Sailing away on Hurtigruten

EXPATRIATE MUSINGS: Norwegians and foreigners alike are drawn to the coastal voyage in Norway known as Hurtigruten, which offers sea travel combined with stunning scenery, weather permitting. It’s a chance to see Norway’s fjords and mountain ranges, and visit large Norwegian cities and small fishing villages. Isabel Coderre (photo), who moved from Canada to Norway last year, recounts her recent trip from Trondheim to Kirkenes just as Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) begins marathon coverage of a voyage from Bergen.

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The 'MS Nordstjernen' is one of Hurtigruten's few remaining classic ships from an earlier age of sailing along the Norwegian coast. PHOTO: Isabel Coderre

Eight hundred pictures and countless memories later, I am here to share my Hurtigruten experience.

The first step was choosing which voyage to take. Hurtigruten offers many options, but the three main Hurtigruten voyages are the “seven-day Northbound Voyage” from Bergen to Kirkenes in northern Norway, the “six-day Southbound Voyage” from Kirkenes to Bergen, and the “12-day Classic Voyage” which is a round trip to Bergen via Kirkenes. There is also the option of devising your own, customized “Port to Port” voyage by embarking and disembarking at the ports of your choosing – that’s the option we chose. We wanted to go all the way to Kirkenes but preferred to travel through western Norway by car, so we boarded a northbound Hurtigruten ship in Trondheim. To get back to Oslo at the end of our trip, we flew from Kirkenes airport.

The dining area on board 'MS Nordstjernen' is more modest than on the larger, modern vessels, but still offers nice views. PHOTO: Isabel Coderre

Hurtigruten serves 34 ports, and these are listed on the website making it easy to plan and book a Port to Port voyage. The price is calculated based on the number of days (or hours) spent aboard.

One ship leaves Bergen every day. As such, the day you choose to board the ship determines which ship you will end up on (of a fleet of 12). We chose our departure date purposefully in order to travel on the oldest and smallest ship, called the MS Nordstjernen. It was built in 1956 (and modernized in the 1980s) and can hold 400 passengers, but it does not feel like a ship with that kind of capacity. Perhaps my impression is influenced by the fact that during our somewhat off-season trip there was an average of only 40 passengers on board. The Nordstjernen has just 150 cabins, or “berths,” measuring from five square metres to 13 square metres.We stayed in a five-square-meter cabin, which was barely enough room for its bunkbed plus a sink. Even the small garbage bin affixed to the wall blocked half of the bedside passageway. Nevertheless, this little ship goes as fast as the rest of the fleet and has real charm, and it did not take long to understand why some Hurtigruten devotees will only travel aboard it.

The rest of the fleet consists mainly of ships built in the 1990s and 2000s, with the exception of the MS Lofoten which is Hurtigruten’s only other “classic” ship (it was built in 1964). The modern vessels are more like cruiseships, all holding between 700-1,000 passengers plus 45 cars, and those who prefer the classic ships view the others as motorized hotels rather than vessels. Having spent a month last year aboard a Cunard ship sailing across the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean, I am able to say that both experiences were wonderful. Yet, if I were to take another cruise of Norway, it would again be aboard one of Hurtigruten’s classic ships.

Mountains, coastline and small settlements roll by from the deck of a Hurtigruten ship. PHOTO: Isabel Coderre

A typical day on the Nordstjernen was different for everyone. Some people spent the entire journey on deck with their camera at the ready, observing the occasional lighthouse or interesting rock formation, the beautiful coastline or bird watching. Others had come with friends and visited the entire time, while others barely took their nose out of their book, and still others seemed to be asleep in the lounge for the whole journey. I did a little bit of everything, but must admit that the thick woollen blankets that the crew piles high in the lounges certainly made reading and sleeping very appealing. After all, you can only take pictures for so long – it did get chilly on deck in the Norwegian springtime.

The other reason I had to sleep occasionally was because of some seasickness. I attribute this to the small size of the Nordstjernen, as I did not get seasick on the larger ship I took last year. Yet, as a result of the queasiness we were very glad to not have paid in advance for a full meal plan (breakfast buffet, lunch buffet, and seated dinner). Food and wine were certainly not foremost on our minds as the Nordstjernen rode the tip of a wave then dropped into its swell, rode the wave then dropped, rode, then dropped…  I felt that this lack of luxury, however, added value to my trip because it felt like the proper way to travel the powerful Norwegian Sea and the Arctic waters. Next time I would be sure to travel aboard a classical ship again, but I will remember to bring medication for seasickness just in case.

Since Hurtigruten has many stops to make, there are also daily opportunities to stretch your legs on solid ground. The stops can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as four hours. Passengers can pay extra to participate in excursions organized by Hurtigruten, but are also welcome to tour the ports independently. Excursions are organized both within and outside the port cities, for instance a city tour of Tromsø with a stop at its Arctic Cathedral, or a boat ride to the Saltstraumen tidal current outside Bodø, which is the strongest in the world. Other examples of excursions include a sea eagle safari near Svolvaer, a bus ride to the North Cape, or a dinnertime trip to Lofotr Viking Museum to enjoy a Viking feast.

An 'Arctic Baptism' aboard the 'MS Nordstjernen.' PHOTO: Isabel Coderre

I should not spoil the surprise for those readers who may take a Hurtigruten voyage, but I’m eager to share a fun memory from the day the ship crossed the 66th parallel into the Arctic Circle. An announcement was made for all passengers to gather on deck for an event called an “Arctic Baptism.” The captain and crew were waiting with a bucket filled with ice cold water, a ladle, and a tray filled with shots of some kind of alcohol. Then, one by one, the passengers who were crossing into the Arctic Circle for the first time got down on one knee and waited to be baptised by the captain – with a scoop of icy water poured down their necks and backs! It’s fun for the passengers who are watching, wincing, and squealing, and the captain seemed to enjoy himself, too, despite having performed the ceremony countless times.

My experience on board the Nordstjernen no doubt would have been different aboard one of the newer ships. I can imagine that soaking in a jacuzzi while breathing in icy Arctic air would have been neat. But on the other hand, the Arctic Baptism likely wouldn’t have been quite the same on a ship carrying 1,000 passengers, and really, who wants to miss that?

Views and News from Norway/Isabel Coderre
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