Pat Richardson reveals why what was ‘the journey of a lifeline’ for local communities in Norway has become, as well, ‘the journey of a lifetime’ for many leisure travellers from countries worldwide.
Hurtigruten translates, from Norwegian, as ‘fast route’ and when the company was founded, back in 1893, it offered exactly that: the fastest way of travelling up and down Norway’s west coast. Transporting people, post, parcels, produce and more, it was a lifeline for ports hard to access by road.
As well – although not the reason for its creation – it was and remains arguably the world’s most beautiful voyage, and features on many a traveller’s bucket list. Today, despite road, rail and air offering viable alternatives, it attracts leisure travellers from many parts of the globe. This is also a journey that rewards repetition, as the scenery, weather, wildlife and birdlife vary from season to season. In summer, north of the Arctic Circle, the Midnight Sun delivers 24 hours of daylight.
Taking the voyage, or just part of it, in whatever month you choose is easy: a ship from Hurtigruten’s fleet leaves Bergen every day of the year on the northbound leg of the 11-night round trip to Kirkenes, making 34 port-calls on the way there and 31 on the way back.
Every ship in that fleet is a working vessel, not a cruise ship, but that shouldn’t put you off – unless, for you, penthouse and balcony suites, butler service, boutiques, speciality restaurants galore, nightly stage shows, a casino and swimming pool complex and a few thousand fellow-passengers are must-haves.
If on the other hand, you’d value the chance to experience the real Norway, on a ship that’s small enough to sail close to its stunningly scenic coastline and into tiny ports for authentic glimpse of local life; and be happy without any of the above big-ship features, then welcome aboard MS Richard With. At 11,205 GRT, with six passenger decks, 215 cabins and fewer than 600 passengers, she has one main and one a la carte restaurant plus a small pay-at-the-counter cafe, two bars, a small library, a fitness room and a sauna. The atmosphere on board is warm, friendly, relaxed, informal and excellent English is spoken.
In early July, I was welcomed aboard MS Richard With for five nights, sailing from Tromso to Bergen -including a stop at Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands, to attend the christening of Hurtigruten’s newest ship, MS Spitsbergen. That ceremony was just one of several highlights.
Others included attending a candle-lit Midnight Concert in Tromso’s avant-garde Arctic Cathedral; close encounters with a sea eagle, puffins and dolphins on an exhilarating RIB trip; attending a Crossing the Arctic Circle ceremony on deck, and getting the Certificate to prove it; visiting a remote island to learn about the centuries-old tradition of harvesting down from Eider ducks and making eiderdowns; visiting 11th-Century Nidaros Cathedral in Norway’s former capital, Trondheim; driving ‘on the edge’ along the spectacularly scenic Atlantic Road, which links a succession of small islands in a series of sweeps, curves and arching bridges; and visiting one of Norway’s ancient and atmospheric stave churches atop a softly rounded, pasture-carpeted hill at the edge of a quiet fjord.
An enticing range of excursions like these, plus others which are either tamer or more challenging, are part and parcel (albeit at additional cost) of the famous Norwegian Coastal Voyage. Each one will allow you to experience the real Norway, on land or from the water, up close and personal. And isn’t that precisely what most of us travel to other countries to do?
You also get that experience on board Richard With – and Hurtigruten’s other ships, because you sail in Norwegian waters, call at Norwegian ports and many of your fellow-passengers are Norwegian. Some are on board for just a short hop, to visit or return from visiting family or friends in another coastal town; or perhaps to join a hiking or biking trail; or reach a holiday home. Some will have a car, a bicycle or maybe a kayak with them. Some are travelling alone, others are families with children. As well, you’ll meet passengers from many other countries; and find it easy to make new friends over drinks or lunch or dinner, out on the deck or in the panoramic observation lounge.
Nor does the scenery stop when you’re back on board. These ships access narrow channels and sail closer to land than big cruise ships can. There are no days at sea with nothing to see, but that’s not to say that you won’t spot sea birds and marine life.
And whilst you won’t find all the frills of a cruise ship on this ship, you will find a warm and welcoming atmosphere, good home cooking in the main Polar Restaurant; treats such as king crab, lobster and steak in a la carte Raftsundet Restaurant; and cosy comfort in your cabin or suite.
Isn’t it time you went to sea to see Norway?
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Hurtigruten