Sailing on a modern-day cruise ship may be a long way from the perilous polar expeditions of 19th- and 20th-century Norwegian explorers—but when you cruise with Hurtigruten, those adventures don’t seem so far away.
This expedition company based in Norway isn’t your typical cruise line. Onboard, the vibe is more about casual dress and learning about wildlife than evening wear and hairy-chest contests. Hurtigruten sailings draw adventurous travelers seeking to explore remote places like Greenland, Antarctica, and the far reaches of Norway.
Intrigued? Here’s how to decide whether Hurtigruten cruises are right for you.
Hurtigruten Has a Long, Adventurous History
Now celebrating its 125th anniversary, Hurtigruten was founded in 1893 as a solution to a problem. Back then it was difficult and time-consuming to travel by sea between northern and southern Norway; because there were relatively few lighthouses, nighttime sailing was dangerous. But Richard With, a sea captain from northern Norway, was adventurous enough to take the risk.
In 1893 his steamer, DS Vesteraalen, began weekly sailings between Trondheim and Hammerfest and, later, between Bergen and Kirkenes. The latter route took just seven days and was dubbed hurtigruten, or “the fast route.”
A few years later, With pioneered a regular service between mainland Norway and the remote northern islands of Svalbard. Since then, Hurtigruten has expanded its operations to exotic destinations around the globe.
Hurtigruten Sails to Norway, the Poles, and Beyond
For many years the company’s North American name was “Norwegian Coastal Voyage,” and this route is still the one for which Hurtigruten is best known. Eleven ships explore the fjords and islands between Bergen and Kirkenes year-round, allowing travelers to enjoy the midnight sun of the Arctic summer or the northern lights that wash over the winter sky. You can book a one-way journey or stay aboard for the entire 12-day round trip from Bergen.
What makes this voyage unique is that Hurtigruten’s Norwegian coastal ships also serve as ferries for locals (some of whom only stay on for a few hours) and as cargo delivery vessels. This means they make frequent—and sometimes very brief—stops, but you’ll still have time to explore the larger ports along the route.
A few of Hurtigruten’s expedition ships travel more widely, offering cruises to Antarctica and to various parts of the Arctic including Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland, and the Northwest Passage. During the shoulder seasons (spring and fall), you can explore non-polar destinations such as Europe and the eastern coast of North and South America.
The Ships Aren’t Large
If the thought of cruising with thousands of other passengers makes you want to run and hide, the modest size of Hurtigruten cruise ships might offer a better fit. No ship carries more than 970 passengers, with most having a capacity of 400 to 600. MS Fram, the line’s main expedition ship, carries 318 passengers, and Nordstjernen, which sails in Svalbard, holds just 149.
These vessels have a more intimate feel than bigger ships from lines like Carnival or Royal Caribbean, but keep in mind that this also means fewer amenities. On Hurtigruten ships you’ll only have one to three restaurants to choose from, and onboard entertainment is limited, with no casinos or production shows. If you’re content to read a book, soak up the passing scenery, and attend lectures about the local culture and wildlife, these ships might be right for you.
Sailings Can Be Unpredictable
Cruise ships are always at the mercy of waves and weather, but that goes double for expedition sailings in remote parts of the world. A few years ago, I was aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Fram on a trip from Iceland to Greenland, and we missed two scheduled port days due to heavy fog and ice.
“We always have a plan B, C, D, E, and F,” a member of MS Fram’s expedition team told me on a more recent sailing. This means you shouldn’t have your heart set on visiting a particular port—but you can count on the captain and the expedition team to make necessary changes to maintain passenger safety and comfort.
The Cuisine Reflects Norwegian Heritage
If you’ve ever wanted to eat like a Norwegian for a week or two, this is your chance. Even on non-Norwegian sailings, items like brown cheese and gravlax (cured salmon) are regular items on the buffet, and other Scandinavian dishes—reindeer soup, anyone?—often show up on the set dinner menus.
It’s all part of the line’s “Norway’s Coastal Kitchen” initiative, which focuses on locally produced ingredients and sustainable seafood. If you love fish, you’ll be in heaven. If you don’t, there are plenty of other alternatives, including meat, pasta, and a small salad bar.
Expect a European Crowd and a Laid-Back Vibe
Despite growing popularity in North America, most of Hurtigruten’s passengers come from across Europe. PA announcements are given in multiple languages depending on the mix of nationalities onboard; this typically includes English, Norwegian, and/or German.
Onboard dress is casual at all times, though many passengers take it up a notch for dinner (think dress pants and a nice top). You can leave your suit or formal gown at home.
Don’t Expect Fancy Cabins
As on many expedition vessels, the staterooms on Hurtigruten’s ships are more functional than luxurious. In lower-priced categories, expect fold-down single beds that can’t be pushed together. If you’re looking for a more romantic option—i.e., a double bed for you and your partner—you’ll have to upgrade to a superior cabin or suite.
Balconies are few and far between, available only on select suites on certain ships. But if you have the budget, they’re worth paying for; imagine gazing out at Antarctic icebergs floating under the midnight sun from your own private verandah.
Do Expect a Variety of Excursions
Hurtigruten excursions vary widely depending on where you’re sailing, but might include activities such as snowshoeing in Antarctica, hiking through a Viking settlement in Greenland, dog sledding in Svalbard, or visiting a working farm in Lofoten, Norway. There’s generally a range of options for all physical abilities. As on most larger cruise lines (and unlike on many expedition lines), Hurtigruten excursions cost extra.
You’ll Learn Something New
Most Hurtigruten ships have a dedicated expedition team aboard all sailings. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, these experts lead excursions and give onboard lectures on everything from Viking history to Arctic wildlife. You might also hear them over the PA system offering information about the port you’re sailing into or about a whale just spotted off the bow.
Hurtigruten Is Environmentally Responsible
With sailings in some of the world’s most endangered places, Hurtigruten takes its environmental obligations seriously. The company recently announced that it will eliminate single-use plastic items aboard all its ships by July 2018 and retrofit up to nine of its older vessels to run on a combination of liquefied natural gas and battery power (both cleaner options than diesel fuel). MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen, new expedition ships that will debut within the next two years, will use hybrid technology that reduces CO2 emissions by more than 3,000 metric tons per year.
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