Our three night January stay in Tromso, the ‘Capital of the Arctic’, prepared us well for our cruise above the Arctic Circle aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Nordnorge in winter. It meant that we had already become used to the middle of the day ‘twilight’ that cast a dim glow for a few hours without the sun actually rising, and valued those precious moments.
Not many people embarked in Tromso; most began the cruise in Bergen for either the full return trip to Kirkenes and back (12 days) or disembarked in Kirkenes (7 days) for further experiences above the Arctic Circle, such as staying in the Kirkenes Snowhotel and explorations overland for the Northern Lights sightings. Our short three nights Tromso to Kirkenes return were only a brief sample of the Hurtigruten experience, and it left us wanting more.
Exploring the ship
Boarding at 3pm, we were greeted in reception by the smiling Marguerthe, who directed us to where we could leave our luggage until our cabin was ready, and provided all the necessary information about the ship and its routines to ensure we made it to all meals and excursions on time.
Our cabin was in the ‘Arctic Superior’ class (Cabin 505) on deck 5 and included complimentary wifi. The space was of excellent design, with a queen size bed, ample under bed storage for large suitcases, and plenty of discreet and practical shelving and cupboard areas to allow you to fully unpack. It was a sensible use of space in every aspect. The 2016 refurbishment has provided a light and airy feel in the relatively compact space with ash blonde wooden trim, blue wavey print carpet, white walls, and large a black and white print of the famous huskies in full flight above the bed. The crisp white linen echoed that of a high-end hotel and the bed provided a restful sleep every night, even when seas were choppy.
The Explorer Lounge and Panorama Bar’s soft lighting accented the dark woods and turquoise plush lounges. The carpet was a traditional Norwegian pattern in chocolate and ice blue that echoed the geometrics in the local knitwear. The layout of the lounge and bar provided pockets for groups of friends or solos and pairs, in a range of configurations with coffee tables or standard tables to rest drinks, snacks and boardgames on. A glassed in fireplace stood in the centre of the space, spanning nearly the width of the room with six blades of flame across it, providing warmth and visual stimulation. Cream leather recliners faced the windows in a sweeping U shape at the bow, providing a prime viewing spot on this top 7th deck of the ship. Nabbing a spot here in the summer months would be ideal.
To celebrate our embarkation on another adventure, we decided an aperitif before dinner was in order. The knowledgeable and friendly bartender, Sigrun, poured John a glass of Oban and suggested Ayala when I discovered they were out of Bollinger. I was given a taste to see if it was to my liking and she poured away when she saw the big grin on my face. As if bubbles from one of the original twenty-six ‘Grandes Marques Champagne Houses’ would be anything but wonderful (and as if Hurtigruten would have anything ‘ordinary’ on their ships!). The irony is that alcohol is so expensive in Norway that a glass of ‘Bolly’ isn’t much dearer than Prosecco, so why stint when you are celebrating?
Our vegetarian status was not a problem at dinner. We were presented with a cream of celery soup, a pumpkin risotto with adorning carrots and asparagus, followed by a white chocolate terrine. All servings were modest, for which we were thankful; maybe due to the Norwegian focus on health – not like the gigantic helpings on American cruise liners. This health focus is also the reason that alcohol is so expensive in Norway – the government imposes high taxes as a deterrent.
Day 2: Honnigsvåg
Docking in Honnigsvåg, we were rugged up with our four layers on our bottom halves and five layers on our top halves (even without our coats) ready for our tour to a local fishing village to learn about the indigenous Sámi people, their way of life and traditions. Unfortunately, this tour was cancelled due to bad weather. While news like this can be disappointing, these decisions are always made with the safety of the passengers in mind (and as we had prepaid when we booked, our money was refunded soon after arriving home). Instead, an exploration around the town itself provided us with a stimulating and picturesque way to spend the morning, immersed in a Christmas card painting of a village passable for Santa’s home.
It was so inviting to see warmly lit windows decorated for Christmas with no window coverings such as curtains or blinds – it made it all look so welcoming and cheerful. We savoured the little gift of midday twilight before heading back to the ship for lunch. A spot on a recliner in the lounge was perfect to watch the light fade completely from the sky at only 1:40pm!
Later that evening, an announcement came through to all cabins that there was a sighting of the Northern Lights off the port side of the ship. Apart from safety announcements, these are the only announcements that come through to the cabins over the tannoy. Most of those onboard dashed out on deck to see if they could see the Aurora Borealis. The thing that most people don’t know about the ‘Dancing Green Lady’ is that most of the time you cannot see the colours with the naked eye – they are often a soft, pale white glow. The vibrant and extraordinary green swathes of light are captured with time-lapse photography, shot with a good camera on a tripod.
Day 3: Kirkenes
Kirkenes is the capital of the Barents Region and only a few kilometres from the Russian border. It is also the home of the Snowhotel, which is where we took our ‘husky sledge adventure.’ Beforehand, we fed some reindeer and met some puppies that were about to start their training. Our 5km sledge journey was piloted by our knowledgeable and expert driver, Hannah, who was happy to answer our many questions about the operation.
Each sledge team consisted of five dogs and all of the dogs at the Snowhotel are Alaskan huskies, a breed chosen for their strength and friendliness with humans (when working with tourists, this is important). The lead female on the front right of our sledge was smaller than some of the others, but she knew what she was doing, and was so eager to be off, she kept jumping in the air demonstrating she was ready to go! Paired with her was another female, two years old, who was learning to be a leader. There was a single male in the middle, only one year old, who was only just learning, and at the back were two brothers, large, black dogs, very strong, who did the grunt work when there was a hill to pull up.
These two brothers at the rear were an interesting strain of the breed of Alaskan husky. They didn’t trot like the others, they ran like horses trained as ‘pacers’, both front and back foot on the same side going together rather than diagonally opposite. Unlike the horses, this is not something they are trained to do, it’s just something that these dogs seem to have in their genetics. Apparently, it’s great for their stamina because they swing their back legs out and around rather than lifting them over the snow. [See video below]
They have about 180 dogs at the Snowhotel and, once trained and working, have their own kennels that they often perch on top of for better views of what’s going on and eagerly bounce up and down outside of when they are ready for a run. And these dogs love running so much that they work while ever they are able – even at the age of 12 they are still in teams, they love it so much. In summer when there is no snow, the dogs get to run in gigantic fenced areas, and they are also taken on long hikes.
A tour of the Snowhotel followed our sledge adventure, where the workers were just putting the finishing touches on the building that is created fresh each season. While I was absolutely impressed with the detailed carvings into the ice walls in the reception area and in each room, I didn’t feel a huge desire to stay overnight in one of the rooms. Despite the special bedding and sleeping bags, I know it still would’ve felt like camping in the snow, and I love my warmth too much!
In the afternoon we met with the charming hotel manager of the MS Nordnorge, Jon, who gave us a tour of one of the two ‘expedition suites’. As the top end suites on the ship, these spacious accommodations had a separate lounge area that was more than twice the size of the ‘arctic superior’ cabins, as well as a sprawling bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom was a more luxurious version of what we had, with a plush crushed velvet throw in ice blue at the end of the bed, but the same print of the iconic huskies above it.
Day 4: Kirkenes and Hammerfest
Our fourth day started particularly early with a snowmobile tour that began at 00:45 in the morning and had us returning to ship at 3am. We went to bed early the night before and managed to get a few hours sleep before the tour.
The snowmobile tour was an exceptionally memorable experience. Hurtigruten uses the companies Arctic Coast and Norkyn Nordic Safaris for this tour and they are very safety conscious, which was extremely reassuring. There were three team leaders who led groups of six on their own snowmobiles. Juha was our team leader who supervised our small group and ensured we knew what we were doing. The machines were a little unwieldy and you really had to lean to the side when cornering to help steer the machine. It was much easier to handle when following precisely in the path of the driver before you, through fresh snow rather than harder iced areas.
We managed to get a few hours sleep before heading to a latish breakfast, needing both to get through another big day. Hotel manager, Jon, had lined up a visit to the bridge, so we headed to deck 6 and were introduced to the captain, Roar Winther (pronounced Ruar Vinter) who gave us a few moments of his very busy morning to show us around.
Tour of Hammerfest
The rest of our morning was filled with a tour of Hammerfest, the ‘northernmost town in the world.’ We were grateful for the more sedate pace and level of exertion on this tour, enjoying the warmth and comfort afforded by the coach on what turned out to be a rainy day.
We began with a drive to Mount Salen to the lookout over the town, which was a postcard view in the twilight of late morning. From there we went to the Meridian Column (UNESCO World Heritage Site), commemorating the first official measurement of the earth’s exact size and shape. It took the astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve 39 years of his life to prove this theory, and it marked an important step in the development of earth sciences and topographic mapping.
The Museum of Reconstruction was the final stop on the tour. Even though it was a small museum, we could’ve easily spent more time there. It was thoughtfully laid out and engaging, but the tour by our guide, Christian, was even more informative and enjoyable. The museum charts the events from the moment of the orders given by the Germans at the end of WWII for the evacuation of the region (75,000 people). This forced evacuation was ignored by 25,000 citizens, who instead escaped to live in caves dotted throughout the area, taking the minimum they could with them (they were given only 24 hours notice to leave). Hitler then gave the order for his ‘scorched earth’ strategy, which destroyed everything. There are recreations in the museum of the different stages of the town’s reconstruction, from the caves, to the barracks, to the homes built in what is now easily recognisable 1950s style. Black and white photographs of the interiors look exactly like interior design magazines today.
Back on board MS Nordnorge, we met the Chief Engineer, Borge Olsen, another charming and erudite man who gave us an hour of his time to show us the control room and the engine room of the ship. It was a fascinating tour, and we both learnt so much about the heart of the ship and how they keep it all running so smoothly. This man knew every centimetre of the noisy, green metal beast that purred more than grunted under his tending. And like every other crew member we encountered, he clearly loved his work and was amongst the best in his field.
Hurtigruten, the company
In 1893 the voyage along the 1,255km of coastline between Bergen and Kirkenes was an unreliable, long and arduous one. Captain Richard With’s steamer, DS Vesteraalen, was brought into service and from here Hurtigruten was born (meaning ‘the fast route’). Today they are the world leader in exploration travel, and the world’s largest expedition cruise company. “This comes with a responsibility. With UN Sustainable Development Goals as a framework – and a mission focused on innovation, technology and concrete measures – sustainability is a part of every detail of the Hurtigruten operation.” (Hurtigruten) Hurtigruten’s ultimate goal is for their ships to be completely emissions free, which has led to revolutionary hybrid powered ships and the refitting of older ships with the new technology.
Their sustainability goals aren’t limited to the hardware of the business, either. Unlike so many other cruise companies, they look after their employees and care about their wellbeing. Staff are paid a decent wage and they work three weeks on, three weeks off. They also do all they can to look after their guests. We were told of one cruise where seas were so rough that they had to cancel some ports and then had to abandon the trip altogether. Hurtigruten paid to fly all guests (over 300 of them!) back to their Norwegian bases.
I am so impressed with this company and the way it operates, and I can’t wait to book my next expedition cruise…the Antarctic is calling!
Onwards to chasing the Northern Lights…
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