Northern Norway. The name itself can give you a chill, conjuring up thoughts of polar bears, the summer midnight sun, and arctic winters of total darkness. It is an eerie and fascinating land of deep fjords, snowcapped mountains, vast open plains, dramatic island formations, and even fertile farmland (although the growing season is short).

Northern Norway is the land of the Sami, where you come face to face with nature under the foreboding sky of Finnmark, the name of the region. Rushing rivers and lakes are teeming with fish, and many tiny, weather-beaten fishing hamlets depend almost entirely on the sea for their livelihood.

For most visitors, the ultimate goal is the Nordkapp (North Cape), or "the end of the world," as the ancient Vikings called it.

Traveling in north Norway and meeting the Nordlendinger (northerners) is an adventure in travel. However, it may not be as cold as you think. Because of the warming influences of the Gulf Stream, Finnmark has the longest ice-free coast in the Arctic region. Finnmark shares the same latitudes as Siberia, Greenland, and Alaska.

Of course, flying is the fastest way to get here, but you can also drive toward the Arctic Circle from such cities as Bergen on one of Europe's most scenic drives. Don't, however, underestimate driving times. Allow at least 3 days to reach the Arctic Circle from Bergen or 5 days to reach the North Cape.

Coastal Steamer: The Way to Go

Coastal steamers are elegantly appointed ships that travel along the Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkenes, carrying passengers and cargo to 34 ports. A total of 11 ships make the journey year-round. Along the route, the ships sail through Norway's more obscure fjords, revealing breathtaking scenery and numerous opportunities for adventure. At points along the way, passengers have the opportunity to take sightseeing trips to the surrounding mountains and glaciers, and to go on excursions on smaller vessels.

The chief cruise operator is the Hurtigruten, 405 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022 (tel. 866/552-0371; Various packages are available. Tours may be booked heading north from Bergen, south from Kirkenes, or round-trip. The 15-day northbound journey from Bergen to Oslo costs $6,999 per person, including meals and taxes. The 13-day round-trip voyage from Oslo to Kirkenes and back to Bergen is $4,699 per person (days 7-16 include a round-trip cruise). For information on these and other trips, including air-cruise packages from the United States, contact Hurtigruten.