Hurtigruten is the real way to see the real Norway, up close and personal. It’s a voyage rather than a cruise, one that calls at no less than thirty four different ports on the seven night, six day run from Bergen in the south, to Kirkenes, just ten kilometres from the Russian border.
Many of those stops last around some fifteen minutes; long enough for a few people to embark and disembark, and for a few pallets of essential sundries and luxury goods to be shuttled on and off. One of my abiding memories is hearing the unmistakable sound of a fork lift truck, rumbling in and out of the side loading doors, at four o’clock in the morning.
Other stops, at banner ports such as Alesund, Trondheim, Bodo, Tromso and Honningsvag, are more extensive. Often of several hours’ duration, these allow the opportunity to go on walking tours, or even dog sledding safaris (more on than particular one to come). And, to crown it all, there is a truly unique, once in a lifetime chance to visit the mighty North Cape itself at the height of winter.
If you need all the bells and whistles of a conventional cruise ship, then perhaps best to look elsewhere. There is no on board entertainment as such, no army of stewards ready to cater to your every whim. The Hurtigruten are strictly working ships, albeit very comfortable ones. Their primary business is carrying food, supplies and foot passengers to the string of isolated ports and hamlets that sprinkle the deep, winding coastline of Norway, right up to the North Cape and beyond. Sightseers are most certainly not the priority.
Nor, however, are they neglected. Breakfast and lunch is served buffet style, with outstanding local produce such as seafood, cold cuts, and several hot dishes on offer. Dinner is a set, three course meal- again, local fare- that revolves around Norwegian staples of soups, meat and fish, followed by a superb, calorie laden dessert guaranteed to make your arteries beg for mercy.
Do not expect the level of deft, attentive service that you get on a cruise ship. There are simply not enough staff on board to deliver it on a ferry. But service is obliging, polite and genuine, offered up by an all Norwegian staff that, often as not, double up in more than one job.
Cabins, too, are quite small, but more than adequate. Beds come with a duvet that you uncover yourself each night. There is no room service, although maids do come in every day to clean the room and replenish bath towels, etc. Wardrobe space is minimal, but then you won’t be needing the ballgowns or tuxedos on this sizzling, winter time adventure.
I was on the trim, sturdy MS Nordorge, twelve thousand tons of immaculate, beautifully styled intent that the aptly named Captain Winther handled like a nippy little town car, spinning round on a dime to come alongside some of the most improbably located quaysides I have ever seen. For a week, we threaded nimbly between towering rock formations and around sharp, deeply indented headlands. The standard of seamanship on display was as finely crafted as any ballet performance.
Seven decks high, the Nordnorge boasts mostly small, mainly outside cabins on deck three, and again on decks five and six. Deck four is given over to a series of public rooms that run fore to aft.
Forward here are a pair of flanking conference rooms and a library, followed by the small Stella Polaris bar that has floor to ceiling windows on both sides. A cafe follows, open more or less 24/7 for the sale of hot and cold drinks, snacks, and sundries.
On the starboard side, a viewing gallery with floor to ceiling windows ran all the way aft to the main dining room. Lined with extremely comfortable chairs along its entire stance, this was an incredibly popular venue for readers and sightseers alike, especially just before dinner.
The dining room itself overlooks the stern, with windows allowing views both to port and starboard, and out across the wake.
Up on deck seven, a vast, forward facing, horseshoe shaped observation lounge allows for fabulous vistas through walls of floor to ceiling glass. Thronged by comfortable sofas and easy chairs that were a definite hazard to activity of any kind, it was by far the most popular room on the ship when she was under way.
This leads into a central, midships bar with more prime viewing space, both to port and starboard. Aft of this, the open Arctic beckons.
The aft part of deck seven is open to the stern. Port and starboard sides have perspex screens for about half the length. Sprinkled with wooden tables and chairs, these have overhead heaters, suspended from a perspex roof, that makes them usable at any hour of the day or night. The starboard side is for the use of smokers.
Behind this, an open terrace deck is covered in green matting. The snow that falls so often is usually shovelled off into the aft recesses of the deck, but care needs to be exercised when walking here at any time in the winter season. The same is true of the outdoor promenade deck that wraps all the way around deck five. This was often iced over but, in truth, it is all but impossible to keep clear 24/7 in those Arctic climes.
This then, was the Nordnorge. All of these seven decks were pierced by a pair of staircases, one each fore and aft, each with a single elevator. Their lobbies boasted beautiful, polished wood floors and brass trimmed stairwells down their entire length.
Everywhere, a deliberate maritime theme runs right through the ship, with evocative paintings of former Hurtigruten ships, and scenes from local Norwegian life of yore. There are one or two old models, and no shortage of perfectly polished brass. Lots of mirrored surfaces, and the wide use of glass gave the illusion that the Nordnorge appeared larger than was actually the case.
Around ten thirty on a glacial late January night, the Nordorge shuddered gently into life and warped slowly away from the Hurtigruten quay in Bergen, standing out into a blinding snowstorm that all but obliterated any view from my seat in the observation lounge. I just managed to make out the contours of the great suspension bridge as we ghosted under it. Ashore, clusters of light seemed to huddle together, as if seeking refuge from the howling banshee rousing in fury all around it.
We were off….