CRUISING THE CANARY ISLANDS ON THE THOMSON MAJESTY

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The Thomson Majesty at San Sebastian, La Gomera @antnich

A short, four hour flight delivered me smartly from the depths of a grey British winter, and into the warm, welcoming embrace of twenty eight degrees of sunshine on balmy Tenerife. As the plane climbed from grey skies into blue, my spirits soared with it.

A while later, I was greeted by the welcome, familiar sight of the Thomson Majesty, sitting serenely at dockside in the port of Santa Cruz. Boarding her at once brought back a whole host of memories from other cruises on this ship, all of them good. Safe to say that my mood had improved by leaps and bounds since leaving home.

Over the next week the 40,000 ton ship would make a stately circuit around a slew of sun splashed Canarian favourites. There was bustling Gran Canaria, where surfers braved the broad Atlantic rollers that drummed the beach at Las Canteras. Indulging in a few glasses of wine on the broad, umbrella shaded promenade that winds above that beach is a simple, timeless treasure whose therapeutic effects cannot be overstated.

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Medieval tower, La Gomera @antnich

There was sparse, stoic little La Gomera; a seldom visited treasure trove where a restored, fifteenth century watch tower stands guard among rows of pastel hued houses that stand in serried rows against a background of looming limestone cliffs. A long, slowly curving beach of black volcanic sand, sprinkled with palm trees, was almost deserted in the first hours of a Sunday morning. I suspect that this little gem is probably the most authentic and unspoiled of all the Canary Islands.

Next came Madeira; long a personal favourite, and the only Portuguese hold out in this otherwise Spanish accented region. It feels a million miles different in temperament and pace from its near neighbours.

Mountainous and effortlessly majestic, Madeira lacks the vast swathes of sandy beaches and resort life so typical of the Spanish islands. In the pretty harbour of Funchal, beautiful botanical gardens frame the seafront in a riot of hibiscus, oleander and wisteria. Winding, cobbled streets give are flanked by rows of white and ochre coloured houses, with window shutters of polished teak, and flower boxes brimming to overflowing with fresh blooms.

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Fine, old world architecture in the centre of Funchal @antnich

Cafes and bars spill right down to the waterfront, stretching right along the entire expanse of the broad, beautiful lido. Despite this being technically a capital city, the pace of life in Funchal- not a small town by any means- seems somehow more laid back. As a place to simply kick back and indulge in some platinum chip people watching, Funchal is equalled only by the French Riviera and, perhaps, Sorrento.

In between all of this, there is a welcome sea day aboard the Thomson Majesty herself; a blissful opportunity to recharge the batteries, and simply catch some very welcome winter sun. The upper deck has a pair of centrally located pools, with sun walks up above lined with rows of sun loungers. As with many ships, those loungers fill very quickly, and finding a little ‘quality space’ of your own is always difficult with fourteen hundred passengers on board.

It’s also very noisy when the entertainment staff organise the afternoon deck games; an overly amplified, ear splitting series of banal ‘party’ games. But, to be fair, most of the passengers do seem to love them.

Two decks down, a full promenade runs right around the ship on Seven Deck. Few people seem to find it during the day, and the rows of sun loungers down here are a far more pleasant place to just chill out and soak up that benign Canarian sunshine than upstairs.. The contrast is like the difference between night and day.

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Castle walls of old Funchal @antnich

Inside, the Thomson Majesty remains a pert, pretty ship; one largely unchanged since her Norwegian Cruise Line days. There are interior boulevards lined by walls of floor to ceiling windows that are prefect for just relaxing with a coffee, a book, or a beer. Even all three. Throughout the ship, stained glass ceilings and beautiful, blond wood panelling frame a series of intimate, elegant public rooms that make the Thomson Majesty a warm, perennially appealing alternative to the other vast, far more impersonal vessels sailing these same waters.

Both indoor and casual dining varies from good to excellent. The addition of an upper deck enclosed eatery- Piazza San Marco- eases the congestion in the usually crowded Cafe Royale, up forward on the topmost deck. The room itself, however, is pretty spartan, and has the feel of a hastily thrown up wedding marquee. Some plants around the edges of this room would soften it a lot, and add some real warmth that is currently lacking.

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Looking down to Funchal harbour front @antnich

Downstairs, the two main restaurants are on Deck Five, and both have windows overlooking the sea on at least one side. The menu is typical cruise fare, tailored inevitably toward the British market. For the likes of steak and lobster, there is a surcharge.

There is a smaller, more intimate restaurant- Le Bistro- bookable at a surcharge. It offers upscale food and service, and needs to be booked in advance. In cabin breakfasts also come with a surcharge.

Cabins themselves come in inside and outside categories. A small number of the eight deck cabins- together with the suites and mini suites on Deck Nine- come complete with nice balconies, though these are not very private.

Standard cabins are small, with separate beds that can convert to a double. They come complete with shower and WC, and limited storage space. That said, the Thomson Majesty is a fairly casual ship in  terms of dress code; think resort casual, and pack accordingly.

Entertainment wise, the intimate size of the ship precludes the lavish floor shows of the mega ships, but that is not to imply a lack of fun when the sun goes down. Far from it.

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The excellent house band was a real highlight of our Thomson Majesty cruise @antnich

Live bands and smaller, more intimate Broadway revues vie with a good sized casino and a large, aft facing disco for your custom. There are quieter venues for drinks and conversation, some with piano background music, and some without. Others enjoy simply sitting outside on the upper decks with a bottle of wine, taking in the starlight and the warm breeze.

This cruise is a pretty regimented, though well organised, run to some very appealing little idylls in the sun. The Canaries may not be dramatic and studded with must do things, but they do offer a vibrant, compelling and convenient alternative to the bone numbing banality of a European winter. The lifestyle is good, and you should never, ever underestimate how good that warm winter sun can feel.

Add to this a comfortable, appealing, pretty little ship that still has all the bells and whistles that you could possibly want, and the appeal becomes obvious. Seventeen years after I first crossed her gangway, the Thomson Majesty remains one of the prettiest ships afloat. I’d definitely do this one again.

HURTIGRUTEN-WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

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Does this look like a conventional cruise ship to you? Thought not

While the experience of sailing Hurtigruten is one of the most rewarding travel experiences I have ever enjoyed, there are some facts about life on board that are worth this separate blog, especially as many of them could be deal breakers for some people when deciding to book.

Firstly, I cannot emphasise enough that Hurtigruten is a ferry route, and NOT a cruise ship kind of experience. There is no structured entertainment; the evening meal is a set, three course affair and, perhaps more surprisingly, after dinner tea and coffee is no longer included. This applies also to the self service, free tea and coffee machines that are available at breakfast and lunch.

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The views from on board are spectacular

People are sometimes surprised that things such as bottled water incur a charge and, like the on board alcohol, it’s a pretty hefty one at that, especially for those unused to being in Norway. A small beer can run to £6, and a bottle of ordinary wine to about £40. Tea or coffee will set you back around £2.80.

The simple truth here is that prices are tied to those charged ashore in Norway, which has one of the highest standards of living in Europe. The Hurtigruten ferries all fly the Norwegian flag, and each has an all Norwegian crew. To top that, they always sail in Norwegian territorial waters on their Arctic adventures. Hence, prices charged ashore are reflected on board. Far better sometimes just to sit back and drink in all that spectacular scenery.

Yes, the cabins are small (save for a handful of suites), but they are perfectly comfortable and, truth be told, you won’t spend a lot of time in them in any event. There are no nice toiletries, save for wall mounted body wash and shampoo in the shower. Bring your favourites from home, if need be.

Forget chocolates on your pillow, too (though, to be fair, most cruise lines already have). And, though the room is cleaned and resupplied every morning, there is no nightly turn down service. You’ll have to master the awesome responsibility of having to unfold your own duvet before bedtime.

No need for all the resort wear that you might take on a cruise ship, either. Practical, multi layered stuff at all hours of the day and night will be far more useful out here than tuxes and tiaras, thanks.

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On board crossing the Arctic Circle ceremony

On board, the ship’s regular expedition team lead excursions ashore, and host events such as the ceremony of crossing the Arctic Circle. During time en route between ports, they host lectures, complete with question and answer sessions, on the upcoming ports of call. On some evenings, they will share stories of local lore and traditions that can add hugely to the appreciation of the waters you are actually travelling in.

Another quintessentially Norwegian experience is the periodic, on deck commentaries as you pass some famous headland or marker point. Often as not, the chef will serve up some hot, tasty local tidbits from the same area to ensure that the inner man is as well fed as the mind. It helps to create a sense of immediate intimacy that simply cannot be replicated on a big cruise ship.

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Spectacular, locally sourced (and sauced) Arctic Char for dinner aboard the Nordnorge

On the more general front, these ships can accumulate a covering of snow and ice on the outer decks at any time of the day or night. Always exercise care when walking on any outdoor surface. If you are disabled, or have any form of mobility concerns, then it is definitely best to contact Hurtigruten and get the lowdown from them, before you consider booking a trip. Also note that, at some ports at least, you may have to carry your own luggage both on and off the ship.

Are you guaranteed to see the Northern Lights? No. Hurtigruten cannot make weather, and Mother Nature can be a fickle lady at any season. Though the chances are good in winter, no one can guarantee them.

That said, there are more than enough other visual highlights and heart stopping vistas on this northern odyssey, as I hope this series of blogs has demonstrated. Northern Lights or nay, this is still truly an adventure like no other.

Go with an open mind, some guarded expectations, and plenty of warm, layered clothing. Ditch the notion of a luxury cruise adventure overboard, because Hurtugruten is, once again, not a cruise.

What Hurtigruten is without a doubt, is the authentic Norwegian lifestyle afloat. The crew and cuisine often hail from the same fjord towns. Sometimes, both are taken aboard in a small town at some god forsaken hour of the morning. Hurtigruten ships are sailed by Norwegian skippers that know these waters like the backs of their hands. Those ships are sturdy and accommodating, rather than spectacular and amazing. They will keep you warm, safe, well fed, and (largely) on schedule.

That last sentence is the very definition of what constitutes a voyage, as opposed to a cruise. This is a purposeful, ocean going adventure, where the main attraction- and entertainment- is the magnificent, unwinding scenery of winter time Norway itself.

Keep that in mind at all times, and you’ll never go too far wrong on Hurtigruten.

HURTIGRUTEN; WINTER AT THE NORTH CAPE

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The North Cape

Standing with it’s storm tossed feet in the Barents Sea, the plateau of the North Cape of Norway is the northernmost point of Europe. Gazing out over that sea, the North Pole itself is a little over thirteen hundred miles away to the far north.

It’s a spellbinding place to visit in summer, when the midnight sun hangs in the sky for twenty four hours a day, from mid May until the end of July. Roughly a quarter of a million people make the pilgrimage to the apex of Europe in high season, with as many as five thousand visitors a day thronging those massive granite headlands.

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And again, as the light changes…

But in winter… the same venue is largely inaccessible. The cruise ships that flock to Norway in summer have retreated to the Caribbean for winter. Temperatures have plummeted even more sharply than visitor numbers. The places where wasps and butterflies flitted in the long summer days are now deep and fast under a blanket of snow.

Frequent, regular winter snowfall makes it hard to get to the North Cape at all. Often as not, savage winter winds whip up the snow into the glacial equivalent of a desert storm, one every bit as pitiless in its momentum and intent. No, the North Cape in winter is best left for a few months.

And yet, one morning in January, I found myself in one of a convoy of three coaches, following a pair of fully tracked military vehicles, as we began the tortuous ascent to the North Cape from the town of Honningsvag. The Nordnorge had docked in the port for a few hours and, against my better judgement, I had decided to make the trek to the North Cape in winter. As a pathetic sop, I kept telling myself that this might well be my first and last chance to see this legendary land mass in the off season.

My expectations were completely wrong. Standing once more atop those brooding, snow shrouded northern cliffs, not a single breath of wind stirred around me. Behind me, fields of glistening snow rolled back to the horizon, with the eerie, surreal mid day twilight flooding it with a pale, watery sheen. Those dunes seemed as endless and empty as any desert.

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Looking out across a sea of snow

But it was the North Cape itself that really grabbed the heart like a vice. The great, granite series of winding edifices plunged straight down for several hundred feet, right down to where the steel grey expanse of the Barents Sea raced to embrace it. From this height, the mental picture of icy waves crashing against implacable rock was lost. Instead, the Barents seemed to play with the rocks below like some frisky puppy dog.

Out to the horizon, the sea was as still as a millpond; a surreal expanse that reminded me of a coiled spring; one that could rebound at any moment. I have seen it in far more lively mood in the summer.

But the Barents remained implausibly calm, almost as if it were in hibernation itself. Turning round and looking back over the expanse of snow to my back, I was gifted with one of the most spectacular sights ever.

Just below the horizon, the slowly returning sun cast a blush pink, gradually reddening glow across the snow that made it resemble some kind of frozen, strawberry tinted moonscape. At the North Cape, the sun disappears entirely at the end of November, and resurfaces above the line of the horizon some two months later, at the end of January.

The intense strength and longevity of that eerie, enchanting light was proof positive that the long dormant sun was, indeed, returning to even these remote northern skies. At the time of writing, the North Cape will once again have a minimum of four hours’ daylight per day. By mid May, that daylight will be 24/7.

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Twilight of the Norse Gods

Inevitably, my gaze was drawn back to those stunning escarpments, standing out into the ocean. As the light changed again, pale pink sunlight softened some of the granite edges, throwing light into the shadows of deep, rolling chasms even as it softened the surface of the ocean. The combination of sheer, magnificent scale and the sense of still, magisterial peace and silence were almost overwhelming; I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the fragility of the moment. It was a moment of stunning, singular beauty that will stay with me until my dying day.

I am very conscious of the fact that we were incredibly lucky in terms of weather that day. Will I ever be that lucky again? Who knows.

But I now have an indelible picture in my head of a colossal land and seascape, seen in a totally different light, that cannot be erased. In all honesty, this one sight was worth making the entire journey for.

 

 

HURTIGRUTEN- INSIDE, LOOKING OUT

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Winter time Norway; up close and personal

By it’s very nature, a winter voyage on Hurtigruten is a largely indoor experience.

Temperatures on our seven night, northbound voyage varied from -3 degrees in Bergen, to a truly teeth chattering -29 when we eventually reached our northern terminus at Kirkenes, just ten kilometres from the Russian border.

And a lot of time was actually spent en route at sea, or navigating various fjords and rock lined channels, as the Nordnorge followed her age old, prescribed course across the Arctic Circle, continuing on into a region that had not seen a sunrise since the end of the previous November.

So, inevitably, a lot of time was spent indoors, watching the world’s most amazing, pristine, scenic smorgasbord unfurl from the warmth and comfort of the public rooms.

The main sense of voyaging through these waters was one of calm, at times soporific, quiet and contentment. There was no organised entertainment as such. No bingo, no fashion shows or expansive spa. Just a well run ship getting up close and personal with Mother Nature.

Those often grey, leaden skies formed a continuously changing backdrop to a series of jagged mountain chains emerging from the stark stillness of the sea, their sides draped in shrouds of snow, their peaks occasionally tinted a beguiling shade of blush pink in the afterglow of a sun that lay just below the horizon.

On other occasions, a small cluster of houses formed a tiny hamlet at the entrance to some small, secluded fjord. Huddled as if for protection against the wind, a gaggle of ochre and red buildings, roofs weighed down with snow, stood around a single flagpole where a lone Norwegian flag whipped in the breeze. Sometimes, small boats sat on a rocky, snow covered shoreline, as if frozen in both time and place. Then a sudden, ferocious blizzard would take them from our sight so completely that they might never have existed.

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Norway in the raw

We sailed, up close and personal, to land where ranks of jagged pine forests tumbled straight down into the still waters of a fjord. I picked out the trails where giant, splashing summer streams had frozen in the fastness of the Norwegian winter, looking like the gossamer strands of a spider’s web.

Sometimes, another ship would emerge from the hinterland, and the sounds of booming sirens shattered the silence as the two ships passed each other. Occasionally, we would sail under some great, looming bridge, where traffic scurried frantically across as if seeking refuge from the weather.

After days on end, the scenery grew increasingly more remote and wilder, less inhabited. And, though the Nordnorge sailed always within a few miles of land, it felt as if we were a million miles from every day reality.

It was all too easy (and all too enjoyable) to just take a comfortable seat somewhere, and simply absorb this continuously changing vista from the peace and warmth. Although there were some 650 passengers on board, nobody seemed to talk above a whisper. The Nordnorge was as stately and peaceful as a cathedral at times. Her almost silent progression through all of this natural wonder gave me the feeling of being somehow awake in a particularly vivid dream.

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Past jagged, rose tinted peaks…..

For six days, this was our world. Punctuated by stops and adventures at banner ports such as Tromso and Honningsvag, it was a charmed, whimsical universe. There was none of the night time dressing up for dinner once so prevalent on cruise ships; people just wore variations of their daytime wear, or indeed often just the same things.

At night, the bar shut at midnight though, in fairness, the cafe was still open for those that desperately needed a beer or a coffee. I’m guessing that there were not too many takers for either.

I would characterise the overall vibe on board the Nordnorge as one of a quiet sense of wonder. The real entertainment was in the stunning landscape that unfurled all around us like a series of drum rolls. Inside looking out, we savoured our delicious buffets and dinners, and drank in the views like fine wine.

Though everything seemed to happen in slow motion, the Nordnorge was in fact progressing at quite a steady pace. There was a schedule to keep; the ship was expected to arrive and depart as close as possible to her advertised schedule, weather notwithstanding.

More later.

 

 

 

HURTIGRUTEN- DOG SLEDDING AT TROMSO

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Husky kennels. Tromso

This was the one tour of my Hurtigruten voyage that I was more psyched up for than any other. I had visions of whooshing silently through a landscape of pristine, virgin snow as the skis sliced a path through deep pine forests, the sky above my head packed with stars on a crisp, clear night…..

Nice imagery, but the reality was to be somewhat different.

My first sight was of a massive block of kennels, squatting amid a vast, low lying snow encampment. Three hundred and eight huskies reside at the Tromso husky encampment in all. The barking, howling and crying that filled the air everywhere reminded me of first rehearsals for the latest season of the X Factor.

Small fires flickered hungrily in the ink black fastness of late afternoon. Small, round huts speckled the vast, rolling snow plains. The scale of the entire operation was massive.

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Here we go….

The dogs themselves are wonderful, friendly and very fond of affection. Lean and wiry, their strength is nothing short of incredible. Typically, each of the two person sleds was pulled by a team of eight dogs.

Often as not, they will sleep outside at night on the kennel roof, rather than staying inside. The breed is, perhaps uniquely, attuned and adapted to the harsh realities of the frigid Norwegian winter.

Far more than yours truly, that’s for sure.

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Wagons, roll…….

Despite being wrapped up better than any Egyptian mummy, I shivered involuntarily in the -17 degree cold as we were given a safety drill, one that was somewhat padded out to facilitate the return of the sleds that had taken the first group out. But eventually it was our turn, and a mixture of excitement and trepidation took hold of me.

The sled itself is a two man affair, made entirely of wood, with standing space for the driver at the rear. The total width is roughly akin to that of an aircraft seat in economy class. Offered front seat, I shoehorned myself somewhat nervously into pole position, pun wholly intentional.

An increasingly welcome blanket covered my lower body; the advice from our calmly competent driver to ‘keep my hands well inside’ was happily complied with.

‘Mush!’

And we are off. Our eight strong team of straining huskies limbers slowly into gear. The sled lurches and bumps forward lethargically at first, feeling oddly heavy and ponderous. Perhaps it was the weight of three fully grown humans, who knows?

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Quite the adventure….

We gather speed by turns and canter through a meandering, mesmeric hinterland of rolling snow dunes and sparse, stripped tree branches. The sled bumps, heels and slews along an obviously well ploughed track as we roll left and right like a destroyer caught in a Force Ten storm.. The odd abrupt command from our guide elicits an instant response from the dog team but, to my mind, they seem to have the whole thing under control by themselves.

This is no sedate, dreamy sojourn with sleigh bells ringing and tinkling in unison. This is a shuddering, rocking and rolling, adrenaline fuelled joy ride that twists, turns and, at turns almost flies along and through a winding sea of snow that both dogs and driver know by heart. Any feelings of cold have long since gone.

In the ink black Tromso sky, a ghostly ribbon of spectral green bands  briefly flit across the ether, winding and unwinding like some sinuously coiled snake. It ends as quickly as it begins, as the Northern Lights, after that brief, electrifying debut, are swallowed by a rolling mass of dense, low cloud.

We shudder, thump and lurch at a stately clip across this expanse of scrub studded snow, my breath coming in short gasps. For what seems like an eternity, this eight engine fairground ride whooshes and whirls through this frigid, pristine wasteland until finally- and, by now thankfully- we slew to a halt near one of those round tents at the heart of the encampment.

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Coffee and warmth!

Inside, a central, wood fuelled fire crackles and splutters a reassuring welcome as hot coffee and chocolate cake combine to bring me slowly, gratefully, back to earth. That fire is almost bewitching. Outside, the dogs bay, howl and paw the ground impatiently as the next part of their human cargo is loaded up. More coffee? Don’t mind if I do.

Sledding at night, in the depths of a Norwegian winter, is unlike anything that I have ever experienced. If you are only ever going to Norway once- especially in winter- then doing it is a no brainer. But if you have mobility problems or are nervous in any way, I would definitely seek advice first.

It was an exhilarating adrenaline surge from first to last, a thrilling fairground ride set amid one of the most spectacular natural tableaux on the planet. Heading back to the Nordnorge that night, I found myself still grinning like an idiot from ear to ear.

In the interests of clarity….

The three middle pictures of Husky teams on the move are actually screen grabs from the on board Hurtigruten promotional DVD. We simply couldn’t have got out of the sleds to get such shots. Thus, they remain the copyright of Hurtigruten.

 

 

NIGHTMARE OFF NORTH CAPE

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Bridge and superstructure of the Scharnhorst, as seen on the model on display in the North Cape visitor’s centre

The North Cape of Norway is the northernmost point of Europe. Looking out from it’s lofty, slowly rolling plateau across the Barents Sea, it is difficult to imagine that the North Pole itself is a little over thirteen hundred miles away.

It is even more difficult to imagine that the waters to the north of this quiet, spectacular spot played host to the last major battle between British and German capital ships.

Just ninety miles north of the North Cape, a battleship lies entombed in around a thousand feet of freezing Arctic water.

Her name is Scharnhorst.

By December 1943, Germany’s war against Russia had turned irrevocably for the worst. As the Red Army’s advance assumed momentum, massive British and American convoys deposited thousands of tanks, guns, trucks and planes into the Russian war effort each month, unloading their cargoes at the year round ice free port of Murmansk.

By this stage, every single convoy was like a nail in the coffin of the Third Reich. And it led the Germans to try a desperate remedy to stop this torrent of supplies.

Sitting like a spider in her web at Alta Fjord, just two hundred miles from the route that any convoy would have to take, was the battleship Scharnhorst, the last serviceable capital ship that Germany had in Norwegian waters.

Scharnhorst had a long standing reputation as the ‘lucky ship’ of Hitler’s navy. In four years of combat she had been damaged by mines, bombs, and heavy shells, but she had always emerged to fight on. Her veteran crew believed in their ship absolutely.

If ‘lucky’ Scharnhorst could once get in among the slow moving ships of a heavily laden Arctic convoy, her heavy guns could do more damage in two hours than the entire U boat fleet had managed in the previous six months. The boost to the morale of the hard pressed German army would be incalculable.

But by now, any sortie was a massive gamble.

The Royal Navy had complete numerical superiority in these waters, and British radar was now way ahead in capability of anything the Germans had.

But the German situation was desperate and, besides, wasn’t Scharnhorst a ‘lucky’ ship?

Accordingly, on Christmas Day 1943, Scharnhorst came looming out of Alta, intent on savaging a recently reported supply convoy, JW 55B.

Warned of her sailing by intercepted German messages the Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Bruce Fraser, was waiting for her. If Fraser could finally put an end to Scharnhorst, he would end the last real surface threat to the Arctic convoys.

To the south of the convoy, a squadron of three British cruisers-Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield-formed a shield to protect the merchant ships from the German battleship. Though far less powerful than the German ship, this squadron was robust enough to buy at least enough time for the convoy to escape the scene.

Out at sea, Fraser himself was in the powerful, modern battleship Duke Of York. With him was another cruiser- HMS Jamaica- and four destroyers, These ships were intended to form the other half of a giant pincer that would hopefully encircle Scharnhorst and then pound her into scrap.

It was a very astute plan. The Duke Of York was a more powerful beast than the Scharnhorst, and her guns could certainly do the job. But the Scharnhorst was faster, and would first need to be slowed down by smaller ships. The outcome was by no means certain.

What was certain on the morning of December 26th, 1943, was that both sides found a common enemy in the form of a full strength Arctic gale. Almost complete darkness shrouded a screaming howler of a storm, with huge, rolling waves that made even Duke Of York and Scharnhorst pitch and sway horribly. The weather that day favoured no man.

At around 0830 that morning, the radar plot on one of the three British cruisers shielding the convoy from the south picked up a very large warship, approaching rapidly from the direction of Norway.

It could only be the Scharnhorst. The three cruisers went immediately to action stations.

An hour later the German battleship was illuminated with star shell, fired from the cruisers. Taken completely by surprise, the Scharnhorst was lit up as starkly as a Christmas tree. On both sides, the guns barked and roared into life.

One of the first British shells smashed into the forward radar set of the Scharnhorst, rendering her completely blind forward. The damaged battleship broke off the action, using her superior speed to escape. Unable to keep up with her in the gale, the three cruisers closed back up to protect the convoy, in case the raider tried to come at the merchant ships again from another direction.

She did. And it was the ending of her.

If Scharnhorst had ran for home right then, Fraser could never have caught up with her in time. But aboard the German battleship, Rear Admiral Erich Bey decided to try and use his speed to outrun the cruisers and come in from another direction. His guns were all intact and, by the time he came back at the convoy, he could wreak havoc in the Arctic twilight that would break at around that time of day.

To Bey’s immense chagrin, the same three cruisers, forewarned by radar, were waiting for him. Again, the guns roared out on both sides.

This time, it was Scharnhorst that got the better result. One of her shells put one of the main turrets on Norfolk out of action, causing several casualties. At the same time, Sheffield was suffering some engine trouble. It could have been very bad.

But Bey had had enough by this stage. He realised that he was fighting blind, in a damaged ship, against opponents that could predict his every move. Soon after the guns ceased firing for the second time, he turned Scharnhorst on a course back for Norway. The three cruisers, joined by four destroyers from the convoy escort, shadowed him at a distance, all the while relaying the course and speed of Scharnhorst to Fraser in the approaching Duke Of York.

Not long after four in the afternoon, the Scharnhorst was once again caught by surprise, as star shells from Fraser’s ships illuminated her from bow to stern. The guns on the British battleship crashed out, hitting the German at once and knocking out one of her two forward main gun turrets. It was remarkable shooting by any standards. With the original shadowers now also entering the fray, some twelve British and one Norwegian warship were now converging on Bey’s flagship.

But Scharnhorst was not done yet.

Recovering quickly from her surprise, the German battleship began zig zagging frantically as she worked up to her top speed. Her guns shot through both of the masts on the Duke Of York –another first class gunnery display-and she gradually began to open the range. Incredibly, it began to look as if the Scharnhorst would escape once more.

Then, at the extreme limit of her firing range, a lucky hit from Duke Of York crashed right through into the stern of the fleeing Scharnhorst. It resulted in a catastrophic loss of speed in the German ship and, although incredible efforts by her engineers got her back up to 22 knots, it was not enough to outrun the four destroyers that were now overhauling her, two to either side.

In seas that made them heel, pitch and lurch almost unimaginably, the four destroyers, with their paper thin armour, swerved through a hail of desperate shell fire from the Scharnhorst. A string of torpedo strikes lanced her hull on both sides, and Scharnhorst staggered to a crawl like a slowly dying bull. Now, both Fraser and the cruisers overhauled the battleship, forming a cordon from which there was no escape this time.

Aboard Scharnhorst, Bey knew it, too. He signalled Berlin; ‘The Scharnhorst will fight to the last shell. Long live the Fuhrer’. There could be no doubt now about the outcome.

For the next hour, a hurricane of shell fire and another salvo of torpedoes from all the surrounding ships gradually demolished the proud Scharnhorst. The German battleship fought doggedly, but hopelessly; ‘like a wounded shark’, in the words of one Royal Navy observer.

No one saw her finally go under in the icy, storm tossed darkness, but it is generally agreed that she finally gave up the ghost at around 1945, after a heavy underwater explosion was heard and felt in all the British ships. Scharnhorst capsized and sank; the uncontrollable fires raging aboard her finally smothered by the freezing Arctic waters. Of her complement of just over 1900 officers and men, only thirty-six were able to be saved from the savage, wind swept seas.

When the wreck of Scharnhorst was eventually discovered in September, 2000 by a joint British and Norwegian team,  subsequent survey footage confirmed that the bows had been blown off, suggesting that the remaining ammunition in her forward turrets did, indeed, explode as she sank. In all, the Scharnhorst absorbed something like fifty five heavy shell hits and some eleven torpedoes before she finally sank.

The Battle of North Cape marked the last occasion on which giant battleships would slug it out at sea, without airborne interference, in a real life fight to the death. As such, it has achieved a seminal place in the history of both the British and German navies to this day.

 

 

HURTIGRUTEN- LANDFALL AT ALESUND

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Olde worlde Alesund

The first morning of the voyage found the Nordnorge pitching and rolling quite a bit as she pushed purposefully northward from Bergen. I was more surprised by this than I should have been.

Most of our voyage would consist of sailing in confined, sheltered waters, venturing sometimes sixty or seventy miles into the heart of the fjords themselves. And, indeed, most of the time we would hardly be aware of the effect of those winter time Arctic waters on our sturdy little ship.

But on this particular morning, we had to cross a patch of open sea. Designed with a shallow draft that allows her to navigate in even the most shallow confines, the Nordnorge rocked, rolled and pitched around on the open sea for around an hour or so, wrong footing many people on that topsy- turvy morning.

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Alesund is an Art Nouveau masterpiece

In winter time Norway, any amount of daylight is at a premium. From around nine in the morning, a kind of opaque, pearly light hung over the white flecked, steel grey rollers as we held to our course. The odd snowstorm lashed the decks like some kind of vengeful wraith.

Snuggled down in a chair in the gently rolling vista of the observation lounge, I watched in sheer, open jawed amazement as a series of smooth, snow draped, low rolling hills breasted the horizon, looking for all the world like so many slain sea monsters that had been left where they had fallen. The whole scene had a kind of stark, petrified stillness and beauty about it. The silence was even sharper and more defined than the cold.

Gradually, something resembling civilisation began to take shape about noon. The Nordnorge slowed to a crawl as she was embraced by a horseshoe shaped crescent of dark, undulating hills, bathed in the rosy pink glow of a sun that lay not far below the horizon. Ashore, car headlights glistened in the surreal twilight like so many maddened glow worms, beetling along the water front. Houses and waterfront buildings took form, then became more sharply defined as the Nordnorge ghosted past a surly looking Russian trawler that had seen many a better day. We were alongside before I even knew it.

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Russian trawler, Alesund

Ah, Alesund. I knew it well from the sultry summer days, when an almost endless daylight smiled down on the cafes along the beautiful harbour, and fleets of yachts bobbed at anchor like gaggles of contented swans. The streets were full of people, wandering the town from bars to restaurants, clubs, and back again. But now….

The beautiful city seemed to be in hibernation, dusted by a carpet of fresh snow that ran from the hills right down to the harbour itself. Silence filled the void between the streets lined with the glut of still beautiful Art Nouveau buildings that have always been the hallmark of the city.

After a disastrous fire at the turn of the twentieth century, Alesund was almost completely rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style that was then in vogue. Today, these beautiful buildings, with their rounded contours, gently tapering spires and pretty, pastel colours, have been largely reconfigured as cafes, restaurants and trendy bars. Mercifully, they are a very short walk from where the Hurtigruten ferries dock, right in the city centre.

The snow under my feet was crisp, compact and firm as I headed uphill to try and get the best shots of some of these buildings. The best of the twilight was just beginning to glint off those gorgeous facades at around that time. With a row of low, ranging mountains and an eerily shimmering fjord as a backdrop, they were an electrifying, exhilarating sight.

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Winter waterfront, Alesund

I pottered back down those steep hills somewhat more gingerly to find myself crossing the bridge to the waterfront. Outside tables that would have normally been thronged with light hearted and laughing people in summer, sat stark and deserted under a funeral shroud of snow that glittered like frosting on a wedding cake. Few people were about at this early afternoon hour. Every now and again a car or a bus would splutter past as if it were running for it’s very life. Then the silence would return.

Alesund that day was a mix of intoxicating fresh air and delicate, slowly fading light that framed one of the most beautiful city scapes anywhere. But, even under that freezing facade of snow, you could sense that it would not be too much longer before the light returns for months on end, and this Sleeping Beauty would bloom like fresh spring flowers.

Back aboard the Nordnorge, I watched the spindly fingers of darkness stealing across Alesund like some stealthy thief as it snuffed out the lights of the town. Under my feet, the engines throbbed gently as the gap between ship and quay became a yawning, charcoal coloured chasm.

With that, we stood out into the darkness, towards the fastness of Arctic Norway, beckoning from the north.