I stood alone on the mountain and pinched myself hard, then put my sunglasses back on. The view from up here was billboard stuff, almost too glossy to be true. Around me lay a blanket of fjords and green Arctic hills. The sun blazed above the water. Wild flowers nodded drowsily in the breeze and, way down below, a tiny trawler eased into the bay, haloed by seabirds. This was quite something. It was Norway, it was beautiful and – the real clincher – it was half past midnight.
I don’t often climb mountains at night, but then I don’t often find myself at 70˚ latitude in midsummer. I had come to Sommarøy, a small fishing village deep in theArctic Circle, and so had the sun. It had been in the sky for at least a fortnight before I’d arrived and would be hanging around for some time after I’d left. The height of Midnight Sun season in Arctic Norway is a time of year when darkness, or even duskiness, is an alien concept, and to call it disorientating would be an understatement. Ever popped to the loo at 3am and had to stagger along a corridor, blinded by daylight? It’s one of those moments that stick with you.
Only 450 people live in Sommarøy. Their livelihoods centre on herring and pleasure-trippers. The name means ‘SummerIsland’, and it’s a charmingly apt one. When I’d stepped off the near-empty bus from Tromsø, the only major town within a ten-hour radius, it had been early evening. The hills and mountains were green and swathed in light. Low neat houses sat quiet below sunny slopes and gulls cawed across a baby-blue sky. There had been no other sign of life.
But it was the air itself that had struck me first. The light and colours had been so fresh, and so vivid, it was as though they’d passed through some sort of celestial filter and been re-dispersed as new. To breathe in and gaze around was to be a long way from London. By eleven that first evening I’d wandered up the mountain above town, butterflies around my feet and beer in my backpack. By midnight I’d realised that I wasn’t going to manage much time in bed.
“You get used to it after a while,” said Kjell-Ove the next morning. A wink. “We develop thicker eyelids.” He’d had more sleep than me. My brain still thought it was yesterday. Kjell-Ove had lived in Sommarøy all his life and was currently doubling as the hotel owner and fire chief. As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, he was also hiring me a boat. Now I’m no sailor, but it turns out there aren’t many instructions involved with small craft. If you pull this, you’ll go faster. If you turn this, you’ll head over there. Easy. I puttered off into the Arctic morning, excited.
I’d been looking forward to this moment. It took only a few minutes to reach open water, where the hills tapered out into the Norwegian Sea. If I’d carried on in a straight line – and had a spare fortnight – it was next stop Greenland. The day was calm, the swell was gentle and the freedom was intoxicating. The top of Europe felt gloriously isolated. I spent the day skirting the coastline, whooping at the views and sailing in big circles for the hell of it. Two or three times a flock of puffins bobbed by, their beaks bright, and further out there were sea eagles, swooping broad and brown over craggy islands. I sailed into a wide fjord and turned the engine off, relishing the cool air and silent landscape over a surprisingly expensive apple. It all made me feel very small, but in a good way.
In the evening I sat in a hot tub watching the sun playing on the sea, then scampered out and plunged into a lake. They say it’s good for the constitution. I got back in the hot tub again. As the ‘night’ wore on I found simple pleasure in a halibut dinner (food miles: around 75 metres) and went out walking. Being in touch with nature can so often sound like some hippy platitude, but there’s something truly, genuinely stirring about being surrounded by so much light and calm and letting it all seep in. If it’s right that a quiet weekend is all that’s needed to take the edge off the domestic grind, then this particular corner of the continent is the perfect place to prove it.