I’m in a rigid inflatable a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle during a midwinter blizzard. The boat is hammering across the choppy grey water and I’m certainly dressed for the occasion: a hood-to-toe survival suit, thermal mittens and snow goggles.
As we swerve into the Trollfjord, a clearing sky reveals towering, white-streaked mountains, and wheeling over them in full majesty is our first sea eagle. It spreads its ragged 8ft wingspan, its broad white tail feathers gleaming, and circles for a moment.
At the helm, our jovial skipper Larsen reaches into a bucket of dead herring and chucks one over the side of the boat. The eagle dives at 100mph before the fish can sink, and snatches it out of the water in its great claws. It’s split-second timing. Olympic stuff.
Mesmerising landscape: Libby gazed upon the pink-streaked mountains of Senja, Norway’s second-largest island
Welcome to our first day of a very cold short break. Still in that faint daze which follows a three-plane journey, we had signed up for our first chilly safari despite some fierce weather. You have to grab your chances when you can because it is a privilege to stalk these emperors of the bird world.
A fifth of all white-tailed eagles can be found around northern Norway. I had seen one before, in a blue summer sky in Scotland, and on clear sunny days here they must be equally magnificent.
BUT I preferred it this way: there is something magical in encountering sea eagles on a bleak day – dark, angry angels descending from grim icy rocks to curve over the vivid glacier-green water. It reminds you that they, not we, own this region.
We were out on the water for two hours as the boat hurtled on to the next spot, sometimes bobbing gently around as the herring-flinging Larsen artfully choreographed each eagle sighting so anyone with unfrozen fingers could take pictures. The hailstones may have bounced viciously off our hoods on the fast run home, but none of us regretted a minute of it.
On Inntravel’s new high-end, high-latitude journey Libby said she ate like a royal
Twenty years ago, I journeyed up this coast on the Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal ferry that threads north from Bergen through the inland passages to more than 30 harbours great and small.
I remembered three things: one was standing entranced for hours, gazing at the sharp, snowy shapes of the Lofoten islands and being told by the ferry’s captain which rock formations are reputed to be trolls, frozen as punishments for mischief.
Another memory was being so gripped by the romance of Norway that I bought a heavy, leather-shouldered hunting jacket to make me look like a dashing young elk-hunter. Sadly, my silhouette is now more like an ageing elk, but I dug it out to wear again.
The third memory was of an allegedly typical Lofoten dish: boiled cod with boiled cod liver, in a cod liver oil sauce.
I am pleased to say that this time, on Inntravel’s new high-end, high-latitude journey – while still using the Hurtigruten ferries – we ate like royals. Don’t tell the children, but reindeer steaks are delicious.
This journey, which we truncated into five nights although you would be better off with the more relaxing seven, is an enterprising winter route through Norway’s Arctic islands.
The spectacular sight of the Northern Lights can’t be guaranteed (we saw only some weird milky streaks through cloudy nights), but the thrill of the north is overwhelming anyway.
We began in Svolvaer, on one of the Lofoten islands, staying in cosy traditional rorbu – fishermen’s huts on stilts over the water. We ate a delightful meal in a beautiful old beamed building, and in the morning we looked out on mountain and harbour, and on the no-nonsense paraphernalia of industrial fishing: lorries and sheds and an enormous A-frame rack for drying cod into ‘stockfish’.
After a night in the rorbu, we caught the northbound Hurtigruten at 10pm, checked into a comfortable cabin and, through another blizzard, sailed a hundred miles further north to the island of Senja.
Cold front: The rigid inflatable that took Libby out in search of sea eagles
From the ship’s deck at dawn I saw that the snow had cleared: mountaintops streaked with pink and topaz shaded up to violent, ethereal blueness over grey-green seas. We were higher in the Arctic Circle now.
Senja is Norway’s second-largest island, with great rocky fingers clawing westward at the open Atlantic. It has been opening up to tourism thanks to a tract of national park, and there is local pride in being more remote, more peaceful, more idiosyncratic than the Lofotens to the south.
We were picked up and driven an hour through frosty birch woods, twisting mountain roads and snowfields to our second destination, Hamn. It feels like the far end of nowhere, a ragged jumble of land and water with peaks and shimmering fjords.
Hamn was a fishing village until the 1890s when a nickel mine opened and it was boom-time.
The quirky tourist potential only began to be exploited in 1993. Now on the site of old fishing huts lie chic wooden apartments, and an elegant conference and wedding centre with every possible amenity (they had a demanding group in recently, and hastily built a gym).
There is also a huge outdoor hot-tub built into the cockpit of an old fishing boat.
Norwegians seek out Hamn all year for the peace, the sheltered kayaking, the snow-shoeing, hiking, whale-watching and wildlife. And if you’re interested in something more light-hearted, there’s a museum dedicated to trolls and legends nearby.
During a sunny spell one day, a cheerful chap called Lasse coaxed us into another set of thermally lined survival suits and goggles to explore the surrounding islands.
We took a fast speedboat this time with proper seats. We saw a golden eagle and watched a crowd of seals fishing in the clear green water off the pure white beaches. Clouds of cormorants, gulls and gannets wheeled by, soaring and swooping. Northern magic.
The next day the snow came back, so the staff cheerfully dug it clear of the wheels of the Hamn- i-Senja minibus, and we crawled across the white and lovely island to the Hurtigruten ship.
We spent a final night in Tromso, gazing at the great A-shape of the Arctic Cathedral before our flight home.
England felt, for once, very far south.
Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk, 01653 617000) offers a three-centre holiday to Norway’s Arctic islands, combining land-based adventures with a voyage aboard the Hurtigruten.
The trip costs from £1,815pp, including SAS flights, seven nights’ BB, four dinners, a coastal steamer journey in an outside cabin, and local transfers.