Norway’s Viking Voyage: The Hurtigruten
By Kent E. St. John
By Kent E. St. JohnSenior Travel Editor
These were the notes I took on day three of my trip on the Hurtigruten, the ships that journey up Norway’s Northern Coast. It has been labeled the “World’s Most Beautiful Voyage.” I have no reason to doubt it.
The MS Finnmark’s cabin 603 had became my home as well as a place to view vistas that simply cannot be found elsewhere. This isn’t a typical cruise and is indeed a voyage, one that will bring out the Viking explorer in anyone, even with heated tile floors in the bathroom.
My voyage took me from Norway’s second largest city, Bergen, to Kirkenes on the border with Russia and Finland.
The route dates from 1893 when it was the only connection for people and trade, and it still is a ferry and goods route. Unlike most who travel it in summer or “under the midnight sun” I was in search of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. I wasn’t disappointed.
Bergen’s Fish Tales
I knew when landing in the airport in Bergen that I was already in the midst of a winter wonderland; the snow was falling and faces were smiling. The lobby of the Neptun Hotel was bright and filled with local art, on any arrival a good omen.
The city itself has long been based on fishing and with that, money. Bergen hasn’t lost site of blending modern prosperity with the past. The key to the historical center of the city is the UNESCO Bryggen quarter. The old wooden buildings and narrow passages spread up from the wharfs and present a stunningly beautiful setting.
It was one of the largest trade centers in Europe and completely based on the fishing industry. The Bryggen was where the German Hanseatic League built an import /export office in 1360, and Bergen never looked back.
The nearby fish market was busy and on display some of the best looking catches anywhere –lobster, shrimp and wide-eyed salmon. Even with the snow flying and the hills covered with white, fishing is constant. Walking the compact city center I noticed that one out of every two persons had a pair of cross-country skis over their shoulders and a happy smile. Bergen was just a perfect place to begin my voyage.
My Ship Comes In
Stepping out of the Neptun Hotel in the bright morning winter sun, a different Bergen was on display: mountaintops caked with fresh snow glistened and cobbled streets were glazed.
The MS Finnmark wasn’t yet back into the Bergen Port and I had several hours to explore. I started with Troldhaugen, Edvard Crieg’s home, located about fifteen minutes from the city center. The two-story wood building was displayed at its best in winter frosting fronting the sea.
I next decided, due to the clear weather, to take the Flobanen Funicular to the top of Mt. Floyen along with others toting skis and sleds. It turned out to be a great choice as Bergen’s beauty was clearly displayed far below.
As others strapped on their skis to follow the numerous trails, I gazed out on the fjords and waited for my ship to come in. It finally did as I finished a superb bowl of mussels at the Floien Restaurant situated in a prime viewing area. Just a few short hours to explore Bergen’s cafes and shops before boarding the ship.
Permission to Come Aboard
In general I do not consider myself a cruise ship person and the closest I’ve ever come was a boat that took eighteen passengers to the Galapagos Islands. At first the MS Finnmark looked huge but the people boarding looked so laid back that I boarded knowing I wasn’t getting into a raucous hedonistic free for all. After all the ship was a working vessel.
After entering cabin 603 I was ready to sign up with the Merchant Marines. The cabin was roomy with a double bed, sitting area and small desk space. I also lucked out with a balcony. I must add that during the voyage I managed to visit several types of cabins and all were well laid out. The bottom line is that scenery is very democratic and seen perfectly from all the decks, lounges and dining room.
Also found aboard the ship, which is done in Art Nouveau style are two outdoor Jacuzzis and heated pool, are Internet stations, a sauna and a small gym. A small café and gift shop top off the offerings. Clearly the scenery is given top billing and it was well deserved. In the course of my trip I couldn’t have been happier. I even managed to throw a small cocktail party in old 603.
Alesund the Beautiful
While the ship stops at 34 ports, only a few stops are for any length of time. Fortunately the ones that you want are covered. The first excursion was the next morning in Alesund. Tragedy can create beauty and that certainly is the case in Alesund. A huge fire on January 23, 1904 totally destroyed the city, and Kaiser Wilhelm II rapidly sent provisions. Young Norwegian architects then proceeded to design and build in a totally Art Nouveau style and all in stone. The Art Nouveau Center best covers the city’s rebirth and is done very well.
In case you need to burn off calories from the first night’s buffet, climb up to the Aksla Viewpoint, all 418 steps, for a terrific view of the town, archipelago and Sunnmore Alps. I got the feeling that I could have stayed here for longer, and if you plan to, you can; a new boat passes through the next day.
After getting back to my ship I set a routine that I followed for the rest of the journey, starting with standing on the deck topside and watching the city slip past. That frequently lasted quite a long time as the scenery just continued to get better and better.
As soon as the sunset concluded, a long affair, it was off to the sauna and finally to the outdoor jacuzzi. If planned right that was just about the time the sky lit up with stars. Next stop was the cabin for a shower and a glass of wine before heading to the restaurant for the second seating.
Sometimes dinner is a buffet, but usually it’s an á la carte affair that gives the chefs a real chance to shine. On some nights a scheduled port stop happens and it’s off to walk a small village while the ship unloads goods, a perfect after-dinner stroll. Then a trip to one of the two lounges for a nightcap, ending with a last parade on an outside deck searching for the Northern Lights.
Trucking Around Trondheim
We head up a fjord much like the Viking King Olav did over 1000 years ago and into the port at Tronheim, the city he founded. The city has a long historical past and today is fueled by the huge student population. It is also the spiritual center of Norway and where even today the royal coronation takes place.
The city is neatly laid out and its wooden structures are colorful — the opposite of the huge stone Nidaros Cathedral, which also happens to be Scandinavia’s largest medieval building. The cathedral was built over the grave of Olav the Holy and was the setting for pilgrimages throughout the Middle Ages; the tradition has recently been revived.
Tronheim has its Bryggen area with its wharfs and old fishing market buildings as in Bergen. In Trondheim many have been converted to restaurants and shops, each in a distinctive color. The best view is from the Gamle Bybro (old town bridge), which will take you to the Mollenberg and Bakklandet neighborhoods. Both are great for strolling and stretching your sea legs. Trondheim is Norway’s third largest city, so it was a great place to shop for sullies for the rest of the sea voyage.
The first thing you notice when docking in Bodo is the dramatic range of peaks that form its backdrop. It is also above the Arctic Circle, which we passed during the night. It is quite a bit colder and whiter than the previous ports. Most of the city was leveled during WWII, a something that occurred in many places along the northern coast of Norway.
The reason was best explained at the fantastic Norwegian Aviation Museum. The Gulf Stream keeps these waters relatively ice free all year, keeping various ports open. That was very important to Germany during the war. From gas balloons to a ride in one of several modern simulators, the museum is amazing and will really lift you up!
Bodo also has an important place in modern history; during the Cold War it was a base for NATO planes keeping a watch on Russia. Now the best thing to watch is the nearby Saltstraumen Maelstrom, a mind-boggling shifting of 400 million cubic feet of water from one fjord to another. Try to find that anywhere else!
As we pulled from port I finally realized why the Inuit have over forty words for snow, it all depends on the shade and sunlight.
Magic Ice, Mystical Islands
We cross the open waters on our departure from Trondheim and head for the dramatic Nordland and a stop at the Lofoten Islands. The decks of the Lofoten Wall with its dramatic glacier-carved peaks make for a terrific time to sit silently and just get lost it its beauty.
As the ship pulled into the islands main entry in Svolvaer, the ice-crusted fishing boats look eerie with bright lights shimmering through the lightly falling snow. Instead of a stroll in the cold we opted for an Svolvaer winter treat, the Magic Ice Bar. Seven ice sculptors from around the world create magical ice carvings, even the bar and glasses are made of ice.
After an icy cold one, I had some time to stroll the pier and watch as fisherman prepped for the next day’s catch. In fact, the best cod fishing is during the cold winter months. Every part of the cod is used; even the cod heads are shipped to Nigeria for use in a favorite dish. The fish’s liver provides rich oil and the tongue is a local delicacy. The icy white mountains provided the backdrop as we headed up the coast, on constant watch for the Aurora Borealis.
If you are under the impression that polar places are quiet and lonely, Tromso will prove you wrong, even in winter. The streets are filled, pubs and bars abound and the local Mack Brewery is the farthest northern brewery in the world. In fact, it is the place where you can also attach the “farthest northern” label to the Protestant church, botanical garden and even Burger King.
One thing found further south than usual were the playful and bearded arctic seals swimming at the Polaria, an architectural delight outside and a fabulous learning center within. The center is compact and walkable.
Our last stop before disembarking the next day in Kirknes was literally Norway’s top spot. In fact Nordkapp is closer to the North Pole than Oslo. Forget the pavilion and just gaze over the snow-covered massive cliffs down to the Barents Sea. For many it is considered a pilgrimage of sorts.
Like a parting gift from the Norse Gods, an announcement came over the speakers during dinner that the Aurora Borealis, elusive up until now, was making an appearance. Passengers rushed topside to see the shimmering green gasses in the night sky. I never thought I would see anything so wondrous. I could only hope that it would happen again.
Approaching Kirknes the Finnmark plowed through some icy waters, a testament to the freezing temperatures. The sadness of packing up and leaving cabin 603 was balanced by my planned outdoor schedule.
After stowing my gear at the Rica Kirknes Hotel I headed to Jarfjord to the Arctic Adventure Resort. There we donned survival suits for some Arctic Cat snowmobiling. The temps at 28 below fell to 70 below with wind chill as we skirted the Russian border on our motorized sleds.
Soon we met up with the owner, Petter, back at the Resort. Petter was in gear for diving into the frigid waters to catch our lunch, King Red Crab. He did us solid, surfacing with several huge crabs.
Over gigantic platters of boiled crab, Petter gave us the scoop on the reason the King Red Crabs were found in this region. It seems the Russians had a scientist introduce them into the area years ago to compete with the Alaskan King Crabs. They are thriving, though the ecological impact is not yet fully known.
Those that used to be called Laplanders are officially known as the Sami People, the nomads of the North. Briefly, the Sami are native to the area and said to be related to the Native Americans who crossed the Bering Straight. Their nomadic lifestyle developed as they followed herds of reindeer. After visiting the Gabba Reindeer Park it seemed fitting to head to Neiden for a traditional meal and a lesson in Eastern Sami traditions.
The nighttime temperature dropped to 40 below so dining in a traditional lavvo (Sami tent) was not possible. However the small restaurant with a big fireplace suited us just fine. The lauds, or songs sung, mixed well with the setting and plates of reindeer filets covered with a gooseberry sauce.
Surprisingly it seemed the Norse Gods had not finished with us yet. The bark of dogs getting hitched to their sledges drew us outside. Neiden happens to be a check-in point for Europe’s longest dog sledge race called Finnmarkslopet. High above in the sky massive ribbons of St. Elmo’s Fire blazed. A finer ending couldn’t have been planned.
If You Go
Sites and hotels:
So little is known about the Sami and their traditions and lifestyle outside of Norway. The story is truly interesting and information can be found at itv.se/boreale/samieng.htm
The Aurora Borealis is one of the grandest sights to see, magical and memorable. For a complete picture of the phenomenon in Norway go to visitnorway.com.
My flight on SAS was comfortable and pleasant. They are the first airline to offer Wi-Fi in the air, a real plus for those who like to be connected. They also offer an upgraded economy service and have extensive connections throughout Scandinavia. Their fares are also very competitive.
Kent St John
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