For someone who spends 95% percent of her time around the equator, the opportunity to cross the Arctic Circle is something truly worth getting excited about. And that’s why from the moment my husband and I decided on Scandinavia as our next destination, I was already determined to go as far north as possible. Although if you think about it, what’s so exciting about the Arctic Circle? Isn’t it just a line that happens to be located very near to the north pole? It is, actually. And despite this being my most anticipated part of our Scandinavian trip, I knew all along that there wasn’t going to be any excitement whatsoever in something that was gonna take place at the blink of an eye on board a train. With Norway being one of the most expensive countries in the world, car rental was not an option at all for us. But if you have the budget, do consider driving as it gives you flexibility to stop for pictures by the Arctic Circle signpost or even the Arctic Circle Centre.
Our not-so-smooth journey to cross the Arctic Circle started in Stockholm. We arrived there on a Wednesday via an overnight train from Copenhagen and in my original itinerary, we were supposed to leave for Trondheim on Thursday via another overnight train. We then planned to spend Friday in Trondheim and catch the overnight train to Bodo, spend Saturday in Bodo and catch the evening ferry to Svolvaer in Lofoten islands.
However, someone up there must have had a different plan for us. This was the second time something didn’t turn out according to my plan in the past 3 days of our Scandinavian trip. For a control freak like me, it was just so annoying. In Stockholm, we found out that the overnight train we were supposed to take to Trondheim was fully booked. Since we had a Eurail Pass, we didn’t have to purchase any train tickets but for overnight trains, we needed to make a reservation for either a seat or a compartment (in most European trains, there are different classes of compartment starting from a 6-bunk beds compartment called couchette to 1 or 2-beds compartment called sleeper that comes with private toilet). That’s when we found out it was already fully booked, not a single bed nor seat available. It was rather unbelievable cos I’ve taken plenty of overnight trains when I spent 2 months in Europe back in 2008, and I’ve never experienced any fully booked trains although I’ve only made reservations a couple of days in advanced. Moreover, we were not exactly at the height of summer yet.
In the moment of panic, we decided to retreat to our hotel and discuss our next course of action. Thanks to my husband’s Starwood points, we stayed at Sheraton Stockholm which was right across the Stockholm Central station. The problem was the frequency of the trains going up to Norway’s Norland wasn’t that high, even from Oslo. For example, there were only 2 trains a day going to Trondheim (one in the morning and one overnight train) and same goes for the route from Trondheim to Bodo. By hook or by crook, we needed to reach Bodo by the Saturday as we already had a 3-night reservation in Svolvaer and Lofoten was the highlight of the trip that we wouldn’t want to miss. The second problem was we only had one night of accommodation in Stockholm. If we couldn’t take the overnight train that we wanted to Trondheim, most likely we would need to secure another night of accommodation in Stockholm
After a quick check at SAS, the remaining flight tickets available to Bodo would have cost a bomb so we had no choice but to go back to train. The only option was to take the morning train from Stockholm to Trondheim on Friday, which involved 2 transfers along the way and the whole journey lasting nearly 15 hours. We would reach Trondheim in the early evening with only a few hours to spare before our overnight train to Bodo. Our one day sightseeing plan in Trondheim just went out of the window. It would be a complete waste of our Friday.
My husband went ahead to try securing another night at Sheraton Stockholm using his remaining Starwood points (a one-night stay there without points would have cost us at least S$500 :-O) while I rushed to the train station to make reservations for our Friday morning trains to Trondheim plus the overnight train to Bodo.
Hence, our long journey to cross the Arctic Circle began that Friday morning. I was in a slightly sombre mood, not fully recovered from having to miss one day in Trondheim and wasting my husband’s precious Starwood points on an unnecessary extra night in Stockholm. Looking back, it was quite a pity cos the view outside as we moved up north from Stockholm was lovely. Once we entered the countryside, it was row after row of pine trees, mountain sceneries and huge lakes with clear waters reflecting the blue sky. And I didn’t even have a single picture to remember it by!
Our first transfer was in Sundsvall. We nearly missed this stop as we fell asleep on the train and kinda forgot our supposed arrival time. To make matters worse, the train we took from Stockholm experienced some delays along the way and we ended up arriving 10 minutes late at Sundvall. We were left with 5 minutes to find out at which track our next train was going to stop and get there before the departure time. All these took place while we were still half-awake and partly wiping off our drools 😛
Our next transfer was in Ostersund, which took place without any hiccups whatsoever, and soon enough, we were about to cross into Norway. As we approached the border, the scenery gradually changed, fewer trees and more barren. The style of the houses changed, too. Norwegian houses were mostly painted red, the same shade of red as their national flag, while their Swedish (and Danish) counterparts were more colorful. We passed by a very interesting town called Hell, where we saw several residents dressing up as if it was Halloween and hanging around the station trying to scare the passengers. My appetite for picture-taking slowly returned.
We arrived in Trondheim as scheduled, at around 7pm. People often say that Trondheim is going to be your last stop for civilization if you’re embarking on a journey across the sparsely populated Norway’s Nordland. This statement seemed unfitting given that both the train and the bus station were nearly empty when we arrived and the entire area looked very much deserted. But a mere 5 minutes’ walk away, we began to see some civilization. We grabbed a quick fast food dinner and stocked up our groceries from the supermarket, partly influenced by the statement, fearing that we wouldn’t come across another supermarket in the next few days. The statement was just an exaggeration, for your information, the far north of Norway was as civilized as any parts of Scandinavia.
But as our overnight train to Bodo slowly chugged away from Trondheim station, I began to see why the statement could be apt after all. The closer we were to the Arctic Circle, the more dramatic the scenery changes were. We left behind the greens and entered the grey craggy peaks and mountains that were still partially covered with snow. The pine trees were devoid of leaves, looking as if they were still living in winter although it was already June. We were officially in the wilderness. It started raining heavily sometime after midnight and it continued on and on for the whole day, causing the train window to become foggy and the scenery outside even more dull. Everytime the train stopped and the door opened, we could feel a gush of bitter coldness entering the compartment. We silently wondered if we were even properly dressed to withstand such temperature.
Sometime around 6am, we crossed the Arctic Circle. It was located between 2 train stops, Mo i Rana and Fauske. I couldn’t even tell when exactly we crossed it as there wasn’t any signs outside to mark the Arctic Circle. As expected, the whole thing turned out to be an anti-climax. As a consolation, I was telling myself that at least I could now brag about having been to the Arctic.
The heavy rain did not relent at all even when we reached Bodo at 9am. We had to dash across the unsheltered platform towards the station while dragging our luggage. This was it. After a total of 25-hours’ train ride excluding the transfer time, we have finally reached Bodo, the capital city of Norland and also the final terminal of Norwegian State Railway. There are no more trains going north from Bodo. If you’re going to Tromso, Nordkapp, or Kirkenes, you’ll have to catch either a bus, a plane, a cruise ship, or drive there.
Our ferry to Svolvaer, Lofoten was due to leave at 5pm. We had half a day to kill in Bodo and with the rain, it didn’t seem like we were gonna be able to do some hiking in the nearby mountains as what I originally planned. In the end we decided to walk to the city centre and locate the tourist information office. It was supposed to be an easy 7-minutes’ walk, but the heavy rain combined with the strong wind made it nearly impossible. We hid one hand inside our jacket and used the other to hold the umbrella, but that hand couldn’t even stand the freezing cold for just one minute. Umbrellas proved to be useless in such a situation as the strong wind easily blew them away. In the end, my husband’s umbrella became the casualty and had to be discarded before we even reached the tourist information office. All in all, it had been 2 miserable days spent either on the train and indoor hiding from the rain. Not exactly the best way to start what I thought would be the most exciting part of our Scandinavian trip.
The 3-hours’ ferry ride to Svolvaer was probably the climax of our misery. One could surely imagine how rough and choppy the sea would be with such heavy rain and strong wind. For the next 3 unbelievably scary hours, our ferry moved up and down according to the waves. Everytime it bumped up and was about to go down, my left palm gripped the armrest of my seat while my right squeezed my husband’s left hand, getting ready for that sinking feeling in my gut. We came out of it feeling as if we’ve ridden on a roller coaster non-stop for the past 3 hours. I could see the same thing from the expressions on the faces of our fellow passengers.
It didn’t take a genius to guess that it was also raining in Svolvaer. But at least we managed to make some friends with 2 fellow Singaporeans who came from the same ferry as us and happened to be going to the same accommodation as well. What a small world!
Our room at Svolvaer Sjohuscamp consisted of a bunk bed, a fridge, a simple kitchen complete with cooking utensils and cutleries, and an Ikea dining table next to a window overlooking part of the harbour. We went to bed that night after a dinner of instant noodles, spicy tom yam flavor (I was already craving for spicy food by then :-P), while crossing our fingers that the rain would stop tomorrow.