There are many ways to experience the Arctic. A few weeks ago I wrote about the Expedition way. A great experience, but not for everyone. There are definitely more accessible and comfortable ways to enjoy this majestic part of the world. Still adventurous, still not for everyone, but totally realistic if this destination is on your bucket list. And it should be!
The North Cape – Nordkapp in Norwegian – is the northernmost point of Europe that can be reached by car. Since the opening of the Nordkapp tunnel between the Norwegian mainland and the island of Magerøya in 1999, you can drive here from anywhere in Europe, without having to take a ferry or a flight. Ever since the first car made it to the North Cape in 1953 (when there was no road!), hundreds of thousands of people have driven all the way to “the end of Europe”. This is most popular in early summer, when the midnight sun is visible over the Arctic Ocean all night and the parking lot is filled to capacity with camper vans.
The most popular way to visit the cape though is by cruise ship. Every day the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruise ships call at the small fishing port of Honningsvåg, about 35 kilometers from the cape, transferring hundreds of passengers to the North Cape and back by bus. This visit is often regarded the highlight of the 6-day journey between Bergen and Kirkenes. Rightfully so. The town of Honningsvåg is one of the most picturesque in Norway, the road to the cape is nothing short of spectacular and the cape experience is very special, aided by the great visitor centre.
The history of the North Cape as a travel destination is very special. It got its designation by English explorer Steven Borough, who sailed around the cape in 1553, searching for the Northeast Passage. The dark, high cliffs of the cape remained an important landmark for Arctic explorers ever since. It became famous as a tourist destination by visits from Norwegian King Okar II in 1873 and King Rama V of Thailand in 1907. Both kings left their traces in several monuments at the cape. In those days a visit to the cape could easily be called an expedition, as no roads existed and there were no facilities. Mass tourism only commenced after the building of the large Nordkapphallen in 1959 and the underground extensions in 1988. Nowadays the North Cape attracts over 200,000 visitors per year, mostly during spring and summer. To avoid the crowds and have a real Arctic experience I heartly recommend visiting this place in winter. Let me take you on a virtual trip:
We visited the island of Magerøya in March 2014. This is the time of winter when days and nights are equally long, so you can enjoy some sunshine and the Northern Lights (both when weather allows of course). Our trip started in the town of Alta, home to one of the northernmost airports in Europe. From Alta it is about 200 kilometers (3 hours) to the island. The roads were icy, but accessible. Make sure you check weather and road conditions before attempting this drive. This is the Arctic, where road closures due to heavy snow are common.
The island of Magerøya has been connected to the mainland by this long undersea tunnel since 1999. One of the steepest tunnels in the world!
When we exit the last tunnel before getting to Honningsvåg we are surprised by a heavy snowstorm. The weather can literally change in minutes! Fortunately it is not very far anymore.
We arrive at Honningsvåg at the end of the day. This must be one of the most picturesque villages of the Arctic. It is very small, but has all facilities a visitor could need, including a very nice hotel (see below).
Many of the port facilities are built on poles in the actual harbor, like these traditional fish warehouses.
Northern Norway is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. You just need darkness, cloudless skies and some solar activity. Sometimes it appears bright, sometimes a little faint. We were lucky to see Aurora Borealis between the snow clouds around midnight.
Most visitors arrive at Magerøya on one of these Hurtigruten ships. The large cruise vessels are a common sight in many Norwegian ports, keeping the tourism economy alive year-round.
A great place for photographers!
A little house on the end of a pier.
Fish drying off the ceiling. A very common sight in Northern Norway.
You’ll find all sorts of ‘northernmost’ things on the island. Here is Skarsvåg, the world’s northernmost fishing village…
That same town boasts the world’s northernmost campsite.
After driving around a few towns on the island we head for the end of the road…
In winter you can only drive to the cape in convoy, following a snow plough. These convoys leave from the road barrier at set times, once or twice per day. Make sure you check the web for conditions and times before heading here!
Before the convoy leaves, you get very clear driving instructions.
The ride is nothing short of spectacular, although much of Northern Norway is like this.
The first thing you experience when arriving at the cape is a hefty entrance fee. The second is the famous globe at the tip of the 309-meter high cliff that is the North Cape. A popular destination for motorcycles in summer, equally popular for snowmobile drivers in winter!
Behind the globe is the 1959-built Nordkapphallen, with its large underground tunnel system, housing all kinds of interesting and not-so-interesting exhibits.
When you arrive before the Hurtigruten buses, you can actually stand alone underneath the globe!
The cape is impressive at the globe, but you get to experience the place much better from a little distance.
Looking west from the cape you see the real northernmost point of the island: Cape Knivskjellodden. Our visit to the North Cape felt much better after we had visited this point the previous days. Only about 400 people visit the real northernmost point over there every year and we are 3 of them! See my blog post about our expedition to Knivskjellodden here.
Several artists and projects have left their marks at this special point. This is one of my personal favorites: “Mother and Child” by Eva Rybakken, part of the “Children of the Earth” monument.
Our visit to the cape ends with the convoy ride back to the gate. While being initially critical of the “tourist trap” tackyness of this place, we are happy that we have visited. There is enough real awesomeness left at this place to keep it on your bucket list.
Practical information: There are several ways to visit the North Cape year-round. Most visitors arrive by the Hurtigruten coastal cruise line or on other cruise ships calling into Honningsvåg harbour. From there, passengers are taken by bus to the North Cape, 35 kilometers away. The rest of the visitors arrive by car from other places in Norway. Honningsvåg has a small airport that connects the town to Alta and Tromso, from where international airlines connect to the rest of the world. Because tickets to Honningsvåg are relatively expensive, you may consider flying to Alta and driving to Magerøya by rental car. The drive is very spectacular, but make sure you check weather and road conditions. Large stretches of this road can be driven in convoy only, greatly increasing your travel time. In case the weather gets too severe roads may be closed altogether.
The town of Honningsvåg has several accommodation options. We stayed at the very pleasant Rica Bryggen Hotel, right in the fishing port, at walking distance from all sights in town. This hotel has a very nice restaurant overlooking the port, serving excellent dinner options and a very rich breakfast. You can watch the Northern Lights right from your room if you are lucky!