Fjords, fish and Northern Lights - a journey down Norway's coastline
PUBLISHED: 11:29 21 November 2019 | UPDATED: 11:39 21 November 2019
It's been called one of the world's most spectacular coastal journeys, but does a cruise along Norway's thousands of fjords and islands live up to the hype? Stuart Anderson boarded a Hurtigruten ship to find out.
On Lonely Planet's list of top 15 Norway travel experiences, the Hurtigruten coastal ferry comes in at No.3. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to join a six-day voyage along the country's coastline aboard the MS Nordnorge, one of the company's 11 ships making the journey at any one time. Here's a day-by-day account of my Nordic adventure.
I wake up in Kirkenes after a two-legged flight the day before. It's a winter wonderland already covered in snow in late October. We're just 4.3 miles from the Russian border in Norway's far north and street signs are in Cyrillic as well as Norwegian.
We board the Nordnorge, find our cosy cabins, and we're away! The sun sets just after 2pm. At around 3.30pm we dock at snow-swept island outpost called Vardø long enough to disembark. There's time to stroll over to the world's most northerly fortress, the star-shaped Vardøhus Festning, which has a display about the German occupation during the Second World War.
That night we catch our first glimpse of the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights. It's not as intense as I'd expected - long-exposure photos make it seem far brighter and greener than it actually is. But the way the bands of wispy light bend and fold across the sky is impressive nonetheless.
We settle into the daily routine of ship life - breakfast and lunch are buffet affairs, while dinner is a fine dining, three-course meal. There's a gym, sauna, bakery and a bar, and a couple of lecture rooms where there are daily talks about everything from Norse mythology to the local fishing industry.
We dock in Hammerfest, which lays claim to the title of 'world's northernmost town'.
I walk the streets among the Hammerfesters, marvelling at how these hardiest of souls can forge a life in such an inhospitable place.
There's a modern church whose design was inspired by the racks used to dry fish and the headquarters of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society. I didn't pay the 200 krone to join its worldwide membership of 250,000, but those who do receive a glass of schnapps and get dubbed with walrus' bone.
The town is next to a plant that liquefies gas from beneath the Barents Sea - a reminder of Norway's vast fossil fuel wealth.
That night we dock in Tromsø, the regional capital, and go on an excursion to the 1960s' Arctic Cathedral for a midnight concert. It's an amazing structure made of massive reinforced concrete sheets tipped together into triangles like so many playing cards.
Up early for another on-shore excursion - a bus tour around the wild and forested Vesterålen islands.
We pass a herd of reindeer, and the guide tells us they're allowed to roam where they like. He says reindeer meat is the healthiest around because it's so low in fat, and the herbs and berries they live off make it rich in vitamins and antioxidants. Here in the Finnmark region, only the indigenous Sámi people can herd reindeer - a literal birthright.
Then we go to the 800-year-old church at Trondenes where everyone takes a pew for what we're told will be a quick service. A minister with the presence of a Sith lord enters. I slip quietly away and find the remains of a prisoner-of-war camp for Red Army soldiers. Nearby is a historical centre where a walk-through exhibit sheds a decent light on the Troms region, once a Viking power centre.
Back aboard the ship and our passage south takes us through the narrow Raftsundet strait. The scenery is spectacular and I stand outside at the ship's bow, making a couple of nifty time-lapse videos. We detour up the Trollfjord where the winter's ice is already setting. The snow-covered cliffs leap up from the water's edge, and the scene is stark and silent in the moonlight.
Later, the Northern Lights come out again - and we're in port so can take some brilliant photos without the movement of the ship. The lights are stronger and more dazzling than before and there's goose bumps all round.
Everyone's on top deck as well cross the Arctic Circle - the region where the sun stays below the horizon for more than 24 hours giving a 'Polar Night'. There's a ceremony where we each get a spoonful of cod liver oil - and get to keep the spoon. It's a little less bracing than what I'm told the crew does when a ship crosses north into the Arctic Circle. Then, someone dresses up as Odin and sticks an ice cube down your back. I'll stick to the cod liver oil, thanks!
Later, there's another excursion to the Norwegian Aquaculture Centre at Bronnoysund, where there are demonstration salmon and cod farms. Norway leads the world in sustainable fish production, and we learn about the industry's stringent regulation and how parasites are controlled - before trying some of the finished product in a restaurant next door.
By now the snow-covered shorelines have mostly given way to greenery. There's a morning excursion into Trondheim, Norway's famous university city. Its main feature is Nidaros Cathedral, where we're given a talk by a young architecture student who reminds me of Bjorn Ironside from that show Vikings. The cathedral is one of Norway's holiest sites and regularly draws the country's royal family.
I pick up something for the other half at the gift shop next door - a board game called Hnefatafl - The Viking Game. It looks like a rammy version of chess. Back on the ship, I turn the box over to find the sticker 'Made in Chester, UK'. Do'h!
That night we're invited to one of the occasional king crab dinners at the ship's upscale restaurant. You can see the beasties bobbing around a tank in front of the kitchen, their stalk-set eyes wandering furtively about. I feel a bit sorry for them. It's Ragnarok for you, my dears. We're fed a mountain of crab meat that comes mostly from the legs. Goes well with soy. Crab food coma follows.
It's a bright and sunny day and I spend a lot of time on deck as we amble towards Bergen, our final port-of-call. From the terminal we transfer to the airport for home and the adventure is over, all too soon. I feel like I've seen so much, but only a fraction of what this part of the world has to offer. Norway's not cheap, but the Hurtigruten ferry offers an economical way of exploring its highlights: the spectacular coastline and, of course, the aurora.
Stuart was a guest of Hurtigruten and went on a 'classic voyage south', but it's also common to do a 12-day jaunt up and down the coast from Bergen, and the ships stop at different ports on each leg. Hurtigruten offers packages for this 'classic round voyage', including flights, from regional airports. The organised excursions cost extra, but if you don't want to take part in those you can always disembark and take an independent look around whenever the ship's in port. The company offers a 'Northern Lights guarantee', so if you don't see the aurora on a cruise between October and March, they send you on another one for free. Visit www.hurtigruten.co.uk for more.