It was late July 2012 when I came face to face with a polar bear in Tromsø. The giant hulk of a creature suddenly appeared, towering over me on its back legs, dangerous teeth bared, vast paws outstretched. I hadn’t seen it coming. I was fairly taken aback, as you might imagine, but my wife just went to the bar and ordered me a beer.
The polar bear that dominates the corner of the Mack brewery beer hall in Tromsø is a ‘tribute’ to the over-zealous exploits of Henry Rudi, one of Norway’s most prolific polar bear hunters, credited with having killed more than 700 of the creatures during a trigger-happy career that spanned many years. The beer hall was one of his favourite haunts later in life, although it should be stressed that his trophies were all won in northern Arctic areas, not in the near vicinity of Tromsø itself.
Our visit to Mack, which credibly claims to be the world’s most northerly brewery, took up a large part of an afternoon ashore from the Hurtigruten ferry, the famous route that links towns and communities along the Norwegian coast, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the far north. As the ferry approached Tromsø, we had watched the triangular white peak of the Arctic Cathedral glide past and the cable cars heading up through mountain cloud, a scene that was pine-green in summer but which is creamy white in winter.
Tromsø is a fair sized city – the second largest above the Arctic Circle with a population of 73,000 – and has its fair share of civilized comforts, including snug hotels, cafes and restaurants. Like most Norwegian towns, it exudes a certain affluence and modernity, evidence of a shrewdly maintained oil economy. Yet there is also an otherworldliness, a remoteness, and the sense that the edge of the civilized world isn’t far away. How can a place set in such a bleakly beautiful wilderness be so… comfortable?
The mountain slopes this far north are not the vertical sheer cliffs of the fjords in more central stretches of the Norwegian coast, but they still crowd imposingly around Tromsø’s shores, providing multiple choice for winter sports fanatics. Alpine and cross-country skiers are amply catered for, as are snowshoeing, dogsledding and safaris to sample the lifestyle of the Sami, or Lapp, reindeer herders of the region.
The city itself sprawls across an island surrounded by a broad fjord, spanned to the east by an elegant road bridge. The surrounding mountains provide a degree of shelter from the open swirl of the North Atlantic, making it a natural port for the Hurtigruten and other sea traffic.
More than anything, and most excitingly, Tromsø is known as one of the best viewing venues for the aurora borealis, the magical Northern Lights, whose awesome (lovely to use that word in its true sense for a change) displays of dancing colour light up the skies on clear winter nights. Your chances of witnessing what is probably the most beautiful natural spectacle on the planet are unusually high here, weather permitting.
And you don’t need to have to jump on the Hurtigruten ferry to get there, although it’s not a bad place to pick up the route and sample the northernmost stretch at any time of the year. Finnair’s new seasonal flights to Tromsø, three times a week, extend to March 28, 2014 – spanning the optimal aurora-viewing period.
But no polar bears. Not live ones, anyway. Pity, really.