The Senja Island Experience: Northern Lights in Norway

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Northern Norway is a fantastic choice for seeing the Northern Lights. There are plenty of areas and unique experiences available to visitors in Norway looking for a special Northern Lights getaway.

You can sleep in igloos, or glass houses, camp in wilderness areas in the middle of nowhere and even stay in luxury resorts with saunas and hot tubs. 

If you are looking for something low key, secluded and with a boutique feel, Senja Island is the perfect destination. Senja Island on the west coast of Norway is renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty and dramatic landscapes.

It is less touristy than the popular Lofoten Islands and popular Northern Lights town of Tromsø, which makes it a bit more enjoyable for those who love fewer crowds and a relaxed environment.  

My Trip Details

My parents and I headed to Senja Island at the end of March in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. We were lucky enough to see them every night of our trip while staying at the Aurora Borealis Observatory Hotel (more on that hotel later). 

We missed higher KP levels for the lights by a few days so the colors were weak to the eye, but the experience was still a memorable one!

In summary, we flew from Tampa, FL to Oslo, spent the night in the Radisson Blu Airport Hotel (which is an easy walk from the airport) for one night and then flew to Bardufoss BDU airport the next morning (flights are limited to BDU).

We then took a bus to Finnsnes where a member of ABO staff picked us up to take us to the hotel. 

After four nights at ABO we were driven by hotel staff to the ferry in Finnsnes and took a 3 hour cruise ship to Tromsø. After a few nights in Tromsø, we flew to our next destination in Europe (we headed to Holland for the blossoming Tulips).

Here is a detailed account of our time on Senja island, where we stayed and what we would do differently next time.

What to Know Before You Go

Senja, pronounced Sen-ya, is a scenic secluded island off the coast of Northern Norway, 2.5 hours by car from Tromsø. 

It is the second-largest island in Norway, covering an area of approximately 1,586 square kilometers (612 square miles). It is located in the Troms og Finnmark county, in the northern part of Norway. Despite its considerable size, Senja remains relatively untouched and is known for its pristine wilderness and rugged landscapes.

Finnsnes is the largest town near Senja Island, at the base of the island bridge. You’ll have to drive over the bridge to reach the island. 

Senja is remote and does not offer a lot of amenities like grocery stores or restaurants. It is best to stock up on groceries while in Finnsnes before getting to the island. 

Grocery store, Rema 1000 is located a short walk from the main bus stop terminal in Finnsnes.

Definitely check with your hotel on what amenities they offer including food service, activities and transportation. Does your accommodation have a kitchen or anywhere to keep food cool and prepare meals? This is important during your stay on Senja, especially if you do don’t have a rental car. 

If you go to Senja Island to see the Northern Lights, you’ll have all day to entertain yourself (even if you visit during the midnight sun) because the lights do not appear until the evening (due to the tilt of the earth and position of the arctic circle). 

There are winter activities to do on the island including scenic island tours, cross country skiing, down hill (hike up) skiing and dog sledding.

You will need to plan activities in advance as some tours sell out (more on island activities later on in this post).

Avoid visiting the island during the holidays like Christmas and Easter. Many businesses shut down including public transportation during holidays.

Business and public transportation also shut down or work very limited hours on Sundays throughout the year so it is best to avoid traveling on Sundays.

Getting to Senja Island

You have the option of driving to the island (car or bus), taking a ferry or flying to a nearby airport in addition to a ferry or bus.  

Keep in mind, you’ll still need transportation from the bus stop or ferry port to your accommodation on Senja island. Most hotels offer this to their guests but it’s very important to check. You don’t want to be stranded!

By Car 

The cheapest rental cars are from Tromsø. Bardufoss and Finnsnes also offer rental cars but when we checked, the rate was almost doubled than that of Tromsø.

Be aware, roads may close during inclimate weather, so if you plan to drive, visiting in September, October or March to early April is ideal to avoid posisble heavy winter conditions and dangerous driving conditions. 

Flying 

If you fly, you will also need to take a ferry, bus or car to get to the island from the airport. 

The closest airport to Senja Island is Bardufoss (BDU). You can reach the island by taking a public bus from the small airport (BDU) to Finnsnes, it’s about 50 mins one way. 

You can also fly into Harstad or Tromsø and take a ferry, a bus or drive from there. Tromsø is about 2.5 hours away, while Harstad is 3.5 hours away by car.

Bus

Flybussen is the public bus line. You can purchase a bus ticket online in advance or buy it on the bus with cash in NOK.

If taking the bus from BDU airport

We were told to go outside and find the bus (its green and white with Flybussen label) and tell the bus driver we were getting on the bus to Finnsnes first rather than waiting for our luggage and then going out to the bus.

There is only one bus after each flight so if you miss the first one, you’ll have to wait a long time for the next bus from the airport (there are only 3-4 a day). They do a good job of waiting for all arriving passengers but it’s still important to be assertive and find the bus before its scheduled departure.

Ferries

Ferries leave from Tromsø, Finnsnes, Brøstadbotn, Harstad and North Senja (Botnhamn).

Some vessels are “fast ferries” and some operate a bit slower. It takes anywhere from 1hr 20 mins to 3 hours to reach Tromsø by ferry depending on the boat. 

There are a few different ferry operators including Fylkestrafikk and Hurtigruten. You can book tickets on line or at the ferry terminal. We were told they rarely sell out, but you should arrive at least 45 mins prior to departure.

Getting Around the Island

Self driving is the easiest way to get around Senja Island for northern lights chasing. Its a big island, the roads are paved, well maintained and navigation is easy. 

Public transportation is limited on Senja Island. There is a bus route but you would have to make transfers and waiting times are long.

We didn’t rent a car during our trip to Senja Island, because we followed an itinerary that was suggested to us by an experienced visitor that had a great experience, so we didn’t do much research into alternate plans.

We ended up paying for guided tours each day, and while it worked out well to see the island, we were restricted to seeing what the tour guide had planned.

The tours were at least $100-$150 per person per tour so renting a car would have been cheaper but then you would have not gotten a knowledgeable guide (as long as they are knowledgeable) that knew the best places to go. 

We looked into renting a car for the day from Finnsnes but prices were over $300 US for a day. Plus we didn’t have any transportation to the car rental stand, but probably could have paid the hotel staff to give us a lift. 

While we still had a good experience, if I visit the island again I would definitely rent a car and drive from Tromsø, rather than flying into BDU and taking the bus to Finnsnes, mainly for the flexibility of self driving around the island.  

Where to Stay on Senja Island

Aurora Borealis Observatory Hotel Review

The Aurora Borealis Observatory Hotel was recommended to my family so we decided to stay there for four nights. What’s great about this hotel is you are able to walk right outside of your hotel door to observe the aurora borealis overhead- but you are able to do this almost anywhere while staying on Senja Island.

Although we did feel the hotel’s website over-sold themselves on a few things we still had a great experience. 

The rooms are small but comfortable. They each offered a kitchenette for cooking which comes in very handy, if you pick up food before you arrive (I later read that some rooms do not offer kitchens).

The hotel offers daily breakfast (from 9 a.m to 11 a.m) at the reception building and also has a restaurant for dinner. 

The menu was limited and they were constantly out of items like pizza, salads, beef cheek and salmon but what they did serve was delicious. I am not sure how quickly they are able to get supplies but one of the staff told us they had been out of beef cheek for three months. In this case, it’s probably best to edit the menus as it just added to the feeling of false advertising.

The reception building where they serve breakfast and dinner is a short walk from the rooms but it’s still a walk over snow and ice. I asked the staff prior to our visit how much snow and ice was on the ground as we would have brought crampons to safely walk around. They responded that they do a great job clearing the walkways from snow and ice so you do not have to bring special winter footwear or worry about slipping while walking. However, this was not the case. We took a few spills going up and down stairs and walking to breakfast so it is smart to bring good grip winter boots and crampons if you have them. 

Overall, our stay was enjoyable. The rooms were clean, the staff was very friendly and as helpful as they could be but the hotel was understaffed and needed some minor adjustments.

They only had one person at the reception desk at a time that made drinks, acted as hostess, waiter, table busser, answered guest inquiries and was also the shuttle bus driver. This might have been the reason why we waited 30 minutes to be picked up from the bus stop upon arrival.

The hotel also offered guided tours and sold them well on their website using phrases such as “Expert guide sharing captivating stories and insights”, “Expert guide for camera assistance and capturing pictures,” “talk daily with other locals to get information about where the animals were last seen,” however the tours left a lot to be desired.

We booked two tours with ABO Hotel, an island tour and animals in Senja tour. 

Stan (I believe was his name) was our guide for both tours and while he was a nice guy, he did not know alot about the island, or the animals on the island and barely spoke to us during the tours. We asked a lot of questions about the island, what we were looking at, where we were going but unfortunately he didn’t have much to say. We had a better experience with our guided tours from Senja Experience (more on those tours in the next section). 

The other issue we ran into was the tours with ABO Hotel started at 9 a.m which is the same time breakfast started. The staff recommended we start the tour at 9:30 so we could eat which we appreciated but then kept rushing us during breakfast by coming to our table and telling us Stan is ready to start the tour. 

Truthfully we were in no hurry to start the tour (we were the only people on the tour) since the first one was so underwhelming but started right at 9:30 a.m anyways. I’m just confused why the hotel would schedule their tours at the same time as they start serving breakfast when there are no other food options available. 

Finally, the hotel listed a number of activities and gear rental available during our stay, including snowshoeing, hiking, sledding, and cross country skiing. However, once we arrived, the front desk told us they could probably find some snowshoes but didn’t have any other gear to rent, and sounded like they never did and don’t plan on having it in the future. Plus they said there were no hiking trails or cross country trails nearby. This was frustrating to us because it clearly states the available tours and activities on their website.

Between the disappointing tours, lack of gear rentals and complaints from other guests, it’s clear the hotel oversells themselves on their website with good copy and spectacular photos that I now assume are stock photos. 

In anycase, as I said before, despite the hiccups we still enjoyed our stay. I think ABO has a ton of potential but needs better management and a little kinking out.

I would still recommend Aurora Borealis Observatory Hotel to anyone looking to stay on Senja Island, as long as they know what to expect. 

Other Accommodation Options

In addition to ABO there are a number of other hotels and unique stays on the island that are highly recommend:

  • Norwegian Wild: Unique stays including, glass domes, lighthouse and cozy cabins
  • Adventure Senja: Great for fishing excursion and camping in the wilderness
  • Polar Panorama Lodge: The reviews state you need to book the entire house. It is one house with separate bedrooms and common living, dining and bathroom. 
  • Hamn i Senja hotel: Cozy cabins along the water with breakfast, wifi and activities on property.
  • Senja Artic Lodge: Great for groups. One house 5 bedrooms, one bathroom, one kitchen. For those who want to cook themselves.

Things To Do On Senja Island

Even though many people travel to Norway just to see the lights, there are also other winter activities to keep you entertained during the day like dog sledding, wildlife tours, snow shoeing, and cross country skiing. 

Guided Tours

You can easily self explore the island with a car but if you do not have a car, taking a guided tour is a great idea. 

With that said, guided tours are expensive, around $130-$180 pp depending on the type of tour. Most tours last 5 hours and start at 9 a.m. with up to 6 people in each tour. Most operators (the two I found on the island) have strict cancellation policies so you are rarely able to get refunded if you cancel for any reason. 

We planned a daily tour to have something to do during the day. I highly recommend Senja Experiences. We took two guided tours with them and enjoyed the guides and the places we went to. Their guides were passionate, knowledgeable and confident with what they were doing. They also understood photography and were happy to help us take photos, took us to scenic viewpoints, and suggested angles and different perspectives to help us get the best shot.

One of the best things we did was take a Northern Lights Tour with Senja Experiences. Northern lights tours are a great way to see the northern lights with an experienced guide that can help you find them easily, tell you what to look for and also help you take photos worthy of framing. They also took photos of us with their professional camera, so its great for people who don’t have their own camera capable of taking Northern Lights photos.

Read More: This post includes a general guide for taking photos of the Northern Lights.

On the flip side, we also booked two tours through ABO Hotel but were disappointed with both experiences. You could tell the guide lacked experience, knowledge and passion for what he was doing. 

On the animal tour with ABO Hotel, we didn’t feel like the ABO staff or the tour guide cared if we saw any animals. After the first tour’s disappointment, I didn’t trust the guide and did my own research to find a few areas where reindeer were known to hangout. I asked the guide from Senja Experiences and she confirmed that yes, reindeers are almost always in the area I mentioned.

It was really difficult convincing the guide and the on duty hotel employee (who is responsible for telling the guide where to go) to take us to where I wanted to go. Neither knew of the areas, then said it costs extra money and then said it’s too far away.

They told us they were taking us to an open field to maybe see something but that “animals move so you probably won’t see any.” This didn’t sit well with me. Considering how expensive this tour was, I expected them to be a little more enthusiastic about the potential of seeing animals. 

I got a little pushy in the car and asked the guide repeatedly to take us to where I read the reindeer hangout. From my offline google maps, I knew it was not that far and it was in the same direction as the open field they insisted on taking us to. 

Eventually Stan gave in and drove in the direction I asked him to. He ended up missing the turn to the exact area but we continued down another road and saw a few reindeer grazing in the snow which we were very happy for. 

There are no “wild” reindeer in Norway. They are owned by Sami people but they move freely and are not fenced in. Even though they move freely you can still expect to see herds on the streets or grazing in fields near where their owners live. 

According to my research and the confirmation of the knowledgeable guide, you can almost always see reindeer along the road to Skrolsvik Fort, Route Fv221. I am disappointed we didn’t make it to the proper location and am still dying to know if we would have seen a herd of reindeer down that road!

Dog Sledding

You can enjoy a dog sledding adventure with Senja Husky Adventure. They offer different rides and a tour of their camp but you need to book in advance. They were all sold out during our visit but I’ve been dog sledding before (in Ely, Minnesota) and loved the experience!

Scenic Drive 

If you have your own vehicle, driving the Senja National Scenic Route is a must. This route is over 60 miles long, along the northwest side of the island. There are lookout points and pull over spots for you to stop and take pictures at. 

Route Highlights:

  • Segla Grill and Pub in Fjordgard
  • Views from Fjordbotn Campsite
  • Husoy Village
  • Ersfjord Beach
  • Bergsbotn viewpoint
  • Tungeneset viewpoint
The views from Fjordbotn Campsite

Skiing (cross country and downhill)

We watched a lot of people cross country and downhill ski while we were driving around Senja. There are many cross country trails and mountains that people hike up to ski down. However, I couldn’t find any rental shops for ski equipment on Senja. Some hotels say they offer rentals and guided tours but ABO said that too and they didn’t. If skiing in Senja is something you are interested in, get in contact with a tour company like Senja Experiences, that can lead you in the right direction.  

While I did not find general rentals on Senja, I did find a company that offers guided ski experiences in Senja (and around the world), Big Sky BackCountry Guides

Also, Senja by Heart offers guided ski trips (5 and 8 days) but gear is not included.

***

While I may have vented a little about the tours and overall experiences at ABO Hotel, I hope this post was informative and helpful to you for planning your experience in Norway. Maybe you will choose Senja Island like I did and have a fantastic experience chasing lights!

I really enjoyed the island’s remoteness, beauty and serene atmosphere. I would definitely go back but am also curious about Sommarøy, a small island with a fishing village about an hour away from Tromsø. The reviews say it is another great place to catch a light show!

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Sam wearing backpack and hat walking through town.

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