Small coastal towns and villages, mountains, valleys, forests all covered in snow and ice, frozen Fjords and waterfalls, this is Norway north of the Arctic Circle in winter.
My story begins at Gatwick airport with a Norwegian Air Shuttle flight to Oslo and onwards to Tromso where the airport is covered in a blanket of snow, yet the planes still operate on time. Must be the right type of snow. The drive from the airport to the hotel takes some getting used to, the roads are covered in ice and snow yet vehicles on their special winter tyres drive as normal. It’s scary until you get used to it. I am booked into the Clarion Hotel situated on the waterfront, a new hotel that is busy with visitors. Within minutes I am in my room on the 7th floor with magnificent views out over Tromso and the Artic Cathedral across the water. A Hurtigruten ship is moored near the hotel.
Next morning is an early start as a Whale Watching trip with Boreal Yachting has been arranged. It’s dark on arrival at their catamaran just after 8am. it’s good to get on board out of the cold where the thermometer is struggling to get above minus 8. Leaving the landing stage behind us we sail out into the fjord towards the sea. It’s not long before someone sees the tell-tale spout of water and we move slowly in that direction. Within minutes three whales emerge from the water and float like large logs with just their backs and fins visible. Soon after a whale breaks surface on the other side of the boat making everyone gasp. What a magnificent sight. These huge Humpback Whales can grow to over 50 feet in length and weigh in at over 35 tons. Lunchtime we are served Bacalao, a type of fish stew made with dried cod, stewed tomatoes, potatoes, onions and other vegetables that the cook may wish to add. It was delicious, so much so I had seconds. The day passes quickly with many sightings including that of an Orcas Whale that swims beside us as we head back to port. Late afternoon we join the Hurtigruten ship Richard With. Although these ships, of which there are 12, carry passengers in a high degree of comfort they are working ships and a lifeline to people of the coastal villages who are cut off during the long winter months. Boarding the ship I am allocated cabin 326, a double berth with picture window. Whilst not luxurious it has everything I need. Shower, toilet, wash basin, hair dryer, comfortable bed, dressing table and lots of hanging and storage space. Dinner is taken in the main dining room whilst we head for our first port of call Skjervoy where we are due to arrive at 10.30pm. Dinner is a set 3 course affair served by attentive waitresses. Cream Carrot soup followed by Baked Arctic Char, one of the salmon family, accompanied with pickled vegetables, baked beetroots and potatoes with Cloudberries and sour cream to finish. By the end of dinner we are arriving at Skjervoy where we stay for 15 minutes before setting off again heading north. At 9pm a talk is given on the ‘Dried Cod’ by the captain on the open deck. Following this I head for the observation lounge in case the Northern Lights appear. Unfortunately they don’t but the lounge is very comfortable and decorated to a very high standard. Next to it is a library. It’s been a long day so back to the cabin to try that bed. Within minutes I am asleep.
My alarm wakes me the next morning and it’s time to try that shower. Hot and powerful with a good supply of large and small towels. Time for breakfast as we approach Havoysund, a 30 minute stop. Breakfast is Norwegian style with a great choice of fruit juices, meats, cheeses, pickles, eggs, sausages and hot coffee.
Next stop is Honningsvag where I leave the ship for a tour to the Northern Cape, one of the most northerly points in Europe. The coach drives through valleys with snow covered mountains towering above us, past hamlets that are deserted for the winter until we arrive at the road that will take us on the final leg of the journey. From here on we drive in convoy with a snow plough and its bright orange and red flashing beacons at the front and escort vehicle at the rear. The scenery is snow, snow and more snow as we pass across this winter wonderland of unspoilt beauty. Eventually we arrive at the visitor centre where the wind is blowing the snow into our faces and the temperature is a bracing minus 18c. Making our way to the monument situated on the cliff top 1,000 feet above the sea I look north to the Barents Sea and try to imagine what the men of the Arctic Convoys endured in WW2 on ships with no stabilisers or air conditioned cabins and always with the threat of German submarines. Next stop, the Visitors Centre where passing along the corridors is like a history lesson of the area and the people who made it famous. I would like to have spent longer here but it is time for the convoy to leave. The weather is closing in with snow and wind increasing.
An hour later we are back at the ship and I have the pleasure of visiting the bridge where I meet the first officer. The main consul and large seats are reminiscent of something from the future. Many people do not realise that in this age of technology the ship is steered by means of a small joystick from the centre consul and the ships wheel is a thing of the past. A long blast of the ships whistle indicates we are about to leave for our next port of call. Leaving the relative calm of the harbour the weather is less than kind and the ship starts pitching heavily in a very rough sea which continues through the night.
Dinner that evening was for me a highlight. A seafood spread at the buffet which will do any cruise ship proud and indeed put many to shame. The selection of Crab, Prawns, Mussels and Marinated Herring that is also offered in a curry or chilli sauce which may not sound inviting but trust me, it was excellent. Followed by a main course of fish or meat and a choice of deserts, all washed down with a very acceptable white wine makes it a memorable meal.
Being my last night on board I sit in the very comfortable observation lounge looking out at the lights of villages in the distance as we head for Kirkenes.
The next day at breakfast we are have beautiful views from the dining room windows as we sail through narrow fjords with high snow covered cliffs on each side, frozen waterfalls clearly visible.. We dock a little after 9am in a snow covered Kirkenes where the thermometer is registering a very cold minus 12c. Complete with luggage it’s all aboard a mini bus for a journey taking us further into the snow covered wilds and only 6 miles from the border with Russia to meet up with our ‘transport’. Arriving at the company premises we are supplied with warm fleece lined suits, thick boots and gloves ready for our transit by sleigh pulled by a snow bike. The temperature here is down to minus 18 having lost the warm current from the sea.
Boarding the sleigh the snow bike tows us through snow covered trees until emerging onto a frozen fjord where the sun’s rays can be seen in the distance. Stopping some distance from what is the shoreline our driver removes a cover from the ice revealing what had been a pre-cut square, now refrozen. First drilling the corners and sawing the edges the ice is eventually hacked away and a crab cage pulled to the surface full of King Crabs. These are humanely killed by our driver and loaded on board ready for cooking. It’s then back on the sleigh and off across the fjord to a small gathering of cabins in the woods where the crabs are cooked and then served as lunch. The sun had now set and a beautiful red glow streaks the western sky as the short period of daylight disappears. For anyone going on this trip, sit at the front of the sleigh where there is a large Perspex shield that protects you from the wind. Too soon it’s back in the sleigh and back to base for a clothes change, back on the mini bus and onto our next stop, the Snow Hotel.
Each year a new Snow Hotel is built. A large balloon is inflated and covered with snow. When the snow is frozen more is added to give extra strength. The balloon’s then deflated leaving the basic structure from which the hotel is built and extended boasting 20 bedrooms on completion. Every bedroom has a wall of ‘snow art’ created by a team of ice carvers brought in from China. The beds have mattresses with a thermal insulation layer on top. The guests sleep in sleeping bags that are rated for up to minus 30c so no reason to be cold. There is also a permanent part of the hotel that houses showers, toilets, sauna and restaurant with lounge area. This really is a structure to visit and if you feel inclined spend the night at. It is certainly an experience you can tell your friends about.
The Snow Hotel organises excursions and 30 minutes later I am back in a fleece lined suit with gloves and boots. A short walk away awaits my new transport, a sledge pulled by a team of Alaskan Husky’s. I sit at the back of the sledge with another traveller between by knees, all very cosy. The Musher (Driver) stands at the back with the reigns connected to the dogs. With a ‘Mush, Mush’ we are on our way across the frozen terrain in a convoy of 5 sledges and dog teams, bouncing through the trees and out onto another frozen fjord. With the wind chill factor it is bitter but the excitement takes away any discomfort. We stop in the middle of the fjord and experience the true feeling of isolation and being in a wilderness. Minutes later we are on our way again with the dogs barking excitedly. They love running and can cover up to 60 miles a day. Just over an hour later we are back at our base and changing back to our own clothing.
Time for dinner in the Snow Hotel but prior to this a demonstration is given on how to fasten the sleeping bag. Dinner is quite simple but very tasty with a cheese starter followed by Cod, vegetable and potato’s as the main course and a delicious ice cream with berries in a sauce as desert. Dinner finished someone says that the Northern Lights are visible producing a mass exodus from the restaurant to the cold outside from where, although dim, the lights can be seen with their green haze in the sky. Sadly it is soon time for me to leave and get my taxi to the Scandic Hotel in Kirkenes for the night. What a memorable day it has been.
The Scandic it has to be said is very comfortable with a big soft comfortable bed and I am soon asleep. Breakfast the following morning has a good selection of meats, cheeses, juices, eggs, sausages, beans etc. making it a breakfast that will set you up for the day. After check out it’s on the bus to the airport for the flight home, again with Norwegian Air Shuttle via Oslo.
Suddenly it’s all over, time to reflect and there is plenty to reflect on. What was good? The flights with Norwegian Air Shuttle were excellent. Always on time despite lots of snow and ice. Good legroom and wi-fi use allowed whilst flying. Do wish they would however stop people bringing on board cabin luggage that is way over the permitted size and weight. The Hurtigruten ship, ‘Richard With’ sails from Bergen on a 6 day voyage to Kirkenes calling at 32 ports on the way. It is not a cruise ship but a working ship and should be viewed as such. Having said that the food was excellent. Nicely presented and the seafood buffet was something my memory will treasure. The public areas are as stylish as many cruise ships. Comfortable chairs in tastefully decorated lounges, excellent service in the comfortable bars with no 15% gratuity added and no gratuity added for cabin or waiting staff. Hurtigruten certainly look after their ships as well as their passengers. They even have their own tour leader on board who will not only book your tours but also knows all about them. The cabins, mine was a basic with window, are functional, lots of hanging and storage space, good air conditioning, well equipped bathrooms with hair dryer and beds that are comfortable. I enjoyed my stay and personally would not have any problem doing the full 12 day return voyage in one and was sorry to say goodbye to the ship. The tours were without doubt some of the most memorable it has been my pleasure to be part of. It’s difficult to put into words the thrill of travelling through the Arctic wasteland to the North Cape where at this time of year it is dark for 23 hours a day. To standing in freezing conditions with snow blowing in your face and imagining how the explorers coped with this. Being pulled across the ice by a snow bike and then cutting through the ice and finding the cage full of King Crab. Lunching at a wood cabin in the forest as the sun’s rays make a brief appearance before sinking behind the mountains in a red glow that turns the surrounding snow covered expanse a delicate pink. Being pulled on a sleigh by a team of Husky’s through the Arctic wilderness and being part of what many have seen on films. The Snow Hotel with its beautiful carvings and the ‘Ice Bar’ where you can have a ‘shot’ in a glass made from ice. The Northern Lights giving that eerie green illumination associated with the Arctic and finally Whale watching in the middle of a fjord. Watching these magnificent creatures break the surface with grace and quietness. The only sound being water exhaled from the blow hole as they swim quietly like a partly submerged submarine. The bad things? Only one, your batteries discharge very quickly in the cold so take lots of spares or a good charger. And so my story ends, it was a trip to remember with both fondness and excitement. Would I do it again? Yes please, what time is the plane?