The new Arctic bus service opening access to Scandinavia’s frozen corners

There are some places in the world where I wouldn’t want to be the driver. The Khyber Pass, for example; downtown Bangkok, and the M25 on a Friday evening.

To which I am now adding another: the Kilpisjärvi to Tromsø road that crosses from Finland into Norway on a January night. The road was rutted with ice, the wind was howling, and every now and then whirling banshees blazing with lights emerged from the blizzard: snowploughs.

Through all this Ane, a twenty-something blond Norwegian, was a picture of calm, ignoring the sharp intakes of breath coming from the passengers behind her. It was hard to believe that it was her first day as a bus driver on the Arctic Route.

Travelling north of the Arctic Circle at this time of year has never been easy, nor cheap, but it is nevertheless increasingly popular, with the lure of the Northern Lights and a whole smorgasbord of Nordic adventures.

Snow here is guaranteed, while elsewhere in Europe it is often just white stripes on brown mountains, artificially created for the monoculture of skiing.

In the frozen north there is skiing, sure, but there’s also dogsledding, snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobile driving, ice hotels and igloos with transparent roofs to witness Lady Aurora’s celestial ballet.

It’s a list that attracts people from all over the world, but up until recently visitors were at the mercy of flights and private transfers. Now there’s a compromise: a hop-on hop-off bus route around the frozen north, partly seed-funded by Innovation Norway, to get visitors out of cities. And across borders, too, thanks to a partnership with Finland.

I first joined the Arctic Route bus in Rovaniemi, the town in Finnish Lapland which has become synonymous with Santa Claus. I stayed here in the Arctic Snowhotel, where the ice-bedrooms were a positively balmy -6C, compared to the -35C it had been a couple of days earlier, outside.

Arctic Snowhotel in Rovaniemi Image via https://media.visitfinland.com
The norther lights and the Arctic Snowhotel in Rovaniemi (Photo: Visit Finland)

As far as the locals were concerned, conditions were on the up: the slightly gruff Finnish bus driver almost smiled as we crossed the Arctic Circle and the sun peeped up over the horizon for the first time this year.

From now on, he said, “we get seven minutes more daylight every day”. But my journey north soon outstripped that: by the time I got to Norway’s Tromsø, 36 hours later, the sun’s first scheduled appearance had receded by eight days.

That first stage of the route was long and lolloping, down avenues of firs bowed low with the weight of snow, alongside riverbeds transformed into runways of white. Surprisingly, more than 50 percent of my fellow bus travellers were Chinese, wheeling enormous suitcases. A lot of them got off at Levi, a name virtually unknown in the UK, but which is Finland’s premier winter activity resort.

Visitors on steet Storgata. Tromso or Tromsoe during winter in the northern part of Norway. Europe. Scandinavia. Norway. March. (Photo by: Martin Zwick/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Tromso is served by the bus (Photo: Martin Zwick/Getty)

You’d think that a glittering oasis of hotels and shopping malls, plonked in the snowy wilderness, was unmissable, but at a petrol station comfort break 30 minutes later, five young Chinese started unloading their luggage. It transpired they’d wanted to go to Levi, too. How they’d managed to miss it was hard to comprehend, and the driver was concerned they might do something crazy, like start walking back. In the end the petrol station staff said they’d sort it out.

I too was dropped off in the middle of nowhere – almost. The community of Kilpisjärvi sits just behind Finland’s northern border, and is popular with Norwegians seeking inexpensive holiday homes. From the pleasingly sophisticated hotel Cahkal I signed up for a snowmobile safari out past ice fishermen on Kilpisjärvi lake, to the point where three countries meet, with Sweden joining the Norway/Finland gang. There were no border guards; in fact no people at all, and the only potential migrants were reindeer and lemmings, both here in quantities.

snowmobiles Finnish Lapland Image via https://mediabank.lappi.fi/
A snowmobiles safari in Finnish Lapland (Photo:Mediabank)

On the way back across the lake we had an impromptu stop with the last glimmerings of daylight, but not for the Northern Lights, but an even more rare phenomenon: pearl clouds, which form in the lower stratosphere in the right conditions. It looked as if someone had hung a handful of psychedelic jellyfish in the sky.

The final leg of my trip was with Ane, who very kindly brought her whole bus right to the Cahkal’s door to pick me up.

We were a bit late that night arriving into the “Paris of the North” (aka Tromsø), a fanciful title for a town of 150 nationalities where the lingua franca of shops and restaurants (the highest density of eateries per head in Norway) was clearly English.

The bus crunched to a halt on the ice, among a fleet of vehicles readying themselves for chasing the Northern Lights. “Sorry we are a bit late, Nordic conditions,” said Ane.

I would have been disappointed if it had been anything else.

Getting there

Arctic Route Bus Image via writer Andrew Eames
The new Arctic Route Bus (Photo: Andrew Eames)

The writer travelled courtesy of Sunvil, whose seven-night Arctic Route itinerary includes flights into Finland’s Rovaniemi and back from Norway’s Tromsø, plus travel between the two on the Arctic Route bus. Also included are two nights in Rovaniemi’s Arctic Snowhotel, two nights in Kilpisjärvi’s Cahkal Hotel, three nights in the St Elisabeth Suites in Tromsø, and some meals. Prices from £2,399pp, sunvil.co.uk

The Arctic Route bus operates year-round with journey times between one and 10 and-a-half hours; tickets from Nkr50 (£4) to Nkr760 (£60), bestarctic.com/the-arctic-route.

Staying there

Arctic Snowhotel in Rovaniemi, has igloos from €299 per night, arcticsnowhotel.fi.

Cahkal hotel in Kilpisjarvi has doubles from €310, cahkalhotel.fi.

More information

visitnorway.com, visitfinland.com