One of my favorite TV shows of the early 1990s was Northern Exposure, the offbeat dramedy about a NYC doctor forced to live in a small town in the backwoods of Alaska. The humor was offbeat, the scenery gorgeous and the message clear – I needed to visit places like that small Alaskan town, sooner rather than later. On a trip to Norway I discovered what surely must be the Norwegian equivalent of the fictional Sicily, Alaska, a small town that’s a little bit unusual but a lot of fun to explore – Alta Norway.
Far Away From Everything
While an easy flight from Oslo, Alta is indeed a remote destination. As far north of Oslo as Rome is south, it gives a great clue to the size of Norway and just how northerly Alta really is. It’s actually one of the largest cities found that far north anywhere in the world, and the snowy terrain in the middle of winter is a testimony to those at-times harsh conditions. And just like any frontier city, the people of Alta absolutely reflect that isolation.
Arriving in the evening, my first order of business was to find something to eat, so I asked the front desk clerk to point me in the direction of downtown only to be told, “You’re in it.” Well, that was news to me, but set the stage for a fun few days of not just exploring the town, but the beautiful surrounding region as well. There are indeed multiple restaurants in Alta, but they don’t tend to stay open very late and the options are fairly limited, from pizza and Chinese to more standard Euro-café fare. But people don’t travel to Alta for the culinary scene, and as a city still learning how to embrace tourism you shouldn’t expect too much from them in terms of services. But what you can expect are some of the most amazing adventure experiences found anywhere in the world.
Experiencing the Outdoors
Crisp air as fresh as any in the world, and huge expanses of virgin forest are what draw most people to this northern retreat. And with good reason, there’s actually a lot to see and do in both Alta and the larger Finnmark county itself. The first thing I did upon arriving in Alta was to join in on what is the city’s most popular sport, dog sledding. Dog sledding is a very big deal in Alta, it’s from this outpost town where one of the world’s great dog sled races, the Finnmarksløpet, starts and ends every year. Thanks to that race, and the rugged terrain surrounding the city, there are dozens of professional mushers who live around town, many of whom also open their doors to visitors allowing them a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive their own team of champion race dogs. I joined one of those outfits, Holmen Husky, which has a strong tradition of sled tours and even something they call the Husky Hotel. I wasn’t there for the evening though, just for one of their famous trips through the snowy woods. As the owner of three Huskies, part of me just wanted to play with the pups but unlike my sofa-lounging dogs at home, these are working dogs and all they wanted to do was run. And run they did, as I sat back in the sled the dogs took off, excited for their daily dose of much needed exercise. Unlike a snowmobile, a sled experience is almost completely silent, except for the huffs from the Huskies and the sound of the sled racing across the icy terrain. It’s a serene and beautiful experience, a way to be part of nature without feeling like you’re infringing upon it. It’s also the perfect introduction to Alta and the region’s traditions, so many of which seem to revolve around these amazing canine athletes.
It’s not all about the dogs though; you can also join a fatbike tour of the woods with an expert guide for a unique immersion into the countryside. Fatbikes were actually developed in Alaska as a way to get out on the roads and trails even when they’re covered in snow and ice. Simply put, they’re bikes that have oversized tires, making them perfect for soft unstable terrain such as snow and sand and are currently all the rage in Alta. Joining the local tour company I was excited to see more of the countryside in a completely different way. It was just me on the tour that sunny morning, and the guide decided to take us along a dog sled trail, especially appropriate given that the Finnmarksløpet was starting in just a few days. The biking part was easy actually, just like a normal bike except I suddenly found myself able to traverse intense terrain, from icy paths to hills of snow, the bike never got stuck and instead I quickly navigated areas that would have taken hours to explore on foot. Crossing frozen rivers and racing along ravines, it was an active way to see parts of the country nearly impossible to visit any other way.
While the adventure activities are indeed great in Alta, what actually draws most people are two different attractions, each completely different from the other.
Lights and Rocks
Alta has long been considered the unofficial capital of the Northern Lights, thanks to early research conducted in the region more than a century ago. There’s a reason why that scientist selected the quiet town of Alta though from which to base his observations, unique weather conditions and the position of the town itself do indeed guarantee fantastic displays of the Aurora Borealis throughout the winter months. I saw them a couple of different times, but the best display happened as I stood alone in the middle of a frozen river in front of my hotel. To my imminent surprise, I quickly found myself surrounded by the giant streaks of light. I had no idea that the Northern Lights could be like that, they seemed to surround me, dancing across the skies and hiding behind the mountains. I stayed there for as long as my frozen hands could stand the elements, not wanting to leave for fear of missing part of the show. Everyone talks about the Northern Lights and we’ve all seen photos of them, but it doesn’t at all prepare you for the actual experience. Magical is a horrible word to use in travel posts, but it’s more than appropriate in this one instance.
In case you visit in a more temperate time of year, there’s another attraction that warrants your attention – the city’s famous rock carvings. Actually listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the rock carvings in Alta go back as far as 4,200 BC and show a variety of scenes sharing the lives of ancient hunter-gatherers with us today. They were only discovered in the 1970s, but since then several of the sites have been converted into an open-air museum, preserving these prehistoric treasures for future generations.
Admittedly, Alta Norway probably isn’t for everyone. If you prefer large cities with seemingly endless restaurants and entertainment choices, then stay in Oslo. But if you want to capture, if only for a few days, that feeling of exploration and discovery so many of us crave, all while in a natural wonderland, then Alta shouldn’t just be a consideration, it should be the next destination on your personal travel bucket list.
Have you been to Alta Norway? What did you think?