Sail into the Norwegian wilderness where you can hunt for crabs in Jarfjord, go snowmobiling in Kirkenes and maybe catch the northern lights along the way.
Hurtigruten: Best for coastal cruising
To travel from Tromsø to Kirkenes in the warmth of a Hurtigruten passenger ferry is to ease gently into the northern Norwegian wilderness. The jagged ramparts of the mainland and islands unsoiled by human footprints drift past, an endless drama wrought in ice and snow.
Along the route, villages shelter in the deeply fissured shoreline. As the ferry draws near land at night, nothing moves. Moving closer, the welcoming glow of gas-lantern light in home windows beckons. As the boat drifts back to sea, the retreating pinpricks of light along the shore resemble isolated outposts somewhere close to the end of the earth.
That these villages, the world's northernmost inhabited settlements, survive owes much to the Hurtigruten fleet. The boats may possess cruise-ship comforts - bars, a restaurant and open-air Jacuzzi - but their primary purpose is to keep viable Norway's Arctic north.
'Sometimes the Hurtigruten are the only way to get supplies to these villages,' says Kjell Jonassen, captain of the Hurtigruten's MS Midnatsol. 'We're the artery that keeps this part of the country alive.'
Captain Jonassen is still awed by the Arctic landscape: 'Even after many years, it is still beautiful to me. I'll never tire of it.'
Cabin accommodation in a Hurtigruten for the trip from Tromso to Kirkenes costs from £267 per person, full board, based on two people sharing (0844 448 7601; hurtigruten.com).
King Crab Safari (Kirkenes): Best for catching dinner
Beneath the freezing surface of Jarfjord, east of Kirkenes, the red king crab stakes a strong claim to be Arctic Norway's most unusual inhabitant. A creature of protean ugliness that seems to have emerged not from the gentle waters of a Norwegian fjord but from some Jurassic epic, the king crab and everything about it seems founded on gargantuan economies of scale.
This is the world's largest crustacean and the seven king crabs introduced here from the North Pacific by Russian scientists in 1961 have multiplied at an astonishing rate. Every year, each female king crab gives birth to around 10,000 surviving offspring and there are now 20 million in the Barents Sea alone.
Such figures have alarmed environmentalists, but Lars Petter Øie, who has been diving these waters for more than two decades, is more cautious: 'Even after so many studies, the Norwegian government can't decide whether the crabs are a problem or a resource.'
Lars has plumped for the latter. Undeterred by formidably sub-zero winter temperatures, Lars and his crab safari team regularly dive off the side of an inflatable Zodiac to a depth of 25 metres in search of crabs. They invariably do so accompanied by the audible gasp of the paying customers on board who shuffle around the boat like a clumsy congregation of penguins, grateful that they won't be asked to leave the relative warmth of their polar suits. After what seems like an eternity, Lars emerges in a chaos of crab legs, pincers and human arms.
'The biggest one I caught weighed 8kg and was almost my height, at around 170cm,' recalls Lars. 'Others have caught crabs that weighed 15kg, and were almost two metres long.'
But size matters little when it comes to eating the crabs at the end of the safari. 'The most important thing is that they're boiled in seawater,' says Lars. 'That way, you can taste where they come from.'
Arctic Adventure runs four-hour king crab safaris for £136 per person, including lunch and cold-weather clothing (arctic-adventure.no).
Rica Hotel Kirkenes place has modern rooms, some with views over the town. You'll appreciate the under-floor heating in the bathrooms in the depths of a Norwegian winter, and there's a good restaurant (from £140; rica.no).
Snowmobiling (Kirkenes): Best for winter speed
A narrow finger of land surrounded by Finland and Russia, the Pasvik River Valley is one of the most quietly beautiful of all northern Norwegian territories. Quiet, that is, until snowmobiles cut a swathe through the snow.
The dense fir-and-spruce foliage, blanketed in snow and interspersed with tundra and remote lakes, stretches for more than 60 miles south of Kirkenes, the westernmost extent of the great Taiga forests that reach far into Siberia. Throughout, secluded wooden cabins inhabit the frozen lakeshores and forest clearings, telling in microcosm the story of this once-disputed frontier territory. In the mid-19th century the Norwegian government, eager to colonise with people a terrain it owned in name only, offered free land here to impoverished farmers from the south. In an apt metaphor for Norway's transformation into one of Europe's wealthiest nations, the spartan huts that they built now serve as comfortable country cabins for the well-to-do of Kirkenes.
Although seemingly at odds with the tranquillity of the surroundings, snowmobiles make a visit deep into the valley's heart possible, with stop-offs at some of the cabins en route. Travelling at up to 60 miles an hour, they are a rare combination of exhilaration and solitude: the wind rush of cold night air with the prospect of a glimpse of the northern lights; the sun-kissed snow of twilight; and the ringing silence of the remotest country when the engine is switched off.
A popular perception of snowmobiling as a pursuit restricted to the young is dismissed by Hans Hatle, a former Norwegian army officer who trained British soldiers in winter warfare and who now leads snowmobiling safaris: 'Age is no limitation. Our oldest snowmobiler was 93, and he was an excellent driver. More important than a person's age is to remember to bring your driver's licence, lower your shoulders and have fun.'
Barents Safari (barentssafari.no) and Radius Kirkenes (radius-kirkenes.com) run three-hour snowmobile safaris starting at £158 per person.
Sami (Karasjok): Best for traditional life
While many in northern Norway explore the wilderness for fun, the Sami, the Arctic north's most enduring human presence, do so as a way of life.
Around 60,000 Sami - approximately half the world's Sami population - live in northern Norway. Although most lead modern lives indistinguishable from non-Sami Norwegians', a few Sami families still inhabit the high country in winter, herding reindeer above the Iešjokha River.
This is the domain of Nils Mikkel Somby, who has taken it upon himself to initiate non-Sami visitors into traditional Sami ways. After collecting them from the main road, he transports his guests in a small, covered sled towed behind his snowmobile up into the rolling hill country and into another world. There, atop hills haired by thin birch forest, are the prodigious antlers of his family's reindeer herd, more than 2,000 strong. They move silhouetted against a land white as white, bathed in gentle light as the sun traces a low arc across the horizon. Here, Nils lets the landscape and the Sami life within it speak for themselves.
Later, he takes his guests to the family's winter home, a teepee-shaped traditional Sami hut or lavvu. While his mother serves a warming reindeer stew, Nils wonders about the Sami's future: 'The modern world needs so much, things like roads and resources from remote places. And with so many distractions for young Sami, it is difficult to keep our culture alive for the next generation. Fifty years from now, I hope that there will still be Sami up here. But I am not so sure.'
And yet, throughout their history, the Sami have always faced down seemingly insurmountable challenges, from a harsh and changing climate to the hostility of non-Sami peoples. Whatever the future may hold, moments spent here with Nils and his family feel like a fleeting gift, a rare opportunity to pick up the unbroken thread to a past stretching back over 2,500 years.
A half-day Sami excursion with Nils Mikkel Somby including lunch, costs £113 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Witnessing the Northern Lights
The aurora borealis might be the greatest show on earth. Like smoke signals from infinity, these shape-shifters in the Arctic night sky have the quality of some half-imagined fairytale.
Seeing the northern lights for the first time is a thing of wonder. One moment, the ethereal white or green curtains of light with a streak of violet take on forms that evoke the ancient mythology of the north - a palace of lights, a Sami fire in the wilderness, the prow of a Viking ship. Then they dissolve into nothing, only to form as if by stealth on a different horizon, dancing across the sky in the shape of a sea horse or crescent moon.
The scientific explanation - streams of charged particles from sun storms interacting with electrons in nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the earth's upper atmosphere - does little to demystify the experience. Elusive even when staring straight at it, the aurora follows no discernible schedule. The most important element is a cloud-free sky. And, statistically, 10pm to 11pm is the optimum viewing time.
While making this feature, I saw the lights through the plane window en route to Tromsø, and later from the deck of a Hurtigruten. But they didn't reappear. To see the northern lights requires patience and good fortune. 'Aurora is a diva,' says Knut Hansvold, a Tromsø native. 'But when she shows up, she is the most unforgettable of beautiful ladies.'
The northern lights are visible in northern Norway from October to March.
Anthony Ham has contributed to more than 20 Lonely Planet guides, including Lonely Planet Norway, Madrid, Morocco and Tunisia.
The article 'The perfect trip: Norway' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.