Hurtigruten – Norwgeian Coastal Cruising Voyages

 

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Travel writer Robin Mead enjoyed his Norwegian coastal voyage so much that he did the trip twice. Here he reports on “a cruise with a difference”.

MS Fram - HurtigrutenThe first thing to say about cruising up the coast of Norway on the sturdy ships known as Hurtigruten, which leave Bergen with clockwork regularity every evening and head up towards the northern tip of Europe, returning 12 days later, is that this is a cruise like no other.

These are primarily working ships, running a sort of nautical bus service between big towns and remote Norwegian villages where road access may be difficult or non-existent.  They carry passengers, freight – everything that isolated communities may need. They’ve really only grown into miniature cruise liners, catering for holidaymakers as well as the regular domestic traffic, in the last 40 years.

So if you are taking a trip on Hurtigruten, you can leave your glad rags at home: you won’t be dining at the captain’s table. Gents: forget the tux and pack a hefty sweater or two to go under your anorak – it can get chilly up inside the Arctic Circle. And ladies: put those strappy sandals aside and pick a pair of wellies instead – you are going to need them.

Explore NorwayThat said, you are off on one of the most magical journeys in the world. The scenery is stunning, and it never seems to end. You’ll see everything in close-up: much more so than on a standard cruise liner dipping in and out of the fjords.

From sprawling cities like Trondheim to tiny villages studded with pastel-coloured wooden houses, and from man-made spectacles like Tromso’s beautiful ‘Cathedral of the Arctic’ to natural wonders like the lonely headland of North Cape.

I first did the trip in the 1970s, when holidaymakers on board were a rarity and the decks of my ageing coastal steamer were packed with boxes and bicycles, medical supplies and mailbags. Passengers hopped on board in one tiny village, then alighted at another a few hours’ up the coast. Although we hugged the shore, the tables in the sparse saloon had wide lips at their edges to stop our plates of meat and two veg sliding off when the ship rolled – and they proved very necessary when the ship ventured into open water during the crossing to the Lofoten Islands.

Three decades later ... and what a transformation. Spurred on by burgeoning holiday traffic, the independent shipping lines running the service had united to form Hurtigruten, and an entire fleet of new ships had come into service. Big, comfortable ... one might almost say luxurious.

Hurtigruten expedition cruisesFrom a seventies-style cupboard-sized cabin with a cramped bunk and no natural light, my cabin had blossomed into an en-suite stateroom, with a picture window and roomy twin beds. Up in the bright, airy saloon, the style was more grand restaurant than greasy spoon café, and the meals were magnificent. In fact, Hurtigruten have now decided to make a speciality of fine food, and shipboard menus are featuring such local delicacies as reindeer steaks and aquavit ice-cream, in addition to endless choices of fresh seafood and tongue-curling Norwegian cheeses.

Even in the tourist-conscious summer months, shipboard entertainment can be sparse. They have a bit of a party as you cross the Arctic Circle, of course, but when King Neptune (bearing a remarkable resemblance to the heftier of the ship’s two waitresses) appeared on board and demanded to “christen” me, I had to endure nothing worse than a handful of ice cubes stuffed down my shirt.

This is a cruise where paperbacks, e-books, and electronic games are as essential as your binoculars and a camera. It is also wise to bring your own drinks: shipboard prices for alcohol (as elsewhere in Norway) are eye-watering.

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis)Besides North Cape, which the ship rounds on the way to its turning point at Kirkenes, up against the Russian border, not to mention 120 or so fjords with countless waterfalls, the sight most passengers want to see on this voyage is Mother Nature’s own laser show in the sky: the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

Lots of standard cruise lines set off in search of this amazing spectacle, but fail to find it. Hurtigruten’s ship’s captains turf everyone out of bed to watch on deck when they spot the great waterfalls of light, while the waitresses appear with a midnight snack of fishcakes. And currently if you are unlucky enough to go on a winter cruise that misses the Northern Lights, Hurtigruten have the answer: they’ll give you another cruise free (check the website to see if this offer is still valid)! 

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Hurtigruten which has some very attractive offers. But if it is sightseeing that you are after, remember that Norway’s winters are not just cold; they are also very dark! It’s a lot better to pick a spring or autumn cruise.

Robin Mead runs his own travel website, full of tips and ideas. Visit www.robinmead.com, or follow him on Twitter.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 7 Comment(s)

  • baconbap
    over 4 years ago
    I loved the food on hurtigruten
  • robinmead
    almost 5 years ago
    So glad you enjoyed both the article and Hurtigruten. I know price can be a drawback, but there are some great seasonal special offers around. Don't regret missing the 1970s experience - the ships are so much better now.
  • robinmead
    almost 5 years ago
    It is! Look out for special offers that include the flights to and from Bergen.
  • susanh
    almost 5 years ago
    sounds ike an amazing cruise
  • baconbap
    almost 5 years ago
    I loved the hurtigruten food
  • baconbap
    almost 5 years ago
    I loved the hurtigruten food
  • ESW
    almost 5 years ago
    I have enjoyed reading your article. I envy you having done the trip in the 1970s. We had plans do do it then, but it was 1999 before we first did the trip. Having waited for so long it had a lot to live up to - not only did it live up to expectation, it exceeded it on all counts. It’s not called the “The World's Most Beautiful Voyage" for nothing. Be warned - it can be addictive! We’ve done six trips, all on the traditional vessels apart from one trip on a mid generation ship, which just wasn’t the same.

    Before booking, do your research and choose the vessel that is best suited to your needs and expectaions. A trip on a traditional vessel with its gang plank and derrick on the front for loading is very different to a trip on the new generation or millennium vessels. This was discussed on the forum:

    http://www.silvertravelforum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=170&t=233&p=1333&hilit=hurtigruten#p1333

    The traditional vessels are very informal and gentlemen won’t need suit or tie. Changing for dinner is just removing outer layers. Most people spend a lot of time on deck where layers are essential. Take plenty including a waterproof top which will help reduce the wind chill factor. Don’t worry if you think you look like the Michelin Man, everyone else does too. I’ve not seen anyone in wellingtons but sturdy walking boots with a couple of pairs of socks are the preferred choice of many. You do need to spend time outside as the view from the lounges isn’t as good as on the later vessels.

    The voyage is unlike any other cruise and will appeal to those who ‘don’t do’ cruises, especially if you choose a traditional vessel. All are working ships and they get to the parts of Norway none of the cruise vessels do. Berlevåg at midnight springs to mind... Many stops are short giving you little time to explore the towns.

    I took a book on our first trip but didn’t get further than the first couple of pages. Since then, I’ve never bothered. The scenery is much too good to waste time reading.

    Robin mentions Northern Lights. In the summer there is the Midnight Sun, another magical experience.

    As pointed out, alcohol is expensive, and its not much cheaper to buy in the ports to bring back on board to drink. This is one holiday we never drink.

    If you’ve never been on Hurtigruten, you don’t know what you’re missing. It is a fantastic trip.