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Cold comfort.

Byline: By Ken Bennett

Something is crawling over my face in the silver grey gloom of this freezing igloo they laughingly call an hotel...

I can't feel it. But through my partially ice-encrusted eyelids I glimpse a gloved hand. More spookily, it's mine.

It is trying to restore some feeling to my mummified face in this man-made ice cube where, at three o'clock in the morning, you believe you could store frozen humans for a million years.

Yes, an overnight in at the Alta Igloo Hotel really does bring a whole new meaning to chilling out.

Stefan, a beaming staff member, assures me that the temperature remains constant between -4 to -7C. Hmm...

And, he says cheerfully, the natural reindeer hide 'mattresses' and thermal sleeping bags can keep you warm down to -30C below.

Well, prospective snow-dwellers, unlike me, make sure you don't leave any part of your anatomy exposed.

Because despite my thermal vest, thick woollen shirt, jacket, topcoat, two pairs of thermal socks and gloves, I thought my face had dropped off.

And, despite Stefan's nodding insistence, I found it hard to believe newlyweds really do come here to share their wedding night.

It must be the only place on earth you have to don at least four layers of clothes to go bed ...

Just about everything in your honeymoon habitat is carved from ice: The bar, where cubes of ice are cut to serve drinks, ice seats, a miniature chapel with ice pews and its own surreal ice altar.

And don't be tempted to touch the decorations, including a life-size reindeer. Because, much like the hotel itself, they all melt in the April thaw.

However, there is a substantial, comfortably heated, wooden service building with two excellent restaurants and storage for bags. After a night of the ice tiles, you can reheat yourself in a leisurely sauna.

We had arrived at this lunar Ice Station Zebra by a gentle, rather magical, horse-drawn sleigh.

From a snug seat, we looked skywards and there, under the vast pristine canopy of silent stars, skeins of drifting lights weaved before our eyes.

You have to blink several times to realise that yes, this really is the Aurora Borealis, the legendary Northern Lights.

This ghostly phenomenon of solar dust particles holds you transfixed. Even the horse is quiet.

We are humbled. Caroline, our beautiful Norwegian guide, who was soon to take us on a rollicking dog sleigh journey across the Arctic wastes, says in a spiritual whisper: 'The lights makes you realise that everything from a spider to one single leaf has its own place in the universe.'

Mind you, there was not much time for mental contemplation on our whistle stop snowscape tour.

Less than 24 hours later, through a screaming gale, I am being battered to the glacier-like ground by winds from hell. I am trying to focus on the grey lump of land at North Cape, described as Europe's most northerly point. In fact, nearby Knivskjellodden, reaches its icy finger 1500m further still into the scudding gloom.

This had been a serene picture post landscape only minutes earlier with a snowplough confidently guiding our coach to walking distance from the cape itself.

But now we are scrabbling for the safety of a souvenir shop whose sliding doors only open wide enough to let one half-frozen traveller in at time.

There, James, our English tour leader. informs us: 'The wind topped 60mph just then - and the temperature dropped to 35 degrees below freezing. Isn't that marvellous...'

We nodded and smiled breathlessly at each other.

To underpin our sense of exploration, we had barrelled through the bitter inky night on skittering wicker sleighs hauled by teams of huskies. Yes, this really is truly exhilarating, big-time adventure.

And later, our faces burning from the brisk wind, we drank cups of steaming wild berry cordial around a log fire in a giant teepee.

Our host, Eirik Nilsen recounts his own remarkable adventures with his loyal husky teams from the Holmen Dog Centre.

'Huskies just love to run and run,' he says. We all nodded wisely.

Our three-hour, almost unstoppable, snow flight with them had proved that. I look at my own cosily booted feet and felt a real empathy with the dogs.

We take time out from our blistering high-speed journey (we were further North than a flight from Moscow to London) on board one of Hurtigruten's beautiful ships.

Every day of the year, 11 of the fleet - formerly the Norwegian Coastal Voyage - inch their way up the country's intricate spinal seaboard, delivering everything from parcels to people to tiny communities clinging to steep sides of the fjords.

In summer - it stays light for two whole months - the journey is reckoned to be one of the most remarkably beautiful sea trips in the world.

And even in winter, with its two months of almost complete darkness, the ships elegant dining and sleeping facilities are a spotless haven for travellers.

But hold hard, James calls and our intrepid band are off again to splash, dip and dangle in, wait for it, the Barents Sea.

Kitted in bright orange survival suits we heave around like Ninja Turtles as our host dives beneath the waves in search of our lunch.

With a great surge, he reappears clutching a huge, waggling Red King crab, with a shell as broad as a man's chest.

On our return journey, unshaven, tired but elated, I muse that in just four days, we had travelled by plane, dog sled, coach, snowmobile, horse-drawn sleigh and ship... and survived a night in an igloo! Now that's real adventure. CHECK IN: Ken Bennett travelled to Norway as a guest of Hurtigruten, the new name for Norwegian Coastal Voyage, who operate voyages along the 'Hurtigruten' route 365 days a year.

Hurtigruten offers a range of dedicated itineraries including a three-day 'North Cape and the Ice Hotel Adventure' available on selected dates from January 25-March 22, 2007.

Prices start from pounds 795 per person departing on January 25, based on two sharing, includes return flights from London Heathrow, one night at the Alta Igloo Hotel (pictured left), a voyage from Honningsvag to Kirkenes with one night on board, excursion to North Cape, half board transfers and tour manager. An extra night in Kirkenes can be added for pounds 45 a head.

Excursions: Dog sledging, pounds 95 a head for three hours, horse-drawn sleigh ride pounds 20 for 30 minutes, bathing in the Barents Sea, pounds 130 for three hours, Barents Safari, pounds 80, King Crab Safari pounds 90 for three hours.

To book, call Hurtigruten on 020 8846 2666 or visit www.hurtigruten.co.uk
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 24, 2006
Words:1109
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