Travel writer Robin Mead enjoyed his Norwegian coastal voyage so much that he did the trip twice. Here he reports on “a cruise with a difference”.
The first thing to say about cruising up the coast of Norway on the sturdy ships known as Hurtigruten, which leave Bergen with clockwork regularity every evening and head up towards the northern tip of Europe, returning 12 days later, is that this is a cruise like no other.
These are primarily working ships, running a sort of nautical bus service between big towns and remote Norwegian villages where road access may be difficult or non-existent. They carry passengers, freight – everything that isolated communities may need. They’ve really only grown into miniature cruise liners, catering for holidaymakers as well as the regular domestic traffic, in the last 40 years.
So if you are taking a trip on Hurtigruten, you can leave your glad rags at home: you won’t be dining at the captain’s table. Gents: forget the tux and pack a hefty sweater or two to go under your anorak – it can get chilly up inside the Arctic Circle. And ladies: put those strappy sandals aside and pick a pair of wellies instead – you are going to need them.
That said, you are off on one of the most magical journeys in the world. The scenery is stunning, and it never seems to end. You’ll see everything in close-up: much more so than on a standard cruise liner dipping in and out of the fjords.
From sprawling cities like Trondheim to tiny villages studded with pastel-coloured wooden houses, and from man-made spectacles like Tromso’s beautiful ‘Cathedral of the Arctic’ to natural wonders like the lonely headland of North Cape.
I first did the trip in the 1970s, when holidaymakers on board were a rarity and the decks of my ageing coastal steamer were packed with boxes and bicycles, medical supplies and mailbags. Passengers hopped on board in one tiny village, then alighted at another a few hours’ up the coast. Although we hugged the shore, the tables in the sparse saloon had wide lips at their edges to stop our plates of meat and two veg sliding off when the ship rolled – and they proved very necessary when the ship ventured into open water during the crossing to the Lofoten Islands.
Three decades later … and what a transformation. Spurred on by burgeoning holiday traffic, the independent shipping lines running the service had united to form Hurtigruten, and an entire fleet of new ships had come into service. Big, comfortable … one might almost say luxurious.
From a seventies-style cupboard-sized cabin with a cramped bunk and no natural light, my cabin had blossomed into an en-suite stateroom, with a picture window and roomy twin beds. Up in the bright, airy saloon, the style was more grand restaurant than greasy spoon café, and the meals were magnificent. In fact, Hurtigruten have now decided to make a speciality of fine food, and shipboard menus are featuring such local delicacies as reindeer steaks and aquavit ice-cream, in addition to endless choices of fresh seafood and tongue-curling Norwegian cheeses.
Even in the tourist-conscious summer months, shipboard entertainment can be sparse. They have a bit of a party as you cross the Arctic Circle, of course, but when King Neptune (bearing a remarkable resemblance to the heftier of the ship’s two waitresses) appeared on board and demanded to “christen” me, I had to endure nothing worse than a handful of ice cubes stuffed down my shirt.
This is a cruise where paperbacks, e-books, and electronic games are as essential as your binoculars and a camera. It is also wise to bring your own drinks: shipboard prices for alcohol (as elsewhere in Norway) are eye-watering.
Besides North Cape, which the ship rounds on the way to its turning point at Kirkenes, up against the Russian border, not to mention 120 or so fjords with countless waterfalls, the sight most passengers want to see on this voyage is Mother Nature’s own laser show in the sky: the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
Lots of standard cruise lines set off in search of this amazing spectacle, but fail to find it. Hurtigruten’s ship’s captains turf everyone out of bed to watch on deck when they spot the great waterfalls of light, while the waitresses appear with a midnight snack of fishcakes. And currently if you are unlucky enough to go on a winter cruise that misses the Northern Lights, Hurtigruten have the answer: they’ll give you another cruise free (check the website to see if this offer is still valid)!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Hurtigruten which has some very attractive offers. But if it is sightseeing that you are after, remember that Norway’s winters are not just cold; they are also very dark! It’s a lot better to pick a spring or autumn cruise.