Golf above the Arctic Circle
”Our first hole has been named the most beautiful starting hole in all of Norway”, brags our Norwegian golf partner Johnny Bolle. But Norsemen don’t brag, he points out. ”Although we may have skewed the vote a tiny bit when we rallied all our members to vote”.
But there is no arguing that it is beautiful. Stunningly beautiful.
We are at Skjomen Golfpark, just outside Narvik on the Norwegian Atlantic coast, a beautiful fall day at the end of September. It is hard to realize that we are well above the Arctic Circle, about 4 degrees further north than Fairbanks, Alaska. The sun is shining and the mercury has risen above +10 C, even warmer in the sun. The thermal underwear was definitely a bad decision.
As it turns out, the Skjomen fjord has its own micro climate, and it is often a couple of degrees warmer here than in Narvik. And Narvik, in turn, enjoys a mild climate due to the Gulf Stream carrying warm water that originated in the Gulf of Mexico up the coast. The climate is so favorable that the Skjomen course usually opens for play in the beginning of May, in spite of being the northernmost 18 hole golf course in the world.
Johnny Bolle is the manager at Skjomen, and he’s playing with us today. After a short lecture about the dangers lurking on ”the most beautiful opening hole in Norway”, he hits a perfect drive that appears to sail all the way to the border to Sweden, visible in the distance.
Skjomen Golfpark is situated in a valley along the Lakseelva River, surrounded on both sides by snowcapped mountains. We slowly work our way to the 5th hole, where the view of the golf course is at its best, truly spectacular. But what dominates the view for the average golfers is Almåslagunen, the lake far below, separating us from the safety of the fairway. Yet everything works out, another bogey. Johnny quietly notes that he is a stroke ahead.
At the 10th hole, Sauhølla, a short par three, the green is jutting out into the river Lakseelva. After holing out, we get a challenge from Johnny: drive a ball across the river, and hit the vertical granite wall above the tree line on the opposite side. It turns out to be much harder than it seems. We all fail.
The wind is picking up and becoming a factor to take into consideration. It is almost completely still on the course, but 10 meters up, above the tree-tops, there is a steady wind blowing down the valley. You are tempted to keep the ball low to avoid the wind, and hit between the widely spaced pine trees, but you always get penalized for that strategy.
On the 15th, a par four dogleg left, I get a tip from Johnny: you can shortcut over the pines to shorten the hole significantly. What he neglects to mention is that you need to fly the ball 250 m. I hit the treetops. Johnny’s lead increases slightly.
The last few holes are played along the river. Two tricky holes with lots of water in play, something we are cruelly reminded of. Johnny miraculously survives, in spite of hitting a few trees.
When we finish on the 18th Johnny sums up the score, and raises both arms in a victory gesture. For the first time we realize that this has been a competition all along, Norway against the Internationals.
Onwards to Paris of the North
In northern Norway, towns are few and far between, and the roads are very windy, making travel by car somewhat tedious. All major towns have airports, so it is much easier to fly from town to town. But by far the best way to see Norway is by boat.
Hurtigruten is a ferry company that has navigated the Norwegian coast for the last hundred or so years, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the north, near the border to Russia. The round trip takes 11 days, and there is one ferry per day. This makes it possible to stop anywhere along the route for a day or two, then just hop back on another ferry and continue. Actually the ferries are more like cruise ships these days, with good accomodations and excellent food. They are more like floating hotels for your coastal adventure.
We wanted to venture north, so after our round of golf in Narvik we hopped on a Hurtigruten ferry towards Tromsö, 400 km north of the polar circle. Tromsö is the eight largest city in Norway, and it known as ”Paris of the North”, a name it got because rich fur traders bought expensive outfits for their mistresses in the 1800s.
Tromsö is located on an island, connected to the mainland by an impressive bridge. It is a bit colder than Narvik, and also gets a lot more snow in the winter. In the summer, Tromsö enjoys around the clock sunshine, midnight sun, from May 21 to July 21, and it doesn’t get dark from the end of April to mid-August. In the winter on the other hand, you don’t see the sun for two full months, the dark time, but it is not totally black but rather a bluish light in the daytime, and you can frequently enjoy the Northern Light, Aurora Borealis.
Tromsö is a university town, and has a night life to show for it. The bars, pubs, and night clubs can accomodate over 20,000 guests, which means that a third of the population of Tromsö can party at the same time.
Tromsö has an number of ”most northerly in the world” – university, planetarium, aquarium, botanical gardens, mosque, and our favorites – brewery and golf course.
Macks Brewery celebrated its 125th anniversery in 2002. Founded by Ludwig Markus Mack of German decent, the brewery has grown to become the largest employer in Tromsö.
Today Macks produce 16 different brews. From the original brews, Mack Pilsner, Bayerøl, Bokøl, and Vørterøl still remain. Nowadays there is also a micro brewery.
In 1928 a beer hall was opened next to the brewery. The beer hall soon became a meeting place for fishermen, whalers, farmers, and town people – at the time completely without wives and girlfriends. The beer hall has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tromsö, and nowadays women are welcome too. A must-visit for beer lovers.
Starting at the beer hall you can join a tour of the old brewery at 3.30 PM, Monday through Friday. The beer hall itself closes at 5 PM, but as we mentioned earlier, there are plenty of other bars in town. One worth mentioning is the Skybar at SAS Radisson Hotel, with a stunning view of Tromsö and the mainland. And if you are a meat lover, don’t miss the Big Horn Steak House, definitely the best steak house north of the polar circle, good enough to stand its own against many restaurants in Texas.
World’s northernmost golf course
About 45 minutes from town you find Tromsö Golf Club, the world’s nothernmost 18 hole golf course. But wait – wasn’t Skjomen Golfpark the northernmost? Yes it was, until Tromsö opened in 2002. The signs are still up at Skjomen. So if you played at Skjomen before 2002, have you played the world’s northernmost golf course? Maybe a question for the Guinness Book of World Records.
The golf experience at Tromsö Golf Club is very different from the one at Skjomen. Here the climate is different, colder, more open to the wind. The course generally doesn’t open until the end of June, two months later than Skjomen. But the view is equally magnificient. High snow capped mountains, the Lyngen Alps, surround the course on three sides, and the remaining side borders on a beautiful fjord. A very worthwhile course for the nature lover.
The course itself is pretty flat. It is not until the final holes that the landscape starts to ondulate. It is mostly a forest course, but the trees are small, so what you end up with is a mix of forest and parkland course. The rough consists of heather and lingon berry bushes, making it relatively easy to find your ball, but quite difficult to hit it out of there. When we played in September, the greens were not in the best of shape, this is a tough climate for the greenkeeper.
The midnight sun is abundant here, too, and if you want to play at midnight before the 18 hole course opens, there is a nine hole course with greens made with artificial grass.
If you have a bit more time, we can also suggest two more courses: Lofoten Golf Links and Harstad Golf Club. Both are nine hole courses, with Lofoten scheduled to open another nine holes this year.
Lofoten Golf Links is located on Lofoten Island, another Hurtigruten stop. They too offer midnight sun golf, stressing that you can play 144 holes per day between May and July. Our suggestion: take some time off from golf and enjoy the island. It is remarkably beautiful.
Harstad Golf is just outside of Narvik, and is easily reachable by taxi from town. It runs in a beautiful setting along the water, with many of the fairways sloping severly towards the Atlantic.
Hurtigruten can assist you in putting together a cruise and golf package. Visit hurtigruten.com.