Dog sledding and Sami Culture in Alta Norway

Alta Norway: Northern Lights, Igloo Hotels, Dog Sled Rides and the Sami Culture

When you're about to go on a cruise, your packing list doesn't usually include stuff like heavy boots, woolly hats, thermal underwear and such. But, this one's happening in Winter, and will be calling at Alta, which is about as far north as you can go on mainland Europe. The main attraction of Alta in winter is the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. They can't be relied on 100% to put in an appearance, but there are plenty of things to do in Alta if they don't show, so it's not too much of a disappointment if they fail to appear. If they do, you'll still be looking for something to do in the day

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The best time to view the Northern Lights is late autumn and early spring, and northern Norway is considered prime territory. Maximum chances of spotting the lights are between 6 pm and 1 am.

Take a Dog Sled Ride

One of the main attractions, available during the day is a visit to a dog farm, and a 20 minute ride through the woods on a dog sled. The fact that it was snowing made it an even more enjoyable experience. Visitors can either ride in the sled as passengers or, if feeling really intrepid, drive it themselves. They do stipulate, though, that parties are made up of a driver and passenger (they can, of course, change over halfway) who must be known to each other.

There's an opportunity to photograph the dogs; beautiful creatures all, if somewhat noisy. Over a cup of hot blueberry juice, served inside a traditional 'laavu', the owner will talk about his dogs, and explain how they prepare for the Finnmarkslopet race, over 600 miles; Europe's longest dog race.

The Sami People

This part of the world, that is, the northern part of Norway, Sweden and Finland is known as Finnmark. It's probably better known as Lapland, although that name isn't so popular nowadays; indeed, it's often seen as derogatory. The indigenous people are called the Sami. They're a nomadic people, engaged in fishing, fur trapping or reindeer herding.

While, like many another indigenous people, their culture was suppressed in the past to a large extent, it's now actively encouraged. And, at the Boazo Sami Siida reindeer farm, just outside Alta, they explain their way of life to visitors.

The Sami are the only people allowed to own reindeer, and they said that it provided everything they needed; meat and milk, fur and leather for clothing and shelter and, of course, transportation. There was a reindeer-hauled sled, on which a few visitors were able to ride for a short distance.

The Sami were dressed in their colourful national costumes in the land of long nights and much snow, I'd guess that colour is important to them. And, we learnt a word of their language -- joik -- the traditional folk singing, which they demonstrated. They said an example of the joik had been Norway's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest not long ago, but didn't say how well it did.

Alta Norway offers ice hotel, northern lights and Sami culture

Alta's Ice Hotel - Sorrisniva igloo hotel

The visit to Alta could be rounded off with a drink in a hotel bar. This is no ordinary hotel. It wasn't here last year -- and won't be here next year, for it's one of Scandinavia's 'ice hotels. They're actually dug out of a snow bank at the beginning of winter, and are gone with the first thaws of spring. And, usually, they're completely rebuilt the following winter. It usually opens by early January (sometimes as early as December) Always check Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel for opening dates when planning your visit.

The concept isn't new, of course. For generations, the Inuit of North America have been building their igloos from snow and ice, and those who like to do their thing in winter mountains often learn to "snowhole". The technique is also used by soldiers who train for Arctic warfare. And, I can tell you that, given a reasonable sleeping bag, snowholing is quite tolerable, if not exactly the last word in comfort. The idea for the 'ice hotel' really took off when it was taken on board that people were prepared to pay to stay the night in them. Ice hotels began to appear all over Scandinavia -- indeed, anywhere else where there's substantial snow in Winter.

Guests sleep on beds carved from the ice, and covered with reindeer hides in chambers cut out from the snow. But, most visitors don't stay the night; just visit. But it's still an enjoyable experience. It's vaguely reminiscent of the 'Fortress of Solitude' in 'Superman' -- and cold The staff are bundled up in heavy-duty ponchos and furry hats with earflaps.

Newlyweds have been known to spend their honeymoon here! Among the rooms is an ice chapel, which is consecrated, and licensed for weddings.

Of course, in so extensive a structure, the roof needs to be supported, and this is done with -- what else? -- ice blocks. And, of course, there has to be some form of decoration or otherwise, it would just be a large ice cave.

So, everywhere, there are beautiful ice sculptures. I'm always especially in awe of the painstaking process of creating these, for they don't last beyond the first thaw.

And, of course, like any good hotel, there's a bar. Here, they serve a drink; a blue, Curacao-based cocktail, served in glasses made of ice -- which they say customers can keep, with their compliments!

If You Go: Getting to Alta

Alta has a small airport, with regular flights to and from Oslo, the capital, and to a limited number of Norwegian towns and cities.

The least expensive option is a cruise from another European country.

Learn more about Visiting Alta

Read more about travel to Norway

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Keith Kellett Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force Kellett saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 23, 2016

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