Situated on the western shore of the rugged island of Kvaløya, linked to the mainland by bridge, HAMMERFEST, some 150km north of Alta, claims to be the world’s northernmost town, though in actuality this prize goes to Longyearbyen on Svalbard. It was, however, the first town in Europe to have electric street-lighting, and is indeed mainland Europe’s most northerly settlement. Hardly fascinating facts perhaps, but both give a glimpse of the pride the locals take in making the most of what is, indisputably, an inhospitable location. Indeed, it’s a wonder the town has survived at all: a hurricane flattened the place in 1856; it was burnt to the ground in 1890; and the retreating Germans mauled it at the end of World War II. Yet, instead of being abandoned, Hammerfest was stubbornly rebuilt for a third time. Nor is it the grim industrial town you might expect from the proximity of the offshore oil wells, but a bright, cheerful port, which drapes around a horseshoe-shaped harbour sheltered from the elements by a steep, rocky hill. Hammerfest also benefits from the occasional dignified wooden building that recalls its nineteenth-century heyday as the centre of the Pomor trade in which Norwegian fish were traded for boat-loads of Russian flour. But don’t get too carried away: Bill Bryson, in Neither Here Nor There, hit the nail on the head with his description of Hammerfest as “an agreeable enough town in a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way”. To be sure, it’s the general atmosphere of the place that appeals rather than any specific sight.
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Should you get antsy while holed up in Hammerfest, try a day-trip or overnight excursion out to Seiland, a nearby island where you can take in any number of activities, including hiking, deep-sea fishing, boating, snowmobiling and hunting. Trips offered by Seiland Explore (t78 41 96 40, wseiland-explore.com) range from deep-sea fishing (from 1000kr/day) to a two-day guided excursion to a glacier (from around 7000kr per group). Alternatively, the tourist office has details of local excursions, easily the most popular of which are the fishing trips and the summertime sea cruises to local bird cliffs, which seethe and squawk with guillemots, gannets and kittiwakes, among many other types of sea birds.