Chasing auroras in Tasmania

Hunting the Light

A couple of years ago, I found myself standing on the top deck of a Norwegian coastal liner, the Hurtigruten. The night was pitch black, it was way below zero degrees, and we stared at the sky, our necks cricked in the cold as we attempted to capture the Northern Lights.

Then, another Australian reemerged from the warm cabins below to show us a magnificent photo of the aurora phenomenon. Where’s this? we all asked. It’s in Tasmania, he said. The Australians in the group noted it was a good 15 degrees warmer and 23 hours closer to home. So on my list for this year is to see our own Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights.

I got in touch with one of Tassie’s best-known aurora chasers, Margaret Sonnemann, founder of the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook group and author of The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook for her tips.

Happily, she says, you can see the Aurora Australis all year round in Tasmania, one of the landmasses closest to the South Magnetic Pole, which is where aurorae originate from. She shares camera tips as well as her favourite viewing points.

Click here to read the full story, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age‘s Traveller website.

The 16 must-see new architecture projects for 2016

An artist’s impression of WTC transportation hub, US

In what’s becoming an annual story for the Sydney Morning Herald, here’s my round-up of next year’s great architectural openings. Thanks, as ever, to Sydney architect and founder of Sydney Architecture Walks, Eoghan Lewis. 

Who doesn’t love an architectural icon? While rising prices and
global uncertainty have slowed many building projects around the world –
the ambitious Grand Egyptian Museum is once again on ice – eyes are
open for key cultural offerings in Hamburg, New York and London.

Sure,
the skyscraper industry isn’t going out of business any time soon –
just take a look at the new Trump Towers going up in Vancouver, while
skinny is inny as New York discusses the rash of slim skyscrapers
overshadowing Central Park and the first super-tall skyscraper has been
approved for Warsaw. However, take your head out of the clouds to see
what’s trending in the world of architecture.

“Analogue seems to
be coming back … less slick, less same-same,” says Sydney architect and
architecture walking guide Eoghan Lewis. “Authenticity is trending, and
there is a new focus on refinement and simplicity.” (see www.sydneyarchitecture.org)

Click here to see what we’ve named the top 16 architectural openings in 2016. 

(This feature by Belinda Jackson was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newpapers.) 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Christmas bell from Kashmir, India

This year, for the first time in many years, I’m really home for Christmas, so I unpacked all the decorations, many of which have been sitting in dusty boxes for years.

I’m not one of those people who lights up the front lawn with a carbon-blowing amount of electric Santas. And I’m terrible at sending out cards (sorry!) But my Christmas cache yielded a surprising amount of trinkets collected during my travels.

Pictured is the tiny little bell I bought in Indian Kashmir (not exactly a stronghold of Christianity, though there is a persistent rumour Jesus Christ is buried here). In a beautiful land often torn apart by war, locals do what they can to earn a living. One small firm makes these delicate decorations from paper mache, before painting and varnishing them and selling them to we few tourists.

There is also the set of happy little matryoshka dolls from the markets Andriyivskiy Uzviz in Kyiv, Ukraine (known as babushka dolls in neighbouring Russia), their sweet little faces peering out between the baubles. Heavens knows how I managed to fit them in my backpack, amongst the tent, camp cooking gear, filthy hiking socks and two changes of clothes. 

Matryoshka doll from Kyiv, Ukraine

There’s an elaborate glass Santa on a sleigh from the German Christmas markets, and a kind donation from my brother Rorie of glittering trinkets from Vienna’s many famed winter markets. Away from the Tyrolean mountain sausages and tourist kitsch in Rathausplatz, his top finds are stained-glass decorations from the Karlsplatz market. 

And finally, my most recent acquisition is a beautiful silver deer, which I bought from a seasonal waterfront shop in Bergen, Norway, where they really get into the Christmas spirit.

Wherever you find yourselves for the festive season – at home for an Aussie Christmas, on a Thai beach eating prawns or mainlining glühwein to ward off the cold in the wintery northern hemisphere – I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas, and 2015 brings your hearts’ desires,

Belle Jackson

The real trip advisors reveal their tips for travel in 2015

Mesmerising Myanmar: Ancient temples and an increasingly
modern infrastructure are the drawcards. Photo: Getty Images.

So – what’s the next big thing? Travel experts
reveal their tips for the coming year.
With an
eye on the hip pocket, we’re looking at hometown holidays in 2015, say travel
industry’s chiefs. And while Asia is back on top as our favourite playground,
Myanmar continues its stellar orbit as the region’s shining star.
Gary Bartelings, Captain’s Choice
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Gallipoli for the centenary, on unusual train journeys, South America,
Antarctica and our new Australian tours by private plane.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Iran and Myanmar. For safe and trusted, a British
Isles cruise or a train journey through Switzerland.
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
 An unsettled world and the weakening
Australian dollar.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Chichen Itza in Mexico, Rio, Easter Island, Tahiti, Angkor  Wat,
the Taj Mahal and the Serenas, well as the UK and Europe.
Fearless
prediction?
Keep
travelling, so people across cultures, religions and countries can connect
peacefully. See captainschoice.com.au.
Simon Westcott, Luxe City Guides 
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Myanmar: infrastructure is improving and there’s a sense it’ll all
change fast.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Bhutan: because it’s not going to change fast. A
purer and more controlled experience awaits.  
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Travel safety: the perceived threat of increased
terrorism and infectious diseases.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
London, Florence, Marrakech, Taipei, Tokyo and the USA.
Fearless
prediction?

 Wifi flights will become the norm. See luxecityguides.com.
Alan Alcock, Wendy Wu Tours
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Japan, now great value for money, and India.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Sri Lanka, which is rapidly healing after its
terrible civil war, the idyllic Maldives, and Myanmar for quaint, rustic
antiquity.
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
The potential spread of terrorism to our region, health
issues such as Ebola and the value of the Australian dollar. 
Where are
you packing your bags for?
 Vietnam, Japan and Mongolia.
Fearless
prediction?

Self-drive three-wheeled tuk-tuk tours in India! See wendywutours.com.au.
Tom Walley, Flight Centre Australia
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Philippines: budget carrier Cebu Pacific Air has just kicked off a
service departing Sydney four times weekly.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
London, for the Rugby World Cup! 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Airfares have never been more affordable and
unless the US dollar drops significantly, the only issue is choosing where to
go. 
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Whistler: snowboarding is my passion. We will thaw out on Hamilton
Island. Fearless prediction? Aussies are in a golden era of travel with more
accessible prices, services and routes. See flightcentre.com.au.
Sue Badyari, World Expeditions
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Hiking and biking Cambodia, trekking the Patagonia Ice Cap, Arctic
cruising to see the Northern Lights, Nepal’s Manaslu Circuit, walking Spain’s
Camino. 
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Trekking the Altai mountains in Mongolia, hiking
and biking in China, cycling Puglia, Italy. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Flight availability in peak seasons, more freak
storms and volatility in weather patterns due to global warming.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Italy’s Gran Paradiso Trek plus a self-guided cycling holiday from
Slovenia to Croatia!
Fearless
prediction for 2015?
The Great
Himalayan Trail – a five-month trek traversing Nepal’s high passes. See worldexpeditions.com.
Ann Sherry, Carnival Australia 
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Cruising Europe, Alaska, and the Baltics. 
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Asia, cruising from Japan and Singapore, visiting
Vietnam and Cambodia, and even Indonesia’s Komodo Island. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
The falling dollar, sharpening travellers’ focus
on value.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Stradbroke Island, maybe an African safari and a PNG and Solomon
Islands cruise to test new destinations.
Fearless
prediction?
Weekends
at sea with Australia’s best food and wine. See carnival.com.au.
Caroline Kennedy, Cox & Kings Australia
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Italy and Greece for the food, wine, history and sites and Norway for
the Northern Lights.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
ANZAC centenary commemorations in Gallipoli, with
or without ballot tickets.
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Global safety issues and natural disasters.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
I would like to do The Ultimate Travelling Camp in India.
Fearless
prediction?

Experiencing destinations in 3D, such as enjoying the view from your
(prospective) hotel’s balcony. See coxandkings.com.au.
Anton Stanish, Stayz Holiday Accommodation
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
The Gold Coast, Darwin and fringe CBD; homeowners are realising the
viability of short-term rentals while travellers can immerse themselves in the
local neighbourhood.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Dunsborough, Western Australia. Definitely a new
hot spot.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
A holiday rental in Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand, near golf courses,
vineyards and beaches. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Low-cost air carriers continuing to open up new
markets, particularly in Asia.
Fearless
prediction?
Holiday
rentals becoming bookable online, like hotels. See stayz.com.au.
Karin Sheppard, InterContinental Hotels Group 
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
South-east Asia and the Asia Pacific, for snorkelling safaris, stunning
beaches.   
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
On ‘staycation,’ exploring your own city. Sydney’s
Double Bay has new eateries, bars, shops and the new InterContinental Sydney
Double Bay. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Truly personalised and local experiences. 
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Japan’s Cherry Blossom Festival, a diving holiday to Fiji and skiing in
Queenstown. 
Fearless
prediction?
More
marketing aimed at locals through social media, and brands rewarding guests for
publicising their trips via social media. See ihg.com.
Dave Boyte, Skyscanner
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Safe, affordable Nicaragua, Central America and Mykonos, Greece. 
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Colombo, Sri Lanka is reinventing itself as a cool
foodie paradise. Flight searches to Bhutan are also on the rise.  
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Online travel companies becoming mobile savvy, as
travellers use mobile phones to research, plan and book holidays.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
The coolest little capital, Wellington, and Tasmania.  
Fearless
prediction?

Meta-search websites – websites that aggregate information from all over the
web into one site – being an essential planning tool. See skyscanner.com.au.
This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Traveller.

Cruising Norway and sustainable Melbourne: ASTW 2014 awards for excellence

I’m super-chuffed to announce that I’ve won two awards at the Australian Society of Travel Writers’ 2014 awards, which were presented at the annual conference, this year in Fiji.

The awards were for best responsible tourism story, sponsored byTreadRight Foundation, under The Travel Corporation. This story, published in Honda magazine, is about travelling with a light eco-footprint in my hometown, Melbourne.

And the best cruise story, sponsored by TravMedia. This piece, published in the Sun-Herald newspaper, was about the journey of the Hurtigruten, down the Norwegian coastline. I reckon I deserved the award purely for hauling a 2 1/2  year old through Norway in mid-winter!

A massive thanks to the sponsors and the judges! I will post up the stories tomorrow.

Thanks also for all your messages of support and congratulations: it was my first ASTW AGM, and a great success all round.

Here’s a list of all the winners of each 2014 Journalism Awards for Excellence:

  • Travel Writer of the Year Award, sponsored by Tourism Fiji:

Ben Groundwater for Night Visions After Dark, The type of town that makes travelling great and Gone Native, no Bula

  • PR Communicator or Communications Team of the Year Award, sponsored by TravMedia:

Kim McKay, Klick Communications

Cameron Cope for Fist and Magic – Senegal Wrestlers

Cameron Cope for Myths and mountains

Kerry van der Jagt for Saltwater Dreaming

Daniel Scott for Bar/fly Wimbeldon Common

Robert McFarland for Working on the chain gang

Roderick Eime for Spirit of Africa

  •  Best Responsible Tourism Story Award, sponsored by The Travel Corporation’s TreadRight Foundation:

Belinda Jackson for Sustainable Melbourne

  • Outstanding Tourism Organisation or Travel Product Award, sponsored by PPR:

World Expeditions for the Larapinta Trail

Christine Retschlag for Rough road from prison gate to plate

  • Best Cruise Travel Story, with a prize provided by TravMedia:

Belinda Jackson for Search for the glow

Louise Southerden for Wildly indulgent

  • Best use of Digital – Writer, with a prize provided by Wotif:

Christina Pfeiffer for TRAVELTHERENEXT

  • Best Travel Book, with a prize provided by TravMedia:

Danielle Lancaster for 4WD Treks Close to Brisbane

Tiana Templeman for Racing road trains in a campervan

  • Best PR Campaign Award, with a prize provided by Sidekicker:

PPR for South African Tourism Australia

Fifty things we love about travel right now

The Sydney Morning Herald recently asked travel writers to share what we love about travel right now, from fabulous destinations to new technology (and vintage caravans, as per the photo). 

I confess that I love a good stopover, Oslo and not paying $500 for dinner. (don’t you?)

TRANSIT STOPOVERS
Break your long-haul flight with a visit to Hong Kong
Disneyland, coffee in Singapore’s Kampong Glam, a Chinese shopover or a
spot of Arabian dune bashing. Transit stopovers don’t have to follow the
old sluice-and-snooze formula.

The new stopover cities of Guanghzhou and Dubai are going
gung-ho with relaxed transit visas and budget hotel offers, while the
old hands of Singapore, Bangkok and Hong Kong are offering easy transit
visas and tours to show off their towns. Expect cheap hotels and hop-on,
hop-off buses in Singapore, free rail cards and kick-boxing shows in
Bangkok, or Emirates’ and Qantas’ Dubai hotel packages. Most offers are
limited to travellers flying on the country’s national airline. BJ

OSLO
Yes, it’s cold, yes, it’s pricey, but the Norwegian capital
is a sleeper hit for its food, architecture and design. Fly in with
thrifty Norwegian Air, ogle starchitect Renzo Piano’s new Astrup
Fearnley Museum of Modern Art or squeal with your hands over your ears
alongside Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

If Michelin-starred Maaemo is out of your league, try organic
Kolonihagen Grunerlokka for new Nordic tapas: think mini elkburgers and
dainty seafood, or go budget on gritty Storgata, aka Kebab Street.
Hipsters bunker down at The Thief Hotel, then go old-school to sip
coffee and shop Nordic design at Fuglen.

Grab a window seat in the Grand Hotel’s cafe to channel Ibsen
and world peace (the Nobel Peace Prize laureate snoozes here each
year). visitoslo.com. BJ

THE CANTON ROUTE
Guangzhou, in southern China, is the heartland of the Canton
Route, a wallet-friendly rival to the traditional Kangaroo Route from
Sydney to London via Hong Kong or Singapore. China Southern Airlines
also now flies Guangzhou to Moscow, Frankfurt and New York (from August
6).
Aussies are already snapping up free 72-hour transit visas to
scoff Cantonese nosh and explore the surrounding Guangdong Province. BJ

CHEAP MICHELIN EATS
Even Michelin-star-restaurant hunters can’t resist a deal,
and we love the rise of little cheapies creating expert food on a
salaryman’s budget.

The cheapest is said to be Hong Kong’s celebrated Tim Ho Wan,
hot property for its pork buns (three for under $3), otherwise, check
out the one-star Arbutus, the bellwether of London’s so-called recession
restaurants, with the plat de jour and wine for 10 quid, or New York’s
first gastropub, The Spotted Pig, a one-star constant since it opened a
decade ago.

The Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand listing spots restaurants
that are dishing up non-starred all-stars serving two courses and wine
for less than $40, fertile hunting ground for eaters with dieting
wallets. BJ


Read more about what the Sydney Morning Herald‘s travel writers love about travel right now.

Search for the glow: Norway’s Northern Lights

The Aurora throws out a curtain.


EDIT: I am very pleased to note that this feature, originally
published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, has won the Australian Society of Travel
Writers’ 2014 award for Best Cruise feature.

Dodging trolls and and black ice, Belinda Jackson rugs up to hunt the Northern Lights. 

Boarding the MS Midnatsol, the first thing we see is a tall
Norwegian woman welcoming us on to the ship. The second spectacle is of a
tall English woman being stretchered off the ship.

“She slipped and fell on the ice,” reports one of the crew.
Instinctively, I want to crawl. Happily, the lady reappears several days
later, smiling but in a wheelchair. Norwegian winter cruising, it
appears, has a touch of the blood sport about it. Forget bikinis and sun
loungers: there’s a layer of difficulty travelling in the far northern
winter.

Actually, there are many layers. Going outside for anything more than
a quick photo on the promenade deck becomes an epic exercise in
wrestling with thermal underwear. And two pairs of socks. Fleece.
Waterproof jacket. And the boots with ice grips (hmmmm – the casualty).

Crown it all with a tight beanie that will resist the wind’s
insistent fingers. Some people even pull on a balaclava, but that’s all
just a little too Douglas Mawson for me, though I am sporting a dangling
pompom that holds a 90-degree angle to my head in prevailing winds.

We do it because we’re hunting the light: the Northern
Lights. Yes, there’s reindeer sledding, midnight concerts and hot
tubbing on the top deck while it snows. But right now, our sun is in the
midst of exceptional solar activity, and boffins say that this winter
and next are the best in a decade to see the elusive Aurora Borealis.

Norway is one of the world’s top viewing locations and
doesn’t require frostbitten fingers, drinking sterilised wee or eating
your own dogs to get there.

Light-hearted: the Aurora from the deck of the Midnatsol.
Photo: Bob Stephan

In fact, it’s all rather civilised on the Midnatsol, one of
12 Hurtigruten ships that undertake an 11-day round trip that traverses
the length of the Norwegian coastline. A ship sails every day.

The coastal express mail and goods run started in 1893, with
passengers hopping on and off between farming villages and port towns.
Norwegians still use the Hurtigruten as public transport, but they are
now outnumbered dramatically by tourists keen to cruise the fiords and
wild coastline as the ship pushes up into the Arctic Circle. There’s a
healthy showing of Aussies among them, forsaking a southern summer for
temperatures so low, the locals don’t even bother to say “minus”.

You can pick the Norwegians: they’re the ones glued to the
live chess tournaments on the television in the main lounge, silently
sculling black coffee from tall thermo-mugs. The rest of us have our
noses stuck to the ship’s panoramic windows, waving at fishing trawlers
and making such blindingly obvious statements as “Gosh, it’s cold!”.

Doing nothing to dispel opinions of Norwegians as a teensy
bit boring, Norway’s national TV station NRK’s home-grown programs
includes 12-hour documentaries on stacking firewood, knitting and a
minute-by-minute program of the Hurtigruten journeying down the
Norwegian coastline, from Bergen to Kirkenes. It was a 134-hour,
non-stop broadcast, and it rated!

“Did you see the program?” the urbane concierge at Oslo’s
beautiful Grand Hotel asked me several days before boarding. “It was
great!” His patriotism makes me almost forgive Norway for being so
expensive that it makes my muscular Aussie dollars wimper and
hyperventilate.

Back on the ship, it’s time to throw out all my cruising
expectations: there are no little towel animals at the end of the bed
each night, the theatre hosts astronomy lectures instead of chorus
girls, and all the staff are locals.

It’s a dramatic change from the United Nations of staff that
you meet on most cruise ships, and it’s lovely to have locals’
experience and advice (“It’s Sunday night. This town is dead. Don’t
bother getting off.”)

But hey, it does a mean buffet. Scandinavians invented the
smorgasbord. The Norwegianised breakfast buffet features caramelised
cheese, mustard herrings and salmon done three ways (roasted, smoked,
cured) every morning. There’s reindeer pate and cloudberries at
lunchtime and a local salmon served, classically, with dill steamed
potatoes at dinner. And yes, there is a gift shop, full of hideously
misshapen trolls and heart-breakingly expensive snowflake knits. The
Hurtigruten is undeniably Norwegian.

The total journey from Kirkenes to Bergen is 2465 kilometres,
stopping in at 33 ports, some as little as 15 minutes, just long enough
to sling a crate of parcels overboard. After a few days, we slip into
the routine of busy mornings exploring towns and afternoons of quiet
contemplation and panoramic viewing.

It’s dark by 4pm but we don’t care: we’re here to see the
light. The Japanese say a baby conceived beneath the lights is a special
child. The Sami believe the lights are a trail left by a fox scampering
across the sky. Everyone from ancient Chinese to American Indians have a
theory: the lights are souls, they’re a bridge to heaven, a good omen, a
bad omen.

But let me blow a few myths: if you were standing on deck in
sub-zero temperatures at midnight waiting for a ray of green light to
zap you between the eyes, you’d be waiting a long time. Guest lecturer
and British astronomer Dr John Mason says most of the colours in the
Northern Lights are invisible to our eyes: we just can’t see the red and
turquoise bands with the naked eye.

MS Midnatsol

“You probably won’t see colour, but
you will see movement.” Green is the most apparent colour, followed by
violet, but even then they’ll most likely show up as a hazy grey cloud
against the clear black sky, he warns.

Point a camera at the grey clouds and you’ll see the eerie
green rays appear in your final photo – and even then only when you open
the lens for up to 15 seconds or more.

To see the lights, the sky has to be dark, with no light
pollution. You also need a cloudless sky and your eyes also need to be
dark adapted, which can take up to 10 minutes, which is a long time on a
windswept ship’s deck in the black of a polar night. “When the lights
appear, we’ll make the announcements over the ship’s PA, and you have to
hurry,” Dr Mason says. “We don’t know how long they’ll last – You’ve
got to be ready.” We’re all so ready.

“We’ve been on six nights, from Bergen, and haven’t seen
anything yet,” says glass artist Bob Stephan, from North Carolina. Armed
with a fish-eye lens and balaclava, he helps me lash my camera to a
deck chair in lieu of my lost tripod.

There are two important things to note from this
conversation: one is that most tourists tend to stay on the ship for the
entire 11-day round journey, from Bergen up to Kirkenes and back again.
The second is that the Northern Lights are fickle.

But we strike it lucky: second night on board, and the show
is on. The deck is jam-packed as people point cameras to the sky. The
sky swirls and a soft grey-green light gusts and drifts into view. It’s
not the “hit-me” colours of the brochures, or a white night. But the
wild wind, the snow gusts and the dancing sky leave us light-hearted and
light-headed: we are but mesmerised little people dwarfed by the glory
above.

The Lofoten archipelago.

The serious photographers are rugged up and settled in for
the night, but the crowd drifts off after an hour or so. The next night,
the lights show even longer, a static display that has the astronomers
scratching their heads, though the ship is pitching wildly.

It’s also cold enough to bite your nose off.

We dash down below decks to thaw out, when one of the
astronomy tour members, Patch, pulls out his phone. The Aurora Australis
has been putting on a spectacular show in Tasmania, just an hour and
$100 from my Melbourne home. Groans from we Australians. Tasmania?
That’s next year’s plan.

The writer was a guest of Bentours.

AHOY! Norwegian Getaway has a three-storey sports complex that includes an eight-foot over-sea “walk the plank”.

FIVE MORE GREAT PLACES TO HUNT THE AURORAS
TASMANIA The Aurora Australis has been seen as close to Hobart as
Seven-Mile Beach (near Hobart Airport), on the Overland Track and Bruny
Island. Get viewing tip-offs from this local alerts page facebook.com/groups/215002295201328/.
ALASKA Fairbanks and nearby Denali National Park are Alaska’s
playground for aurora hunting, and boast an 80 per cent chance of
spotting the lights from August to April, see explorefairbanks.com.
ICELAND Make sure you’re in the glassed-in bar of the Ion Hotel when
the lights deign to shine. The new eco-hotel is an hour’s drive from
Reykjavik, see ioniceland.is.
CANADA Head for Whitehorse, Yukon, on the edge of the wilderness and
hunker down in a yurt while you wait for the performance to begin, see arcticrange.com.
FINLAND Tuck up in a snow igloo in Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, in Finnish Lapland, a thousand kilometres north of Helsinki, see kakslauttanen.fi.

TRIP NOTES
GETTING THERE Fly Sydney to Oslo via Bangkok with Thai Airways or via London with British Airways (britishairways.com). From London or Bangkok, book early to catch Norwegian Air’s cheap flights (norwegian.com).
CRUISING THERE The nine-day Best of Norway Cruise departs daily from Bergen
or Kirkenes, with astronomy tours available in winter. From $2877, twin
share (winter) to $4448 (summer), 1800 221 712, see bentours.com.au.
MORE INFORMATION visitnorway.com.

Tripping the light fantastic: Northern Lights in Norway

On Deck 9, Midnatsol, Norway. Photo: Bob Stephan

There’s reindeer on the menu and light shows in the polar night, as Belinda Jackson cruises around Norway.

The temperature says it all: it’s 2.2 degrees C but the wind-chill
factor drags it down well below zero.

The ground is slippery with black
ice and it’s only 5pm, yet the sun has long given way to a dark, polar
night.

Norway’s extreme north is turning on a chilly welcome this November eve.

The town of Kirkenes is the starting point for my sea journey from high
up in the Arctic region to the gentler climes of Bergen in the south of
Norway, just a hop-skip across the North Sea to Scotland’s Shetland
Islands.

To help you place Kirkenes on the world map, it’s 400km past the Arctic
Circle, 7km from the Russian border and 37km west of Finland. There are
reindeer burgers on the hotel menu and rather prosaic tips on sleeping
during the midnight sun (close the curtains).

The next morning, my chariot awaits. More precisely, it’s the
Hurtigruten. Even more precisely, Hurtigruten is not one particular
ship, but a route (‘hurtig ruten’ = fast route) that links Norway’s
coastal towns and villages.

A ship leaves Bergen every day of the year for the journey to Kirkenes
and has been doing so since 1936, interrupted only by wars. My ship, the
MS Midnatsol (Midnight Sun), was built in 2003 and with 644 berths, can
take up to 1000 passengers (and not just tourists), drawn predominantly
from the UK, USA and northern Europe – not to mention more Australians
than you’d expect. Our ship has also a substantial smattering of
Norwegians using the ship for its original purpose: as a means of
transportation, and the staff are all locals, too, save a few
foreigners…from Sweden.

My cabin is a cosy little affair: two couches fold down to make
comfortable beds, there’s a little desk and a bathroom that can be
described kindly as ‘petite’. There are hooks and nooks to tuck your
gear away in, though the ship’s lounges, cafes and libraries are
preferable, with their panoramic windows and wi-fi which,
understandably, gets a bit shaky when the weather is tossing the ship
around on the stretches of open sea.

Panorama Lounge, Midnatsol, Norway.

Unlike most cruise ships, there’s no grand piano chained to the floor,
there are no dancing chorus girls, and the stars are not belting out
their ’70s hit parade but glittering overhead in the black depths of the
winter sky.

“You won’t starve on the journey,” a waitress tells me sorrowfully at my
first meal. My induction to the chef’s hand is lunch, which today
features five types of fish including roasted cod, gravalax and tubes of
Mills Caviar, as well as reindeer casserole with onions and mushrooms.

Stopping at coastal habitations, sometimes for as little than 15
minutes, we’re encouraged to jump off and explore: from the excellent
polar bear museum in Hammerfest to walking the mediaeval streets of
Trondheim or feeling your skin prickle during an eerie, uplifting
midnight concert in Tromso Cathedral.

Cruising in winter has a couple of fairly obvious disadvantages:
firstly, it’s seriously cold and secondly, you’ve got to cram your
sightseeing into the brief hours of daylight. Nobody’s worried – we’re
all here for the big winter drawcard: the lure of spotting the Northern
Lights.

They’re fickle beasts, those lights. They flicker and swirl without a
care who’s watching, but winter 2013/14 and 2014/15 are considered the
best in a decade for seeing what local legends describe as the dancing
souls of the departed, or a shining bridge to the heavens. There are two
astronomy groups on board, so we’re treated to guest lectures and the
ship hands out a memo of photography tips.

And we get lucky.

Rugged to the eyeballs – literally – we camp out on
Deck 9, the open deck at the top of the ship, which also houses two
outdoor jacuzzis that steam invitingly. The wind’s agile fingers tear at
our clothes and the ship rolls and churns as we strive to catch the
roiling clouds of green light in our camera lenses as, for two
spectacular nights, the Aurora Borealis deigns to put on a show.

Down below, we break from viewing to drink hot tea and peel back the
layers of clothing. The talk is all about the lengthy light show and
photos are admired and emailed onward. Many travellers slip into a
reflective state, absorbing the daytime scenery of fresh snow on
dramatic peaks and revelling in the nocturnal adventures in the sky.

There’s a sense of camaraderie among us all: we have tripped the light fantastic.

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Bentours.

This article was published in Get Up & Go magazine. 

2013: a year in the world

Sri Lanka masks

Happy New Year!
By now, most of you in the northern hemisphere should be scrounging around for the asprin or box sets of Dr Who – or, judging from Facebook, run a marathon or some other such oxygen-sucking activity. Here in the southern hemisphere, there are thoughts of work tomorrow. Ugh. Let’s not go there.

It’s raining here, the Christmas pudding is back on the boil and it’s time for tea and reflection. The tea is Russian Earl Grey, from Harrods, which seems a good way to kick off a year in the world…

…I’m not going to win points for originality, but I fell in love with London again: the cheesy, the touristy, the lot, from Harrods to London Bridge.
The city’s on a high, with energy levels up there with the London Eye. The Tate Britain has
just opened after a £45-million renovation, the Shard glimmers over
Southbank, the grungy quarters have reinvented themselves as edgy design
destinations, cashing in on their bad old days, when the High Street
might be known as the Murder Mile… it was all fabulous (except the serious cold snap, but hey, that’s London in November).

Leopard spotted in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka


For sheer sell-your-pants-off stories, Sri Lanka left all other destinations in the shade. It didn’t hurt that the Lonely Planet named it one of 2014’s must-visit countries.The food, the fabulously quirky fantastic shopping, the leopard spotting and the warmth and security of the country all stitch together for a great holiday destination, without overwhelming the sub-continental novice.

This was also the year I learned to make gnocchi, rekindling a post-Aitkin love of pasta.
The destination: the King Valley, in northern Victoria, just a shade
under our modest little Alps. The teachers: the Pizzini and the Simone
families. Forget milk and honey, this is the land of pork and prosecco.

The year 2013 also finally brought a return to Egypt, this time
to bring the Small Girl to her other spiritual (and ethnic) home. I saw
how a population can survive when all the news reports we see tell us
they are being gassed in the streets and chased by tanks. They just keep
going on: going to work, to school, to the market. And they just keep
hoping the generals and the politicians – the big men – treat them
better than pawns on a chessboard.

Fashion parade in Thimphu, Bhutan

I know Egypt will recover, hopefully
soon after the next presidential elections. But in the meantime, Tahrir
Square, the scene of the revolutions, is lush and green, well maintained
and clean. I have never seen it look better. So there is some good come
out of this whole, messy Arab Spring.

The most unexpected experience was attending Bhutan‘s first indigenous fashion parade, beneath the stars in the mountain kingdom. Visiting two tiny countries at either end of India – Sri Lanka and Bhutan – was an eye-opener as to the powerhouse of the sub-continent, and how these tiny nations fight to maintain their identities in the face of ‘a billion shouting Indians’ (their words, not mine).

This year and next mark a flurry of solar activity, resulting in the best showings of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis.

Deck 9, Midnatsol,

About the same time as I was teetering on a rolling deck of the Hurtigruten, somewhere in northern Norway,
trying to take a photo that wasn’t just a series of squiggles, the
Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis, were reportedly putting on a
great show in Tasmania, about an hour’s flight from home. With another winter of high solar activity ahead, maybe that’s next year’s goal?

Here’s wishing you peace and happiness for 2014 (with the Year of the Horse promising prosperity, to complete the trifecta).

Bill Clinton, Norwegian chess and the depths of the polar night: on the Hurtigruten

The view from the Panorama Lounge on
decks 8 and 9, MS Midnatsol.

This morning was spent eavesdropping on two old fellas from San Diego: from taking photos with Bill
Clinton, to Russia as a re-emerging military power and car parking in downtown San Diego.
On this
journey on the Hurtigruten, from Kirkenes in far northern Norway to Bergen in the south, the guests are predominantly British, American and German. I catch Australian accents more times than I
expected, many drawn by the lure of spotting the Northern Lights.  

There is also a substantial
smattering of Norwegians using the ship for its original purpose: as a means of transportation between the country’s coastal towns and cities.

The
Hurtigruten is a route, not one particular ship (‘hurtig ruten’ = fast route’). A ship leaves Bergen every day of the year and has
been doing so since 1936, interrupted only by wars. My ship is the MS Midnatsol,
(Midnight Sun) built in 2003 and with 644 berths, can take up to 1000
passengers.
One of the many lounges on the MS Midnatsol,

The oldest
ship, the MS Lofoten, was built in 1964 and takes just 153 passengers.
Apparently it’s very popular with tourists, though locals fight to understand
why. “It’s just an old barge, compared with the Midnatsol,” one tells me. 

Our cabin
is a cosy little affair: two couches fold down to make comfortable beds,
there’s a little desk and a bathroom. There are hooks and nooks to tuck your
gear away in, though the ship’s lounges, cafes and libraries are preferable,
with their panoramic windows and wi-fi which, undestandably, gets a bit shaky when the weather is tossing the ship around on the stretches of open sea.
“You won’t
starve on the journey,” a waitress tells me sorrowfully. Our induction to the chef’s
hand is lunch, with five types of fish including roasted cod, gravalax (smoked
salmon), tubes of Mills Caviar and yes, today features a reindeer casserole
with onions and mushrooms.
The dining room on the MS Midnatsol.

Stopping at
coastal habitations, sometimes for less than 15 minutes, we’re encouraged to
jump off and explore, be it a polar bear museum, taking a dip in the Arctic pool on the open Deck 9 or listening to a midnight concert when we reach Tromso. With restaurants, gym,
auditoriums, laundry and saunas, it’s a floating world, yet unlike the global
cruise liners, all the staff are local or from neighbouring Sweden. 

And with reindeer pate
and caramelised cheese on the menu, live chess broadcasts on the local tv station and a gift shop full of toy trolls and
snowflake knits, it’s undeniably Norwegian.