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Unless Norway starts forcing locals to dress up like Disney extras, this is a good thing.
Thanks to the popularity of Disney’s gelid 3D Pixar epic Frozen, Norway is experiencing a surge in visitor numbers, notably a 37 per cent increase in the number of American tourists. Given the often vertiginous expense of a holiday here, however, it’s as well to balance expectations with what you’re likely to encounter.
Such is the influence on Nordic culture of the Janteloven (or Laws of Jante), 10 stern precepts urging people not to assume they are important, have any influence or that anyone cares about them, that luxury experiences in Norway have tended not to get much of a look in. There may be beautiful design in abundance, but comfort, cosseting, obsequious service – or anything else that might point to self-indulgence – is less commonly represented.
Take Nordenskiöld Lodge, possibly the northernmost holiday rental on earth, a five-bedroom pine cabin on the island of Svalbard, sited on the seashore, at the edge of a vast glacier. Though it belongs to a former partner at Industrifinans, the Oslo-based asset management company, and a four-night stay starts at NoK14,600 (about £1,450) per person (though that does included meals and the services of an armed guide to protect against possible polar bear encounters), don’t expect much in the way of modern conveniences, much less extravagant comforts. It may boast of “an indoor toilet and a Finnish sauna”, but there’s no running water or electricity. Why should there be when there’s plenty of ice outside and a wood-burning stove on which to melt it?
The draw is the sense of isolation, what they call “the Arctic silence”, a night sky untroubled by light pollution, not to mention the chance to see walruses, beluga whales and polar bears hunt seals on the sea ice; to kayak and explore the glacier moraine and surrounding mountains on foot, where you may come upon wild flowers – pygmy buttercups, purple and yellow saxifrage, Arctic bell heather, and the infinitely prettier-than-it-sounds hairy lousewort – surviving against all the odds. In short, what Nordenskiöld Lodge lacks in luxuries, it delivers in proximity to nature at its most sublime and the bragging rights that brings.
To reach Nordenskiöld involves a flight of almost three hours from Oslo to Longyearbyen and then two hours by boat (weather permitting) or a longer journey by sled or snow mobile, in which case it makes sense to break the journey with a night or two at the rustic but enchanting Trapper’s Hotel – all reclaimed wood, rough-hewn slate and reindeer skins. It is one of several unusual properties on the island operated, like Nordenskiöld Lodge, by Basecamp Explorer.
Basecamp also operates a yet more remote hotel on the island called Isfjord Radio (doubles about £390, half-board), built as a radio station in 1933. And more romantically still, Ship in the Ice, an incredibly photogenic 120ft Dutch-built twin-masted polar schooner, launched in 1911 and now with its 10 compact cabins serving as hotel rooms. These days it stands trapped in the ice – like Shackleton’s Endurance in Frank Hurley’s unforgettable photographs – in a frozen fjord. Even the most experienced luxury travellers are likely to be impressed by these unconventional settings, but they shouldn’t expect an ensuite bathroom in either.