LOVE TO WANDER
Hurtigruten translates literally as the Coastal Express. The service started in 1893 - the Hurtigruten name was first used in 2006. Before the service began, a letter from Trondheim took three weeks to reach Hammerfest in Summer and five months in Winter. The service opened up access to the outside world for all the isolated villages along the Norwegian coast. Tourism was always part of the basis for the Coastal Express though with brochures printed in several languages promoting the wild and beautiful coastline of the Land of the Midnight Sun and the Northern Lights enticing international travellers from all over the world to "find their inner explorer".
It was interesting to see in the Hurtigruten Museum that when the service first started, there were three classes. First class passengers were allowed out on deck to see the views and had their meals in the restaurant and their own cabins. In third class, you had to bring your own food, the sleeping facilities were dormitory style and you weren't allowed to go up on deck to see the views. The class system was abandoned in the 1970s and the ships were designed to give all passengers as comfortable an experience as possible.
Despite a good safety record, the Coastal Express Line has been shaken by dramatic incidents in times of war and peace. 8 ships and 97 lives have been lost in peace time and 9 ships and 700 lives during WW11. It is all too easy to forget when you are gliding along in the safe hands of the crew all the effort that goers into planning and navigating these waters which at one time were thought to be too dangerous for any regular ferry service - particularly in the dark depths of Winter.
During the war, one of the ships was paid for in Norwegian cod due to difficulties with cashflow!
Tips for Future Travellers:
Our cabin was in the middle of deck 3-convenient for the restaurant and excursion departures and less rocky than cabins towards the fore and aft of the ship. The cabin was small, but comfortable enough with two single beds, one of which converts to a sofa during the day. There isn't much space - a squashy holdall would probably be the best luggage to bring as you could fold it up and tuck it out of the way under the bed during the voyage. Larger suitcases can be left with the luggage service once emptied, if you like though. Port side is probably better than starboard as you get a better view of the ports when the ship docks - although the portholes are only small, so you are better to be out on deck if you want a good view anyway.
A nice alternative to the round trip voyage would have been to travel one way from Bergen to Kirkenes, stay at the ice hotel for a couple of nights and then fly back to Bergen - and/or Oslo for a few nights. With hindsight, this is what I would have booked.
The choice to opt for the 8 hike Winter activity package could probably also have been improved on. A half package with 4 hikes would have allowed you to do the best of the walks in Vesterålen, Trondheim, Bodø and Tromsø, leaving you free to book other excursions in the other ports. If I was choosing now, I would have picked the kayaking trip in Ålesund (lovely views from the water); Fishing villages or the North Cape in Honningsvåg, City tour and Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim (or just a walk around on our own). This would have given us a better mix of activities overall.
Wish I had packed:
A different jacket for mountaineering - something light, windproof and waterproof, but breathable - the down jacket is great for standing around in, but not for serious hiking.
Some cooler clothes. I didn't wear the thermal underwear at all and was wearing a sleeveless T shirt most of the day towards the end of the trip when the weather turned and the heating was turned up.
Goodbye - and thanks very much for an enjoyable and memorable voyage!
Photo I wished I could have taken:
The Land of the Midnight Sun - a postcard will just have to do!
A husky dog - full face, capturing the glint in the eyes anticipating the next opportunity to run in the snow...
Gale force winds were blowing all day today meaning that the ship was rocking about a lot leaving many people feeling nauseous - including me. The on board shop was doing. roaring trade in sea sickness tablets - even the crew were taking them. The decks were closed, which meant you couldn't even get a breath of air. Everything began to feel very claustrophobic.
It got worse - the afternoon hike was cancelled as the ship couldn't even dock at Brønnøysund. As the evening wore on, there were warnings that you needed to make sure you didn't leave anything that could roll around in your cabin. Many tables in the restaurant were left empty as people had decided not to go for dinner. The ship left sheltered waters - which already felt pretty choppy to me! - at 9.30 and travelled over rough seas with 13m high waves for the next 4 hours. The lifts were out of action and most people were hunkered down in their cabins waiting for it all to be over. I was glad of the sea sickness pills which helped me sleep through most of it.
By Day 11, the wind had blown its course and by the time we arrived in Trondheim at 7.45am, it felt almost Spring like when we finally got outside into the air. We did our last hike of the voyage which was an amble along the coast. We wore crampons as there was still a lot of ice around, although a lot of the snow the had been here last week had disappeared. It was nice to be out in the fresh air, but there wasn't really much to see. The most interesting site was the recycling bin on the beach for disposable barbecues - proper disposal facilities have had to be provided due to the increasing popularity of these .
Weather like last night is not uncommon so you are quite likely to experience it if you take a Hurtiguten voyage. Best to focus on what you have though (i.e. good memories of the Northbound trip) - and not what you want/wish for.
Yesterday, we made a brief stop at Hammerfest - the Northernmost town in the world. It is a tiny place, but there is an interesting museum of the restoration there. It is incredible to think that so much of the far north of Norway was burned to the ground as part of the Germans' scorched earth policy in WWII. The museum reconstructed the caves where so many people had to live with what few possessions they had managed to salvage. The new houses were built to modern standards, but many people would have preferred to have their old wooden houses back that they loved - very sad. It took until the 1970s to rehouse everyone satisfactorily.
Interesting to see that the supermarket in Hammerfest stocked many varieties of coloured beetroots. Beetroot was also on the coastal kitchen menu - beetroot and chocolate cake with dandelion syrup made locally by a tiny family firm from the brave little flower on the small island of Rolvsoy.
An early start was needed today for the hike to Vesterålen. Not early enough as it turned out - we had to take a bus to catch a ferry to cross the fiord and it was a minute late, so we had an hour to wait for the next ferry. That made the hike a bit of a route march with only 5 minutes to spare at the top to drink in the view. What a view though (and what an effort to get to the top to photograph it - I was walking without a hat or coat I was so hot!)
This area is very productive in Summer - particularly for strawberries, which are harvested late into August.
There was also time to stop at Stokmarknes for a brief visit to the Hurtigruten museum. We only had an hour, which was a shame - even though we were at the front of the queue to disembark.
Kirkenes - the turning point of the Hurtigruten's voyage - is just a few miles from the Russian border. Norway is a Schengen Agreement country. Both Norwegian and Russian sentries have surveillance equipment at the border and the fine for illegal crossing - even just momentarily - starts at a massive 5000NOK. Don't even think about popping over to take a photo! Using telephoto or zoom lenses or even a tripod counts as a violation as does throwing anything across the borderline. Making contact with or acting in an insulting manner towards someone on the other side of the border is forbidden too. If you look as though you might be about to break the rules, you will be punished as though you actually had - so best steer well clear!
In fact though, it seems that over the years, the inhabitants of this far flung town have learned to get on very well with their Russian and Finnish neighbours. This narrow strip of land borders both countries and children usually learn five languages - Norwegian, English, Russian, Finnish and Sami. They are often fluent in all five by the age of six and don't mix them up. There are three different time zones to contend with as well - on New Year's Eve midnight is celebrated three times over.
Goods like oil, cigarettes, meat and vodka are all considerably cheaper in Russia than Norway, so smuggling is common. Vodka is brought in in plastic water bottles in disguise.
Children are brought up to thrive in the cold temperatures - we passed a kindergarten en route where the babies were sleeping outside in -7 degrees. It was a warm day for them today here - last week, it got down to -35 degrees.
25 tonnes of ice and 15000 cubic metres of snow are shifted each Winter to build the famous igloo snow hotel at Kirkenes. Every year, the hotel is built completely of snow and ice in November, and each spring, in April, it melts back into the arctic fjord in. front of the hotel. It is built by blowing up giant balloons and covering them with snow which packs down and turns into ice which is then carved into beautiful works of art. Despite how beautiful the carvings are, it doesn't actually take very long to construct.
There are 20 dreamlike rooms uniquely carved by master ice sculptors from around the world. There is a new theme every year, but there is always a Nordic touch with inspiration from both Norwegian and Sami folklore, fauna and fairy tales.
With a constant temperature of - 4°, you may not get much sleep if you stay here - although you are provided with a warm, thermal sleeping bag, and tips on how to stay warm. As it is probably a once ion a lifetime experience, you may well not be too bothered about sleeping much anyway?!
To stay here costs 3,000NOK per adult per night - so a night for two £536. They also have warm room cabins which are slightly cheaper (but not much) - you only stay in the ice hotel itself for one night. It would be a great place to stay for a few nights - there would be quite a lot to do: husky dog sledding, snowmobiles, ski-ing etc. - all in achingly beautiful surroundings.
There are no doors - only curtains. Legal requirements mean that each room has to be equipped with smoke and fire alarms, but there are no plugs. There is electricity though - just to power the few strategically placed lights. There are no shower or toilet facilities in the hotel itself - you need to walk the length of the corridor to the restaurant block at the end.
The ship docked at Honningvãg this morning - the capital of the North Cape. At 71 degrees north, this is as far north as you can travel without falling into the sea.
We could have gone on an excursion to the North Cape, which might have been interesting, but we were booked on the hike package, so walked with the Expedition Team to Storefjell. The hike required snow shoes again and it snowed for part of the walk. The view from the top was pleasant enough, but if you were opting for a half rather than a full hike package, I would miss this one out.
On the way back, we walked past the lovely white church of Nesseby. The church was built in 1858 and was one of the few buildings to survive the Germans' scorched earth policy in WW11.
The coastal kitchen tonight is offering a buffet of salmon from Skervøy, fresh shrimps from the cold and fresh waters of the pristine conservation area of the Lyngen Alps and finnbiff (reindeer) from Finnmark.
The reindeer is perfectly adapted for this harsh climate with almost fully waterproof fur and hair which tends to cling to itself creating a ventilated barrier of air and giving the reindeer an exceptional ability to withstand the cold. The reindeer are owned by the Sami people. They are free to roam but are herded at intervals during the year to inhabit the coastal areas in Summer and the inland areas Winter. They dislike the mosquitos the Summer brings as much as humans do!
The sunrise was beautiful this morning - a gentle pink light hung over the coastline for quite some time.
The coastal kitchen's offering this evening is: baked celery soup with dry-salted bacon from MYdland in Tromsø; Arctic char from Sigerfjord (landed this morning as we slept) followed by a chocolate terrine with blueberry compote and macarons. The menu description of dessert is enticing`; "chocolate is without doubt the ultimate food. Something everyone deserves every now and then. Just like love, it is fragile, but can surprise with a hint of bitterness in the ending".
The hike today took us to the top of Mount Fløyø at 640m above sea level. The light was already fading as we started the hike just after 2.30, but the moon was out. I have never hiked by moonlight before! The view from the top over Tromsø was spectacular. The city spread out before us like a glittering necklace below puffy white clouds. The hike was pretty strenuous and wearing snowshoes made it safer, but slow going. The view from the top was well worth the effort.
The Northern Lights made another appearance at about 6.30 - the display was more dramatic than yesterday, but still quite hard to see with the naked eye. The camera does it much more justice.
Wish I had seen:
Reindeer racing - it takes place int he streets of Tromsø tomorrow, after we will have left for the next port of call.
Mass in the Arctic Cathedral - I am sure this would have made a wonderful excursion, albeit it would have been another long night as it takes place at midnight.
The northern lights are present all year around, but you can’t see them unless the evenings and nights are dark. Also, the northern lights are above the highest clouds, which means that you need a clear sky to be able to see them.
What are they? The northern lights are a physical phenomenon that occurs when electrically charged particles from the sun hurtle towards the Earth. The light becomes visible when the particles collide with gases in the Earth's atmosphere. The Earth’s magnetic field directs the particles towards the openings near the North and South Poles, and thus the phenomenon can only be observed near the magnetic poles.
There are many myths associated with the northern lights. Some considered they were an omen of war or plague while others believed they were created by dead, old, unmarried women. People were advised against waving white clothing at them as this would anger them and cause them to remove you from Earth. The Sami people believed that the northern lights had supernatural powers.
Patience was eventually rewarded last night on Deck 7 when - after a long wait in the cold Arctic night - the Northern Lights lit up the sky. It was actually very hard to see them - the steam from the ship's funnel was easier to see than the lights! They show up better on photographs than they do in real life, interestingly. To get these shots, I had my camera set on a tripod with a wide angle lens, aperture F4, iso 400 (could have gone higher?) and the lens on manual focus set to infinity. I let the camera find its own shutter speed (not confident enough to set it on full manual yet!). It was a good job it was all set up beforehand or I would never have got my fingers to move fast enough in the cold to photograph anything. I was pleased with the results, overall. Hopefully, there will be other opportunities to improve over the rest of the voyage. The atmosphere on deck 7 was fun as everyone waited for the lights to shine - music to tap your toes to and hot fishcakes were served with tea and rum, which kept you a bit warmer.
The Nordlys docked at Trondheim this morning allowing us time to lace ourselves into our snowshoes (snøskoene) for a hike through the deep snow covered forest of Bymarka to a viewpoint at Olavspranget. The view from the top across the Trondheimfjord was peaceful with a bright blue sky to set it off. Walking in snow shoes was a new experience - it is slow going and a very good work out for the legs. The winter sun was out in force today and made the large mounds of snow along the path glisten like mounds of jewels. We could have opted for a walk around Trondheim, visiting the cathedral, but how often do you get the chance to try out snowshoes and walk in snow as deep as your knees?
This part of the coast is known as the coast of contrasts, offering wildlife, mountains, pastures, snow white beaches and fiords. For centuries - since the Stone Age in fact - people have made a peaceful and good life here farming and fishing.
The coastal kitchen is working hard again today serving for dinner: Inderøysodd (a soup made of beef, lamb, carrots and meatballs); Norwegian salmon from Aukra (caught fresh this morning) and Tykkmelk Pudding (made from a traditional soured milk).
Early tomorrow morning, we will cross the invisible border of the Arctic Circle into the land of the Midnight Sun. At 66 degrees 33 minutes north, we will reach the southernmost point at which the Midnight Sun shines for 24 hours a day on Midsummer Night's Eve. On 22nd December, the sun reaches its lowest point. However, even when the sun doesn't shine above the horizon, the days are not totally dark. Days are characterised by dusk and a blueish tinged twilight with a clear flicker of light spread across the sky. The chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Winter also increase sharply beyond this line (fingers firmly crossed!).
The Norwegian trekking association - DNA for short - (Den Norske Turistforening) offers a service where for 695 NOK (about £6), you receive a key which gives you access to 550 trekking cabins across the country. The cabins are well stocked with wood and food and operate on an honesty basis - you take what you need and pay for it after your trip. The love of the outdoors and respect for nature that is so much a part of Norwegian life means that the system works very well - I wonder if it would work so well in England?
We left Bergen at around 10 last night and headed for the pretty Art Nouveau port of Ålesund. If you wanted time to visit Bergen - which is a beautiful city - you would need to have booked in for a night or two stopover as the ship didn't stay here for very long. The Unesco site of historic Bryggen is very pretty to visit. We had visited it previously, so it didn't matter to us.
Deep down, almost all Norwegians love the outdoor life (friluftsliv) - the thrill of being out in nature, enjoying the outdoors with all your senses. The best way to experience this seemed to be to sign up for the Winter activity pass which began today with a snowy hike to the summit of Sukketoppen in the Sunnmøre Alps. We were given very good crampons, so we didn't need the ones we had packed - although trying to walk this path without them would not have been much fun I don't think (although we did pass some Norwegians doing this). You get a lovely view back across the city from the mountain top.
A good alternative excursion would have been the Art Nouveau walk around Ålesund, although you could easily just walk around yourself without a guide.
The Hurtigruten line takes local cuisine very seriously and tonight, the Nordlys is offering a tempting selection from "the coastal kitchen" of carpaccio of clipfish from Dybbvik, salted leg of lamb from Hellesylt and caramelised apples with locally made Skjenning ice cream from Gangstad Gårdsysteri. .
The dress code is very relaxed and informal - no need to change for dinner - very different from the larger cruise ships.
Glad I packed: Buff, hat and gloves + sea sickness bands.
Apples are something of a delicacy here, apparently, with many varieties harvested by over 380 local farmers - hard to imagine with the view of the snowy coastline that fills every porthole.
Skjenning is a flatbread normally served on festive occasions. During production, the baker brushes the thin rolled skjenning dough with sugar an milk. Later, when it is baked on the griddle, the bread becomes caramelized. At the end of the day, the surplus of caramel that has collected on the griddle is collected and used to make the ice cream. A good example of hyper-local food production where nothing is wasted.