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Seeking extremes

From city bustle to the solitude of fiords.

The band Burka Brothers performs during a street fair.
The band Burka Brothers performs during a street fair. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / September 9, 2007

KIRKENES - Unlike the isolated island town of Vardo, this small city, only 50 miles south across the sea, sits near land borders with Russia, to the east, and Finland, to the west.

The banks and cafes on its central streets are busy on a summer weekday, and its ferry docks are thick with cars bearing Finnish and Swedish plates.

It may seem an odd bustle, north of the Arctic Circle. But outsiders of all sorts migrate to the end of the Arctic arc of Norway, home to roughly 70,000 people.

Some visitors are predictable: Scientists researching flora and fauna, for example, or engineers and entrepreneurs dealing in oil. Others less so: refugees from Liberia, Congo, or other tropical countries seeking new homes.

And in the days of high summer, when temperatures climb above 60 degrees, flocks of tourists arrive, traveling by sea on the coastal ferry, descending from the sky in jets and twin-prop planes, motoring in rental cars from Avis and Hertz on two-lane highways that continue south to Oslo, and Greece. Some seek the solitude of coastal views, others the thrill of hiking open tundra and kayaking fiords home to whales and thousands of years of human history.

Everyone pays a steep price to be here. Norway, a constitutional monarchy with oil of its own, has declined to join the European Union. Its currency, the krone, is expensive, and prices are high enough to make you choke on a piece of dried cod. Gas stations sell fuel for $6 a gallon. In well-stocked convenience stores, four bottles of water and two packs of gum can cost, no joke, $25.

But visitors find a rare reward: easy access to high arctic terrain.

The rugged Varanger region, eastern edge of the county of Finnmark, has no towering mountains peppered with colorful coastal villages, as in the Lofoten Islands and other parts of Norway's western coast. There are no calving glaciers, as in Spitsbergen, the ice-cold outpost 400 miles north into the Arctic Ocean.

Yet nature looms large: thick forest inland, treeless tundra along the coast, and riches of the Barents Sea, from catches of Atlantic salmon to encounters with beluga whales. To travel here in the endless light of high summer is to shift between extremes: from modern city streets in Vadso to a sod-covered cottage abandoned by the sea in Hamningberg, from the solitude of tundra at Vardo's edge to a gas station parking lot on a Kirkenes roundabout.

For some visitors, it is enough to linger aboard the Hurtigruten, the classic coastal ferry service, and offset idle hours at sea with brief strolls in isolated fishing ports. But the onboard climate can be stuffy. So better to disembark longer.

Between Vardo and Vadso along the Komagvaer River, anglers rent cabins on the open tundra, then sit around fires after hours casting for soon-to-spawn salmon. Reindeer herds head deep into inland valleys, where arctic fox pups, their numbers on the rise in recent years, huddle in dens.

Kayakers paddle the narrow passage of Varanger Fiord alongside porpoises that surface in the sideways light of evening. Fishermen who once made a living catching cod now shuttle tourists in search of king crab. The crustaceans, imported by Russians from the Bering Sea to the Barents decades ago, are now said to number a million and more.

Human history here spans millennia, from native Sami settlements, to waves of Norwegian and Finnish migration, to flourishing trade with White Sea Russians in the 19th century.

The past is captured in the desolation of Hamningberg, where many once-active fishing cottages now welcome summer tourists to the edge of the northern seas, and in Vardo, where costumed guides lead tours of Europe's northernmost fortress. Two thorough museums track local history, too.

Yet Vardo's North Pole Pub, an Irish affair with comfort and class hard to find at more southern latitudes, buzzes on Friday nights, when old and young from the town of 2,300 gather for pints. Should you find yourself there on a winter Thursday, they play trivia games.

Timing is everything, of course, in a region where winter's darkness closes quickly.

On a summer Sunday afternoon, the village of Berlevag, featured in "Cool & Crazy," an intriguing documentary about the local men's chorus, was dead quiet. A solitary run along the seawalls of the harbor brought a chance to ponder the power of seas that can rise to 30 feet, punishing the tetrapods - three-pronged concrete buffers - stacked to offer the 1,200 residents peace of mind.

The evening before a four-day summer street fair in Kirkenes, Cecilie Hansen, vice mayor of the commune that includes the city, sat in her small farmhouse only a few miles from the Russian border. Just east of that, the nickel plant in the Russian town of the same name belches pollution that often descends on the fields and forest on the Norwegian side of the Pasvik Valley. Hansen, who has lectured on cross-border relations as far south as Turkey, looked on the bright side.

She talked of increasing business between the eastern edge of Norway and Russian cities, including Murmansk. Profits have brought theaters, galleries, and more to Kirkenes.

"The key is culture," Hansen said. "People . . . must have something to do when they're not working."

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Vardo Hotel
Kaigata 8, Vardo
011-47-78-98-7761
A modern hotel catering to tourists and business travelers on the port in Vardo.
Doubles $92.

Pomor Museum
Kaigata, Vardo
011-47-78-98-8075
Contact the museum to rent a two-bedroom furnished cottage, set above the rocks at the end of the port in the center of town, for $95 a night.

Svanhovd Environmental Centre
Svanvik
011-47-78-97-3600
svanhovd.no/gammel.html
Cozy but comfortable rooms on the grounds of the center and headquarters for the nearby Pasvik National Park. Doubles $103.

Anchor Hotel
Berlevag
011-47-78-98-1415
Spare, simple accommodations to match the surrounds of the remote fishing village.
Doubles $90.

Where to eat
Havhesten
End of the road, Ekkeroy Open summer afternoons and evenings, except Monday, this upscale dockside restaurant is a rare place to sample king crab, cod, and other catches from the Barents Sea. Dinner for two $100.
Vardo Hotel

(See above)
Three-course meals that often feature seafood.
Dinner for two about $50.

Asia Burger Cafe
Kristian 4 gate 3, Vardo
011-47-78-94-4600
Authentic, fresh Thai specialties and classic American hamburgers, side-by-side at a local favorite.
Dinner for two about $60.

What to do
Norway, which is not a member of the European Union, is a particularly expensive country in which to travel. From flights to bottled water, prices are set at a premium. But for those able and willing to pay, the country's northern coastal areas make it among the most accessible parts of the Arctic. Passenger ships and airplanes offer daily service even to villages of 1,000 people tucked in fiords and set hard against the sea. Wideroe (wideroe.no, or 011-47-81-00-01200) offers single flights and two-week tourist packages that allow multiple stops in points throughout the region. Round-trip aboard an SAS jet from Oslo to Tromso, then aboard a Wideroe twin-prop from Tromso to Berlevag, for example, costs roughly $650. The Hurtigruten, or classic coastal steamer, (hurtigruten.com, 800-323-7436, 212-319-1300) has served remote outposts for more than a century. The line's more modern ships with lounges and restaurants now cater mostly to tourists, and follow daily schedules that allow travelers to hop on and off. One-way cabin fare from Berlevag to Vadso, for example, costs $285. Local governments across northern Norway offer connections to hotels, kayak and fishing operators, and other tourist services. Visitnor way.com includes links to more than two dozen town tourism sites. For those heading to the northeastern edge of Norway, varanger.com provides a good introduction. Big rental car companies have locations in Kirkenes and Vadso, and driving along the coast is easy. Vardo, the island town located at the end of Highway E75 (which begins in Greece), makes for a particularly interesting base at the edge of the Barents Sea. For contacts in the town, e-mail the tourist office at vardo@varanger.com, or call 011-47-78-98-6907. From Vardo, daily round-trips on a harbor tug deliver visitors beneath the seabird colonies on the cliffs of Hornoya. For contacts in Vadso, e-mail vadso@varanger.com, or call 011-47-78-94-0444.

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