It's a thrill arriving in Tromso, for this is call-of-the-wild country. The frontier town 350 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle is a springboard to the snowy north's polar darkness, to the midnight sun, ghostly northern lights and implacable snow and ice.
If you are a Game of Thrones fan, this is the last bastion before the equivalent of the 100-league Wall, the colossal, solid ice buttress stretching along the Seven Kingdoms' northern border, and final fortification before the wildling badlands.
There are of course towns further north, like Kirkenes, or the world's most northern city, Hammerfest, but Tromso is Norway's official gateway to the Arctic.
It has the air of a place gazing outwards – to adventure, danger, excitement and mystery. It has long been the jumping-off point for intrepid adventurers such as Roald Amundsen, Norwegian polar explorer and the first to reach the South Pole in 1911.
In the centre of the town, which is beautiful with a hint of austerity in preparation for the darkness that comes, your eyes inevitably slide beyond the fiord-edge birch forests towards the violet mountains.
Tucked inside its own narrow fiord, Tromso is safe haven, seemingly air-conditioned by the balmy Gulf Stream to temperatures that defy its latitude. But less than an hour out of town, the warmth ceases.
This is wildling territory, the entry point to the thrilling beyond, where temperatures scrape minus 25 and the denizens of darkness wander unimpeded. Bear with me – this landscape inspires delicious hyperbole.
Flying into Tromso is to witness what is out there. Past the olive velvet coating the surrounding mountain foothills, past the dark pine forests, the peaks sharpen up. Be sure to explore.
Take the four-minute Fjellheisen cable car up Floya Mountain to the upper Storsteinen (Big Rock) cable station at 421 metres. Those with thighs of steel can climb the new Sherpa Staircase.
There's a cafe and viewing point, with regal views of Tromso's fiords, islands and surrounding mountains, including some of Norway's oldest mountains – the 1000-metre peaks of Ringvassoya. Floya is on the mainland (Tromsdalen) connected by bridge to Tromso, which is on the island of Tromsoya. Most of Tromso, including the city centre, is on Tromsoya.
Just 15 minutes west of the city centre is Kvaloya Island, connected by bridge to Tromsoya. This mountainous island, with at least 10 mountains higher than 700 metres, offers superb hikes through its valleys, lakes, sparse forests and streams. Low light pollution makes Kvaloya ideal for northern lights viewing.
East of Tromso, the alpine summits of the Lyngen Alps rise like otherworldly fangs from narrow, snow-cushioned valleys. Intrepid adventurers can join guided ice-climbing hikes to trek to the glacier-covered summit of the Alps' 1834-metre Jiehkkevarri.
Tromso also offers cultural trips to explore the area's rich Norse and Sami heritage, as well as kayaking, dog-sledding and fishing, whale watching and northern lights hunting from September to March. The midnight sun shines from May 20 to July 20.
The city is the departure point for small ship adventure cruises, such as our APT MS Island Sky expedition, which meanders to Copenhagen.
You may not want to climb every mountain or ford every stream, in which case there are lively alternatives. This "Paris of the North" hosts the world's northernmost university, symphony orchestra, botanical garden and golf course, as well as annual northern lights and international film festivals.
Tromso's charming city centre has northern Norway's highest number of historic wooden houses, the oldest dating from 1789. Festivals abound, some, like the autumn Insomnia Festival driven by Tromso's electronic music scene. The city is craft beer heaven, with a plethora of pubs. There's also, it must be said, a bewildering abundance of frisors (hairdressers).
The Polar Museum in an 1837 wooden wharf house tells the fascinating story of hazardous Arctic expeditions and Arctic trappers – live vicariously. If time permits, take the bus to the university's Tromso Museum, which deals with the culture and nature of northern Norway.
And around every corner, there's great coffee. Try the funky Riso Mat and Kaffebar for delightful coffee, cinnamon buns and light lunches.
Then, go on, you know you want a haircut.
Alison Stewart was a guest of APT.
APT's 15-day Majestic Norwegian Fjords small ships expedition cruise from Tromso to Copenhagen starts from $16,895 per person, twin share including $900 per couple air credit. Based on an August 22, 2019, departure.
See aptouring.com.au/trips/russiascandinaviabaltics/nobhtc15 or call 1300 196 420.
Qatar Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm or Oslo via Doha, then Tromso with Scandinavian Airlines. See qatarairways.com