A Norway Cruise That Offers Flexibility

Hurtigruten means “fast route” in Norwegian, and the company’s ferry trips up its home coast are certainly that—in seven days, the boat pulls into 34 harbours. I too had a tight schedule, with just a few days to explore a country with 15,626 miles of coastline and 50,000 islands. Though I made it to only three ports, I did cross the Arctic Circle and get a taste of life in the northern latitudes, where one of Hurtigruten’s 11 large ferry ships makes this trip virtually every day of the year. My plan was to take the train from Oslo to Trondheim (seven long-but-scenic hours), where I’d board the MS Vesteralen, one of the oldest and smallest ships (294 berths). From there, I’d sail to the Lofoten Islands then continue north on the MS Trollfjord to the Arctic city of Tromso before flying back to Oslo. Since I was dressed like a Norwegian I could not have cared less about the wind, rain and sleet that I met on my arrival in Trondheim. The Norwegians are mad for wool. If you can possibly wear wool on every part of your body, do so. My friend Inga sent me off with a wool undershirt, wool socks, wool gloves, a large wool Shetland sweater, boots and a down coat to strap it all in. It rained during most of my stay, neither too hard nor too heavily, but noticeably.

Until my ship’s departure, I holed up in Bakklandet, the picture-perfect old town of Trondheim, Norway’s first capital (from 997 to 1217). A Viking king founded the city and Norway’s kings are still coronated here. Small painted wood houses climb higgledy-piggledy up and down cobblestoned streets and a big hill. In a particularly funny old house, Skydsstation, a traditional neighbourhood restaurant, consists of small rooms whose walls lean left or right. It is echt hygge: reindeer stew for dinner, wainscoting, shelves of books or crockery, folks relaxing over their lunch. Colourful rugs cover the painted floors, presumably to absorb the water that dripped from new arrivals’ boots and jackets. Even without the pouring rain, I would’ve happily spent the whole afternoon there.

On a detailed map, Norway’s coastline looks like ripped and tattered lace. From the ground, it is an intricate seascape of narrow passages and open water, with craggy mountains and their swollen foothills looming over the sea. As if hanging from the hem of those giants’ skirts, small cities and villages perch on the shores. There had been much wringing of hands among Inga’s relatives about my choice to visit in October—late enough in the year that great sea storms might ruin the view but too early for aurora borealis. Yet I went, and luckily October turned out to be perfectly chilled. While local people still use the ferries as transport, most foreigners take the Hurtigruten to soak up the beauty of Norway’s coast, coming aboard either in Bergen, Norway’s hip, compact and rainy second city, or at the other end of the route, in Kirkenes, about 10 miles from its border with Russia.

The ships have acquired cruise-shippy amenities, such as menus thirsty for terroir (we picked up local cheeses, eggs, fish, jam, meat as we went), hot tubs, elevators, a gift shop and an activities director. My interior cabin on the Vesteralen, home for the next 33 hours, was shipshape and snug, with white walls and blue furniture and a warm and cosy white duvet on the bed. The soaps and conditioners feature ingredients like cloudberry, buckthorn or birch. Through an intercom, you can choose to hear announcements about the sights we were passing: “In 10 minutes we will pass the Kjeungskjaer Lighthouse, one of the most beautiful on our coast.” I watched the lighthouse through a large window in one of the comfortable observation lounges: All by itself on a small rock in the middle of the sea, a towering red octagonal prism with three rows of white-framed windows around it. Built-in 1880 and automated 100 years later, it is now available for rent. At 7:04 my first morning aboard, we crossed into the Arctic Circle. I know the time because I later learned that the lucky traveller who guessed closest to it would win a prize. Once I was up and the sun was out, I climbed to the top deck to get an Arctic view and found the Crossing the Arctic Circle Celebration (signalled by a tray of Champagne glasses). While passengers stamped their feet and blew on their fingers, we listened to the legend of King Neptune in English, German and Norwegian. Time for the prize! Heike, the winner, was given the ship’s flag. Before she was handed a celebratory glass—cloudberry wine, perhaps?—a crew-member poured a ladle of ice water down her back, as is apparently customary. She was a better sport about it than I would’ve been.

To keep Hurtigruten’s cruisers happy and occupied, the company organizes more than 90 excursions (priced a la carte)—to fjords, pretty historical towns, a moose farm, a husky camp or the world’s most powerful tidal current. Guests who yearn for exertion can also hike, dog-sledge, snowshoe, kayak, watch whales, ride ponies or snowmobile across snow-covered plains and mountains. The tight schedule means Hurtigruten ships do not dally. Passengers signed up for day trips get off at one port and return to the ship at ports farther on.

I left the Vesteralen in Svolvaer, one of the bigger Lofoten towns. I booked a rorbu, one of many little red fishermen’s cabins in this part of the world that have been repurposed for visitors, and rented a car. If you took all the most extreme aspects of the Norwegian environment and squeezed them together into a tiny little space, you would get this string of islands that fly off the coast like a wisp of hair. Right outside my window was a wee mountain, standing all by itself next to the water. The sun was brilliant and the air so clear that the fishing boats and harbour looked oversaturated with colour. The next day while driving down the highway through several inches of new snow, I realized that the mountain I was tootling toward was so massive it just about obliterated the panorama. I burst out laughing when I saw, at the centre of its base, the tiny mouse hole I would tunnel through. I was headed to Henningvaer, a fishing village of 500 residents at the tip of a peninsula, to visit the Kaviar Factory, a stark white cube, which exhibits the work of international contemporary artists. The extravagant beauty here attracts not only outdoor enthusiasts but artists and artisans—the place is a veritable hygge hootenanny of restaurants, galleries, studios, crafts and museums.

The Trollfjord, a much bigger (640-berth) boat outfitted with an atrium, skylights, mirrored walls and round glass elevators that give off an oddly ‘70s Vegas vibe, took me to Tromso. This time I had a snazzier cabin with a nice big window, which I set about exploiting. I starred out at the miles of water and granite on which the sun, clouds and wind played, changing it all every second. Nature here is aggressively four-dimensional, and I felt very, very small. The land and sea, tides and climate, create a world so dramatic, implacable and overwhelming that humans seem as relevant as gnats. No wonder the cabins are red. Our time is short. One might as well try to make a mark.

The Lowdown // Cruising Up Norway’s Coast

If you have a week to travel and want to take the entire Hurtigruten voyage up the coast, book a one-way trip from Bergen to Kirkenes. If you have two weeks, consider the roundtrip. The company’s straightforward website provides departure dates, maps that show all the stops en route, details on the ports, coordinating excursions, and differences among the 11 ships that make the voyage. These standard trips range from 6 to 15 days and start at $1100. Pretty much everything, from a cabin to bubbly water at dinner to wifi to excursions are á la carte (hurtigruten.com/destinations/norway).

Keep in mind that for Norwegians these ships are ferries, and so you may opt for an even shorter trip customized as you like —where you get on, off, and how long you spend at stops along the way. Perhaps you have an interest in Art Nouveau architecture or the World Championship in Cod Fishing and want to pause in place for a few days. In order to schedule and book such a trip, you must speak to a Hurtigruten agent or go to Hurtigruten’s Norwegian site (hurtigruten.no/), with Google Translate at your fingertips. The older the ship, generally the smaller and more charming. Newer ships are more stylish, accommodate more passengers, and have more amenities. Unlike many cruise ships, there are no bowling alleys, water slides, or nightclubs. Given the ever-changing climate, every season has its pleasures. The most popular time to travel is summer but it is also by far the most populous. Winter trips within the Arctic Circle encounter aurora borealis. The landscape is impressive and gorgeous 24/7/365.

Credit: Alison Humes for The Wall Street Journal, 11 October 2019.