Experiencing the extremes, in the northern Norwegian outpost of Honningsvag, which is regarded as a city, even with less than 2,500 resident population, getting there is an adventure, through roughhewn tunnels that burrow below the Barents Sea. However, most intrepid tourists either fly into the small regional airport, at Valan, on the north side of the town, or arrive on cruise vessels, having been whale-spotting someway north of Mageroya, the island home of this remarkably idyllic conurbation.

Intriguingly, despite being several hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, there is no permafrost in this area, thanks to the gulf stream and, while the temperatures can drop into negative territory, the local waters remain ice-free. Summer is brief, warm and bright, as the midnight sun scarcely sets, although the winters can be very grey, bleak and dark. However, it is very easy to become beguiled by this remote and exceedingly restful place. I remain a strong fan.

Denmark and the amazing Oresund

At the southern end of the peninsula is an area known as Oresund, renowned for the remarkable engineering of its multilevel bridge that carries both trains as well as road transport, at its natural gateway to The Baltic. No matter, from which direction you approach the construction, it is a thing of wonderment and engineering beauty. If travelling from Copenhagen, Denmark (south), to Malmo, Sweden (on the north side), the first four kilometres are by tunnel to the man-made island of Peberholm.

From there, the road (E20) and rail system rises magically above the Baltic for a further eight kilometres of bridge into southern Sweden. Opened in July 2000, there are no passport checks, although a toll booth will relieve you of Euros43 for the privilege of using the crossing, which is almost the same as the vehicle ferry rate for the shorter crossing from Helsingor (Denmark) to Helsingborg (Sweden) just a few kilometres west, along the coast.

As a great reason to enjoy a two-centre holiday in this part of Europe, the cultural differences between Denmark and Sweden can be experienced first-hand. Together, the two predominant cities have a population density in excess of 2.6m people. When the bridge opened, many Danes sought to acquire properties in Sweden, which sell for markedly less than those in their homeland. By the same token, a lot of Swedes headed to Copenhagen for work and better salaries and the crossover of both language and culture has been astonishing. Fortunately, for visitors, English is a fairly common tongue, although Danish Krone and Swedish Krona are independent currencies. It is fortunate that both are acceptable on either side of the Oresund.

Naturally, (as the song goes: ‘Wonderful, wonderful…’) Copenhagen is Denmark’s capital city and its Kastrup airport is an international hub (possessing one of the finest business lounges that I have ever experienced, complete with an open fire that is so welcoming in the winter months), serving both sides of the Oresund. The city is also home to the two Michelin starred super-restaurant, Noma, which has also been awarded ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ status for the past four years. Interestingly, no less than 13 Michelin stars have been awarded to eateries in the city and it boasts the highest number of restaurants and bars per capita in the world.

In tourism terms, Copenhagen has an immense amount to offer, including the oldest amusement park in the world, at Dyrehavsbakken (it was established, believe it or not, in 1583). The second oldest, established in 1843, is at the Tivoli Gardens and the Rutschebanen, which is the world’s oldest surviving and operating roller-coaster is well worth the rattly-clattery ride. If that is not enough, then the world’s oldest ferris wheel (opened 1943) will be sure to augment your trip to the gardens, which also play host to the performing arts and are an important aspect of Copenhagen’s cultural scene.

Cycling around the city is positively applauded and promoted and, as long as the weather is pleasant, it is a most satisfying means of exploring Copenhagen’s innumerable nooks and crannies, both ultra-modern and design-centric, as well as historical. However, city transit by water, rail and road is also well catered for and a Rejsekort (nor dissimilar to London’s Oyster card) enables many, or all of them, to be experienced during any stay.

The university city of Malmo, on the other hand, is a lovely, ancient place possessing a modern sense of style. Yet, it is unforced and manages to feel both exceptionally elegant, yet subtly different to other major commercial centres. A lot of Sweden’s millionaires reside in Malmo, which is strange, when you realise that much of the area’s wealth is created outside of the city and its former shipbuilding and heavy industry is all but gone.

Visitors will love the 14th Century St Peter’s Church in the old centre of town, although the art nouveau movement enjoyed extensive patronage around the city and many of the public buildings extolling this design form remain in excellent condition and are open for viewing.

However, if you really want the true historical flavour of Denmark and its connection to Great Britain, then you need to look no further than the Danish National Museum, in Copenhagen. Celebrating 1,000 years since the Viking invasion of England by Danish king, Swein Forkbeard (his son was Canute, who became our king in 1016), a marvellous exhibition (‘Viking’) is running until 17th November. Do not worry, it transfers to the British Museum in spring next year.

Around forty miles west of Copenhagen is the former Viking capital of Roskilde, where the delightful Restaurant Snekken serves up an authentic Viking meal. This ‘land of legends’, which happens to also be the name of the brilliant open air museum at Lejre, around ten miles south of Roskilde (Sagnlandet Lejre), is worth the diversion should you wish to immerse yourself in Danish culture.

A brief flit to iceland (and a wee mention of the faroes)

We used to play a slightly cruel game about the Belgians. How many famous Belgians can you name? Well, try doing the same thing with Iceland…I came up with Magnus Magnusson (the sometime presenter of BBCTV’s ‘Mastermind’), the avant-garde pop singer, Bjork, and the equally strange rock band, Sigur Ros. The truth is, I quite like them all. However, more importantly, I utterly adore Iceland.

When you fly there from the UK, you pass over the Faroe Islands, which usually amount to little more than a comment on Radio 4’s North Atlantic weather report. A collection of small, rugged and largely inhospitable Danish islands, the Faroes are actually worth a visit for the wonderful traditionalism and warmth of welcome you will receive from its peoples. While fishing is still the
predominant industry, the recent discovery of petroleum reserves is giving some hope to the local economy.

Although unemployment levels are low, the transition of young people to Denmark and other Nordic countries is quite high. Yet, when Iceland was experiencing its major financial woes in 2008, the Faroe Islands still managed to send a $52m loan to its neighbour. Should you visit, you will find one of the best road networks anywhere in the region.

Just before the aeroplane lands at Keflavik airport, it passes over the glistening Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s biggest tourist attraction by far. This geothermal pool is only around 20 minutes’ drive from Keflavik, 40 minutes’ from the island capital, Reykjavik. Although based on an ancient lava flow (the word ‘ancient’ is so relative in a country as ‘new’ as Iceland), the lagoon is actually manmade and is fed by the waters of the Svartsengi power station, which provides a distinctly industrial back-drop to this otherwise starkly ‘picturesque’ location.

Although it has distinctly healing properties (notably for chronic skin complaints) and the milky-blue waters, which are completely replenished every two days, are rich with minerals, silica and sulphur (which does get up your nose slightly), all bathers are required to shower comprehensively before entering and after experiencing the 37-39 degreesC warmth. There is truly nothing quite like the Blue Lagoon anywhere in the world and I do urge you give it a try.

Of course, Iceland is packed full of fascinating geological features, all of which possess slightly scary side-effects, such as the geysers (or, geysir, as they are in Iceland, which originated the word), the spectacularly beautiful but immensely powerful waterfalls, the lava fields, sulphur ponds, the glowering landscape and the sea crashing into the still forming coastline. Thanks tothe island’s location above the tectonic Eurasian and North American geological plates, it is a hotspot in every imaginable way.

Although you will not need one, unless you traipse off the excellent tarmac roads of Iceland’s extensive roads network, renting a 4x4/SUV at the airport is preferable to relying on public transport, unless you intend to reside within any one of a half dozen Icelandic resort hotels but not travel anywhere. That would be a mistake. Driving off-road is one of this location’s genuine thrills. If you intend to visit the area around Eyjafjallajokull, the site of the most recent and most devastating volcanic eruption,
you will need permission.

Apart from local Icelandic racers tackling nearimpossible cliffs in their raucous and immensely potent hill-climbing buggies (which you can view on YouTube, on any PC in your vicinity), there is an entire ‘uberclass’ of fat-tyred Toyotas, Chevrolets and Jeeps owned by open-road adventurers, who are willing to take you on carefully licensed, guided tours of the glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, lava caves, snowfields and icy outcroppings. It is worth noting that the fat tyres and specially re-constructed vehicles are designed to tread very lightly on Iceland’s ever-so-fragile landscape. Yet, that does not reduce the thrill for one second.
There is a predominance of American cars on the roads, although there are also loads of Volvos, Saabs, Subarus and other European brands too. The speed limit is a heavily policed 90kph (56mph), which reduces to 80kph on gravel and 50kph in built-up areas. The food is excellent, with a reliance on locally caught freshwater fish and seafood, although mutton and dairy produce are
also popular. A growing greenhouse market is introducing an increasing amount of fresh vegetables and fruit to diners’ tables.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Icelanders are rated among the healthiest in the world, with a greater per capita spend on healthcare than any other nation, they consume the largest amount of Coca-Cola per head of population and, when not drinking ‘pop’, their consumption of ‘aquavit’, the local vodka, can be astonishingly high. English and Danish are taught at school and most
Icelandic people speak and understand English. Oh, yes, and everybody believes in elves and trolls…

Finland’s 1000 lakes

Bordered by Sweden (west), Norway (north) and Russia (east), Finland is the most sparsely populated country of the EU. As a rallying enthusiast, I got to know the countryside quite well from the late-1970s, visiting key centres like Jyvaskyla, Tampere, Espoo, Rovaniemi (in the north) and the capital, Helsinki (in the south). Yet, this is a land of remarkable simplicity. It consists of a
mere handful of major towns, the countryside is mostly flat, although it is hillier in the far north, peppered with forestry and woodmills and the rest is expanses of fresh water, ranging from ponds to sizeable lakes that freeze over in winter and are blighted by mosquitoes in summer (they die off in autumn, which is a great time to visit). There are far more than just 1,000 lakes.

The further north you travel, the less populated it is, although you will reach the Arctic Circle, around which the midnight sun is a distinct feature during summer months (for 73 consecutive non-setting days in the far north), although a typical winter’s day will last for little more than six hours (the sun does not rise for 51 days in the far north) and its highlight is the aurora borealis, or
northern lights, that crackle electrically, colourfully on occasions and mystify all observers. Yet, you need not think that it is a country devoid of activities in which to revel. Swimming, fishing and canoeing predominate, as do tours of the countryside, walking and cycling.

Wandering down Aleksanterinkatu, a commercial street in downtown Helsinki, you could be in any modern city centre, complete with high-end shops, eateries and the inimitable ‘café-culture’. However, Finland does exude a distinctive classy excellence to its
architecture and some of its city centre and official buildings are major statements of design. The Euro is its currency and, while typically Scandinavian in its fairly high cost of living, it is less expensive to live in most parts of Finland than in nearby Sweden. However, there is an all-pervading atmosphere of well-being about the country, which is not restricted to its open countryside
but also its population centres.

A singing revolution

Only when you travel to Latvia, could you truly appreciate that this lovely country’s separation from its former Soviet roots was achieved by musical means. While there is no avoiding the fact that a large number of former Latvians now live quite amicably in the UK, although the nation’s economy was decimated by the economic crash of 2008, it has recovered very fast and is now developing quite successfully, with tourism taking centre-stage in its welcoming and colourful backdrop, which the locals say is ‘best enjoyed slowly’. They could not be closer to the truth.


Offering over 300 miles of sandy beaches that are reached readily from its medieval city centres, complete with their Hanseatic roots and both Baroque and art nouveau buildings, Latvia’s single greatest feature is that it is so compact. Riga is its beautiful capital city and from the moment you alight from a tour bus, or following a 15 minutes taxi ride from its international airport, you can sense the beating heart of a warm and captivating city.

Yet, there is something almost as equally ordered about this place, despite its apparent laid-back nature, as  its distinctive four seasons of near three months equal length. Summer runs from June until August and the temperatures can reach a very warm 35 degreesC, while vernal and autumnal temperatures range between 5 to 10 degreesC, not dissimilar to our own, although our
seasons tend to be far less conspicuous these days. A Latvian winter is cold and usually sub-zero.

Many of Latvia’s towns are simply charming and most have spectacular rivers running through them. Naturally, with such a glorious, historical past, palaces, castles and substantial manor houses exist in abundance and form a customary focus for lovers of history, photographers of various capabilities and sightseers of all ages. However, no visit to Latvia is complete without taking in Tervete National Park, which is a haven for rare animals and plants, as well as for the families seeking its various secrets, not least of which are the Fairytale Forest, the Playground and the Dwarf’s Forest. If you happen to be visiting in mid-August, then you might also indulge in the Craftsmen Fair and also the Zemgalian Festival, which celebrates the heritage of this delightful region.

On the other hand, the valley of the picturesque Gauja River is classified as Latvia’s most popular tourist attraction. The mighty river cuts a swathe through the countryside and carefully constructed pathways and cycling routes have been placed within the area to allow visitors to see some of the most spectacular natural features in northern Europe, with caves, rocks and gorges
that will grab your attention and enhance your trip.

Far from finally, although for this story, it must suffice, a visit to Jurmala City is an absolute ‘must’. If you want to enjoy a health resort, then you will be spoilt for choice here, because, apart from its golden dunes and more than 20 miles of intriguing coastline, its therapeutic thermal waters, peat mud baths and spa treatments by the score combine with fully accessible buildings, beaches and abodes to make this the perfect place for people with special needs. However, its largely wooden structures, of which over 400 of them are historically important, also add to the attraction.

…and, finally…

There is so much more to consider around the Nordic countries and the Baltic region, not least in Lithuania and Estonia. If you are looking at the former, be aware that it is the home of Amber Road and there is scarcely a decent jewellers anywhere in Vilnius (or its other cities) that cannot sell you semi-precious amber. On the other hand, Estonia will surprise you with its forward thinking. It was the first of the former Soviet countries to adopt Euro currency. It created ’Skype’. Its economy is very stable and, had Estonia not been so progressive, neither Latvia, nor Lithuania, would be in such a positive state today. However, the northern coastline of Germany is also quite spectacular and renowned for its health spas and myriad havens for seekers of tranquillity. This is primarily what the Baltic and Nordic regions major on. However, there are also several small rocky island groups within the Baltic that just beg to be explored and also provide interesting alternatives to mainland vacations.