Norway, November and Northern Lights seem to me to go hand in hand, so I’m cautiously optimistic when I sign up for a trip on board Hurtigruten’s MS Finnmarken from Bergen to Kirkenes, just a few miles from the Russian border.
I first travelled this route in 2001 when Hurtigruten – silent ‘g’ in Norwegian – welcomed only a handful of adventurous British travellers attracted by the idea of a trip then marketed as the Norwegian Coastal Voyage. The service began 125 years ago to serve towns and remote island communities along the Norwegian Coast. Now it leaves Bergen every evening except Christmas Day, docking day and night along the way.
This community lifeline remains just as important today in a rugged country with few railways and a population of 5.3 million that lives largely by the sea. But Hurtigruten – the ‘express route’ – has seen a massive increase in the volume of international passengers since I last sailed with them. There were barely 20 ‘cruise’ passengers on board with me under grey February skies in 2001, but 420 of us embark in Bergen, filling a good proportion of the 600-plus beds.
In summer, passengers come to experience the guaranteed phenomenon of the Midnight Sun; in winter, between October and March, the less predictable display of Northern Lights. Travel on Hurtigruten’s12-day voyage however and if the aurora don’t appear, you are promised a 6-7 day classic voyage free of charge.
There’s a marked uplift in the level of comfort since my previous trip. MS Finnmarken is the newest of the 11 ships that ply the coastal route and the only one with an outdoor pool, heated around the year. Hurtigruten staff always view their guests as explorers, but today’s explorers enjoy cosy cabins with efficient temperature control and WiFi throughout the ship.
My standard outside cabin has two single berths with built in-units in Art Nouveau style that reflects the public areas. There’s a welcome tray, safe, hairdryer, and compact toilet and shower room with copious supplies of hot water. It’s all well- appointed and the bed surprisingly comfortable, but would be a pretty snug fit for two people with layers of winter gear, so if I travel in company next time, I’ll upgrade to a larger cabin.
Every day is different on board ship, even down to breakfast and lunch times which are governed by the timing of the ship’s schedule. Without exception, the food is excellent, a mix of copious buffets and set dinners featuring ingredients and dishes native to local waters and regions. Be warned though, Norway is a very expensive country, especially for luxury goods like alcohol which attract high levels of tax.
The ship docks day and night, sometimes for as little as 15 minutes to offload ‘ferry’ passengers or goods, or to load up with fresh produce for tonight’s dinner. In others, we’re in port for several hours which allows cruise passengers to join an excursion or enjoy independent exploration.
I’ve been invited to join the northbound leg of one of Hurtigruten’s 12-day Astronomytours which run regularly between October and March, and offer an extra dimension for star-struck passengers. Expert astronomer on my trip is Ian Ridpath who gives afternoon talks in a scientific language even I can understand and interprets the night sky for us on deck.
I’m particularly captivated by his lecture on the Northern Lights where I learn all about auroral ovals, coronal holes, and the intriguingly named Kp Index. And as an extra bonus, Ian also leads Astronomy passengers on an exclusive excursion to the Planetarium and interactive Science Centre in Tromso.
Seeing the real thing depends, of course, on the atmospheric conditions. But there’s no need to worry about missing them. Press the red Info button on your cabin phone and they’ll alert you at dead of night if the lights appear. The chances of being woken are minimal until you cross the Arctic Circle, which we do early on Day 4. I’m surprised at how many people volunteer for the traditional ceremony on Deck 8 that involves a scoop of ice cubes down the back of the neck. I swear I won’t do it but then somehow get caught up in the moment and succumb. Memorable!
By day you can relax in the viewing lounge and watch Norway’s tiny fishing communities and rugged coastline pass by the window. Alternatively sign up for an organised excursion or explore independently in ports like Bergen, Alesund and Tromso. At Honningsvåg, I joined an optional excursion across the snowy plateau to Nordkapp at the Northern tip of Europe.
Above the Arctic Circle, the excitement palpably cranks up as darkness closes in and after an excursion to Meet the Vikings, we gather hopefully with Ian on deck and just wait. So let me cut the suspense and say that against low atmospheric odds, we see them. Suddenly and spectacularly. Drapes of greenish-grey fringed with purple that ripple across the sky. Pale green columns that tower above the horizon. And at times, the arc of the auroral oval spanning the ship.
It’s a spiritual experience that invokes gasps from some, tears from others. And it’s easy to see how frightening and portentous these could seem in ancient times. Over the next two nights, I am hugely lucky to see them again, ethereal pale green clouds this time, that morph across a sky studded with constellations.
I leave the Astronomy group at Kirkenes after my six-night taster and really envy their return voyage. But this bucket list experience definitely isn’t over for me yet. As Ian has warned us, Northern Lights are addictive, every experience different from the last. And after this week’s experience, I know I’ll be coming back!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Hurtigruten