An easy cycling path (or hiking track) between Belmont and Adamstown on the Central Coast, which follows a disused rail line.
It’s a rather long way from Sydney to drive for a bike ride… but I’d stumbled across a reference to the Fernleigh Track on the Web a few weeks ago and it seemed worth the journey. Described as an “amazing shared path” and completed in 2011, the fact it’s relatively flat makes it perfect for a ride with the kids. You can start at either end or at a number of points along the 15km track (Lake Macquarie Council lists all the access points on their Web site).
I decided to start at Belmont based on advice I’d read on-line, and in hindsight it was the right decision: it’s harder in this direction with a long (albeit gradual) uphill section, rewarded at the end with a ride through a railway tunnel and a cafe near the track. The ride back to the car was then fairly easy for tired legs!
Belmont to Jewells (3.3km / +10m elevation gain)
There was plenty of parking near the Belmont trackhead on a holiday week-day, with the track very easy to find (and a number of places to eat or get drinks nearby). The original Belmont station has been left – as have most of the other stations – which adds to the attraction of the track.
The first section is pretty flat, as it goes through a wetland forest of paperbarks and swamp mahogany. There’s a 200m section of elevated timber boardwalk through the Belmont Wetland State Park, followed by a section of eucalpyt forest. The track is less than a kilometre inland from 9 Mile Beach, behind a 10,000-year-old sand dune system, although you’d have no idea you’re so close to the ocean.
It takes us about 20min to get to Jewells, where there’s a drinking fountain near the old railway station.
Jewells to Redhead (2.5km / +13m elevation gain)
We’re on our way after a quick stop and a drink; the next section is still ]flat as it goes through coastal heath, with sections of thick casuarina and tea tree forest. The old Redhead train station has been preserved, with north and southbound traffic separated by the former platform. This section has taken us another 20min. The kids are still happy…
Redhead to Whitebridge (4km / +66m elevation gain)
According to the official brochure, there are “ample ocean views looking back towards
Redhead”, but I didn’t see any blue ocean. Only red, angry faces as the track climbed steadily up from Redhead. My counselling skills were tested as I promised we were almost at the top. Six times. We made good use of the frequent benches along the track. (We had a warm but fortunately cloudy day, as this would have been the most exposed section on a sunny day.)
It’s not actually steep, with a gradient of about 2%, but for small legs it’s a tiring section. The track goes through the Awabakal Nature Reserve (scribbly gum bushland) as it heads up to the highest point of the track (89.3m above sea level), just before the old Whitehead station. Some sections of the old railway line have been left intact alongside the track. At Whitehead there are shops nearby (300m) if supplies are needed.
Whitebridge to Adamstown (5.6km / -50m elevation loss)
Technically this is two sections, with the track descending through the leafy forests of Glenrock State Conservation Area and passing through Kahibah. There’s long sections of the old railway line left in situ, but only the Kahaba station nameboard identifies the location and no trace remains of the platform.
The highlight of this section is the former rail tunnel under the Pacific Highway, which also marks the transition from the Lake Macquarie region to Newcastle.
The track curves through the well-illuminated tunnel, and is a nice end to the ride!
About 1.5km after the tunnel there’s sign pointing to a cafe just 80m from the track. We make the small detour to the Fernleigh Cafe, which has a nice courtyard at the back, a range of food and very friendly service. We’re just in time to order a late lunch and some drinks.
We’re now just 600m from the Adamstown trackhead, and we go another 300m to the intersection with Park Avenue, before turning back (the last 300m is on a footpath along the road and not very appealing). It’s taken us just under two hours to get to the cafe (15.1km).
Adamstown to Nine Mile Beach (14.7km)
The return trip is much quicker and easier, with a short initial climb and then a long downhill section. It takes under an hour to get to the turn-off to Nine Mile Beach, a couple of kilometres before the Belmont terminus.
Nine Mile Beach
There are a number of beaches accessible from the Fernleigh Track: Nine Mile Beach is the closest to the track, and also the closest beach to Belmont. So it was the logical spot for a detour a a quick swim on the back. (I was slightly concerned that in the middle of Nine Mile Beach is the Belmont Wastewater Treatment Works – I’d avoid swimming here after heavy rain. You cam check water quality on the Beachwatch Web site).
Access to the beach is clearly sign-posted from the track, and the rough 4WD maintenance trail is suitable for mountain bikes. But, once you leave the Fernleigh Track there is no signage and it’s very unclear how to get to the beach. After a couple of failed attempts, we found a narrow walking track over the dunes from the 4WD track (starting at -33.03683, 151.67493) and continued on foot. It’s about 700m over the sandy dunes to the beach.
This section of beach is the most inaccessible along the Fernleigh Track – but you can drive along the beach by 4WD. So we had the beach almost to ourselves; there was a family camping near our access track, who were surprised you could get to the beach from the Fernleigh Track.
We would have a proper swim – if we’d brought our swimmers! We enjoyed cooling our legs and the kids jumped off some of the dunes, before we walked back over the dunes t our bikes.
Once we’re back on the Fernleigh Track, it’s just a easy 1.4km back to the car – with one last stop to play on a tree swing installed just off the track.
It was worth the long-ish drive. Despite some “uphill grumpiness”, the kids enjoyed the day. All up, we did about 30km of cycling and 2km of (optional) walking to get to Nine Mile Beach.
Start at Belmont or Adamstown on the Central Coast
30km return (approx) + 2.5km if adding a walk to the beach
Easy. Total elevation gain 260. Maximum ~2% incline.
None required – signage along route. Download and print PDF below, which includes maps of the trail.
A popular coastal walk in northern Sydney, from The Spit in Mosman to Manly, through pockets of rainforest and past secluded bays and beaches
The Spit to Manly walk is arguably Sydney’s most popular walk… a Google search yields 415,000 results for the term “Spit to Manly walk”, so if you’re seeking solitude – try a different walk! It’s popular for a reason: the well-marked track closely follows the coast through a variety of flora, from coastal heath to rainforest, passing many bays and beaches, and offering spectacular harbour views along the way.
The walk can be started at either end, and is most commonly walked in one direction, starting from The Spit. If using public transport (or if you can be dropped off the Spit), from Manly there are frequent ferries to the CBD.
After walking over The Spit bridge (one of Sydney’s worst traffic snarls), which crosses Middle Harbour, the track closely follows the water through Ellery’s Punt Reserve. This was the site of a punt across Middle Harbour until 1939 for foot, horse, tram and vehicular traffic. A bridge across the harbour was completed in 1924, and the current Spit bridge constructed in 1958 – it’s one of the only lift bridges still operational on a major arterial road (it opens to allow taller boats into Middle Harbour).
View from the Spit bridge over Middle Harbour
Ellery’s Punt Reserve at the start of Spit to Manly walk
Soon after this open parkland, enters sub-tropical rainforest as it goes around Fishers Bay and past a small creek, with a section of wooden boardwalk.
Boardwalk around Fishers Bay
Eastern Water Dragon by the track
Another 500m or so and the landscape changes again, and we pass the very wide Sandy Bay, enjoying a touch of suburbia and expensive real estate before we enter Clontarf Reserve.
View of the sheltered beach from Clontarf Reserve
The walk follows the coastline very closely, and we walk along a thin strip of sand between the sea and houses along Clontarf Beach. It feels like the beach has shrunk since doing this walk many years ago (probably my imagination, or it was low tide on my last visit). Although, studies (including the University of NSW’s Water Research Laboratory) have shown that Clontarf Reserve is one of the highest-risk areas in Sydney from global warming-induced sea rises or severe storms.
At the end of Clontarf Beach there’s a very short climb up into the Duke of Edinburgh reserve, a surprisingly dense patch of bush with views over Middle Harbour. At the far end of the reserve is Castle Rock beach, named after a distinctive rock (which can’t be seen from the track).
Middle Harbour from Duke of Edinburgh reserve
Castle Rock beach
Next up as we continue along the track – we’ve now covered about 3.5km – is my favourite section. Entering Sydney National Park, you wouldn’t realise you’re in the middle of a major city (well, if you ignore the houses on the other side of the harbour) as the track passes under sandstone overhangs and through coastal heath.
Boardwalk through Sydney National Park
Middle Harbour from Sydney National Park
There’s not a lot of fauna to be seen – thousands of people walking, jogging and running along the track is a bit of deterrent to any self-respecting native animal – so it’s a little surprising to encounter a few brazen water dragons. The Eastern Water Dragon below was definitely not going to move from its prime position above the harbour!
There’s a short (500m) detour not long after entering the national park to Grotto Point Lighthouse, an active beacon referred to as the ‘Disney Castle’. It was designed by architect Maurice Festu, built in 1910 and first lit on 1 September 1911, and is one of four lighthouses in this style. From here you can see The Heads and out to the Tasman Sea beyond. (The track is a bit muddy and rougher than the rest of the Spit to Manly walk.)
rotto Point Lighthouse
View from rotto Point Lighthouse
Returning back to the main track after my little diversion, there’s another brief stop to look at Aboriginal engravings, located only a few metres off the main track. Apparently they include images of boomerangs, fish and a giant wallaby, and there’s interpretative signage. I was in a bit of a rush to catch-up with the rest of the group after my solo lighthouse detour, so I just saw a fish. Compared to other engraving sites, it’s remarkably distinct and looks just like a fish!
Next stop, after the track (mostly on raised boardwalk) leaves the coast and goes a little inland, is the Crater Cove Lookout. This offers the best views of the whole walk across the harbour and out to The Heads. Manly, our destination, is now visible in the distance (there’s still another 4km or so to go). Almost directly below the lookout above the sheer cliffs of Dobroyd Point is a “ghost village“: seven huts, constructed from iron and wood between 1923 and 1963, that were abandoned in 1984 after their last occupants were forced out. Repaired and maintained by the National Park and Wildlife Service (which doesn’t promote their presence), they can be accessed via a steep, unmarked track.
Views from Crater Cove, with Manly visible top left
The abandoned Crater Cove huts can be seen above the cliffs on the left
The path veers inland again, heading down from the Crater Cove Lookout through low casuarina trees to Dobroyd Head (there’s a lookout here, but the view are not as good as those from the previous vantage point) and then onto Reef Beach. Once a depression-era camping ground and later proclaimed a nude beach by Neville Wran in the 1970s (revoked in 1993 due to public pressure) it’s fairly quiet and secluded, with scenic views of the Harbour and Manly Cove.
Spit to Manly track from Crater Cove Lookout from Dobroy Head to Reef Beach
The track follows the coast fairly closely again from here, emerging from greenery of Sydney National Park at Forty Baskets Beach. The origins of the name is believed to based on a catch of 40 baskets of fish sent to a contingent of NSW detained at the North Head Quarantine Station after returning from Sudan in 1885. There’s a netted swimming enclosure and it’s a pretty popular spot.
Forty Baskets Beach
End of Forty Baskets Beach
The track now re-joins “civilisation”, following the coastline all the way around North Harbour through Wellings Reserve and North Harbour Reserve. There are views over the harbour and it’s easy walking, but it’s the least nice part of the walk (there’s also a short section of road where the houses go right down to the high-tide mark). On the opposite side of North Harbour and nearing our destination is Fairlight Beach, also a nice (and popular) spot directly opposite The Heads.
We’re almost at the end… with water on one side and blocks of units on the other, the path (also known as the Fairlight Walk) follows the meandering coastline. We go past one last secluded beach (Delwood Beach) and Kay-Ye-My Point (named after the Aboriginal Kayimai clan living in Manly)…
Fishing off the rocks in Fairlight
…and after about 10km (or 11km including the Grotto Point side trip) we reach Manly, along with about 50,000 other people enjoying the warm autumn weather. It’s easy forgot that about an hour ago we were surrounded by bush!
The last attraction of the walk (other than a well-earned ice cream) is the iconic ferry back to Circular Quay (there’s also the slightly less iconic and slightly less crowded “fast ferry”).
Start/finish at The Spit (accessible by bus or water taxi, and parking available) or Manly Beach (bus, ferry).
A short hike down to a rock platform and waterhole on Middle Harbour Creek, in the northern suburbs of Sydney.
Popular with walkers and mountain-bikers, the track down to the Cascades starts near Acron Oval in St Ives, with a locked gate at the start of the maintenance trail. Almost immediately after the gate, signs of “civilisation” disappear; unlike many other suburban hiking trails, you can’t see any houses or hear any noise road on the entire track.
The wide trail descends past the back of Acron Oval. After 900m there’s an intersection with the Upper Cambourne Track on the left; this provides an alternate access to the Cascade Track from Douglas St. Continue straight ahead.
After another 100m you pass the Lower Cambourne Track on the left. From here the track descends more steeply with a short section of asphalt, and after another 500m reaches the intersection with the Bare Creek Trail. (You can also reach the Cascades via the Lower Cambourne / Bare Creek loop, which adds 2km to the hike.) From the junction with the Bare Creek Trail there’s a final (fairly flat) 500m along the Cascade Track to reach the Cascades, crossing a concrete weir just before the end that’s normally got a bit of water running over it.
A picturesque rock platform and natural swimming hole, the Cascades is at the confluence of Middle Harbour and Frenchs creeks.
A popular picnic spot and Boy Scouts camping site in the 1920s, a weir was constructed in 1934 (financed by unemployment relief money given to Ku-ring-gai Council) to create a large public swimming pool called the “Bungaroo Pool”. It had an average depth of 12 feet and was 60 x 100 feet in size (20m x 33m). Access was via a new road built from Douglas St – which is now the Cascades Track. [Source: The Secret of Bungaroo, 1934]. The remains of the dam wall can be seen below.
The Cascades Track, providing access to the Bungaroo Pool from St Ives for vehicles as well as hikers, was used by the Sydney Morning Herald on a few occasions to test new cars: “On the freak hill at Bungaroo swimming pool, near St. Ives, the car gave a good demonstration of its ability to climb, without wheel-spin, as nasty a slope as any motorist might encounter.” [Source: Motoring, SMH Dec 24th, 1935]
My most recent hike down to the Cascades is with 2nd Gordon Cubs, where we discuss the importance of treating water – and chase a water dragon around the rock platform! Interestingly, while the The Cascades was previously known as the “Bungaroo Pool”, the same name was given to a different area further downstream, at the tidal limit of Middle Harbour Creek (accessed by the Bungaroo Track!). It’s thought this misappropriation of the name Bungaroo was the result of “large numbers of Boy Scouts camping in the area, who assumed it was the correct name” [Source: Bungaroo Transcripts].
From the Cascades, there are a few options to extend the walk…
Continuing straight ahead on the Cascades Track (below) provides alternate access to / from Davidson (about 1.5km up the other side of the valley) to Stone Parade
Heading in the opposite direction, a narrow bush track (Middle Harbour Track) follows Middle Harbour Creek downstream. By crossing the creek at the Stepping Stones and taking the Pipeline Track back up to St Ives, you can complete a much longer circuit (10km circuit, including 2.7km between the two trackheads by road). Or if you’re feeling more energetic, continue for 24.3km to reach Manly Wharf (the Cascades Track forms a short section of the 47km Harbour to Hawkesbury track).
For an alternate (and longer) route back to the starting point, re-cross the weir and turn right down Bare Creek Trail. Soon after the turn-off the maintenance trail crosses a creek and 1.2km from the start of the trail you reach a junction with the Lower Cambourne Track. Turn left onto the Lower Cambourne Track (continuing straight will take you another 2.6km to Belrose via the Bare Creek Trail and Heath Trail).
After a short descent, you reach a crossing of Middle Harbour Creek (below left) – it’s fairly deep here, but (unless you feel like a swim) you’ll find a small but well-trodden path on the right that lets you cross without getting wet feet. Another 100m or so further on, there’s a small waterfall and natural pool to the left of the track (below right). The Lower Cambourne Track continues another 1.3km before re-joining the main Cascades Track. From here, it’s straight back up the Cascades Track to the gate at the top…
Starts near Acron Oval in St Ives (corner Acron Rd & Douglas St)
5.6km circuit (90min). 3.6km to Cascades and back (1hr)
A short circular hike in Sydney’s north shore, for hiking, jogging or mountain-biking.
The Pipeline Track in Garigal National Park (also known as the Pipeline Way) is one of my regular hikes that’s close to home; it’s an ideal walk to get some exercise in a pleasant bush environment.
The track starts near the Barra Brui scout hall in St Ives, on Hunter Avenue. It’s a maintenance (4WD) trail that follows a water pipeline, with the pipeline and national on the right and back of houses on the left for the first section. (The pipeline carries drinking water under pressure from Ryde to Pymble to the Warringah Reservoir at Beacon Hill, travelling through Garigal National Park and across Middle Harbour Creek.)
After 900m the intersection is reached with Founders Way, where there is interpretive signage about the area’s history. This is an alternative starting point from Hunter St, which cuts about 1.8km from the circuit. After another 200m, the junction with the Bungaroo Track is reached – turn left down this track.
The Bungaroo Track initially follows the top of the ridge; 200m from the start of the track there’s a couple of markers and the track seems to split. Keep right (the left rock goes to a rock platform). After another 100m the track descends through a gap in two large boulders, with stone steps leading down. It’s easy to miss, and if you go too far you’ll emerge back onto the Pipeline Track and need to retrace your steps for about 50m.
Continue down the track as it winds down through the forest, with short sections of boardwalk and well-constructed stone steps. Eventually the track reaches Middle Harbour Creek (1.5km from where it branches off the Pipeline Track) near a sandy beach. If you go left (upstream) for a short distance you reach the Stepping Stones, the tidal limit of Middle Harbour Creek and the location of Governor Arthur Phillip’s camp on his historic first expedition in 1788. (From Stepping Stones you can cross the creek and take the Governor Phillip walk to Davidson Park, or turn left to take the Middle Harbour track to the Cascades.)
Note that if you’re doing the walk in the opposite direction, the start of the Bungaroo Track where it goes up the hill from the creek (-33.743965, 151.188206) can be easy to miss.
Turn right (downstream) and follow the creek along a fairly rough track. It can be a bit faint (and overgrown) at times, but is always within a few metres of the creek. It’s only about 400m – although it can be a bit slow-going – before you reach the pipeline, which crosses Middle Harbour Creek.
From here, it’s 2.4km back up the wide Pipeline Track to the starting point (if you prefer more of a bush track, after about 400m there is a narrow track to the left of the pipeline, that’s often used by mountain-bikers – duck under the pipeline after the first steep section to find this trail). After about 1.3km you’ll pass the start of the Bungaroo Track on your right, shortly before you leave the national park.
Starts at Hunter St, St Ives (near intersection with Yarrabung Rd)
An easy walk on Hong Kong’s main island, offering great views for relatively low effort and very easy access.
‘Dragon’s Back’ refers to a hiking trail along the ridge between Shek O Peak and Wan Cham Shan, with the highest point at 284 metres. It forms part of the 5okm-long Hong Kong trail (Section 8) and has been named “best urban hike in Asia” by TIME magazine in 2004. It’s very quick and easy to get to the trailhead. It was the ideal choice for a half-day hike with a work colleague, before our flights back to Australia in the evening.
After leaving our bags at Hong Kong station, we take the MTR to Shau Kei Wan station and then Bus 9 from the bus terminus to the start of the track on Shek O Road. Any concerns about which bus stop to alight from are quickly allayed by the fact the entire (fairly full) double-decker bus consists of Dragon’s Back hikers. This is not a hike to do if you’re seeking solitude.
We set off up the path from the windy and scenic road to Shek O around 11am; the trail rises steadily from the bus-stop and is well-marked. It’s a warm day (I suppose every day in HK is either a warm day or a hot day!), and the shade at the start of the walk is appreciated.
It doesn’t take long for the trail to reach the undulating ridge. We’re now in full sun, sweating profusely and glad we’ve brought a decent amount of water with us. But no umbrellas, which some hikers are carrying! The views start to open up as the trail follows the ridge.
From Shek O peak (284m) which is about a kilometre from the start, the views are magnificent: Shek O village and beach is below us, and in the distance to the east you can see Clear Water Bay Peninsula and islands in the eastern sea (below).
To the west (below) is Stanley Peninsula across the other side of Tai Tam Bay, with Lamma Island in the distance.
The trail now follows the spinal ridge of the Dragon’s Back for about three kilometres, through thick vegetation that’s rarely high enough to provide any shade from the midday sun. There’s a few more vantage points, including Wan Cham Shan peak (265m).
Towards the end of the ridge we get tantalising views of Tai Long Wan village and Big Wave Bay below us at the end of the trail. Contrasting with the greenery of the hills are the dense urban developments on Kowloon in the distance.
Eventually the trail descends from the ridge, and it’s possible to leave the walk after about five kilometres. We continue to Tai Long village, exchanging what was a dirt trail to a paved road (closed to traffic) for the final three or so kilometres. We are in shade again, and it’s easy walking down to the end of Hong Kong Trail Section 8 at Tai Long village. Where we enjoy a well-deserved beer on the beach, discovering the very appropriately-named Dragon’s Back Beer from Hong Kong’s first micro brewery.
A couple of beers later, we are ready for the final stage of our journey… the walk from Tai Long village to Shek O. There are options to get a bus or taxi for this last bit but, but that’s not for hard-core hikers like us 🙂 Regretting our decision half an hour later as we trudge along Big Wave Bay Road, we arrive at Shek O village at around 3pm for a late lunch, before catching a very full Bus 9 back to Shau Kei Wan MTR station and onto the airport.
MTR to Shau Kei Wan station; then Bus 9 to start of walk (20min).
10.5km with approx 250m ascent. Allow 3-4 hours.
All year round. Avoid hiking after heavy monsoon rains.
A circular walk through Trondheim taking in a number of historic sites, including Vår Frue Church, Nidaros Domkirke, Gamle Bybro and Kristiansten Fortress.
It’s more a walk than a hike… but I’ve included it anyway as there’s a lot of historical attractions and parks within easy walking distance. From the dock (we have about four hours in Trondheim, while our Hurtigruten ferry is docked close to the centre of town), I head to the Old City via Søndregate which crosses the river Nidelva (bel0w).
Walking down Søndregate, I turn right onto Kongens Gate, in front of the Frimurerlogen (a Masonic lodge which hosts many public performances). Opposite the Frimurerlogen is the Vår Frue Church, a stone structure designed in the Romanesque and Gothic architectural style that dates back to the 12th century.
Frimurerlogen (Masonic Lodge)
Vår Frue Church
Not far from here is the city square (Torvet i Trondheim), at the corner of Kongens Gate and Munkegata. In the middle is an 18-metre high statue of Olav Tryggvason mounted on top of an obelisk, which was unveiled in 1921.
Continuing down Munkegata, one of the main streets of Trondheim, brings me to one of the city’s star attractions: the Nidaros Domkirke or Nidarosdomen (Cathedral). The world’s northernmost medieval cathedral, it was built from 1070 over the tomb of St. Olav (the Viking king who brought Christianity to Norway) and completed around 1300. (In summer you can climb 172 steps up to the tower; I’m here at about 8am and nothing is open.)
Nidaros Cathedral (Nidarosdomen or Nidaros Domkirke)
Nidaros Cathedral (Nidarosdomen or Nidaros Domkirke) – west front
After walking around the massive cathedral and it’s grounds, I re-cross the Nidelva river across the Gamle Bybro – the Old Town Bridge. Gamle Bybro was built in 1861 by Johan Caspar von Cicignon, as part of the reconstruction of Trondheim after the great fire of 1681. Constructed of wood supported on three stone piers, an iron gate is in the middle of the bridge, with a toll and guardhouse at each end. From the bridge – one of the most photographed attractions in Trondheim – there are views of the old wharves lining the Nidelva river down to the Bakke Bridge in the distance (below).
From Gamle Bybro, I head up to Kristiansten Festning (Kristiansten Fortress) – it’s a steep walk up Brubakken. (The steep road has the world’s first bicycle lift intended for urban areas, with a prototype built in 1993 that pushed more than 200.000 cyclists up the 130m long hill.)
Kristiansten Fortress was built in 1681 after the great city fire, protecting the city against attacks from the east, which it achieved when Sweden attacked Trondheim in 1718. From the fort there are views over Trondheim and surroundings mountains.
From here, with the weather deteriorating, I head back to the dock via Nonnegata, on the other side of the Nidelva to the Old Town.
After an amazing week in Svalbard, we travel south in search of the Northern Lights with a trip around Lyngen, Senja and the Lofoten Islands. We’ve hired a car from Tromsø (having flown into here from Longyearbyen in Svalbard), and cover about 1,500km over ten days, finishing at Svolvaer where we leave the car and take the Hurtigruten down to Bergen.
Lofoten is a chain of islands to the north-west of Norway in the county of Nordland. Known for its distinctive terrain of dramatic mountains and peaks that form a backdrop to the fjords, the scenery lives up to it’s reputation!
Also in Nordland, at the start of our drive to the Lofoten Islands, is Lyngen. The Lyngen peninsula (also known as the Lyngen Alps) is a scenic and mountainous area, and contains many of the highest peaks in Troms county (the highest being Jiekkevarre at 1,833 metres).
South-west of Lyngen and just north of the Lofoten Islands is Senja, the second largest island in Norway which is connected to the mainland by the 1,147 metre long Gisund Bridge. A popular tourist destination known for its scenery (a mix of sea, mountains, fishing villages and beaches), Senja has been described as “Norway in miniature” with the island’s diverse scenery reflecting almost the entire span of Norwegian nature.
(Nordland extends about 500 km from Nord-Trøndelag to Troms, or 800km by road, and is one of the least polluted areas in Europe. So it’s also great for watching the northern lights!)
Nordland has a long history of fishing, with the Lofoten Islands being a centre of of cod fisheries for over 1,000 years. Fish became Norway’s first significant export commodity in the Middle Ages, addressing a market for dried fish in England and on the continent (stockfish being the term for air-dried cod). For centuries, stockfish was the country’s biggest export. The fishing season is in February/March, with the fish then hung on hjell from February to May to dry.
The famous Moskstraumen (Malstrøm), a system of tidal eddies, is located in western Lofoten and the the root of the term maelstrom. It’s the second strongest whirlpool in the world with flow currents reaching speeds as high as 32 km/h [Wikipedia].
The village of Nusfjord, which was one of the most important fishing villages in Lofoten
Fish drying racks near Ramberg
When to go (and for how long)
While the Lofoten Islands lie within the Arctic Circle, they have one of the world’s largest elevated temperature anomalies relative to their high latitude [Wikipedia]. We visited in September, where we were still able to enjoy relatively long days, amazing displays of northern lights and great hiking (all hiking trails being snow-free and accessible). In hindsight, this was a great time to visit – although our timing was somewhat dictated by Australian school holidays – given our objective of seeing as much as we could by car while fitting in as much hiking as possible.
The only caveat at this time of year is that many restaurants are closed or facilities are not fully operational. For example, while almost everywhere we stayed had a hot tub, all (except one) had closed these for the season. Many fishing tours or “summer activities” were no longer offered, or had to be booked well in advance. Conversely, we enjoyed staying in many fishing villages where we were just about the only guests! It felt to us that tourism in the Lofoten Islands “shuts down” at the end of summer.
Personally, travelling in the middle of summer – despite the attraction of the midnight sun – is not so appealing, as I enjoyed the relative solitude of all but the most-popular walks. I think our experience would have been very different a few months earlier (August would be a good time, though).
Around April/May would also be appealing, as the mountains would be snow-covered and look even more spectacular… but without skis and/or snow-shoes and a lot of alpine hiking experience, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the hikes that I enjoyed so much. If you’re not into hiking (or prefer skiing), I think March-May would be a great time to visit.
For the pros & cons of when to go, 69North has a useful When to Visit Lofoten page on their Web site that explains what to expect at different times of the year.
We spent a week in the Lofoten Islands, staying 1-2 nights at each location – plus three days getting there (from Tromsø). The scenery around Lyngen and Senja was as spectacular as Lofoten, so I’d recommend adding a few extra days if you’re driving. We could easily have spent a few more days in Lofoten: there are many more hikes I could have done, and having 2-3 days at each location would have provided a bit more flexibility to pick the best weather for the higher-altitude walks. If you’re just driving and not doing outdoor activities, 5-7 days would enable to cover all the major attractions. For fishing tours or wildlife tours, book (at least) a week in advance,
We flew into Tromsø from Svalbard, and then drove via Alta, Lyngen and Senja – a most enjoyable drive of about 900km over a number of days as we initially went north, before heading to the Lofoten Islands. (It would have been an easy and shorter 300km drive if we’d gone directly to the Lofoten Islands!) We then returned the car at Svolvaer, taking the Hurtigruten from there (which cost about USD$400 extra for a one-way rental).
There are flights into Leknes and Svolvær, these are generally not direct flights from either Tromsø or Oslo. It would be a long (1,300km) drive from Oslo, so flying into Leknes (one direct flight per week with Wideroe or via an intermediate stop with SAS or Wideroe would be an option).
The Hurtigruten (coastal passenger ferry) stops at Stamsund and Svolvær in the Lofoten Islands, and can take you from Bergen (which is a 450m drive from Oslo or a short 50min flight).
Travelling though the Lofoten Islands by public transport is not something I’d recommend: the scenery is amazing and having a car allows you to stop or take scenic detours. We were travelling off-season, so almost everywhere that we stayed the restaurant was closed, meaning a drive to the nearest large town or picking up something to eat on the way. Finally, many of the hiking trails start a short distance from any towns, so having a car makes it much easier to get off the beaten track.
The Hurtigruten services two ports in the Lofoten Islands
Roads are well-marked and traffic is light
Food & Accommodation
Expensive! While no more expensive than anywhere else in Norway, food and dining out is not cheap. We would have easily spent NOK 1,500 (AUD$230) per day on food for a family of four, eating at mid-range restaurants or cafes. Most of the cabins we stayed at were self-catering, and we did get take-away pizzas and other meals a few times, that we could easily re-heat. Being off-season, finding somewhere to eat was often the challenge, with nothing open outside the major towns. Local cuisine – especially reindeer and fish – were a pretty staple menu item, and most of the restaurants had a slightly cheaper kids menu.
By comparison, accommodation was reasonably good value, with an average cost of NOK 2,000 (AUD $300) per night for the four of us, generally in 2-bedroom cabins. We were really happy with the quality of accommodation, with all of our cabins being clean (with the exception of one place that appeared to have been used for a cigar-smoking competition) and in great locations. As we were booking out of peak season, we had no problems with availability.
There are many experienced aurora photographers providing advice on how to get great photos of the northern lights, so I’ll just add a few suggestions that might be useful:
Forget auto-focus – you need to set the focus manually. If you’re using an SLR, it can be useful to note on the lens where the “infinity” focus point is during the day, or find somewhere bright enough on the horizon for the autofocus to lock onto, then switch to manual focus.
Set the exposure manually – I found ISO 2000-3200 with an aperture of F4 and shutter speed of around 2sec was a good starting point. Some articles I read suggest using higher ISO and faster shutter speed to avoid “blurring” of the lights; the downside is the images can be a bit noisy/grainy. I was happy with the results I got with shutter speeds up to 5sec.
Pick your spots before sunset – unless it’s polar night and dark all the time, scope a few places during the day where there are mountains in the background or water in the foreground (or both), so you can quickly move between different locations.
Don’t get too excited – I failed rather miserably on this one, and ended up with a few bruises from running around excitedly with camera in one hand, tripod in the other while looking at the sky, only to trip over a large boulder that was in front of me. Miraculously, I managed to never actually fall into a fjord…
Alta to Lyngen
We leave our accommodation (Ongajok Mountain Lodge, located at the end of a forest road in the Norwegian Lapland, about 28km south of Alta) around 10am, having a full day for the relatively short drive to Rotsund in Lyngen.
After a slow start down a narrow forest road back to the E6 highway, we follow the E6 along the Alta fjord (Altafjorden) and then the narrower Lang Fjord (Langfjorden). It’s a pleasant and easy drive, with not much traffic, and a backdrop of steep mountains and autumn colours.
After a few hours driving, the road rises up from the coast, with views over Badderfjorden. There’s some roadwork along this winding section of the E6, and we maneuver around the large trucks that are re-surfacing the road.
It’s now mid-afternoon and we are all pretty hungry… there’s been nowhere to eat along the way so far, and by luck we find the På Taket Kafé in Sørkjosen. Half-expecting it to be closed, we happily discover that it’s not only open, but has an extensive menu (pizzas, burgers, sandwiches) and a balcony with views over the fjord. And very good coffee.
View from balcony of På Taket Kafé
After our late lunch, we have just over an hour’s driving before reaching our destination. The Lyngen Alps, still seeming far away, form an impressive backdrop. We reach our self-contained house at Lyngen North (in the small town of Spåkenes, near Rotsund) around 3pm, and are welcomed by the very friendly owners. The property is right on the water, a spectacular setting with the impressive Lyngen Alps on the other side of the fjord. There’s even two “glass igloos” for couples, so you can watch the northern lights from your bed!
Having a few hours of daylight left, the kids – for reasons that only they can (possibly) explain – think that going for a swim in the arctic waters of the fjord is a good idea, followed by a session in the sauna. Meanwhile, with helpful instructions from the property owners, I tackle the mountain just behind our house.
Storhaugen hike (1,1,42m) A steep climb up to Dalberget and Storhaugen, with increasingly spectacular views of Lyngenfjord and the snow-covered Lyngen Alps as you gain altitude. Near the foot of the mountain and not far from the E6 road are the ruins of the Spåkenes fort, built in 1941 by the German army. Full hike details
After a successful swim and a slightly less successful hike (my enthusiasm was not quite matched by my navigation skills) we have dinner at the house. There’s no restaurant anywhere nearby that’s open, so we’ve bought some things to heat up in the oven.
Later that evening we experience our first Norwegian light show. The aurora lasts about an hour, as it slowly moves from the east (over the Lyngen alps) to the west.
From Alta to Lyngen Driving distance: 200km (total 5 hours, with 3.5 hours driving time) Accommodation: Lyngen North (formerly known as Spåkenes Sjøbuer). Self-contained two-bedroom house. (1 night)
Lyngen to Senja
We continue along the E6 the following day as it follows the Lyngen fjord, passing the Route 81 ferry that goes to Tromsø and skirting around the narrow Kafjorden, with views of the Lyngen Alps in the distance. After an hour of half of driving, we spot a “Visit Lyngenfjord” tourist office in Skibotn, which we think may contain food. It sort of does: we get some hot chocolates for the kids and biscuits to keep us going. With very few places to eat and many of those places closed in September, we’ve started to adopt a “sea food” diet – when see anything resembling a cafe or restaurant, we stop and eat!
Ferry servicing Rv 81 crossing the Lyngen fjord
Kafjorden with Lyngen Alps in the background
Following our brunch stop, we continue along the E6, following Storfjorden and the southern end of Balsfjorden as we head west towards Finnsnes.
It’s a great drive, with the forests reflecting the onset of autumn as the leaves change colour.
We have a very late lunch in in the town of Finnsnes at Senjastua, which serves traditional Norwegian food and has a children’s menu. With a population of only 4,371 people in 2013, the village of Finnsnes was granted town status in 2000. Despite this somewhat small population, there’s a traffic jam over the the Gisund Bridge, which connects Finnsnes to the villages of Silsand and Laukhella on the island of Senja.
Nearing our destination, we cross the suspension bridge at Straumnes, on the island of Senja. In the background are are the mountains of Skaland, across the Bergsfjorden on the northwest side of the island of Senja.
Suspension bridge at Straumnes
Mountains of Skaland, across the Bergsfjorden
We reach Hamn around 4pm, where we have a self-contained apartment in a holiday resort for one night. Hamn i Senja is located in an old fishing village dating back to the 1880s; the word “hamn” means harbour. We explore the sea-side property, which includes a lighthouse with panoramic views over Bergsfjorden, before borrowing some fishing rods that the kids cast into the harbour (they somehow manage to catch two small fish, that we throw back in). Being September the restaurant is closed (there’s also no fishing trips or fjord cruises unless booked well in advance), but we have bought some food to cook in the well-appointed kitchen.
Kids fishing for some cod in Senja
We’re hopeful to see the northern lights again tonight after a very clear day, with the lighthouse being a great vantage point. Unfortunately, the sky starts to cloud over in the evening and there’s no auroral activity tonight (at least, none that we can see!). Just some impressive cloud formations with the moon occasionally peeking through.
The next morning, I’m up early to hike Sukertoppen (Sugar Peak), the 456m peak that rises up behind Hamn, before we continue on our trip.
Sukkertoppen hike (456m) The views from the top of Sukkertoppen are impressive – whilst not a particularly high peak it feels like you’re perched almost vertically about the coastline. Looking to the north, you can see the town of Hamn and its protected harbour, and across Bergsfjorden to the mountains of Skaland. Full hike details
From Lyngen to Senja Driving distance: 255km (total 7 hours, with 4.45 hours driving time) Accommodation: Hamn i Senja in Senja (1 night)
Senja to Sjøvegan
We’re on the road by 10am, taking the Rv 862 which is a National Tourist Route; while we have less distance to cover than yesterday, there are many sights on the way. The first (brief) stop is at Senjatrollet (Senja Troll) about 10min away. The world’s biggest troll at 18m high and 125,000kg according by the Guinness Book of Records, the Senja Troll can be clearly seen from the carpark. Which is as close we get, as Senjatrollet, like many other attractions, is closed from early September.
Senjatrollet (Senja Troll)
Senjatrollet (Senja Troll)
We reach Bergsbotn after another 20min and one tunnel later: this 1,894m long tunnel, Skalandtunellen, has two reviews on Google. One of which translates to “Very badly illuminated tunnel by bicycle”. It’s a 4.5-star-rated tunnel, if you’re interested. I’m not sure if I was cycling through a country with over 900 road tunnels I’d stop and write a review of a road tunnel, but each to their own.
View of the mountains behind Krokelvvatnet from Rv 86
The 4.5-star rated tunnel (Skalandtunellen)
Bergsbotn (7 Google reviews and 4.8 stars) is a vantage point off the National Tourist Route, with panoramic views from a 44-metre long platform over Bergsfjord and the surrounding peaks. Designed by Code Arkitektur and installed in 2010, it’s located at the first place where you can once again see the ocean when travelling across Senja.
Bergsbotn, off the National Tourist Route
Bergsbotn, off the National Tourist Route
The road winds steeply down to the Bergsfjord, which it then follows for a while before entering another tunnel at Steinfjord. There’s more roadwork, so we’re escorted through the tunnel by a “Ledebil”, which we guess must mean”leader vehicle”. Disappointingly, this tunnel has no Google reviews or ratings.
Unrated tunnel at Steinfjord
Okshornan peaks seen from Rv 862
As a result of waiting for our Ledebil to escort us, it takes another half an hour or so (rather than 15min) to reach the Tungeneset viewing point. The Tungeneset rest area is on the end a promontory that separates two fjords, the Steinsfjord and Ersfjord. A walkway designed by Code Arkitektur in Siberian larch leads out over the rocks, providing a view of the razor-sharp Okshornan peaks to the east, Husfjellet to the west and the Arctic Ocean to the north.
Husfjellet, looking to the west
The razor-sharp Okshornan peaks, looking east
We don’t make very far until our next stop at Ersfjord Beach, which is “perhaps the finest beach in north Norway”. With rugged mountains towering above the sandy beach and village it’s very photogenic – though a little too chilly for swimming in late September!
From here we continue eastwards, with the road following the coast and going through many more (unreviewed) tunnels, the landscape still very dramatic.
Our next photo-stop, where we hope to fund lunch (but the best we can do is some packets of chips from the general store) is Husøy, a village in the municipality of Lenvik. The picturesque village covers the entire island of Husøy and is connected to the mainland by a 300m long causeway. It’s an active fishing community with a few hundred permanent inhabitants.
With everyone now a little hungry, we make a small detour to the village of Botnhamn (on the west side of the fjord of Stønnesbotn) and then stop in Finnsnes for a late afternoon tea before turning off the Rv 86 and onto Rv 84. After another couple of hours drive we arrive at Garsnes Brygge, where we’re staying the next two nights. A resort and retreat with restaurant and cabins, the complex is situated on Sagfjorden near Sjøvegan. Not all the cabins are full, but it’s one of the busiest places we’ve stayed, and the restaurant is open and has a decent range of really good food using local ingredients, including a few options to keep the (fussy) kids happy!
The following day I’ve got time in the morning for a hike before we drive to the Polar Park in the afternoon, and head off by foot from Garsnes Brygge for the hike to Sommarset-vatnet, which starts nearby.
Sommarsetvatnet hike Ascending from the fjord near Sommerset up to an alpine lake, the walk starts in the forest before rising above the tree-line to a more alpine landscape. The trail stops at the picturesque Sommarsetvatnet (lake) surrounded by mountiaims, but it’s possible to climb up to the adjacent peak. Full hike details
We head to the Polar ParkArctic Wildlife Center in Narvik at 11am, which is the world’s northernmost animal park. Polar Park is home to Norway’s large predators such as bears, wolves, lynx, wolverines and foxes, as well as their prey such as deer, elk, reindeer and musk ox. The animals are all in large enclosures (so it doesn’t feel like a zoo), and the guided tour, which includes predator feeding, was educational and entertaining for the adults – and the kids. Watching the lynxes being fed and hearing the wolves howling was pretty amazing.
A great day hiking and animal-watching is topped off by our second Norwegian aurora, which went for almost two hours before the clouds started to obscure the lights.
From Senja to Sjøvegan Driving distance: 195km (total 7 hours, with 5 hours driving time) Accommodation: Garsnes Brygges (2 nights)
Sjøvegan to Kabelvåg
It’s a bit of a miserable day as we leave Senja around 10am, heading further south on Fv 84 to the Lofoten Islands. Although when it’s not actually raining, the clouds and mist enhance the mountainous landscape. By the side of the road on the shore of Lavangsfjorden is lonely war memorial that pays tribute to the Norwegian and allied forces that fought the Germans in World War II. The Sjøvegan-Tennevoll road that we’ve just driven down was the marching ground two battalions, and the battle of Gratangsbotn (which is a little further south) was the biggest single attack against German forces on Norwegian soil.
Another hour of driving and we reach Tjeldsund Bridge (Tjeldsundbrua), a 1,007 metre long, 32-span suspension road bridge that crosses the Tjeldsundet strait between the mainland and the island of Hinnøya.
Tjeldsund Bridge (Tjeldsundbrua)
Tjeldsund Bridge (Tjeldsundbrua)
About half-way between the Tjeldsund Bridge and our destination in Storvågan, we pass Valbukta bay and a small side road off the E10 that leads across a narrow spit to Holdøya, and few minutes later there’s a nice view over Sløverfjorden with the mountains in the background.
Valbukta bay and road to Holdøya
Sløverfjorden with mountains in the background
We arrive at Nyvågar Rorbuhotell in Storvåganveien (1km west of Kabelvåg and 6km west of Svolvær) at 3:30pm, where we are staying for in a fisherman’s shack or “rorbu” for one night. It’s a great location, with our cosy cottage looking out over the fjord to the small hills of Hopen on the other side.
We seem to be about the only guests staying at the (reception is closed and our key has been left in the door of our cottage), and the restaurant has no sign of life. After unpacking we drive to Svolvaer, 10 minutes away, where there is a wide range of restaurants.
After a cloudy day when the sun has never come out, we’re pleasantly surprised in the evening when the sky clears and we’re treated to a light show for many hours. The long deck that runs in front of all the cabins and and jetty provide many vantage points for photographing the aurora.
Aurora borealis (northern lights) from Nyvågar Rorbuhotell, near Kabelvåg
Aurora borealis (northern lights) from Nyvågar Rorbuhotell, looking south-east towards Vestfjorden
From Sjøvegan to Kabelvåg Driving distance: 255km (total 6 hours, with 5 hours driving time) Accommodation: Nyvågar Rorbuhotell (1 night)
Kabelvåg to Nusfjord
The next day is looking much nicer, as we take a few last photos from our cabin of the mountains that were covered in cloud only 12 hours ago, and resume our journey south, further into the Lofoten Islands.
First stop is a “quick” ascent of Glomtinden, just off the E10, as the rest of the family seek breakfast and explore the active fishing village of Henningsvaer (nicknamed the “Venice of Lofoten”).
Glomtinden hike (419m) A relatively short walk, starting on an old gravel road and ending with a steep scramble to the summit. The rocky peak offers 360-degree views, from Rørvikvatnet lake to the west, the lakes of Hopsvatnet and Hopspollen to the north-east, and Kabelvag and Svolvaer to the east. Full hike details
After my hike, the scenery from the E10 doesn’t disappoint, as we travel along the Rorvik valley, surrounded by jagged mountain peaks, and then follow the foot of the mountains around the coast.
Mountains surrounding the Rorvik valley
Looking back from the E10 at Rv 816 curving around Sorfjellet
We’re soon crossing the Gimsøystraumen Bridge (Gimsøybrua), a cantilever road bridge that crosses the Gimsøystraumen strait between the islands of Austvågøya and Gimsøya – one of the many bridges connecting the islands of Lofoten as part of the E10 highway.
The Gimsøystraumen Bridge
The Gimsøystraumen Bridge
Having crossed the Gimsøystraumen strait, we make a little detour around the 46.4-square-kilometre island of Gimsøya. At the “top” of the island is Hov, where Lofoten Links is located – one of the few courses in the world where you can play golf in the sun for 24 hours! Beside the golf course is a horse farm with friendly Icelandic horses, which we stop and say hello to.
Golf course at Hov
Horse farm with Icelandic horses on Gimsøy
We continue through the mountainous terrain on the E10, stopping along the way at the Torvdalshalsen rest area (Torvdalshalsen rasteplass), which is one of the National Tourist Route attractions. Located on a hilltop south of Torvdalsvatnet lake and featuring a long screen with benches, it’s incredibly windy but offers a great view of Vestvågøy island.
View from Torvdalshalsen rest area
About 3km after this rest stop, we make another detour to Eggum via the Eggum Tourist route, to the remains of a World War II German radar station. Built on a small hill overlooking the ocean, it’s surrounded by towering cliffs. With an architecturally-designed visitor centre and a huge car park, it looks capable of handling hundreds of visitors in summer… in late September, we are the only people visiting…
Remains of a WWII German radar station at Eggum
Looking back at the village of Eggum
There’s another hour of driving through more spectacular countryside before we reach today’s destination. We pause briefly at Lofotr Vikingmuseum (we’re coming back here for dinner) and stop at the major town of Leknes, where we have a late lunch.
We arrive at Nusfjord in the late afternoon, one of the oldest and best-preserved fishing villages with long Lofoten fishery traditions, about 6km off the E10 highway. We’re staying in one of the 46 traditional fishing huts or rorbu in the village – it feels like the other 45 are village feels very quiet.
Nusfjord, an authentic fishing village
A seagull surveying the Nusfjord harbour
After a few moments of panic when the reception is closed and there’s no-one around, we find someone who helps us find our our key and the directions to our cabin, which is perched over the water. There’s nowhere to eat in the village, but we’ve booked dinner at Lofotr Viking Museum, a historical museum based on the reconstruction and archaeological excavation of a Viking chieftain’s village on the island of Vestvågøya.
It should be only a 45min drive back up the E10 to the museum, but much to our kids’ consternation (they are getting hungry and inpatient!) we stop every five minutes to take photos of the fantastic sunset and evening light.
We arrive a little late for our 7pm Viking feast, which is held in the longhouse. Before dinner we have some time to explore the museum, which includes a full reconstruction of the 83m long chieftain’s house, a blacksmith’s forge and two Viking ships. The Viking feast includes a leg of lamb from Lofoten and honeywine-mead, and is accompanied by an explanation of how the Vikings lived (and ate), role-playing and traditional Viking songs and dances. It’s great fun, and despite being a late night the kids really enjoy it. Especially the bit where they play with the swords and shields!
A great day is completed with an aurora show as we drive back to our cabin – probably the most intense lights we’ve seen so far!
From Kabelvåg to Nusfjord Driving distance: 215km (total 7:30 hours, with 4 hours driving time) Accommodation: Nusfjord Rorbuer (1 night)
Nusfjord to Reine
Leaving late the following morning – it’s a very short drive today – we skirt around the Storvatnet on a narrow road before re-joining the E10.
Storvatnet, with Stjernfjellet behind
E10 along Flakstadpollen
It’s not far to our first stop at Skagsanden beach near Flakstad, one of Norway’s most-photographed beaches. In the distance are the mountains of Moskenesøya. There’s no-one at the campground. Or on the beach. Or anywhere…
A little further in the quaint, small town of Ramberg we find a small restaurant in a historic building, Kafe Friisgarden. Even more surprisingly, it’s actually open! We’re the only customers for lunch, but they serve a great soup for the adults and chicken nuggets for the kids.
From here it’s a short drive to Reine, a fishing village (and the administrative centre of the municipality of Moskenes) located situated on a promontory just off the E10.
It’s a very picturesque village, selected as “the most beautiful village in Norway” by the Norwegian Allers magazine in the 1970s. We’re staying in one of the 32 “rorbu” or fishing huts in Reine Rorbuer – it’s surprisingly busy compared to most of the other places we’ve stayed, and the resort/hotel has a couple of restaurants and a sports and outdoor shop that are all open.
Having arrived in the early afternoon, there’s time for an afternoon hike. I’m joined by my son for our walk, which starts a short drive away in the small fishing town of Å to the south of Reine.
Stokkvikskaret hike A very muddy walk along Lake Ågvatnet, with chains assisting on the steeper parts. We stop near the end of the lake; the track continues up to the Stokkvikskaret Pass and then onto the town of Stokkvika on the other side of the ridge. Full hike details
We have dinner at the on-site restaurant, Gammelbua (once the old general store in Reine) – the food is good with a focus on local cuisine, but it’s a limited menu with not many kid-friendly options. Later in the evening we enjoy some more northern lights, with many great spots to take photos around the hotel.
We have two days in Reine, so on the following day we wander around the village in the morning, before Luke and I tackle the nearby mountain peak.
Reinebringen (448m) A fairly short but challenging trail, starting near the town of Reine. Initially wet, muddy and slippery, the trail soon gets very steep and slippery. It’s well worth the effort, with breathtaking views over Reine and the surrounding mountain peaks. Full hike details
Out second (and last) night in Reine is also our last Lofoten aurora, with the weather deteriorating. Of all the places we’ve stayed, Reine is probably the best location for aurora photography, with many different vantage points.
As we prepare to leave Reine and head back north to catch the Hurtigruten from Svolvaer, we’re farewelled with a rainbow over Reinevagen Bay.
From Nusfjord to Reine Driving distance: 50km (total 3 hours, with 1 hour driving time) Accommodation: Reine Rorbuer (2 nights)
Reine to Ballstad
We’re headed for Ballstad today, a bit over half-way to Svolvaer where we swap our rented car for a ferry… It’s a little overcast, but not raining.
We are more or less re-tracing the route we took south a few days ago, with a quick stop at Skagsanden Beach.
Skagsanden Beach (again)
Looking across Fladstadpollen toward Stortinden
We make a short detour to Vikten, situated on the coast and surrounded by steep mountains. It’s also the site of Glasshytta Vikten, Northern Norway’s first glass studio which was founded in 1976. The ex-fisherman and now glass-blower Åsvar Tangrand creates his art here – you can watch glass being blown and there’s many pieces for sale.
Vikten, on the seaward side of Flakstadøya island
Glass products at Glasshytta Vikten As (photo from Glasshytta Facebook page)
Rather than going directly to Ballstad, we head to Leknes for lunch at the Frk. Lillemor Cafe, and then toward Stamsund. There’s time for quick walk in the afternoon…
Justadtinden (738m) A 12km round trip to one of Vestvågøy’s highest peaks, on an easy-to-follow path. After about two hours walking there’s a final scramble up some steep rocks to the top of Justadtinden. Unfortunately there’s no view due to the weather – but the rocky peak would yield some impressive photos in clear weather. Full hike details
After my hike, we continue to Stamsund, a fishing village on the southern side of the island of Vestvågøy. Overlooking the coast in Stamsund is a statue called “The Tourist” which looks “like a mixture of David Livingstone and Donald Duck”. It was created in eastern Norway based on an African design and brought to Stamsund by Baktruppen (an artist collective) in 2003. The intent was to lower the statue onto the seabed where it could only be viewed by underwater cameras… but there was an outcry and a poll conducted where 95% of respondents wanted the sculpture kept on land!
We follow the 817 road around the scenic Stamsund coast, before heading back toward Ballstad.
We reach our accommodation, Hattvika Lodge, around 5pm where we have a modern and recently renovated self-contained apartment in a fishing village opposite the harbour of Hattvika.
I think we’re the only people staying here and there’s no local dining, so after unpacking we drive to Leknes (only 15min away) where we enjoy what must be the most expensive pizza we’ve ever eaten at Peppes Pizza.
From Reine to Ballstad Driving distance: 130km (total 7 hours, with 3 hours driving time) Accommodation: Hattvika Lodge (1 night)
Ballstad to Svolvaer
It’s a miserable and wet last day in the Lofotens for us as we drive back to Svolvaer, where we need to drop off our car and take the Hurtigruten ferry south to Bergen.
We arrive just before lunch, and taking advantage of what I hope is a break in the weather, I walk up to the northern end of the town. Overshadowing Svolvaer, Fløya is popular with hikers and climbers (although in today’s miserable weather I only see three other people on the hike).
Fløya (590m) A very steep and sometimes slippery trail up to the 590m peak of Fløya, with great views from the saddle despite the wet and misty conditions. There are clear views of Svolværgeita or “The Svolvær Goat” – Lofoten’s most famous mountain formation, on the way up. Full hike details
I’m completely drenched and rather cold when I get back to the Svolvaer town centre; after changing clothes we have a few hours before the Hurtigruten docks. Luke and I have a quick visit to Magic Ice, an ice sculpture gallery near the wharf. They give you a warm overcoat and cold drink in an ice cup, and there’s a lot of ice sculptures to look at.
Fløya behind the town of Svolvaer
Magic Ice in Svolvaer
We watch the Hurtigruten ferry arriving into Svolvaer. My wife boards here with our luggage; I have drawn the short straw and am taking the two kids on a pre-booked “Lofoten by horse” excursion. We take a mini-bus from Svolvaer for the horse-riding at Hoy on Gimsøya (the same place we visited a few days ago).
I’d like to describe this a graceful ride along the beach under the northern lights… it would be more accurate to say I was clinging on to my horse as it plodded up various tracks hoping I wouldn’t fall off.
The horse ride lasts a good hour before we thankfully dismount, and our mini-bus takes us to Stamsund where we board the Hurtigruten.
It’s been an amazing ten-day journey with even more spectacular scenery than we had expected, and many hiking opportunities each with an equally fantastic view over the mountainous landscape.
From Ballstad to Svolvaer Driving distance: 80km (1:45min driving time) Accommodation: We leave on the Hurtigruten ferry in the evening.
For general information the Visit Norway Web site is always helpful; we used TripAdvisor for research and Booking.com for all of our accommodation bookings. As well as an olde-fashioned print copy of Lonely Planet Norway.
To help work out when to go and how much sunlight you’ll have (outside the polar summer), try Time and Date, and 68 North has useful information on the different seasons.
For hiking, Switchback Travel has an overview of their Top 10 hikes, and 68 North has some general information on hiking in the Lofoten Islands. The book “Explore Lofoten” by Kristin Folsland Olsen is really good – it doesn’t seem to be readily available for purchase on-line, but you should find it bookshops or outdoor shops in the Lofoten Islands.
If you’re into GPS mapping or just want an alternative to Google Maps for looking at where to go or where you’ve been, GodTur.no provides a free, on-line and interactive topographical map. This is particuarly useful if you’re hiking, to check exactly where the hike starts.
The Svalbard islands are located in the Arctic Ocean halfway between Norway and the North Pole, accessible by plane from Oslo or Tromsø. We spent a week in Svalbard in September – if you’re thinking about going, I’d highly recommend it! In hindsight mid September was a great time for a first visit.
Depending, of course, on personal preference and fitness, the “must do” activities for me were: hiking (Trollsteinen for its combination of views and a glacier crossing, and either Hiorthfjellet which combines kayaking and hiking in one long day, or the 1,053m Nordenskioldfjellet, the highest peak near Longyearben) and the boat trip to Pyramiden (which includes a glacier-stop and the abandoned mining of Pyramiden). The Better Moments “Catch of the Day” cruise was also fantastic. Allow at least a week…
What was intended as a summary of our week has ended up being more of an travel essay! So I’ve broken it down into sections and added some navigation:
Svalbard is a group of islands (archipelago), located north of the Norwegian mainland in the Barents Sea. The largest settlement is Longyearbyen, which is where the airport is located. Svalbard is the largest wilderness area in Europe, and lays claim to some of the northernmost settlements in the world:
Ny-Ålesund (78°55’N) – the northernmost functional settlement and home to the northernmost post office (accessible by boat tour from June-September)
Pyramiden (78°39’N) – an almost-abandoned ghost town, a hotel was re-established in 2013. Accessible by boat, it’s the #2 northermost (populated and accessible) town – and well worth a visit!
Longyearben (78°12’N) – northernmost settlement with a permanent population of over 1,000. You’ll be staying here (unless you’re doing an overnight trekking tour from here 🙂
With no roads between Longyearbyen and the other settlements, travel is by boat in summer (May-October) and snowmobile in winter (Feb-May). More than 60% of the archipelago is covered by ice, with winter temperatures dropping as low as -30 degrees Celsius.
Historically, Svalbard played a role during the whaling years in the 17th century when summer whaling stations were established on the west coast. There are still many traces of the whale slaughter along the coastline. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Svalbard became a base for polar exploration and research; this continues today with a number of large technical research facilities (including the EISCAT atmospheric radar telescopes and the SVALSAT array of antenna-studded “golf balls” visible from most of the boat cruises). Coal mining started in the 1900s in response to demand for resources from Europe, with multiple countries staking claims across Svalbard; Longyearben was established in 1906 as a mining settlement by John Munro Longyear, an American. Mining continued throughout the the 1900s, except during WWII, with Longyearben becoming the focal point for Norwegian mining. While mining has now almost completely ceased (there’s just Mine 7 in Longyearben and Svea Nord in Sveagruva still operating), many abandoned mines and even “ghost towns” (like Pyramiden and Grumant) remain.
Remains of a whale skull at Isfjord, a whaling base until the 1650s
One of the two EISCAT Svalbard radar dishes in Longyearben
Coal mine in the abandoned village of Pyramiden
When to go
Being well above the Arctic circle there’s polar winter (no sun) from November to February and polar summer (24 hour sun) from May to August. In mid September, when we visited, the days were still fairly long with sunrise around 6am and sunset at 8pm. It stayed light for many hours after sunset, and never got completely dark with a red glow on the horizon lasting until almost midnight. But the days got shorter very quickly: sunset was at 8:30pm when we arrived and 7:30pm a week later when we left.
Each season offers different activities – so it’s difficult to answer this! Our mid-September was dictated partly by the Australian school holidays. It meant we could still do all the water-based activities (boat trips) as well most land activities, such as hiking. While almost all “summer” activities were still being offered, the town was not crowded and most trips were not full. In hindsight, we were very happy with what we were able to do in a week!
We were a little too early to see the aurora (northern lights) in Svalbard, which are seen from October to March – but it’s not the best place to go for the lights, and we were fortunate to see them on multiple nights further south. We did see a polar bear, with May-September one of the best time for polar-bear spotting!
Personally, if I go back – and I hope I’ll have the opportunity to one day – I’d go in March/April for a completely different experience, with snow-shoe hiking and dog-sledding. For our my first trip to this area, early autumn was perfect, as it meant we could do many different activities and cover a fair bit of ground. (I’ve seen trip reports by visitors who couldn’t get to places like Pyramiden by boat in May, due to ice.)
Evening light is great for photography!
Sun is just below the horizon – photo taken at 11:10pm
There’s a good summary of Svalbard by season on the Spitsbergen-Svalbard travel web site.
How long? I was a little skeptical about spending a week there (my wife was in charge of our 3-week Norway itinerary), but in hindsight it almost wasn’t long enough… there are a huge amount of activities on offer, and it is really is a magical place. Financially, a week is about right as it gets expensive doing tours every day (which you more or less have to do, although you can spend a day wandering around the town). Money aside, I’d recommend a full week, but I don’t think you’d get bored staying longer, and it would give you the option of picking the best days for hiking or kayaking which are less fun in damp weather.
Svalbard’s about three hours flight from Oslo or 1:40min from Tromsø, flying to Longyearben with SAS or Norwegian Air (we flew in from Oslo on Norwegian and out with SAS to Tromsø). Both airlines were comfortable & efficient, although Norwegian Air is the “low cost airline” of the two – while all our bags were collectively well under our combined weight allowance, one bag was 2kg over the 20kg per-item limit. There was no way we were checking in until we’d re-distributed the weight between bags.
As Svalbard is not part of the Schengen Area, flights to Longyearben are treated like international flights and there are passports checks. Going out it was a pretty quick process at Oslo, but on the trip back it was a fairly slow process on our arrival at Tromsø, especially for non-EU passports.
Svalbard seen from the plane as we near Longyearbeen
Rainbow seen from Longyearben airport
From the airport, we caught the Svalbard Busservice to our hotel – the bus meets each flight and no booking is required. You can also take a taxi. Or you can hire a car from the airport – but with 46km of roads in total and the requirement of a rifle outside the town limits (see below), this isn’t a particularly attractive option.
Within Longyearben, you can walk everywhere – or hire a bicycle. The museum and gallery, church, waterfront area (good for evening photography) and Nyben about 1.2km to the south are accessible by foot. About a kilometre out of town is the old cemetery, which has a fascinating history: it was discovered that bodies buried in Longyearbyen were perfectly preserved by permafrost – and that bodies never decompose. Scientists have been able to extract tissue from some of the bodies buried here that contained intact traces of the influenza virus, in an attempt to learn why the 1918 flu was so virulent and prevent any occurrence in future. (The cemetery hasn’t been used since the 1940s, and in fact it’s now illegal to die in Svalbard!)
The main obstacle to getting around is the polar bear… leaving the town limits (marked with signs bearing the picture of a polar bear) requires that you carry a firearm. So, unless you have special permission from the Governor of Svalbard or a Norwegian/European weapon licence, you need to join a tour group or have an armed tour guide with you to explore outside the town.
Walking back to Longyearben village from Nyben
Rifles required beyond the city limit
Old cemetery in Longyearben
Food, Accommodation – and When to Book
We stayed at Svalbard Hotell, which had recently been refurbished and is near the centre of town. We were very happy with the hotel for our family of 4 – was clean, fairly spacious and close to everything. We generally got take-away which was the cheapest option: the Svalbar Pub was about 100m away, and had great burgers, pizza and other fine dining 🙂 For lunch the Fruene Kaffe Og Vinbar (cafe) in the middle of town had a great range of food, as well as locally-made chocolates and other touristy gifts. It’s always busy, so get there early if you can.
There’s a supermarket in the middle of town, and shopping here seemed no more expensive that the rest of Norway. In fact, soft drinks and beer are MUCH cheaper in Svalbard than mainland Norway, as taxes are lower.
Directly opposite the hotel is the Svalbard Turistinformasjon (information office), and the hotel itself – which is part of the Svalbard Adventure Group – has a booking desk. From our experience (at least in the “shoulder season”):
accommodation was not a problem – we booked months ahead, but had no problems getting a room for the four of us. Restaurants could be booked the day before or in the morning.
smaller cruises like the Better Moments “Catch of the Day” trip should be booked as much in advance as possible – they tend to get full and have a fixed capacity
hiking trips and less popular tours are better booked once you have an idea of the weather – the risk is that it won’t go ahead if there’s not enough people. When booking, check if the operator has enough participants to go ahead. If not, be flexible with your itinerary. With a couple of tour operators, booking just me + 1 or 2 kids was enough for them to go ahead, but I always checked.
Svalbard has a relatively mild climate compared to other areas at the same latitude. In Longyearbyen, the average temperature ranges from -14°C in winter to 6°C in summer. During our week in mid-September, it was around 6-7 degrees during the day – most of the time were comfortable walking around with a parka and long pants.
On a few occasions it got a lot colder, especially in the evening – or if the weather gets nasty. You shouldn’t need any really hard-core winter wear though, and you can get good quality gear in one of two outdoor equipment shops if you need warmer clothes. If you have them bring hiking boots, as well as sneakers for “around town”.
September is one of the wettest months, but it’s all relative – the median (monthly) rain fall in September is 20mm, versus around 10mm in the driest months (April-June). We had a few days that were a bit grey with some light rain – but in some ways this enhanced the landscape. The changing weather created some fantastic light, especially on the boat trips – and glaciers appear bluer on overcast days. I’d avoid any mountain hikes on days of poor weather – for the obvious reason that you won’t get any views if the summit is in the clouds!
There are a number of land-based activities available in September, from strenuous hikes to tours requiring minimal effort. We tried to fit in as much as we could in one week!
Photography tour – we did a fantastic Lens & Perspective photography tour on the day we arrived, with Spitzbergen Adventures. It was an almost-private tour by minivan, combining many attractions and scenic spots with advice on getting the best photos. While the itinerary may vary a little depending on the light, we stopped at a husky farm to see the friendly dogs, went up to the EISCAT Svalbard radar dishes near the end of Adventdalen (the Advent valley) for views over Longyear valley and visited the ruins of a downed WWII fighter jet. View Google Photo Album
Well-preserved ruins of a German Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 which crash-landed in 1942
View from the EISCAT Svalbard Radar station
There is also a daily “Longyearben in a Nutshell” tour which covers most of these attractions; if you can, doing a photography tour instead will give you a better opportunity to get some great photos. Otherwise the Longyearben in a Nutshell would be a good tour to do on arrival, to orient yourself and see all the main sights around the village.
All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) tour – we did this at the very end of our trip, with Svalbard Adventure Group. While it was great fun (for the kids and adults), it covered pretty much the same ground as our photography tour. After some basic training on driving the ATVs, we set off down the Advent valley and up past the Svalbard radar dishes, before returning via a husky farm (a different one to the photography tour). View Google Photo Album
Dog sledding on wheels – we didn’t book this, as it would have covered more or less the same route as the photography and ATV tours. However, while it seemed to us a little “wrong” to be pulled on a sled with wheels, at one of the husky farms they explained that they initially developed the sleds as a way to keep the dogs exercised in summer. And then later discovered they could also charge tourists for the pleasure…
What you can’t do in September is dog-sledding on snow and snowmobiling. We also didn’t go and visit the Global Seed Vault, which is near the airport – you can’t enter the vault, so we didn’t see the attraction of doing a tour just to look at the outside of the building. You can catch a taxi to see the building, which is between the town and the airport.
There are many hikes offered by different companies, from a few hours to full days. All of them cover quite different terrain, and (at least in my case) quite different weather conditions.
Trollsteinen – my first Svalbard hike, booked through Spitsbergen Travel. With the weather overcast but not raining, we cross the Lars glacier (you get micro-spikes to put over your hiking shoes) and then up a steep ridge to the rocky summit, at 850m altitude (see full trip report). Around five hours of hiking.
Nordenskioldfjellet – I had booked the “Arctic Challenge” with Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions, which combined kayaking with an ascent of Hiorthfjellet on the other side of Adventfjord. Poor weather and choppy seas meant a change of plan, and we tackled the 1,053m Nordenskioldfjellet peak instead. It was the toughest of the hikes I did due to the gale-force, arctic winds that ended our summit aspirations at 780m altitude after about two hours of walking (see full trip report). At least it gave us some time for kayaking in the afternoon…
Plateaufjellet – also known as “Plateau Mountain”, this peak is above Longyearben and can be done in the evening (offered daily by Spitsbergen Outdoor Activities). I did this with my 8-year-old son in less then two hours, and while it’s only about 380m high you get great twilight views of Longyearben town and Adventfjord (see full trip report).
Fossil hike – another short short walk, that starts at the of the end of the Longyear valley and goes up to the foot of the Longyear glacier (with Svalbard Adventure Group). Good fun for the kids- it’s hard not to find a fossil – and gives you a sense of the Svalbard landscape with views down the Longyear valley (see full trip report).
A map of the Longyear area, below, shows the hiking and ATV tour route. The Hiorthfjellet hike (not shown) is on the opposite of the fjord; almost all the other walks start near Longyearben or at the top of the Longyear valley (near Nyben). Sarkofagen, which I didn’t do, is between the two biggest glaciers below (between Nordenskioldfjellet on the left and Trollsteinen to the right).
If you’re not on foot, a boat is the other way to get around in summer & autumn, and the only way to reach the other settlements in Svalbard.
Catch of the Day cruise – offered by “Better Moments”, the Catch of the Day cruise is on a small, enclosed rib boat with a maximum of 12 passengers. The itinerary changes based on the weather and sea conditions, and what wildlife has been spotted in previous days. The crew (of two) were passionate about what they do, and very knowledgeable… On our evening trip we set off across Isfjorden to get close to the Bore glacier (Borebreen), and then back past the abandoned Russian mining town of Grumant. View Google Photo Album.
Fjord-cruise to Pyramiden – A few operators offer this itinerary, which combines a fairly long journey up Isfjord and into Billefjord to the (almost) abandoned town of Pyramiden, with a stop at the Nordenskiöld glacier. We went with Henningsen Transport & Guiding on the MS Billefjord, leaving at 8:30am for the 11-hour round trip.
The journey out was interesting, with constantly changing light conditions making for some great photos. (And there was plenty of time for drooling over the camera lenses that people had with them – there was some very serious Canon and Nikon gear, with a few $10K+ lenses on board!)
We were then treated to an impromptu emergency evacuation training exercise, with the coast guard helicopter hovering over the upper deck of the MS Billefjord. A succession of people were lowered onto our boat, and then winched back up to the chopper.
As we neared the Nordenskiöld glacier, we spotted a polar bear – the only one we saw on our trip (and we met may people who hadn’t seen any). That was pretty cool, as weren’t too optimistic about our chances of seeing these elusive creatures.
Just after lunch we reach the Nordenskiöld glacier, which is enormous,: the overcast weather brings out the blue colour. And how better than to enjoy the sight than with a glass of Scotch over some chunks of glacial ice (although the plastic cups did bring the tone down a little!).
The final stop is at the Soviet town of Pyramiden, where we spend about two hours with a charming Russian guide, Sasha, exploring the abandoned buildings. It’s an amazing place – I’ve written a separate blog post covering our fascinating walk through the town of Pyramiden.
Better Moments private charter – we booked a full day charter with Better Moments, as my wife was very keen to visit Ny-Ålesund (we missed the last commercial trip by a few days). Unfortunately, due to choppy seas this wasn’t possible – while the trip to Ny-Ålesund looks like it follows a sheltered fjord, the crew explained that due to prevailing winds it would have been an uncomfortable three hour journey each way.
Instead, we headed to Isfjord Radio, a remote radio station that was originally an important telecommunications link between the Norwegian mainland and Svalbard and is now run as as tourist accommodation. After a “tea and biscuit” break in what is now a boutique hotel, we walked around the base, stopping to see some reindeers being skinned and prepared for winter and climbing an old radio mast for views over Isfjord.
From here we crossed the fjord, stopping to look at the Harriet glacier and admiring the rugged coastline, with occasional “trappers huts” that are privately owned and used mostly in summer. (We also spotted a lone reindeer, grazing near the shore.)
We saw many, many northern fulmars, especially near land… they nest in numerous bird cliffs along the coast, and have a salt gland that above their nasal passage that helps desalinate their bodies. You can sometimes see the excretion of a high saline solution from their noses!
Next stop was the Von Post glacier, which is about 15km long and teeming with bird life as we approach. Another overcast day (but no rain) again makes the compressed glacial ice look very blue!
Nearing the end of our long day, we leave the Von Post glacier (Von Postbreen) and head back to Longyearben.
We didn’t get to Ny-Ålesund, but in our 240km over about 8 hours, we visited Isfjord Radio, saw two glaciers and got some great commentary about the Svalbard landscape and wildlife. It’s a pretty expensive option (being a private charter), but does mean you can tailor the day to cover what would otherwise involve at least two separate tours.
Kayaking trip – while kayaking trips can be booked as a separate activity by different tour operators, I booked the “Arctic Challenge”, with the plan of crossing the Adventfjord by kayak, and then climbing Hiorthfjellet on the other side. As the weather prevented this, we hiked a different mountain in the morning, and then went kayaking in the afternoon.
We set off from Longyearben, after getting into our sealed “kayaking suits” (the water is pretty cold, so these are to ensure you survive a capsizing!) and getting some instructions on how to kayak. If you’ve kayaked before, it’s all pretty straightforward! If not, you’ll still be OK – one couple found it a little hard-going (and may have needed relationship therapy after the trip), but the rest of us had no problems. On the other side of Adventfjorden (photo, below right) is our original destination of Hiorthfjellet, covered in low cloud.
We were all in two-man (or two-people?) kayaks, except for one single kayak (due to an uneven number in our group) as we set out, following the coast south-west, toward the airport. After about an hour, we stopped on the gravelly beach near Renseverket, a derelict coal processing plant. Here we walked for a while along the coast, with the snow-covered mountains of Oscar II Land in the distance, across Isfjorden.
After our half our or so stroll along the coast, we head back… not quite what was planned – but we did get a hike and an enjoyable few hours kayaking!
The map below (from Google) shows the three boat cruises we did; Ny-Ålesund is at the very top left of the map (unfortunately, we didn’t get there).
For general information on Svalbard, the Visit Norway has some information, but the most comprehensive (and “official”) site is Visit Svalbard.
To help work out when to go and how much sunlight you’ll have (outside the polar summer), try Time and Date, which gives you sunrise/sunset as well as twilight times for any date. There’s also sunrisesunset.info which does the same thing (enter Longyearben as the location).
To book activities, we found the best site to be Visit Svalbard, where you can enter a date and see a list of all activities from all the tour operators (“Book Activities” on the left-hand panel), including prices and the number of spots left (you can book online from here, although once I was in Svalbard I would visit a booking office or call the company to see if there were enough people for the activity to be going ahead).
Some of the tour companies we used that offer trips from Longyearben – all of which we were very happy with:
Better Moments – lots of land and water activities; their “Catch of the Day” trips on an enclosed rib-boat are fantastic (book early) and we also did a private charter.
Spitzbergen Adventures – all-year, land-based activities, including overnight hikes (which I’d love to do next trip) and bespoke (tailored) hiking trips. They are also offer the Lens & Perspective photography tour, which I’d highly recommend, and I did the Trollstein day-hike with them (which is also offered by other companies).
Spitsbergen Outdoor Activities – range of activities; we booked the evening hike up Plateau Mountain with them, which they ran even though it was just myself and one child on the trip.
Svalbard Adventure Group (also known as Svalbard Booking) – also has a booking desk inside Svalbard Hotell, which is part of the same group, and offers a broad range of land and sea activities throughout the year. I did their “fossil hike” with the kids, which we all enjoyed (one of the easiest hikes you can do)
Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions – offer some more “challenging” winter and summer activities. I booked the “Hiortfjellet – an Arctic challenge – kayak and mountain hike” with them, which was the toughest single-day hike on offer (although due to weather we ended up doing something different).
If you’re into GPS mapping or just want an alternative to Google Maps for looking at where to go or where you’ve been, TopoSvalbard provides a free, on-line and interactive topographical map. You can even enter coordinates from your iPhone or GPS device to see exactly where you were.
Enjoy your trip… while I can’t say I’m a “Svalbard expert” having only been for a week, I’m very happy to answer any questions from our experience visiting this amazing place, from a tourist perspective!
A fascinating trip back in time, walking around the (almost) abandoned Soviet town of Pyramiden, in the archipelago of Svalbard.
Pyramiden, a Russian settlement and coal-mining community on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, was founded by Sweden in 1910 and sold to to the Soviet Union in 1927. It was effectively abandoned in 1998, a couple of years after the crash of a charter flight from Longyearben that was taking 130 workers and their families to the mining town. In the last ten years there’s been a very small permanent population of up to 30 people, supporting a niche (and seemingly growing) tourism industry.
Half the fun is getting there… by snowmobile in winter (taking 7½ hours to cover the 220km return trip) and by boat from June to October. We went on the MS Billefjord with Henningsen Transport & Guiding (with some glacier and polar-bear spotting en-route).
Heading to Pyramiden from Longyearben
A search and rescue midway on our trip to Pyramiden
A dozing polar bear on the rocks
After disembarking at Pyramiden, we’re welcomed by Sasha, our multi-lingual, friendly and very entertaining Russian guide for the next couple of hours. Sasha explains there are currently three staff working in Pyramiden, and a couple of hotel guests.
While it’s illegal to enter buildings unaccompanied and Trust Arcticugol (the current owner) is supporting the development of tourism, the town feels neglected and the interior of many buildings is run-down. Conversely, the exterior of most buildings is well-preserved, with a prediction that the very low rate of decay due to the frigid climate means the major buildings will still be visible in 500 years (Source: A Soviet Ghost Town in the Arctic Circle, Pyramiden Stands Alone in Smithsonian magazine).
The backdrop to Pyramiden is one of the old mines; by the time the mine was closed, there were 32 openings and 60km of mine tunnels. Despite the extensive mining operations, the remoteness of the site and difficult access (with ice blocking the fjord for six months of the year by boat) meant that the mine was never actually profitable.
One of the first building we stop at is the barn or “animal farm”: Pyramiden’s agriculture was based on the Soviet collective farming principle, and included a vegetable greenhouse and an animal farm. The animal farm held dairy cattle, pigs, hens and a single horse – for many years a production surplus meant that eggs were exported to Longyearbyen (in 1975 110,000 eggs were produced!).
Barn (Animal Farm) at Pyramiden
Barn (Animal Farm) at Pyramiden; the 1927 denoting the year Russia purchased the mining town from Norway
The hospital building is well-preserved (it had 20 beds and a pharmacy), and many of the buildings around the “main square” at the top of the town are in good condition. Many new buildings were constructed in the late 1940s, including the hospital, a large recreation centre and large cafeteria. These are largely designed in a “Soviet block-style fashion”, with rounded edges to deflect the winter winds.
The hospital in Pyramiden
Well preserved houses near the main “square” near the Culture Hall
At the top, or far end, of Pyramiden is a statue of Lenin – the world’s northernmost statue of the communist revolutionary— that looks down on Pyramiden’s main square. The main square is grassed, which is not what you’d expect in the middle of the Arctic… as the natural soil isn’t capable of supporting much vegetation, the Soviets imported Ukrainian soil. The result is a massive artificial lawn, which would also be the northernmost lawn in the world!
The House of Culture and
Lenin standing guard in front of the main square in Pyramiden
Behind Lenin is the Cultural Palace, which we’re able to explore the inside of. It’s an impressive building – and a little eerie to wander around in, since there’s no power to light the interior rooms and corridors. The centre included a library, a weight-lifting room, auditorium/move theatre and basketball court; most of the rooms are still furnished. and feel as if the occupants stepped outside for a moment – and never returned.
The large auditorium has the northernmost grand piano on the stage (a Red Oktober). In the projector room above, alongside the two old projectors, hundreds of old film reels lie strewn across the floor.
On the the other side of the town square is the swimming pool, named after Yuri Gagarin (the first man to orbit the Earth). Pyramiden’s heated indoor pool was the best in Svalbard: “The kids from Longyearbyen used to go there to use the swimming pool. It was quite impressive in its day.” [Smithsonian magazine]
Yuri Gagarin swimming pool complex in Pyramiden
Yuri Gagarin swimming pool complex in Pyramiden
Our next (and nearly last) stop is the canteen and dining hall, near the centre of town. An enormous and intact mosaic forms the backdrop to the large dining room on the second story, where everyone ate.
On the bottom floor, the industrial cooking equipment capable of meeting the needs of up to 900 people, lies abandoned.
Nearby is the “Madhouse” or The Crazy House, where families were accommodated. (Sasha explains there separate buildings depending on marital status, with “London” for the single men and “Paris” for any unmarried women who lived in Pyramiden). It’s now home to thousands of seagulls which nest in the windows, their young having been born a few months earlier. The boxes that sit in each window are refrigerators – square, tin boxes that keep food cold.
Next to the abandoned apartment block is a playground, looking rather incongruous in the desolate landscape.
The last stop is the former Tulip (or Tulpan) Hotel, which housed short-term workers. It’s now operating as a hotel in the summer months, with a bar, post office, souvenir shop and a small museum.
We only had two hours in the town, but I could have spent many more hours wandering around… although if you’re staying overnight it’s not possible to go anywhere without a rifle (or a guide armed with a rifle)!
Approx 8hr trip by boat (June-September) or snowmobile (Feb/March-May) from Longyearben
An urban walk overlooking Serangoon Harbour, and a good place for watching the sun set.
Singapore isn’t well-known for hiking… the Changi Boardwalk, located at the of Changi Point, is about the closest I could find during my last (brief) visit to Singapore. It’s also walking distance from my (allegedly haunted) hotel, the Raintr33 Hotel.
The boardwalk has six sections, but Section 3 (Cliff Walk) was closed while I was there due to repairs, so I only had the opportunity to walk (more of a stroll, really) the first two sections.
Kelong walk extends into the sea, built above water on stilts. There was almost no-one around, except for locals fishing. Some with multiple rod and enough equipment to start a fishing shop. No-one seems to have caught anything though..
At the far end (below) right, the boardwalk rises a few metres into the forest, where it becomes the Cliff Walk – this was closed. In the middle is the Changi Beach Club (originally the Changi Swimming Club in the 1970s). It’s now private, and there’s a reasonably-priced seafood restaurant, with views over the harbour.
At the western end is the short Sunset Walk, which is also a boardwalk that extends over the water, ending at set of large boulders.
Not surprisingly, it is a good place to watch the sun set…
Changi Point- enter Changi Village Road, Gosport Road or Changi Sailing Club