Norway: Midnight sun, but forget the midnight buffet
We try a no-frills trip to Norway as an introduction to cruising
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Norway’s coastline unravelled before us for 12 days
Any shipping line that brands a cruise “the world’s most beautiful voyage” is surely inviting contradiction. As a cruise virgin, I can neither verify nor refute the claim made by Hurtigruten for its round voyage up and down the Norwegian coast. But if there is a lovelier boat trip than this, I’d certainly like to hear about it.
From the moment we left Bergen on the MS Nordkapp, the spectacle that is Norway’s coastline unravelled before us. For 12 days, a continuous reel of stunning scenery played past our cabin window — tiny uninhabited islands suspended in a sea of improbable blue, sheer cliffs spouting lavish waterfalls, brightly-coloured houses dotted along a sparkling seashore.
Unlike most other cruises, it is not the destination that matters on these voyages — though there were delightful surprises at some of the 69 stops — but the journey. At no point as we plied our way to and from Kirkenes, inside the Arctic Circle and just 10 miles from the Russian border, were we out of sight of land, and much of the time it was on both sides of the ship and looked close enough to touch.
One of the 14-strong fleet belonging to Hurtigruten — a shipping line founded more than a century ago — leaves Bergen for the north almost every day of the year, carrying not only 100-650 cruise passengers but also cars, post, freight and casual travellers nipping up the coast. For these are working ships, delivering cargo to 37 ports.
While the level of comfort is high and the cuisine excellent (with plenty of fish), you will find no hairdresser or beauty salon here, no tuxedo dinners, cabaret or balconied suites. If it’s a floating hotel you are after, stay away.
The entertainment takes the form of an ever-changing landscape and frequent stops, all through the night in fact: though the concept of “night” is almost meaningless in the land of the midnight sun.
The first night on board, we were up and buzzing until late, astonished by the absence of darkness. After that we slept deeply, barely aware whether we were at sea or in port.
A landscape to fall in love with: Henningsvaer in the Lofoton islands
Stops ranged from 15 minutes — just long enough to catch a glimpse of fish drying on wooden racks or a trawler putting out to sea — to several hours. Passengers were told early on that they are responsible for returning to the ship in time, though a swipe card system ensures that the crew knows if anybody has not made the deadline.
We arrived in Trondheim, just as the city was waking up, strolled the elegant streets in the early morning sunshine and took coffee on the prettily renovated wharf. Svolvaer in the lovely Lofoten Islands offered red and ochre coloured houses on stilts and light of a magical clarity that made everything look too good to be real.
In Tromso, with its clapboard houses and New England air, we stepped off the ship to be confronted unexpectedly by a memorial to 20 Jewish people from the city deported and murdered by the Nazis.
Here, the weather was decidedly cooler but still mild considering the latitude: like the UK, Norway benefits from the Gulf Stream.
A package of around 30 excursions adds variety, at a cost. These range from the usual sightseeing coach tours around the larger towns and cities to bird-watching boat trips, a snowmobile safari (winter only), a Viking feast and a visit to the North Cape, the northernmost point on the European continent.
We did our own thing on the long stops — a decision we did not regret — and took a few of the more unusual excursions to gain a glimpse of the hinterland.
The sight of massive sea eagles soaring above the cliffs of Gjestvaerstappan island nature reserve, home to half a million puffins, was well worth an hour and a half of buffeting in a smallish boat: at least the all-in-one snowsuits they gave us kept the wind at bay.
A cry of what sounded like “Wales on our starboard side” over the loudspeaker at breakfast on the second morning left me momentarily geographically challenged, until I sighted two black fins of Orcas tailing the ship. Overall, there was less wildlife than I had hoped: over-fishing has sadly depleted the bird population.
But the reason holidaymakers take a cruise like this is not the flora, fauna or architecture. It is to sail through Geirangerfjord and Trollfjord — whose sides tower above you — to a breathtaking dead end where the ship miraculously turns around virtually on its own axis; it is to watch small fishing villages wake up and go to sleep and to see the midnight sun hang between dark rocks silhouetted against a roseate sky.
This is truly a landscape to fall in love with.
Next year, Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.co.uk 0845 225 6640) is offering its “Round Voyage” from £610 per person for an inside cabin in winter, to £7,134 per person for a suite in high summer. Price includes full board but excludes flights. A seven-day “Voyage North” and a six-day “Voyage South” are also available.
The Jewish community in Norway has always been small, reaching its peak of just under 2,000 just before the Second World War. Around a third of those died in Auschwitz: the rest escaped to Sweden. Today, there is a small community and Jewish Museum in Trondheim, home to the world’s northernmost synagogue, and another shul in Oslo, where around 900 Jews live.