In the land of the midnight sun, a quintessential family vacation is punctuated by a breathtaking experience of solitude
Last July, in the height of Norwegian Arctic summer, our family boarded a seven-hour train headed northeast from Oslo to the fjords on the highest elevated railway in northern Europe. Outside the train car, snow-spackled mountains and narrow inlets flickered by, like images from a fairy-tale film reel ready to serve as backdrop to Norse gods or elves. Rain streamed down the windows as we zipped through verdant valleys cut through with rushing waterfalls, the hillside dotted with charming red barns and tiny wood-frame houses the colour of lemon custard.
My husband, Matt, and I had chosen this train for its proximity to wilderness — an enchanted landscape carved by glaciers and largely untouched by people. In this season of 24-hour daylight, darkness came only fleetingly, from the train tunnels inside a mountain, or from behind closed eyelids. And yes, we had asked ourselves, more than once, what we were doing here, in the land of the midnight sun, with two young boys accustomed to lights out at 8 pm.
We had spent five days exploring Oslo, its gorgeous architecture and inspired urban design. The train was a way of getting our family out into the most remote parts of Norway, a land and seascape imbued with myth and completely foreign to our own lives back home in the San Francisco
The pervasive feeling I had during our two weeks in Norway was the sense that someone had forgotten to turn off the sky. Some days it felt like a perpetual hangover. We dealt with sleeping arrangements largely by darkening rooms as much as curtains and blinds would allow, but bedtime often stretched as late as 11 p.m., when twilight hit.
In truth, it was this very otherworldliness that we had sought. The dusk sky between midnight and 2 am cast a surreal light on almost everything, and that was the point. What better way to teach our sons to look at the world in a new light than to show them Arctic midsummer and cast away the norms of nighttime? There was the late-night family dinner we had at a remote waterside pub upon arriving in the Lofoten Islands, a far northern archipelago situated more than 100 miles above the Arctic Circle. The drive from the airport — along winding roads flanked by craggy peaks and water that mirrored the sky — was nearly devoid of other cars. On the back deck of the wood-planked pub, two friendly and inebriated local men named Terry and Simon greeted us with bone-crushing handshakes, handed me a juniper berry to chew on and asked us to join them.
There was the feeling of time traveling at the amazing Viking Museum in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Borg. Anchored by a striking reconstruction of a Viking chieftain’s long house that was excavated nearby, the museum has a series of buildings connected by outdoor walking paths. It even features two replica ships and their boathouses. Inside the meeting house, a woman in a period costume of a long white gown and apron ladled for me a cup of mead, a boozy drink made from fermented honey and water, while Matt donned chain mail,Felix and Teddy wore metal and leather helmets, and swung heavy swords around. On a chilly day punctuated by downpours, we dashed from building to building, re-enacting life as it was in the 1200s and learning about Norse mythology and the
ships that brought the Vikings to inhospitable shores.
And there was something special for each of us to find. For me, there was surfing in the Arctic. Friends in Oslo directed us to Unstad, a minuscule sheep-farming town that has several surf breaks on the Norwegian Sea and hosts an international surf competition every fall. One afternoon there, I wriggled into a 6-mm neoprene wet suit — much thicker than I was accustomed to wearing in San Francisco, making me feel a bit like the Michelin Man — and paddled out, nodding as I passed the several guys in the lineup. All of them were cheerful and none looked terribly cold. Truth be told, in the fierce sunlight, the only time I felt any iciness was on my face upon a wipeout. Waiting for the next set of waves to arrive, I looked at the afternoon sky, dabs of clouds across it like chalk-dusted fingerprints. Who could not smile when confronted with this heart-expanding, crazy beauty?
For Matt, there were the craggy mountains, electric-green with velvety moss, and the time to run up and down their lung-busting slopes every afternoon. There was the absence of people, the wilderness. For someone used to being on the clock every day, the slowing down of time was nothing short of magic. For the boys, there was the powder-white sand beach and the endless views of the fjords, and no one to tell them to hurry up.
From the little wood-shingled house we were staying in, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, we watched the sky move mercurially between moods, sunrise and sunset, shifting from full-blast sunshine to muted purple-orange clouds that crept up near midnight as the sun dipped below the horizon. For a scant few hours, a cool pastel gloom ruled, until the warm egg yolk crept back up into the sky once more. One night, in the wee hours as I wandered around, I got to catch both the sunset and the sunrise. It occurred to me that our days and nights, always so bookended by darkness, no longer seemed to have boundaries. They were fluid, continuous. Infinite.
Vacations are funny. They lull you into a certain way of being that is completely at odds with your daily life. What did we want to be the message of this enterprise? That sometimes it’s fine to throw out the rules. Go to sleep at 11 pm? No problem. Play with swords? Breakfast for dinner, because I had a heck of a time decoding the Norwegian names of everyday items at the store? Yes, and yes. Remember how much fun it was to break the rules?