Every single day of every year, one of the fleet of doughty, redoutable Hurtigruten ferries casts off its mooring ropes and chugs purposefully off into the surreal, early winter Arctic twilight that bathes the twelve thousand miles of rocky, indented Norwegian coastline in a kind of pearly, translucent glow.
The round trip voyages, from the city of Bergen up to the remote, reindeer studded plains of Kirkenes, can take up to fourteen days, and each one encompasses brief stops at anything up to thirty three different destinations in the process.
While these fascinating sorties are sold to passengers as round trip cruises, it has to be emphasised that the ships are working ferries; they can- and do-deliver everything from cars and computers, to croissants and coffee to the often otherwise isolated communities that are strung out along the craggy, often storm lashed coastline of Norway proper.
Each ship will, inevitably, load and disgorge passengers and cargo at each port at all hours of the day and night, and it’s this constantly unfolding human and material tide that gives the service one of it’s most unique selling points; there is literally nothing else quite like it in the world, and certainly not on this scale.
And, while emphasising the ferry nature of the service, this is not to say that the ships are spartan. Far from it; they have interiors- including lounges with vast, panoramic windows- that are well up to cruise ship standards. Many have saunas, and a few of the more recent ones have swimming pools and/or hot tubs. All feature a main restaurant, which typically serves an open breakfast and lunch with hot and cold choices, and a more structured, three course evening meal, built around local fayre. It’s basic meat and potato stuff but- like almost everything in Norway- the quality is nothing less than superb.
Cabins range from compact insides to some quite commodious outsides that come with balconies. And if you think you won’t use a balcony in freezing January Norway, I have two words for you- Northern Lights.
This shimmering, scintillating natural show of light and ice in the sky- a manifestation of the aurora borealis- is one of the most singularly thrilling and surreal experiences you can ever have, either on land or sea. And one that I guarantee will certainly make you forget the cold.
There is little in the way of real, structured entertainment at night on the Hurtigruten, and that might be an issue for some. Personally, I’d argue that the stunning natural panorama unfolding all around you outside is all the entertainment you’ll ever need, whatever the time of year.
Norway is a mystical, spellbinding land; a fairy tale place of half glimpsed trolls and towering waterfalls; cows grazing in valleys surrounded by jagged, snow capped peaks. It is the long, endless days of summer and the still, mighty silence of the fjords. Stave churches on an emerald green carpet awash with fresh summer fauna, and the ghosts of cackling old hags flitting past on broomsticks in the ether.
The ships are floating parts of Norway themselves, and therefore subject to the stratospheric on board prices for drink that you experience ashore. But, unlike conventional cruise lines, Hurtigruten does not mind if you bring your own bottles on board from home; an idea that nixes the expensive nature of the on board trip quite nicely.
The result is a constant panorama that unfolds slowly as you glide from port to port; a cornucopia of colours, sights and sound that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Coupled with the sheer, chocolate box magnificence of Norway itself, it makes for one of the most compelling maritime odysseys- and it is surely that- on offer anywhere in the world today.
If time is tight and you can’t manage all of the full, fourteen day sea and land feast, then Hurtigruten also now offers a range of shorter, fly cruise options from six or seven days, travelling either northbound or south, and again at any season. The company will also tie in hotel stays in cities such as Bergen or Kirkenes as and when necessary.
For nature lovers, Norway is an absolute smorgasbord of hiking and walking trails, and exhilarating encounters with the stark, pristine wilderness of glaciers literally millions of years old. For lovers of history, Oslo has the brooding gothic masterpiece that is Akershus Castle. Further north, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, the port of Alta was the World War Two hiding place of the Tirpitz, the tiger shark of a battleship that was nicknamed ‘The Lonely Queen of The North’ by the Norwegian resistance that monitored her every movement.
The sheer level of interaction with the locals and the communities along the route makes the Hurtigruten a more immediate, vital travel experience than the often glossy, sanitised universe that is the contemporary cruise ship. There are times in the world of travel when less is most definitely more.
I would argue quite strongly that the Hurtigruten is just one such experience. Bon voyage.