The Arctic “Expedition” – Part 1: To the Top of Europe

All around us was a barren landscape of rough close cropped moorland vegetation, punctuated every so often with reindeer trotting about nonchalantly and completely ignoring the bus as it roared past. Every so often a glimpse of the icy sea appeared between hills, but very little in terms of human habitation. This really was the far end of Europe.

We set off from Southampton on a fine English summer’s day and sailed out of Southampton in line astern, our ship the cygnet in a line of swans. A bit of weaving in the solent and then we were heading up channel and settling into our first night aboard.

Leaving Southampton

Seasoned cruisers as we are, our initial exploration of the ship revealed only one thing of special note – a model of the Titanic in the Arts & Crafts room, the principal venue for the kids to be kept out of everyone else’s way. At first glance this was a tad disturbing and appeared an ill judged item to carry on a cruise ship, heading into waters where we could expect to encounter (and actually did) floating ice.

Is a cruise ship the best place for this….?

The actual answer became clear after returning from the cruise – I hadn’t realised that Balmoral had retraced the Titanic’s voyage last year to mark the centenery, and the model was undoubtedly something associated with that. Even so….

The first moment of real drama came next morning – an announcement from the captain that we were closing into the Norfolk coast. As an avid looker at the chart (i.e. map in correct nautical parlance), I immediately knew this wasn’t our intended course, and steaming in the middle of a thick fog I hoped we hadn’t gone and got lost. Having been in Yarmouth only a couple of months before, I hadn’t planned on going back quite this soon. An hour or so later the sounds of a helicopter trying to find the ship were unmistakable. After a difficult manouvre the chopper headed back for the safety of shore, and we were one passenger lighter. Here’s the news report.  Apparently the chopper was close to having to give up due to running low on fuel as it was so difficult to find the ship.

The rest of the couple of days spent crossing the North Sea were less eventful, and passed in an orgy of strolling around the deck, sampling the wall to wall food and generally getting on the outside of as much all-inclusive drink as possible.

Norwegian Sunrise
Norwegian Sunrise

As is our wont on a port day, we stepped out on deck just after sunrise to the sight of early morning rays beaming down between the clouds. The local pilot boat approached from port (noun, nautical “left”), touched briefly alongside and then disappeared into the sunlight. The ship threaded its way between the islands and then the first buildings appeared, spread out across the islands.

Arriving in Alesund

We moored and went ashore. We’ve been to Ålesund before, found it shut (on a Sunday) and pretty much exhausted what it had to offer. So instead of following the hordes off to climb up to the usual tourist viewpoint, we decided to go off piste. A stroll through the streets of Ålesund to the bus stop and we were on our way to Hessa – across the bay from where we were parked. There lay a gently rising ridge just asking to be climbed. Set down by the bus in a sleepy residential street, we found the path between two houses and headed up along an undulating stony woodland path.

Climbing the Sukkertoppen ridge

We emerged from the trees and saw the radio mast ahead. We hopped between patches of mud and rocks all the way up to the radio mast, number 2 child complaining most of the way even as number 1 child showed off his mountain goat attributes by bounding ahead and ignoring our threats that we’d leave him behind in a Norwegian hospital if he continued to do so. As we climbed, the views back down over the city opened out, and the ship shrank to toy proportions.

Panorama from the top of Sukkertoppen, looking down on Alesund

A succession of cairns heralded a series of false summits before we found the red and white post marking the actual summit. We clambered over the rocks to the marker, posing for pictures and taking in the 360° views.

From Sukkertoppen looking down on Alesund
The summit of Sukkertoppen

We descended the same way and mistimed it for the bus back, having to wait half an hour, which I passed with sketchbook in hand. No you can’t see the picture, it’s utter crap.

As we left Ålesund, a local boat saluted us with hoses:

Leaving Alesund
Leaving Alesund

Ålesund was really just a leg stretch after being on board for 2 days, and now we turned our attention to getting some north under our belts. We clawed our way up through the latitudes, taking in the coastal scenery as we went.

First up was Torghatten, a “mountain” of 258m rising from the sea.  Looking a bit like a giant armchair, it has one particular claim to fame – a hole through the middle.

Torghatten - the Mount with a Hole
Torghatten – the Mount with a Hole

Whilst it looks pretty tiny here, the hole’s actually 160m long, 35m wide and 20m tall. Completely natural, it was formed during an ice age, although inevitably various legends surround it.

Torghatten - the Mount with a Hole
Torghatten – the Mount with a Hole

Next up were the Seven Sisters, a range of 7 mountains rising from the sea on the island of Alsten. Fearsome serated edges belie the fact that these are apparently easily walkable, the record for which is under 4 hours. Heights range from 910m (same as Great End) to 1,072m (same as Stob Coire Sgreamhach), so in UK terms they’re proper mountains.

De syv Sostre – The 7 Sisters

The 7 sisters gone and consigned to my ever increasing walking wishlist, attention turned to the serious business of crossing the Arctic Circle. King Neptune and his lovely bride came aboard and held court at the stern of the ship. Called forth to answer charges of extreme competence, the Captain knelt before His Fishiness and pleaded for mercy. Offered a choice of kissing a (real) fish or Mrs N, he opted for the fish. His underlings were less fortunate, and most ended in the pool.

Crossing the Arctic Circle Ceremony
Crossing the Arctic Circle Ceremony

Now call me a pedant, but I thought line crossing ceremonies were associated with the equator, and we certainly didn’t get a visit from His Serene Nauticalness last time we crossed the Arctic Circle. But it was all harmless good fun and taken in good humour. Even so, I avoided fish at dinner – just in case it had the Captain’s lipstick on.

Crossing the Arctic Circle
Crossing the Arctic Circle

We carried on cruising up the coast, feasting on a near constant diet of cliffs, mountains and glaciers sweeping down to the sea.

Coastal Glaciers
Coastal Glaciers

Up early again for our entry into Tromsø, this time approaching from the other direction to last time, involving a long loop around “behind” the main part of the city, to park up in the less attractive end where the main nautical installations were. With a less impressive forecast for this visit (the sunburn from my last visit to this Arctic metropolis took ages to fade), we opted to explore the city itself more this time, rather than climb up to the hills. A walk through the city revealed a few things of interest – Norway’s only wooden cathedral, and best of all the British Consulate housed in a brewery. A look at the seals in the Polaria museum was followed by a long, child-whingeing walk over the long bridge to the other side of the city, and a look at the Arctic Cathedral (the white pointy building in the picture – designed to resemble an iceberg).


We headed out of Tromsø to resume our northerly quest. Sunsets getting orangier and lasting longer with the sun barely dipping below the horizon, they were nevertheless less spectacular than in 2009 – these two pictures taken exactly 4 years apart:

Sunset near Tromso, 2009
Sunset near Tromso, 2009
Sunset near Tromso
Sunset near Tromso, 2013

This time we rounded the North Cape at night and pulled into Honningsvag in the morning, enjoying the luxury of a berth alongside unlike our previous visit when we swung (and boy do I mean swung) around our anchor. Opting not to follow the hordes on an organised trip to the North Cape, we caught the local bus up there. That also conveniently avoided the extra just-for-tourists stop off at an “authentic” Sami camp, as well as being notably cheaper.

Arriving in Honningsvag

As we were taken up to Nordkapp, all around us was a barren landscape of rough close cropped moorland vegetation, punctuated every so often with reindeer trotting about nonchalantly and completely ignoring the bus as it roared past. Every so often a glimpse of the icy sea appeared between hills, but very little in terms of human habitation. This really was the far end of Europe.

From Nordkapp looking to the real northernmost point
From Nordkapp looking to the real northernmost point

Or one of them at least. As is often the case with these things there’s some dispute. Nordkapp where the visitor centre is located is a flat topped headland, easily accessible by bus loads of tourists.  Knivskjellodden, however, the real most northerly point is a long rocky promonetary, easily accessible only by gulls. It’s a bit like comparing John O’Groats and Dunnet Head. Except on a slightly grander scale. However, both of these miss the fact that they are on an island and so aren’t even part of mainland Europe.

At Nordkapp
The globe at Nordkapp

Whatever, we looked out over the blue seas, to the left the Atlantic Ocean merging seamlessly into the Arctic Ocean ahead and to the right. Ahead to the north was just blue and 19 degrees of latitude between us and the North Pole.

2 thoughts on “The Arctic “Expedition” – Part 1: To the Top of Europe

  1. Fantastic! We went to Norway last summer, but as we were driving after a Dover/Dunkerque crossing, we didn’t end up with enough time to get as far north as the Arctic Circle. An excuse for another visit! Wonderful photos.


    1. Norway’s my favourite foreign country to visit, and this was my third trip 🙂 We sat with a couple that did a similar road trip to you, although they went all the way to the North Cape. Sounded like a great adventure.


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