There is a tendency in some quarters to think of the Norwegian coastal voyage these days as a cruise operation.
What it is- and always has been- is the only practical way to provide a year round link to the scattered communities that cling to the long, rocky coastline of Norway on a regular, reliable schedule. The ships carry food, fuel, electrical goods, cars and even animals between ports ranging from Bergen in the south, to Kirkenes in the far north, day in and out. And, inevitably, they also carry a vast number of passengers travelling between these different, often isolated communities.
But the sheer romance and languid beauty of the voyage has long since attained a legendary status and, even before the Second World War, the stout, sturdy little vessels of the run- the Hurtigruten- had begun to attract a small but steadily growing tourist trade. Today, that trade has grown immensely, and persuasive marketing has enhanced the appeal of the adventure, especially in the freezing winter months.
And the new ships of the Hurtigruten have been subtly constructed to appeal to tourists, too. With beautiful and expansive panoramic lounges, hot tubs, and luxurious cabins that, in some cases even include balconies, they do indeed resemble small, beautifully decorated cruise ships. The exteriors, too, display something of a modern cruise sensibility these days.
But that is where it pretty much ends. Anyone expecting to find the glut of entertainment and facilities of the modern cruise industry is in for a disappointment. There are no elaborate, extra tariff restaurants, no rock climbing walls, and no huge, Vegas style show lounges. The Hurtigruten ships instead proffer up an environment where less is most definitely more.
There is usually one main restaurant that serves up simple, hearty local fare on a three meals a day basis; breakfast, dinner and lunch. While much of this is done in the form of an elaborate buffet, the main hot dishes revolve around fresh, local fare such as locally sourced meat and potatoes and, of course, some of the best salmon in the world. What it might lack in variety and perceived sophistication is more than made up for by the sheer freshness and good taste.
And the real entertainment is actually Norway herself at any time of year. From the shimmering, ethereal beauty of the winter time northern lights to the incomparable, majestic spectacle of the endless summer sun, Norway is a stunning, twelve thousand mile long visual smorgasbord at any time of the day and night, One without equal on this planet in my opinion.
So these ships do not constitute a ‘real’ cruise experience- whatever that is, anyway. What they do offer is a unique, far more ‘up close and personal’ way to see and savour many off the beaten track sights and sounds of Norway that many big ship passengers simply never, ever see. The very nature of the voyage- and it is a voyage rather than a cruise- allows passengers to interact with the daily comings and goings of Norwegian people in a setting devoid of kitsch or pretension. This is Norway in the raw; rich, deep and beautiful, but seen from the comfort of a safe, agreeable environment.
The great thing about Hurtigruten is that it does not pretend to be something that it is not. It is a solid, reliable and extremely comfortable way to see the real Norway, at any season of the year, in very agreeable surroundings. It is not an all singing, all dancing, expertly choreographed floating theme park swishing lushly through the ‘greatest hits’ ports, but rather a long,meandering series of hopefully rewarding interactions with a matchless hinterland, and the proud people that cling to it’s harbours and valleys year round.
Worth a look? Over to you.