Author: Ray Lewis
Date of Trip: May 2008
This past May, my wife and I spent 16 days on one of the most entertaining, scenic trips that we have ever done. We happened across a trip being sponsored by Vantage World Travel which struck our fancy so we signed up for it. It was a trip on a Norwegian Coastal Voyage ship from Bergen, Norway to above the Arctic Circle at Kirkenes, Norway right next to the Russian border. This cruise is on what they call the ‘Hurtigruten’ ships or the ‘fast route’.
We flew into Bergen and spent two nights in Bergen at the SAS Norge hotel, right in the center of Bergen. Before I go any further, I must say that this trip is not an economy trip by any means. Norway is probably one of the most expensive countries in the world for American tourists. We encountered prices like $5 plus for a cup of coffee and $12 for a glass of beer and $16 for a glass of wine but if you are prepared for these prices, you can have an almost religious experience cruising the Fjords of Norway.
After two days in Bergen, we boarded the Hurtigruten ship, Midnatsol, or ‘midnight sun’. We left Bergen in the early evening after registering and getting acclimated to the ship and having a buffet dinner. When we boarded, they were very clear to inform us that the Hurtigruten is not a ‘cruise ship’ but us rather a working ship. The original, and still primary purpose of these ships is to deliver people and cargo to all of the ports up and down the Norwegian coastline. A note of warning, they post the departure time at the exit point and if you aren’t there, they go without you and its your responsibility to get to the next port of call.
Our tour director from Vantage was named Karin and she was a very energetic, knowledgeable person who was constantly working to make our trip a delightful experience. She even exceeded anyone’s expectations because if she didn’t know an answer to a question, she’d spend as much time as needed on the internet to find and deliver the answer to you when finished. Now late April and early May in Norway can be any type of weather that you can imagine. In Bergen, all of the mountains surrounding the city were snow covered. Since we were getting near the time when it is bright all of the time in the land of the midnight sun, it never really got dark, only like dusk but with the curtains pulled, you never knew that when in your cabin. The cabins are average sized but very nice and comfortable. The meals were excellent but, if there is one negative comment, they could make the food labels on the buffets larger so that you could read them. If you didn’t eat fish, you could get fooled by the presentation and get some when you didn’t want it. My wife does not eat fish, and had a couple of experiences where she got fish that she didn’t want. Both breakfast and lunch are buffet while dinner is served but only one entree unless you don’t eat fish and then, they give you a tag that you place at your placesetting which says “iccke fiske” which I was told means ‘no fish’. My wife had that and we joked about her inability to eat icky fish. I could go over all of the food that they served but that would take too long and you just need to know that they have a very varied menu and it was wonderful. They make their own liver pate which was served at breakfast & lunch as well as homemade soups and wonderful entrees.
Our first night was spent cruising from Bergen to several fjord cities, such as Maloy, Torvik and Alesund. Alesund is where the very scenic Geiranger Fjord is and there was an excursion to the Geiranger Fjord by small motor craft which tied up to Midnatsol while steaming along and transferred passengers from one to the other all while sailing. This was before we reached Alesund and when there, we unloaded cargo and departed after retrieving our sightseers. We went on the Molde and enjoyed the sight of the very heavily snowcapped mountains. The air temp was about 30 to 35 degrees f. but not uncomfortable. When we departed Molde, we set sail for Trondheim, the ancient Capital of Norway. We arrived in early morning and there were a few optional trips available. We went to the Trondheim “Nidaros” Cathedral, the sight of the Norwegian coronations and we also took a trip to the “Ringve Music Museum” where one family collected a great number of musical instruments, mostly pianos of all types, shapes and sized and strings but guide who took us around only was able to play the pianos, not the strings. He and all other guides were students at the University and all played at least one of the instruments. Very interesting. The collector was a russian noblewoman who married a rich Norwegian. From there we cruised to Rorvik. We navigated through several small islands and there were lighthouses on most of them so that navigation could be done more easily. In December, that must be a difficult journey with very little light. At Rorvik, we unloaded cargo & passengers and took on cargo and passengers. This is an every stop procedure. Many of the people along the coast use the fast line somewhat like any other means of transportation. That ended day 3, counting the two in Bergen. We next went north all night, stopping at ports along the way but many after we had retired for the night. On day four, we crossed the Arctic Circle and they held a raffle to guess the correct time but we didn’t win. Our first port of call was Ornes, a place where the Svartisen glacier meets the water. It is the second largest glacier in Norway. We were headed for Bodo & then began cruising along the Lofoten Islands. Bodo is a small quaint city just above the Arctic circle but on a very hilly area. It has a population of 45,000 and was occupied by the Nazis in WWII. We left Bodo and went to Stamsund in the Lofoten Islands. These are extremely rugged, hard rock islands in the North Sea and very picturesque. Many of the houses there are built on stilts to keep them out of the water. There were the picturesque wooden slatted A frames used for drying Cod and it looked like a picture book. We went to Stamsund, Svolvaer, Stokmarnes,and Sortland before we got to Risoyhamn. Our ship navigated the narrow Raftsund Strait and we had a very enjoyable day. The Raftsund Strait is where the famous ‘Trollfjord’ is but I’ll cover that on the southbound trip.
On the next day, we went to Harstad and Skjervoy and saw the ancient Trondenes church. It was used for christenings since 999 a.d.. We then cruised through a fjord area on our way to Tromso.The town is very colorful as the residents have painted their houses all different bright colors. While cruising here, we passed under a very long, over 1200 ft long, bridge connection the mainland to Senja. On cruise day six, we reach Havoysund and Mehamn. This is the area known as the NordKapp or North Cape and is very mountainous, windy and at least when we were there very snowy. We will get back to this later also. We strolled Finnsnes and enjoyed our mini sightseeing tour there. On this day, we went to Hammerfest, Havoysund, Honningsvag and Berlevag. Honningsvag’s church was spared in WWII since the German Commandant spared it because he enjoyed organ music. These are all fishing villages of small size but all different and scenic.
On day 10 we arrived at Kirkenes, the land of Iron mines, Sami people and reindeer. We took a trip the the now closed iron mines and the russian border, where they still maintain a Closed Border and don’t look too friendly. I was very beautiful from the top of the mountains looking at the Harbor with ice floating in it and our ship docked waiting for our return. They were working on re-opening the mine as prices for iron have risen to where it is now profitable to operate the mine again. We stopped in Vasdo, where an old german garrison was overlooking the North Sea. We also went out to a Sami Tepee (they have a special name that I don’t remember) and drank reindeer broth or as they referred to it ‘tea’. Next, we cruised to Honingsvag, Havoysund, Hammerfest, Oksfjord, Skjervoy and Tromso. Recognize the names, we’re now travelling south and hitting the same ports, some now in day and some in night, somewhat reverse of the northbound voyage. This is the North Cape area and we took a side trip to the northernmost point on the European continent, appropriately called Nordkapp. They have a visitors center there and we had breakfast there, rather than on ship. We had to leave the ship very early that morning. The food was nice, warm, tasty and filling. They had young people serving coffee at the tables who were dressed like TROLLS and they very readily posed with guest that wanted their picture taken with a Troll. In the trip up to this point, it snowed very hard and there were white-out conditions for about 15 to 20 minutes but it soon left and it was nice. (As an aside, the previous Vantage tour 2 weeks earlier had to be pulled out of snow and then convoyed back to the ship after getting stuck. What fun and something to talk about.)
We visited with a Sami native who raised reindeer and had the obligatory store full of ersatz Sami ware. I’m not sure but we re-joined the ship at either Hammerfest or Havoysund. Then we went on to visit Oksfjord and were surprised when we entered the harbor to see a band of 15 or so people of all ages from early teens to 50’s playing marching music dockside while we were in port. We were told that these folks decided that since it was approaching ‘constitution’ day or some other day which was a national holiday the following week. These folks must have been all of the musicians in the village as it only had a population of 1,400.
The next thing we did was to go an an Eagle safari. They have Sea Eagles or Ernes in Norway, not Bald Eagles like we have in the USA. We boarded the MS Orca while both the Midnatsol and Orca were under way. We went into the Trollfjord, the very narrow fjord in the Lofoten islands. Wow, its breathtaking there. While on the Orca, the crew fed seagulls and periodically when an eagle was sighted, they would throw fish that had air pumped into them so that they would float and the Eagles would swoop down and collect their bounty. It is very difficult to catch this on cameras as they fly so fast but it was very entertaining and I’d recommend it to anyone capable of getting on board.
We continued our most magic cruise and continued our wending our way through the rock islands and into ports at the end of fjords. At one port we saw a very large ship with a flat open area and were thinking that it looked like it could be used to haul Minke Whale (the only whale being legally hunted) on deck but we’re not sure. When we returned to Bergen, it was warm, in the 60’s and the snow had left the surrounding mountains and all of the flowers, tulips, rhodys and azaleas were in bloom. It happens fast where its cold. I would recommend this trip to every independent traveler, just for the sheer pleasure it will bring.