The Lights Are On in Norway

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 24, 2008

Q. My wife and I would like to observe the Northern Lights from a Scandinavian country. Any suggestion as to where we should go?

Mike Cunningham, Port Republic

A. One place to put on your short list is Tromso. So much more than a bed from Ikea, this Norwegian town is quite simply the hippest, most happening hamlet north of the Arctic Circle. It sports a vibrant university culture, easy access to recreational options of the frozen variety and regular Northern Lights sightings, even in the center of town. And while you can witness that spectacular phenomenon in lots of other places, Tromso -- a two-hour flight north from Oslo -- stands out. Why? The "loud, hospitable people," as the town's Web site puts it (

"People in Tromso talk a lot," confirmed Oda Kvaal-Tanguay, who works for the site. "They exaggerate quite a lot, use quite strong language. They swear a lot, too, although that's normal for northern Norway, especially around the coast."

Great, right?

And the best thing about Tromso, which we learned during a conversation with Kvaal-Tanguay, is that you can expect to have conversations with people like her, a woman so thoroughly in love with her town, even during the darkest frigidity of February, that we wanted to book passage immediately.

"Now is the best time to come," she said. A trip during Polar Night -- the period of darkness between Nov. 22 and Jan. 22, during which "there isn't complete darkness, but we don't see the sun" -- offers the best chance to see the Northern Lights, but they are also visible in February, and by then the sun has returned.

"It's actually funny. On certain nights even we can be amazed when it's really good," Kvaal-Tanguay said. "It's like it's not for real. Most of the Northern Lights tend to be green, but you can also see purple, white or even red." And Tromso's night life isn't confined to the skies: The city boasts many bars and restaurants, as well as Norway's largest film festival ( and a well-regarded classical music festival (, both in January.

Yes, the average temperature during that month is 25, but consider this: Norwegian Air ( has just begun direct service to Tromso from London's Stansted Airport, which makes it even easier for Americans to experience the dual phenomena of the Lights and the loud people, even if the latter do take a bit of getting used to.

"My husband is not from Norway," said Kvaal-Tanguay, laughing, "and he was sitting next to someone on the bus -- a woman. He couldn't believe it. She suddenly asked him, 'How is your sex life?'

"I don't know if that's typical, but it sure sounds like this place."

I was waiting for a plane at the airport and read the electronic sign for the status. The words changed from ON GROUND to LANDED to finally ARRIVED. Can you explain the distinctions?

Helen Mills, Chevy Chase

Thanks to that other oft-used term on the monitors (that would be DELAYED), we've had loads of time to ponder this question in airports ourselves, sometimes for hours. Still, try as we might, we could never envision a situation in which a plane might be on the ground without landing, or vice versa. Turns out there usually is no difference, according to Elizabeth Merida of the Air Transport Association (, a trade group.

"Individual airlines may have their own definitions of these terms," she said, "but very generally, 'landed' and 'on ground' mean the same thing: that the plane has touched down." Which means that it may be a while before "arrived" pops onto the screen and Grandma comes trundling down the jetway. "The plane is considered to have 'arrived' when it has finished taxiing to the gate and the ramp has been pulled up," Merida said.


With regard to our answer about visits to North and South Dakota (Feb. 10), Chris Runge of Rockville writes: "Definitely fly into Bismarck. Spend some time there visiting the Knife River Indian Villages, where Lewis and Clark wintered and met their eventual guide to the discovery of the West, Sacagawea. The splendor of the On-A-Slant Indian Village overlooking the beautiful Missouri River, along with the home of Gen. George Custer . . . is something you do not want to miss."

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