Travel by ship and reindeer, stay in an ice hotel and search for the Aurora Borealis - winter in northern Norway is a time for adventure, as Nick Elvin discovers

THE last time I was in Tromsø, things were very different. The sun was in the sky for a disorientating 24 hours and the temperature was in the high teens.

But today, as I take the short taxi ride from the city's airport to its quayside, it's dark, snowy and there's an icy wind.

Such is the contrast between summer and winter, north of the Arctic Circle.

Down at the port, I board the Hurtigruten line's King Harald, a vessel that is a cross between a ferry and a cruise ship. A little after 6.30pm, the ship pulls out of port, passing some of the landmarks that help make Tromsø a great city to explore, if you have the time. There's the unmistakeable Arctic Cathedral, which sits proudly like an angular Sydney Opera House. I can also just make out the ghostly snows of Mt Storsteinen and its cable car.

We follow the coast north, past a few scattered villages that are lit up against the winter blackness. Almost every fixture and fitting I touch on board gives me an amusing static shock.

I join my tour group for dinner. There's a convivial atmosphere in the restaurant, further enhanced by regular announcements over ship's Tannoy, for next-day excursions, on-deck lectures about fish, and - the one that draws my attention away from the delicious dinner - that the Northern Lights might be visible if we'd care to go outside. We hastily finish our creamy vegetable soup and head out on deck, where piles of ice wait to melt. When we get out there, it's a false alarm; there's nothing to see above us. So, it's back inside for the fish dish.

After dinner and drinks, we retire to our cabins. When I did another stretch of the Hurtigruten route a few years ago, I slept on a couch in one of the lounges, so my en suite cabin will do me just fine. The gentle hum of the engine and a slight rocking help send me to sleep.

Next morning a gentle rumbling wakes me. Outside it is getting light and we are in some small port. Wooden houses sit huddled between the coast and icy, rocky mountains, under leaden skies. The ship pulls out and I head for the well-stocked buffet breakfast.

After a good feed we meet the purser, a bearded man of the sea who has worked for the company since 1966. For those working the route, it's a 22 days on, 22 days off lifestyle.

He explains how 11 ships serve the route from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes near the Russian border, stopping at no fewer then 35 ports along the way. It's an 11-day journey that is today firmly established as a popular tourist route, for people who want to see the midnight sun or Northern Lights, depending on the time of year.

More fundamentally, the Hurtigruten is also a vital transport link; the jagged coast of Norway means in many areas it is often quicker to take the boat than drive to the next town. Unsurprisingly, the service is subsidised by the state.

We head to the bridge and meet the captain. He doesn't seem to do very much. Computers display charts with the ship's course marked out electronically. It's autopilot for much of the way, and the ship steers effortlessly along channels that separate islands from the mainland.

The views make this surely one of the most rewarding captain's jobs in the world. Ahead of us, the sun coming over the mountains cuts through the gloom, giving an orange, heavenly glow to the clouds.

We pull into port at Honningsvåg, our gateway to Nordkapp - the North Cape. Honningsvåg claims to be the world's most northerly city, and many of its 3,500 inhabitants living in wooden houses that cling to the snow dusted hills above the waterfront.

We walk through thick snow and board a waiting coach. We have to hurry if we are to reach the snowplough truck. The route to the North Cape is classed as a "summer road", and people are not normally permitted to travel along it at this time of year, except once every day, driving behind the snowplough.

It's a 40-minute drive through a barren, treeless, beautiful landscape, which despite it being the middle of the day, is illuminated only by an eerie low light. Seventy-one degrees above the Equator, the sun has been up for little more than an hour this February lunchtime, and already it is setting. However, it is a sight for sore eyes for people living above the Arctic Circle; it only reappeared two weeks ago having been absent since November. Conversely, between May and July the sun does not set at all.

When we arrive at Nordkapp and leave the coach, ice crystals hit me like a hail of tiny bullets with each gust of wind. The far north of Europe indeed feels like the far north of Europe.

A metal globe located on top of high, windswept cliffs marks the peninsula that is regarded as Europe's most northerly point. Nearby is a visitor centre, where you can learn more about the history, geography and ecology of this place.

Obviously from North Cape, all roads lead south. We drive 200km through blizzards on dark, snow-covered roads, and by the time we reach the inland town of Karasjok the thermometer reads -15ºC. There's no need to consult gadgets, though; some of the windows of the bus have frozen.

We are in the interior of Finnmark, an area also known as Norwegian Lapland. Home to the indigenous Sami people, 90 per cent of the local population speak Sami, referring to their homeland as Sapmi.

At the Sapmi Cultural Park we dine on bidos (reindeer stew) with lingonberries and potatoes, which we eat around a fire, trays on our laps, and thoroughly enjoy.

Next day we head to the town of Kautokeino, passing herds of reindeer along the way. It is Sami National Day and we watch local people in traditional, colourful dress go to church, before joining two of them, a young couple, at their home by a frozen lake.

They round up some of their reindeer herd to take us out sledding. In this age of planes, trains and automobiles, it is a refreshingly tranquil, relaxing and timeless way to get around, and the animals are generally well behaved, except for the odd unpredicted burst of pace.

As darkness falls we drive north again. Just outside the coastal city of Alta is our home for the night, the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, which as the name suggests is an ice hotel.

But if that's not exciting enough, before we have time to settle in, we have to change into snow suits for a snowmobiling safari, our goal: to see the Northern Lights. We climb aboard our machines and head off through the forest along winding snowy tracks, passing many locals who have ventured out this evening on snowmobiles or skis.

We eventually emerge on a plateau, in a blizzard, my headlights projecting the shadow of the snowmobile in front onto the mist. At 60km/h it's a thrilling if bumpy drive. Sadly, there's no chance of seeing the lights through the cloud cover, and we head back to the hotel.

Despite its name the Igloo Hotel is not made completely of ice; there's a "conventional" building housing the restaurant, showers, sauna and reception.

The hotel's 30 bedrooms are located in a massive igloo, which is rebuilt each winter from blocks cut from frozen highland lakes, to ensure the purest water. The interior has a temperature of -5ºC, and is full of intricate ice sculptures, art hanging in ice frames and blue lighting.

In the bedrooms, the beds consist of an ice base and a normal mattress, which is covered with reindeer skins.

We enjoy a drink at the bar - blue vodka in ice glasses - before heading back into the warmth of the main building for dinner. The area is known for its excellent salmon, and I'm not disappointed.

Later, we go outside for a soak in the hot tub and order some drinks. It's our last night in Finnmark, and it looks as though we won't be seeing the Northern Lights. But as the waitress hands me my glass of Champagne, I catch a glimpse of something over her shoulder.

A dancing, green pattern has formed in the sky - the Aurora Borealis. They grow in size, eventually looking like the graphic equaliser display accompanying some inaudible music.

After a couple of hours the last wisp of energy has disappeared from the sky. All that's left to do is take a quick sauna and get ready for bed.

You don't take your belongings into the igloo, otherwise any moisture they hold will freeze. All I take in is a sleeping bag and pillow, my thermals and a hat.

Feeling surprisingly cosy, I fall asleep, hoping that a sudden overnight bout of global warming doesn't leave me lying in a large puddle in the morning.


Tourist information: Hurtigruten line: Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel: Flights to Alta via Oslo with SAS: