THE NORWEGIAN COASTAL VOYAGE- WHAT IT IS, AND WHAT IT ISN’T

There is a tendency in some quarters to think of the Norwegian coastal voyage these days as a cruise operation.

It isn’t.

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.

Norway is amazing at any time of the year

Norway is amazing at any time of the year

THE CONTINUED RISE OF COLD WEATHER CRUISING….

One of the things that continues to fascinate me in terms of cruising’s future is the continual, on going rise in popularity of winter time voyages to cold weather destinations, such as northern Norway, and even some of the banner ports in Scandinavia. In the last decade, it’s a type of cruising that has assumed a momentum all of it’s very own.

For a permanent resident of the north east of England, the very idea of winter time cruising inevitably leads me- and, I suspect, most other people- to look at balmy, warm weather options such as the Caribbean, the Canaries, and even the Far East. After all, if God had meant me to spend winter embraced by cold, chilly days and nights, then why put two international airports within forty miles of my front door? The logic seemed inescapable.

Plus, add in the fun in the sun vibe of the Caribbean, and the fact that our winter season is actually the best time to see the fabled treasures and sights of the Far East, and it seemed even more of a no brainer. I have no problem with winter as such. It’s just that I prefer to enjoy it in a hammock. In thirty degree sunshine.

On a beach. With a Daiquiri. ‘Make winter history’ became my mantra.

But over the past few years, some intriguing new options have crept in onto my radar. And, shock horror, some of them involve cruising to colder- far colder- climes, in the depths of winter.

I think it was P&O Cruises that first tried what seemed to me to be a hugely ambitious, winter cruise to some of the Baltic capitals, as a round trip from Southampton. In an industry where repetition and continuity are so often the buzz words, just the idea of a winter Baltic cruise seemed incredibly audacious, and at least worthy of further investigation.

As a long time fan of such cities as Copenhagen and Oslo, I have to admit that I would be curious to see them in winter. And this new cruise promised overnight stays in both- alluring in its own right. A great chance to really get into and around all the fairy tale Christmas markets, and also to sample some of the local nightlife ashore. Would I be prepared to eschew my normal, sunnier winter sojourns for such a wildly eclectic itinerary?

Not straight away. But I was beginning to wonder…

And then came the advent of winter cruising to northern Norway. Offered as a round trip from various UK ports by both Cruise and Maritime Voyages and Fred. Olsen, these fourteen night winter odysseys to view the shimmering, ethereal skyscapes served up by the magical Northern Lights, really did make a very deep impression on me.

So I began to look at what I perceived might actually work against each option. Of course, the bone chilling cold would preclude using the outdoor pools and hot tubs. And a buffet lunch in the sun was looking highly unlikely. If I went for either of these cruises, I would have to consider my expectations of the actual shipboard experience in a very different light.

But, a few years down the line, and I actually think I could really do one of these trips, and probably enjoy it immensely. And the winter time Baltic cruises have grown in popularity to the extent that even Cunard is now occasionally offering them.

What really won me over is the wonderful brochures, usually produced by Norwegian Coastal Voyages, for their year round, Huritgruten adventures that sail the entire length of Norway, year round.

These articulate the sheer beauty and diversity that each season brings to Norway with such depth, eloquence and inclusivity that I would certainly now put at least one such, short cruise on my prospective calendar. And I think that this new, very real stream of actual information in helping to drive cold weather cruising as a whole.

Like many people, I was something of an ignoramus as to what was actually ‘out there’ on such winter voyages. I knew that cold days and nights were definitely out there at a time when I could be chilling- pun wholly intentional- on some surf kissed Caribbean beach.

But now I know how wonderful, magnetic and alluring the Northern Lights can be. I can sense the sheer, epic adventure of going dog sledding across a sea of fresh, glistening snow under a blanket of gossamer pale Arctic twilight.

I can appreciate how warm pools of light on snow kissed cobble stones might give me a different, delightful take on ‘wonderful’ Copenhagen, or how a glass of warm, spicy wine in a Hamburg bier keller might be the perfect end to a day of spectacular, very different Christmas shopping along the festive expanse of the Alster.

I get how wonderful the tall, slender spires of Stockholm would appear, even through a veil of icy mist. And I can envisage the sheer, splendid peace of sailing between jagged, snow shrouded ravines deep within a Norwegian fjord, while reindeer gaze idly at our ship as she passes by on what looks like a sheet of slowly cracking ice.

I can appreciate how fresh and vital the air would feel, cold or not. And I now get that those winter time skies can provide me with panoramas every bit as mesmerising as anything that I have seen in Asia, or out in the South Pacific.

In short, good travel copy and advertising really does work. Though pretty well travelled, I was obviously in need of education. And now that I have had the education, I have thrown off at least some of my reserve.

And there is also something of the desire to get a bit ‘off the beaten track’ that is fuelling this nascent curiosity of mine. I suspect that the same also holds true for many other people, too.

So, winter cruising in colder climes really is something that I would consider now. I have been lured out of my indolent, sunny torpor with the notion of doing something that looks fresh, vital, and inherently rewarding in a totally different kind of way.

Mind you, that’s not a complete, one hundred per cent capitulation. Oh, no.

I still expect to find my personal, carefully hidden hammock waiting for me when I rock up on Cane Garden Beach in Tortola this year. And when I get there, the only ice I expect to see is in my first Margarita.

I’m sure you get the picture. But it takes more than one picture to make an art gallery. And travel, if it is anything at all, is surely a kind of art form.

You pick the colours. And you decide on the canvas you paint your impressions on. For sure, there are many different options out there.

Cherish them all.

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time....

The might of Kjollfossen, in Norway. Imagine it frozen over in winter time….

HURTIGRUTEN- SEE NORWAY LIKE A LOCAL

Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

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.

Summer sun off Norway

Summer sun off Norway

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.

Flam, Norway

Flam, Norway

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.

Where else but Norway?

Where else but Norway?

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.

WINTER CRUISES TO NORWAY- BREAKING THE ICE ON NEW BUSINESS

Fred. Olsen is a niche operator to winter time Norway

Fred. Olsen is a niche operator to winter time Norway

One of the most surprising developments in recent years has been the surge in winter cruises to the often wild waters off the Norwegian coast, and it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. Winter cruises by lines such as Fred. Olsen and Cruise and Maritime to the region have often been sold out, Booked out, indeed, to such an extent that extra sailings have had to be laid on. More than one line has been wrong footed by under estimating the demand for such cruises.

That’s not so hard to understand. The bracing, near glacial temperatures, potentially stormy waters and long, almost endless hours of darkness are hardly alluring when compared to the Caribbean’s indolent, sun splashed lidos. Also, the prices are far from cheap. So what is the secret of this runway success, then?

Actually, there is more than one. But the prime draw has been without doubt, the shimmering, ethereal natural floor show provided by the Northern Lights, a stunning spectacle than can be appreciated nowhere better than from the deck of a cruise ship. Out at sea, away from land based pollution, the deep, rich lustre and beauty of Mother Nature at her finest can be savoured to an extent impossible to achieve ashore. This is up close and personal stuff, and it’s proving hugely addictive.

The sun breaks the horizon for fleeting minutes in winter Norway

The sun breaks the horizon for fleeting minutes in winter Norway

Many cruises are also offering overnight stays at Alta, on the very periphery of the Arctic Circle itself. It’s a pristine, glacially sublime environment in its own right, but now with the option to offer husky tours to cruise passengers, as well as moonlit snow bike rides through the dense, snow shrouded pine forests. You can even take a sleigh ride pulled by reindeer or horses, should the mood so move you.

And, even in winter, Norway is a jaw dropping beauty. A true ice maiden that seems almost too good to be true. Deep, silent fjords are shrouded by snow wreathed mountain ranges and fields dusted with glistening, fresh frost. And, being such an isolated, largely rural environment, Norway boasts some of the freshest, cleanest air in the world. Cold to be sure, but invigorating to the max as well.

Sailings to winter time Norway also offer the inestimable advantage of sailing round trip from the UK, freezing out any worries about missed flight connections and baggage allowances. These are particular bug bears for British passengers, and eliminating them is always a compelling card up the cruise lines’ finely tailored sleeve..

All of this is nothing new to those doughty souls who have been chugging up and down this coast on the venerable Norwegian Hurtigruten vessels for decades. But these vessels are essentially ferries- albeit quite luxurious ones. Still, they cannot compete in the all inclusive options of the ships now heading for those same choppy waters.

Take a sleigh ride with the friends of Rudolf

Take a sleigh ride with the friends of Rudolf

And Norway is also looking to reinvent itself as a turn around destination in it’s own right for spring, summer and autumn cruises, too. It is hoping to attract round trip cruise sailings from Bergen, Oslo and Stavanger. All of these have excellent air connections- the first two are especially accessible to North American travellers. This might take a few years, but the first signs are encouraging.

So far, the growing trade is mainly in the form of northern Europeans, with Saga Cruises getting in on the act now, too. From Germany, Phoenix Seereisen are also seeing considerable demand to visiting this far northern region during its literally darkest hours.

Our southern European friends seem less inclined to come and share our burgeoning love affair with nature’s freezer; the Italians and the French continue to favour the sunnier, unquestionably more benign waters of the Caribbean. And I, for one, don’t blame them one jot.

But cruising is about diversity, and that is exactly as it should be. It is not a one size fits all product, but a series of evolving, ever more achievable personal dreams and desires. One man’s heaven is very much another’s hell. For sure, the idea of a Caribbean mega ship with five thousand on board would make some shiver in a way that a fortnight’s cruising through Norway’s icy winter fastness never could.

I expect the demand to continue to grow, but sourcing additional, suitable extra tonnage might not be such an easy matter for these winter forays. As ever, stay tuned.