All posts by travelswithanthony

Hello world, this is Anthony's travel blog. I've done more than a hundred and thirty cruises and transatlantic crossings, with more to come. If you have a taste for style, beauty and elegance, welcome aboard. If you have a sense of wonder about the world around you, welcome also. We'll be looking at the very best in land, sea and air travel- both past and present. Together, we'll be going to some pretty damned peachy places. The small, off-the-beaten-track paradises, and the big, bustling cities. Kick off your shoes, grab a margarita, and enjoy the ride!

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.

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HURTIGRUTEN- GO NORTH, YOUNG MAN!

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The Nordnorge docked at Trondheim

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.

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Five Deck outdoor wraparound promenade

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.

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Restaurant view from starboard to port

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.

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The viewing gallery on Four Deck

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.

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Stella Polaris bar

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.

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Seven deck aft terrace, from port side

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….

 

HURTIGRUTEN- SAILING INTO A WINTER WONDERLAND

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Sailing north in winter time Norway

The far north of Norway in winter. Vast, snow shrouded mountains soar skywards like ancient monoliths, clawing at an eerie, pearly white glow in the sky that hangs just above the horizon as your ship surges through a gunmetal swell. The cold air is as sharp as a knife.

As your ship rounds another headland, a cluster of little houses cling to a hillside, as if seeking refuge from the encroaching blanket of snow that lays siege to it. In the centre, a Norwegian flag hangs, limp in the still, early afternoon air.

Sailing on, and a sudden blizzard throws itself across your path; a roiling, blinding white mass that is every bit as irresistible as any desert sandstorm. It clears just as quickly to reveal the land again; a carpet of petrified pine forests and fir trees, groaning under the weight of the snow that presses down on them. They stand, gaunt and skeletal, on the edges of ravines that plunge right down into the waters of the fjord itself.

Inside the Hurtigruten ship, all is warm and welcoming. Floor to ceiling windows allow passengers to absorb the fantastic scenic smorgasbord unfolding all around them in comfort. Some sit picking at waffles with fresh cream from the cafe; others are more than grateful for the piping hot coffee.

A strange sense of peace pervades your passage into these surreal northern wastes. It truly is a voyage like no other.

Over the next series of blogs, we’ll take you into this special, spectacularly isolated landscape. Welcome to the wonders of winter time Norway…..