The passengers on the Classic Voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes, are normally a self-controlled, restrained sort of group: mostly middle-aged, well-educated professional types, seeking culture and history and the natural world.
Today, however, they are whooping and squealing like a bunch of school kids as they queue up to have the traditional induction of ice cubes ladled down the back of their necks.
Yes, that’s ice cubes down the neck, Not everyone’s idea of a good time but then not everyone has crossed the Arctic Circle and this old sea- faring tradition of dousing passengers this way lives on.
At precisely 07.37:47 our ship sounded its horn as we sailed past the 10 ft tall metal globe on a portside island of Vikingen that marks 66 degrees and 32 minutes latitude, the southernmost point at which the sun never sets at the summer solstice and never rises in the winter one — the Arctic Circle.
The winner of the competition to guess the time of the crossing will get a small prize and the dubious honour of being the first to be ice-doused by “King Neptune”. The rest of us follow, fortified by a hearty breakfast and lured by a shot of something hot, sweet and alcoholic and our Polarsirkel Sertifikat to prove we had been inducted: “Matte hell og lykke folge deg pa denne reise og i all din tid” which means “May good luck and happiness follow you on this voyage and forever after”.
There are some passengers, however, who pay no attention to all this malarkey. For them this is not a cruise ship but their public transport, car ferry and freight carrier. They will be hopping on and off at any of the 34 ports where the ship docks on its 2,900 mile round trip between Bergen and Kirkenes way up by the Russian border. Our ship is named by the founder of the Hurtigruten company, Captain Richard With who launched the Norwegian Coastal Express back in 1893 to serve the communities scattered among the fjords and islands.
The company now has 11 ships with a government contract to provide a year round daily service for 400,000 passengers, 34,000 cars and the equivalent of 10,000 truckloads of freight.
For remote populations it is both a link with the outside world and in winter when the mountain passes and the airports of the far north are closed it can be a lifeline.
Excursions include sea eagle safaris, quad bike tours, fishing expeditions and visits to the Sami people, formerly known as Lapps, to learn about their use of plants as food and medicine.
We did a fantastically exhilarating RIB boat ride where you bang across the waves at 30 knots from the port of Bodo to an area called Saltstraumen which has the world’s most powerful tidal current. It’s caused by millions of gallons of water being squeezed through a 90 mile long and two-mile wide space between two fjords resulting in massive whirlpools.
On the quayside we’ve been kitted out in head-to-toe waterproofs and life jackets and provided with goggles.
These seem a bit excessive until we clear the shelter of the harbour at which point we realise that without them we would barely be able to open our eyes against the force of the wind.
The 10 of us in the inflatable straddle our seats and grip the rails in front of us and as the vessels swirls and spins, soars and dips, the feeling is of riding some wild creature. For those who prefer their fjord experience to be rather more relaxing there is the trip up the spectacular Hjorundfjord which cuts into the massive mountains of the Sunnmore Alps. As we step off at the little village of Urke we’re greeted by a group of children waving flags and singing for us. Then it’s off by bus along one of the country’s narrowest valleys, stopping along the way at the historic Union Hotel, visited among others by Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We also take in a lake caused when an avalanche blocked the river where you can still see drowned dwellings; and various dramatic rock formations named after Queen Victoria and polar explorer Roald Amundsen.
On the first day of a Hurtigruten cruise the scenery seems breathtakingly beautiful and special. It’s only when you’ve been sailing for a while that you realise that splendour is not rare. On the contrary it is everywhere you look: dramatic jagged mountains, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, hillsides covered with trees in every autumnal shade, clearings dotted with little red wooden houses with grass roofs and fishing piers and all, on days of limpid light, perfectly mirrored in waters as smooth and dark as molten liquorice.
For although bad weather is not unknown — the captain has experienced waves over 30 ft high — the time spent in the open sea is limited to a couple of hours at a stretch. Mostly the ship slips along sounds, the stretches of water between islands on one side and the mainland on the other.
The shore is rarely out of sight and though I sometimes put acupressure travel bands on my wrists, I never felt a moment’s queasiness.
Breakfast and lunch are lavish buffets and dinner is three courses often with a regional theme like grilled stockfish (dried for three months, matured for two, soaked for a week), poached Arctic char or the Norwegian blue cheese selbu bla with cloudberry.
We have tasted these sweet golden berries earlier when a market trader gave us a sample during a walking tour of Trondheim, the third largest city in Norway after Oslo and Bergen with a population of around 165,000 and a history going back to 997. It is home to the second most northerly synagogue in the world, which also houses a Jewish museum and a memorial to those who perished in World War II.
Just across the road is the great Gothic Nidaros Cathedral. It dates back to mediaeval times but its statues and gargoyles were restored and in some cases recreated at the end of the 20th century. Sculptors were allowed some artistic licence with the result that the St Michael who stands atop the north tower has the face of Bob Dylan.
Back on board the emphasis is on peace and quiet and apart from a piano player in the evening in the bar there are no activities or entertainments for the 600 or so guests, so it is a good idea to bring plenty to read, downloads or dvds for a laptop, playing cards, knitting or needlework as lots of people seem to have done.
Alternatively you can just cruise ‘n’ snooze. The exception to the peace and quiet is when the ship docks in the middle of the night which can be extremely noisy for the aft cabins. Guests are warned in advance which are affected and can book accordingly. I stuck with mine because, for me, being woken briefly at 2am or 4am to peep out of a porthole to see the lights and harbour- side activity of some far flung place just added to the sense that this was no ordinary voyage.