time.

How to enjoy Norway without bursting your wallet

Many would have hesitated. According to Telegraph UK,  Norway is ranked 4th most expensive country to live in.  Imagine buying a McDonald’s burger meal for about S$20.00.

That’s right!  You can’t deny that things aren’t getting any cheaper.

Does that you mean you need to sleep at the railway station to save every dime?  You can if you wish but not for me, probably not for the usual traveller.

So, ditch the idea.

There are several ways to spend your dollar wisely and witness the beautiful fjords in Norway during summer.

Here’s how:

1.  Sign up for Airlines’ mailing lists

A big chunk goes to airfare.  Save the cost by booking directly to the airline website. Subscribe to their mailing list. Usually, the offers are advertised a year before within a specific period. So if you travel in 2016, you will get a beep in your mailbox in 2015. Book it early (and I mean immediately) to get your preferred dates. I would prefer Lufthansa, the German carrier. Simply because their fares are reasonably cost-saving.  For example, a return ticket to Oslo costs me S$789.00 all taxes inclusive during the low peak season.

For my fans in gowheretravel.com Facebook, I’ll try to post cheap airline deals.

2. Pack healthy takeaway food in your bag

I don’t mean you should eat stale bread daily.  Neither you can eat MacDonald everyday. Buy some healthy snack bars in your home country, pack them into small ziplock bags and bring them on the go.  You can save the extra buck for a good old fish meal at Bergen Norway.

Avoid the fancy restaurants – minimally, an average meal cost about NOK300 – NOK 500. If you must, plan one night during dinner to try out.  The rest of the time is “bring your own food” concept especially lunch time. You can also pop by the nearby convenience store to buy a hotdog. Tasty and well-priced. Your bottled water can be refilled at the hotel or boil the tap water and bring along a small flask.

3. Go for the free tours and activities

What’s the best way to feel the sights and sounds without forking out exorbitant fees?  Yes, you got it.  It’s complimentary tours. Great local folks, they are happy to bring you around – check out this group at Oslo.  There are free activities in Bergen, one of Norway’s most popular cities.  Take a stroll alongside Bryggen, hike up Mount Floyen to get a picturesque view and join in the song and dance at the wharf. All for the fun and laughter!

4. Get Oslo Pass and Bergen Card

One pass, several attractions.  Use them for free travel, entry passes and much more.  Instead of paying individual ticketed prices, consider one-stop access.  You can keep the card or pass as souvenirs.  There are options for 24 hours, 48  hours.  Just make sure you plan your routes properly since the opening hours are pretty short in Oslo – some close at 3.30pm to 4.00pm local time. I wouldn’t recommend 72 hours as you would be a little familiar in the next couple of days, thus knowing where to go and how to do it.

Bergen card – find here
Oslo pass – find here

5.  Forget exquisite hotels, book rooms that are worth it

Don’t think of 5 star hotels but think of rooms that bring value and it’s affordable to you.  Value means the accommodation is situated in front of the fjord, near to a flowing river or boast a majestic view that will blow your mind off.  Therefore, don’t just hop right on to Airbnb right away.

Of course, you must be prepared to pay a little more.  Usually the rates for lower floor are cheaper or you can take a coffee at the cafe’s verandah which is mostly located at the hotel lobby.

For me, I stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel at Alesund, an art nouveau town. It’s facing right in front of the port of call.  I get a serene and quiet time by sipping my hot tea without the hustle of life.

If you decide to choose another option, you can also think of staying in a Rorbuer, a local fishing hut found across smaller islands such as Svolvaer, capital of Lofoten Island.  The key here is to experience something different.

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There you go, 5 great tips to ensure you are stress free from money. Norway may not be as costly as you think.

6 things to explore at Svolvaer, Lofoten Island during winter

Forget the Christmas jingles.

Get your bags to one of the most beautiful islands in Scandinavia. Lofoten is known for spectacular nature attractions such as midnight sun. There are open seas, sheltered bays, mountains and peaks. What amazes me are the small villages and “Rorbuer” (fishing huts) that dotted the coastline, off the beaten track. Many travellers prefer summer because of activities such as kayaking, fishing and boating.

But this is why winter makes a difference.

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It’s a time where there are lesser tourists and prices are cheaper. January and February are the coldest months (average -10c, may fall below to -90c). I travel during March avoiding the nail-biting temperature. It’s also a chance for me to witness Northern Lights as official statistics shown that probability of occurrence is higher.

Tips on dressing up for winter in Lofoten

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Source: Lofoten official website
http://www.lofoten.info/en/climate/?News=33

The main towns in Lofoten are Leknes in Vestvagoy and Svolvaer in Vagan. I visit Svolvaer (charming fishing village, capital of Lofoten) via Hurtigruten ship, starting my 6 hours  voyage from Bodo in Northern Norway.

And boy, I am thrilled to be here at Svolvaer!

1. Stay in a traditional “Rorbuer” (fishing hut)

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In Lofoten, this is a great oppotunity for me to rekindle the living experience of the old Norwegian fishermen. When snow falls, you can get a picturesque view of the mountains. At Svolvaer, I book 2 nights at Sovinoya Rorbuer. about 30 minutes walk from Thon Hotel, near to the landing bay of Hurtigruten ship.

Come inside, enjoy a hot cup of coffee!

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The interiors are well maintained, offering travellers the unique experience of living in “Rorbuers” (fishing hut). Cottage-styled and fully furnished (kitchen inclusive) with WiFi to give you the accessibility and comfort.

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Curl up in your bed, read a book

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2. Enjoy sumptuous dinner at the Rorbuer

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Shops and restaurants are closed in winter? Doesn’t matter. Relax, chill and enjoy a cosy dinner. Have a glass of wine, reminiscing the romantic outings with your loved ones. Put your smartphones to silent mode. Eliminate your daily frustrations in the real world, reward yourself with a hearty meal. Let time fade away with your mind refreshed.

At least that’s what I did – bon appetit!

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3. Book a sea eagle safari in Trollsfjord

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Take the Lofoten Explorer . It’s a small, open-air boat. The location of the veseel rental is smacked right in the middle of Svolvaer. You will be provided a thick, blue jumpsuit, gloves and boots.  Prepare your camera to capture the sea eagles swopping down on fishes (your boatman brings onboard).

Trollfjord is breathtaking.  No words are able to describe what I see, so just go for it!

4. Lofoten Museum @ Kabelvag

Not too far from Svolvaer is Kabelvag, a small fishing town. A few miles away reside the lofoten museum. There are several exhibits like the norwegian fishing days, a shop that sells souvniers, historic Rorbuers and a Lofoten aquarium. You can take a bus from Thon Hotel at Svolvaer or grab a one-way taxi (NOK300). Opening hours are short during winter (1100 hours to 1530 hours).

Reaching my destination, I walk to the reception to grab a map. I trot slowly on the snow-covered roads and pavements, immersed myself in the chilly surroundings yet a surreal feeling that I am standing right here at the chilly surroundings – bare trees,  cold silence, flakes of snow slightly dripping on my jacket. No longer basking in the sun.

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Surroundings of the aquarium – what a majestic sight!

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At the aquarium, I get to understand the conversation efforts of sea mammals such as otters and sharks. Simply put, there are very few visitors in winter and hence, I have the luxury of communicating with the staff, observing their day-to-day research activities.  Most fascinating is the dedication in balancing the ecosystem by collecting useful data and preserving the quantity of stockfishes and salmon, one of their major exporters of food.

Spot the otters…..

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A sheltered storage for Norwegian salmon

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An old Viking fishing vessel

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Rorbuers – step in to witness how the living conditions are in the old days

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5. Lofoten War Museum

Here is the catch. In winter, there is absolutely no visitors, the doors are shut. So, you need to ring the guy (his number placed at the entrance) to open just for you. Lofoten war museum is an interesting place of interest to study the war artefacts, uniforms, life-sized equipment, knick knacks, photographs and documents.

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Find what you need?

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6. Magic Ice @ Svolvaer

Get myself a shot at an ice cold bar. Sit on an icy chair. Apart from spending a night at the ice hotel, I decide to quench my thirst at Magic Ice in the evening. The opening hours start at 1800 hours to 22 hours. It’s the place of ice sculptures, beautifully crafted and made into figures of people and animals.

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Couples can’t resist this place in Norway. Read more and you will know the reason.

Log cabins, cold rooms – you name it, they have it.

Welcome to Kirkenes Snow Hotel, Northeasten part of Norway.  Before I bring you into the realm, let me talk about the origins of Kirkenes.

*This article does not receive any endorsement fees from Kirkenes Snow Hotel.  Below is an extract from GoWhereTravel traveller based on his personal experience.

According to Wikipedia, Kirkenes is a town that is situated 400 kilometres (250 mi) north of the Arctic Circle. It was used to be occupied by the Nazi Germany after series of air raids.  Today, there are evidences of World War Two from the civilian air raid shelter “Andersgrotta Bomb Shelter“. 

Picturesque view of Kirkenes during winter

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Wilderness in Kirkenes

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Upon arrival at Kirkenes airport, you will have to take a bus to town, stopping at Thon Hotel. From there, there will be a complimentary pick up at the lobby.  Remember to check allocated timing with the hotel reception  If not; you can flag down a taxi at the airport to Kirkenes Snow Hotel which costs about NOK300-NOK400. 

If you arrive by Hurtigruten ship, you should be stopping by Thon Hotel.  Check with the friendly crew.

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So, here I am! The moment I step out, I can smell the rustic nature. 

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The reception warmly offer to take me on a tour around the perimeters.  She shows me the elks and reindeers and the arctic dogs. 

Reindeer

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More Reindeers

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Adorable Arctic Dogs

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I thank her kind hospitality and decide to take a quick lunch.  There is a small restaurant around the corner serving delicious arctic-styled hot soup and bread (paid about NOK160 to NOK200).  I like it because of the chilly weather.  

Gabba Restaurant

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My lunch – arctic bread and soup

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After getting my hunger filled,  it’s time to check out my room.  I can’t help but snapped photos of the cabins.  Luckily, it’s not Christmas yet. The snow encompasses the backdrop; at a glance, the outlook is special, resembling several logcakes.

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Up the stairs….

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Far view

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In the night

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Extremely “homely feel”, cottage-styled – facing you is the snowy hills.   Think of how your childhood stories come to life with white flakes raining down and here you are, completely free of city life! There are free tea bags for you to sip, relax to enjoy the view.

Retirement life?

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Comfy beds

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More to come – I make my way to the entrance of the ice hotel….    

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The beds are covered with sheepskin to reindeer skin  Sleeping bags are provided.  What’s special is that every room has a theme. 

There is olaf!

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Swan sculpture

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And where the King sleeps

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Corridors are quiet, I just walk gently and slowly….

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A light casts on the ground, showing glimpses of a christmas tree

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How about a round of drinks?
The ice bar will be open from 9pm. Dinner is served at about 7.00pm (provided by Kirkenes Snow Hotel)

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The washroom is not too far ahead and one is able to deposit your belongings in the room.  

I head back to the recepton to check out their activities. There is hiking, dog sledging, King Crab trip and Northern Lights tour.   I choose the King Crabs as the thought of eating the freshly caught crustaceans appeal to me.   

Off I go with a snowmobile – the guide will take you to a spot and demonstrate how King Crabs are captured alive, right from the bottom of the arctic waters.  

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There is a string attached to the net beneath that contains the bait

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Voila! Big, juicy crabs!

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The guide drives the rest and myself to a hut.  He will boil the crabs with hot water, takes about 30 minutes on average.  Served right out from the pot. 

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It’s a great time to chill at Kirkenes Snow Hotel.  Certainly, it has left a deep impression in me, especially the cosy rooms in the cabins.  In fact, if you are lucky, you may be able to catch hold of the Northern Lights at the right time.  

What you can see in Bergen within 2.5 days

My overnight cruise from Alesund docked at Bergen.  I alight from the Hurtigruten and walk to the central street. “Welcome to Bergen”, as I whisper to myself.  People come alive and shops are opened for business. The city square is the main area where friends congregate and buskers perform.

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Surrounding the hustle and bustle of life sits an amazingly picturesque shoreline.

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Behind my amateur photography reveals me as a first-timer to Bergen. What makes it more interesting is the mix of nature, food and history in a destination.

I shall elaborate in details below.

One attraction that I must strongly recommend……Bryggen. A row of colourful warehouses, with narrow alleys, quirky cafes and shops that will keep you highly intrigued.

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View from far. The early merchants in the old days load and unload their spices and food such as stockfish. Now, it’s peppered with yachts.

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The narrow alleys and sidewalks provide an aura of mystery. Don’t look medieval to me for sure. I wonder what’s behind these doors.

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Most are small outlets selling souvenirs, apparel and hand-made items.

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Tired? Don’t rush. Relax and soak into the atmosphere.

Get a drink at Bryggen……especially summer, the sky is clear and seagulls flap their wings around the wharf. Sit, idle and people-watch.

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Food that you must never miss……get a decent meal at the Fish Market. It’s located at the centre of Bergen, about 5 minutes walk from Bryggen. I paid for a dish of fresh, cooked fish, potatoes and salad at NOK180.00. (SGD$32.40).

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Filled with energy, it’s time for me to explore the castle. For history buffs and the curious onlookers…… take a visit to Bergenhus Fortress.

 

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It’s home to Hakon’s Hall and Rosenkrantz Tower.  Hakon’s Hall was built between 1247 to 1261 by Hakon Hakonsson. It was the largest and most imposing building of the royal residency in the 13th century when Bergen was the political centre of Norway.  This is where the King and the royals sit, as I remember the significance.  I sign up for the free guided tour (as part of my entrance ticket) that commences at 2pm.

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Rosenkrantz Tower was built in the 1560s by the governor of Bergen Castle (Bergenhus), Eric Rosenkrantz and served as a combined residence and fortified tower.  The walls and steps signify the medieval era where cracks stood. Each step leads to a room. I shan’t divulge too much. Let your thoughts run wild.

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Smacked right behind the mountains, the beautiful, lush greenery that overlooks the houses…..Mount Floyen.  I start my journey at the entrance. The Floibanen ticketing booth is situated at the opposite end of the Fish Market, right at the junction where McDonald is. The return ticket to the top of Mount Floyen is about NOK170.00. (SGD30.60)

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Via the Floibanen Furnicular.  It takes about 7 minutes to reach the summit.

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And here it is! The top view of Bergen from Mount Floyen. Stunning, isn’t it?

 

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Can’t resist the cool climate and trees shadowing the trail.  It gives me the tranquil feeling. Thus, I decide to take a stroll around Mount Floyen.  Finally, I reach a large pond.  The water is still and clear. The leaves are green and trees jostling for sunlight, with minimal human contact and disturbances.

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Any individual who has light to medium fitness is able to take a hike since there are footpaths. However, the direction is in Norwegian language, something which I do not understand. But this does not stop me from proceeding further. I just use my own intuition.  To keep track of where I go, I mark my steps using the appearance of the trees and bushes.  At times, I will take photos using my camera phone.

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I discover a resting point.

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Including barks of trees that looks special to me.

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There is a vantage point that covers the entire Bergen.

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Back to the city – there are more areas to wander around Bergen. For example, I stop by the Domkirken Cathedral, located about 200m from the Leprosy Museum.

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All-in, I spend 2.5 days in Bergen.  I do recommend that if you visit Norway for the first time, Bergen is a “must-see” attraction during summer.  Bergen is also the docking point for several vessels that make their maiden voyage to the one of the world’s famous fjords of Norway.