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5th March, 2013

Alta, Norway

Alta Port, globe structure and Liverpool FC fishing boat

Our voyage to Alta through the inner passage involved two sea days of confined waters and dodging rocks as we made our way along the coast. On the morning of the first day the Sapphire exited the shelter of the land at Frohavet where strong winds gusting force 9-10 were ready to meet us.

Fortunately no swell accompanied this arctic wind, with the low pressure system from where the swell emanates conveniently northwest of the Lofoten Islands, which were providing us with a bit
of a lea.

In fact, with there being so little movement of the ship our passengers were oblivious to the actual strength of this wind which started to abate at breakfast time as we came back inside the shelter of the rocks and small islands near the town of Rorvik.

Later that day, just before 4pm, we crossed north of the Arctic Circle passing the globe sculpture on the island of Vikingen. A small fishing boat adorned with a Liverpool FC badge and painted in the clubs red and white colours, sounded his horn as we overtook him.

By the time we reached Lodingen to change pilots it was the small hours of the morning so there were not many people around. Neither passengers nor crew saw the Sapphire pass underneath the low bridges further to the north as we continued on towards Alta.

The berth we were allocated to was a former NATO berth and at just 60 metres long was akin to mooring alongside a postage stamp (ok, a slight exaggeration). I had to manoeuvre the vessel very carefully to move ahead far enough to land one of our gangways that are stored on the after part of the vessel on the quayside. I then backed up again so that the shell door, where the gangway was going to be used from, was not overhanging the water.

There was just enough room for this, as at the point when the gangway was landed ashore, the Sapphire’s bulbous bow was just 9ft from a pontoon with a couple of small pleasure craft moored to it. Had the owners of those boats been aboard and looked up at that moment to see the flare of the bow looming over them I’m sure their faces would have been a picture!

Alta is situated at the top of the Altafjord in the most northern county of Norway, Finnmark. It is a complete contrast to Bergen in terms of rainfall and offers no more than the Sahara desert, however the winter, nine months of the year from September through to May, offers sub-zero temperatures and heavy snowfall.

The weather during this period can also be very temperamental and unpredictable - one minute it could be clear, bright and sunny and in the next fifteen, heavy snow and blizzard conditions can
be experienced.

However, we were extremely lucky to be blessed with clear skies during our two overnights allowing our passengers a chance to observe the extraordinary Aurora Borealis or ‘Northern Lights’.

The extraordinary Aurora Borealis

This phenomenon offers a luminous atmospheric display best seen north of the Arctic Circle and is caused by the emissions of photons from ionised particles produced from the atmospheres two main gases, nitrogen and oxygen.

This ionisation occurs when the solar wind interacts with magnetospheric particles from the upper atmosphere. The Aurora’s can take on many forms including luminous curtains, arcs, bands and patches which can stay for hours at a time when in a stable form, but more commonly they undergo dramatic variations offering the characteristic colours of green, blue and red.

Reindeer sledging

The displays we were fortunate enough to view were mainly of a green tinge and changed quickly, offering those of us fortunate enough with a small knowledge of photography (this admittedly was after a 5 minute lesson with Paul the ships photographer), the chance to capture some fantastic images (note the actual Aurora photos here are actually Paul’s).

The excursion to view the Northern Lights also gave us a chance to really experience Norway during the winter, with temperatures reaching a very frosty -19 deg C or -2 degrees Fahrenheit. I was certainly glad of the coach journey back to the ship, which gave everyone a chance to defrost their hands and feet. The Aurora could still be seen when we returned to the ship, where we were greeted by a magnificent Arctic buffet laid on by the galley team and Executive Chef, John.

Other tours on offer to our passengers were dog sledging, reindeer sledging, a trip to the North Cape, a visit to the ice hotel and snowmobiling. Plenty to keep us busy for our long stay. Luckily enough, I managed to hop on board the snowmobiling tour on our last day, which was an exhilarating experience racing though the wilderness with breath taking scenery.

I’d not had the chance to drive one of these before and it certainly was a great experience and very easy to master. I can also understand why these can be found in abundance all over the Finnmark region during the winter months, as not only are they very practical, but they are fun too.

Just before we set back to the ship, we also got chance to visit the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. This 30 bedroom hotel is made completely out of snow and ice every year and is only open from January until April, or until it melts away. Every year it also has a different design, layout and is based on differing themes.

This year the theme is Norwegian literature and more specifically fairy tales. Inside the hotel wonderful ice sculptures depicting these tales can be found along with a chapel, honeymoon suite and ice bar with glasses made out of fresh ice. The hotel is a sight definitely not to be missed.

As we sailed you could see the ice starting to form on the surface of the water off of the starboard side between ship and shore. Once our lines had been recovered, the wash from the bow thruster broke this up, sending it to build up against the shoreline as we manoeuvred away from the diminutive NATO jetty.

Turning through 180 degrees we set sail for Tromso with the Aurora Borealis on display in the sky once more, shortly after leaving Altafjord.

Sledging, the Ice Hotel and snowmobiling

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