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Wanderlust: Seeking Out the Midnight Sun in the Arctic Circle

By Caroline Suganda

The midnight sun in Musvaer lends a warm glow to the night sky.
 
Carol Sachs
The midnight sun in Musvaer lends a warm glow to the night sky.

It was 8pm in Tromso, Northern Norway, but the night sky I am so familiar with was not here to wind down the night with me. It was as bright as daybreak; it was June and this is summer in this part of the world. 

I was juggling the challenges — different timezones, among others — of a long-haul flight, from Singapore via Paris, to the Arctic Circle. What time was it? The digital display my iPhone said it was 8pm... or was it 8am? What day was it? I could hardly keep track. Where was I? That, I knew. Now. 

Just a few days prior, back in Singapore, I had no inkling as to the destination I was headed to, save for a few clues on the invitation card I was holding from Hermès. “Fellow dreamers, experience a day without end ‘In the Pursuit of Dreams’” were the words that stared back at me. The clues: a meeting point (Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport), what to pack (walking boots, parka and sunglasses) and what not to pack (heeled shoes, dresses and shorts). 

It was profoundly suspenseful, and in running with Hermès’s theme for the year: Dream. For the past 32 years, the French luxury leather goods brand has been offering an experiential trip revolving the annual theme, and this year, the house was taking on the role of a dream weaver, offering up surprises that tease and tantalise the senses, all gently intertwined with wit and whimsy. 

HermèsThe midnight sun in Musvaer lends a warm glow to the night sky.
The midnight sun in Musvaer lends a warm glow to the night sky.

This invite was to experience an unusual event, an otherworldly experience that held a promise to captivate the senses and leave everything to the imagination. In other words, manifesting dream into reality. 

So there I was, at the “surprise” destination. I checked in to Radisson Blu Hotel and received my next clue: “I am happy to share an endless daydreaming in the glowing light of the midnight sun with you!” read a card signed off by Pierre Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès. “Rendezvous at 8:20pm at the hotel lobby. Returning in the wee hours.” 

I soon learnt what it meant by a day with no end, where the sun doesn’t set. Here’s why: Over a 24-hour period, the earth spins on an axis that inclines towards the sun, where the North Pole and its surrounding countries within the Arctic Circle are perpetually illuminated by sunlight during the summer months (midnight sun). On the opposite end of the earth, at the South Pole, which is experiencing winter, the nights last for more than 24 hours (polar nights). While the midnight sun is a natural phenomenon, it was entirely new to me. But here I was, ready to experience it first-hand, along with the entire group of 150. Among us were Hermès’s very own in-house perfumer Christine Nagel, creative director of Petit h Pascale Mussard, as well as a curated list of international press and the house’s collaborators. 

In the true Hermès way of life, our journey in pursuit of dreams was also an odyssey in the appreciation of a melange of cultural activities. A Lithuanian trio welcomed us with celebratory tunes of folk music, executed on wooden wind instruments, as we boarded a boat at Tromso harbour. An hour’s boat ride brought us to a remote island, lush with verdant meadows and undulating hills. 

Saulius Petreikis, one of the trio, ushered us on shore with an entrancing tune, played on a birbynė, also known as a reed-pipe. The resounding, slightly vibrating sound produced by the instrument is likened to a signal, a birdcall if you will, with his two other musical companions who were perched on two different hills in the distance. We were in Musvaer, an arctic lagoon and part of a tiny archipelago north of the Norwegian Sea. Population size: a family of six; the sixth-generation of a family of farmers whose ancestors settled on this self-sufficient island in 1832. 

We were greeted by expansive stretches of lush, green gently rolling hills; no road was paved, except for a single trail left behind by what might have been a tractor. It was a pleasant climb up the mossy hills to a nearby peak for a good view of the archipelago; pockets of turquoise waters lapping on white sandy beaches — it was surreal. We were eager to explore and soak in all the natural beauty the island had to offer. For urban dwellers like most of us on this trip, it was a luxury. 

I moved away from the main crowd, walking boots disappearing into the long grass as I took deliberate steps towards a spot where I felt I could have some time with my thoughts. The background noises morphed into a calming white noise, with soft strains of music — Elisabeth Vatn and her team of musicians from Norway and Sweden were playing contemporary tunes with traditional instruments like the bagpipes and bukkehorn — wafting towards me. In the distance, at the foothills, a campfire, replete with a huge tent, was set up on the beach. 

HermèsA double rainbow above our tents.
A double rainbow above our tents.

I made my way to the tent. The sky, meanwhile, was illuminated by the bright but not glaring sun; a double rainbow appeared above us. The interior of the tent was simply set up with a communal dining area — long wooden tables and benches took centre stage. We dined on a spread prepared by newly-minted Michelin-starred chef Heidi Bjerkan, who prides her food on sustainability and preserving the traditional food culture of a region. We ate pickled seaweed that was locally sourced from the island, freshly caught raw fish and cured versions, seagull eggs and potato flatbread. I looked at my watch — it was 11pm — I hadn’t felt hungry before this. Perhaps, that’s the effect of extended daylight hours. 

Looking out the entrance of the tent, I could see that the sun was still bright and glowing, floating above the horizon, looking ready to set. The only difference I could determine was the colour of the sky, which was washed in orange-red hues earlier, was now a misty grey tinged ever so lightly with a shade of yellow-orange. I found myself in an almost alternate state of reality, where the lines that delineate day and night (that I am so used to) had been blurred, yet, here I was. 

After dinner, we headed to explore another part of the island where more festivities were to be expected. We crossed a wooden bridge which joined two lands; the shallow water looked as cold as ice, seaweed danced from the seabed. We had come to a vast white sand beach, and out of nowhere, a small unassuming stage was propped. We seat ourselves on the makeshift bench, and there, Sigrún, an Icelandic vocalist who is a Björk collaborator entertained us with her feet dancing on the ground and her voice cutting through the open skies. Time check: 2am. I was still in a waking dream, a state which was enchanting and rather hypnotising at the same time. 

HermèsSandoya is a mountaneous island and a hiker’s favourite. The population here is just one person — a Danish man who settled here 40 years ago.
Sandoya is a mountaneous island and a hiker’s favourite. The population here is just one person — a Danish man who settled here 40 years ago.

We headed back to the boat and arrived at Sandoya an hour later. The landscape here is also green and grassy, but the terrain, more mountainous. It is apparently a hiker’s favourite destination where one can appreciate the sparse remains of a 17th-century village that had lived off the production and exportation of stockfish. The population: one, a Danish man who settled here about 40 years ago. 

I did a quick time check, it was 3:10am. And all of a sudden, exhaustion hit me. What the midnight sun does to your body is that it sends light to our eyes and alerts us to be awake but the reality is, our bodies start to slow down. The toll of lack of sleep was getting a good grip on some of us but we still had a good 20 minutes of hiking to complete. It was quite an intense hike, considering the uneven, wet ground, as well as the exhaustion that was fast settling upon us. 

Our trail came to an end as we found ourselves perched the high cliffs that hug the island. We sat, opera-style and took in the sight before us — Loup Barrow, a French multi-instrumentalist was playing the cristal baschet at the lowest point of the valley, the haunting, melancholic tones float across the valley with the calm, turquoise waters of the sea gently-lapping in the background. Cristal baschet is a chromatic instrument, like the piano; it is made up of glass shafts that are stroked with wet fingers to produce a rhythmic vibration of sounds. 

HermèsAt Sandoya, Loup Barrow played the cristal baschet, where glass shafts are stroked with wet fingers to produce a rhythmic vibration that rang throughout the valleys.
At Sandoya, Loup Barrow played the cristal baschet, where glass shafts are stroked with wet fingers to produce a rhythmic vibration that rang throughout the valleys.

As we made our way back along the same path, we found a campfire on yet another beach where Rafael Sotomayor and Kate Stone, a duo from Chile and Germany, respectively, played the handpan with gusto, the upbeat rhythm was a gentle reminder that this was our last sprint before the trip ends. Here, we refuelled on hot seafood bisque and sweet bites by Bjerken before the return trip to Tromso. 

We were all exhausted but beyond caring. It was a magical day. As we approached Tromso, the sky appeared to shine even brighter — it was nearing sunrise. We all snuck naps during the boat ride and the in-between waking moments before we docked at Tromso. 

It was almost 7am when we got back to our hotel, and I had spent the last 10 hours in a “waking dream”. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have gone through a day with no end, coupled with cultural immersion perfectly organised and executed by scenographer Ania Martchenko who has worked with designer and Hermès’s former creative director, Martin Margiela. 

As Dumas neatly put it, “At Hermès, we dream with our eyes wide open.”