A Norway cruise will dazzle you - even if the Northern Lights don't appear
If you yearn for adventure, love pictu, yet still appreciate some home comforts, a Hurtigruten cruise will serve you well, writes Melanie Harris
The announcement came through as we were admiring the vast breakfast buffet. "Tonight we celebrate Hurtigruten's 125th year of operation. Special captain's dinner, but no dressing up, we are a working ferry, not a cruise ship."
There was much muttering among the more seasoned cruise-ship devotees. When could they show off their glad rags and jewellery packed for cruising?
A small contingent of passengers was already mutinous. No entertainment on board! Only one discreet bar! I even saw an entry in the guests' comment book - "food disappointing". (Were we even on the same ship? We rolled down the gangplank after the voyage, a few kilograms heavier, thanks to all the feasting.)
So, cruise-ship aficionados take note: the Hurtigruten voyages offer simple yet comfortable cabins, more adventurous outdoor pursuits and buffets stocked with fresh, locally-sourced produce such as salmon — lots of the most deliciously fresh salmon you could wish for. And berries —raspberries, blueberries and even exotic cloudberries and lingonberries — presented in every imaginative way possible. And if you rate that "disappointing", well, maybe avoid this type of holiday altogether.
Admittedly, the price of alcohol on board had the South Africans reeling. Booze in Norway is expensive. Exorbitantly so. I overheard an old boy smirk over the bottles of "medicinal plonk" he'd smuggled on in his suitcase. The rest of us made do with the enforced detox. It sort of fitted in with the image of that country, lots of fresh air, exercise and clean living.
The trip along the coast of wintery Norway in pursuit of the Northern Lights takes 11 days. Many return disappointed: the aurora borealis is fickle and unpredictable.
Yet on the third night the magic happened for us and we were treated to a display which sparked across the already starry night skies, to the gasps of those bundled up on the frigid decks. Naked-eye viewing showed vast, trembling veils of swirling lights. Those with more expensive cameras, however, revealed spiralling shapes and shades of green and even pink, intensified by the sophisticated photographic equipment.
We'd had an on-board talk on this phenomenon, so I could well imagine the disquiet of the ancients. Vikings believed them to be reflections off the armour of the valkyrie returning from battle, bearing the bodies of dead warriors.
To others, they were omens of impending disasters. Enthralled as I was, I felt vaguely unsettled by them, little comforted by the knowledge that they were but charged particles from solar storms, entering Earth's magnetic field.
So how could one complain about the lack of entertainment on board, with heavenly light shows like these? Apart from the lights and talks - which covered diverse topics, such as the history of Norway, the Sami people, geology of the fjords and the myths and legends of the North - we were kept busy with sightings of passing landmarks.
There are few things more relaxing than journeying silently up sounds and fjords, viewing the passing scenery through huge windows. And what scenery - snowy peaks, isolated villages and towns all decked out in the white stars and lights which make up Norwegian Christmas illumination.
The ship docks at 34 ports en route to the Russian border and back to Bergen. Granted, the twilight of a Nordic winter gradually intensifies into a velvety gloaming the farther north you sail, but the whole operation is run so well, that one hardly misses any landmarks. If it is too dark on the northward trip, one sees it southward-bound.
Then the excursions. Be warned that this is not a cheap holiday and the real expense comes when you add these. We chose three, and disembarked wherever we could and explored by ourselves. Being mid-December, the snowy landscape was novel enough for us to fit crampons onto our boots and to brave the icy roads.
In the town of Ålesund, known for its pretty pastel Art Nouveau architecture, we clambered 418 steps up a hill in town, to be rewarded with a sea-eagle's eye view of our ship, outlined in starry lights. She was in true ferry mode, as a hole gaped in her hull, and she was ingesting cars, and crates of fresh produce - for those meals we were trying to walk off.
Highlights of the voyage include the achingly beautiful Lofoten islands, where a feast in a Viking longhouse awaited. And the old city of Trondheim's 12th-century Nidaros Cathedral, its Gothic towers brushed with snow. It was a sharp contrast to the clear-cut profile of the modern Arctic Cathedral of Tromso, with its crystal-clear acoustics, at the midnight concert we attended.
Then there was the bus ride to the windswept North Cape, the outermost reach of Europe, with its surreal subterranean information centre. And the hike alongside a fjord at Kirkenes, to a shelter where we cooked sausages over a campfire, within sight of the Russian border.
So, if you yearn for adventure, yet still appreciate some home comforts, a Hurtigruten voyage will serve you well. But leave behind the cocktail wear and pack an extra-thick down jacket and sturdy boots. You'll be well fed and very well entertained. And may very well return with stars in your eyes.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
The writer booked through Imagine Cruising, using the cruising supplement in this section of the paper. The 14-night Norway Adventure & Northern Lights Discovery sails between November 2019 and March 2020. Fares start at R39,999pp for a Polar Inside cabin, rising to R52,999 for a Superior Outside cabin. The rate includes flights, taxes and transfers. For more information, call 0861-111-651 or see Imagine Cruising. You could also book directly through Hurtigruten. Prices start at €1,222 (about R19,200) per person, for the voyage only.
Pentravel is also offering a special package to see the Northern Lights on a 13-night, round-trip voyage, with fares starting at R38,920 pps. The package includes return flights from Joburg, airport taxes, one pre- and post-cruise night in Bergen, 11 nights on board the MS Nordkapp and all meals on board. The offer is valid from October 26 to November 9 2019. Port calls include Bergen, Floro, Rorvik, Skjervoy, Oksfjord, and Tromso. Visit Pentravel.
Hurtigruten offers an awesome deal of "Northern Lights Guarantee" on trips of 12 days or longer. This means you're guaranteed to see this natural phenomenon with Hurtigruten and, if for some reason you don't, you'll receive a FREE cruise!
WHAT MAKES A HURTIGRUTEN CRUISE UNIQUE
Hurtigruten is unlike any other cruise line in the world. For one thing, the ships are working ships, serving the dozens of little ports that snuggle away in secluded bays in the fjords of Norway's rugged and spectacular coast. The usual one-way voyage takes six or seven days as the ship travels along some 1,255km of coast between Bergen in the south and Kirkenes in the north.
En route, the ship calls at some 34 ports. Stops are usually no longer than 30 minutes, although some are as short as 15 minutes - just enough time to load and unload passengers, cars and freight.
The line celebrated its 125th anniversary last year.
The service began with one ship in 1893. Until then, the coastal communities had been served by a motley fleet of little steamships and yachts but the service was often erratic - the weather up near the Arctic Circle is often extreme and, until the 20th century, there were few lighthouses and navigational aids.
To solve the problem, the maritime authorities put out a tender for a regular service. A ship owner named Richard With heard the call, offering the use of his own ship, the DS Vesteraalen. The 623-ton ship had the lines and look of a private yacht but could carry 204 passengers. On July 2 1893, she set sail on the first coastal voyage from Trondheim to Hammerfest.
The ship was a loyal servant to the end. During World War 2, when Norway was occupied by Germany, she continued on a restricted service between Tromso and Hammerfest. At 4pm on October 17 1941 while steaming from Tromso with 39 passengers and 22 crew, she was hit by a torpedo fired from an unknown submarine and sank in 30 seconds. There were just seven survivors.
After the war, Hurtigruten would go on to greater things. Today its fleet includes a number of expedition vessels, which offer voyages to Greenland, the islands above the Arctic Circle and to Antarctica - the other end of the earth - where two of its vessels spend every northern winter on voyages of discovery.
WHEN TO GO
Ships sail every day of the week, year round. If you want to see the Midnight Sun, go in June or July. If it's the Northern Lights you're after, then choose one of the winter voyages.