By George Hinton
Norway is a pretty vast country. You realise that when you land in Oslo and look for the domestic flights.
There are a lot of internal flights from Oslo – Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger, Molde, Bode, Kirkenes, Kristiansand, Alta, Harstad/Narvik, Moss... the list goes on. And they are just some of the main airports.
And these are not big cities. Tromso is smaller than Harrogate. Norway is a country with a population of fewer than five million people. The land mass is roughly the same size of England yet we have a population more than ten times that of Norway.
Despite not being an island its coast length is similar to Australia. That is staggering.
It is all down to the way the coast is carved up. It is incredibly rugged. Depending on who is doing the counting there are between 3,000 and 4,000 fjords. It also has in the region of 20,000 islands (to put that in some perspective Greece has 2,000).
The fjords are created when glaciers in the Ice Age cut a valley through the coastal rock. Some of them are incredibly deep – Sognefjord near Bergen is the longest (126 miles) and deepest at 1,308m. That’s very nearly the height of Ben Nevis.
That makes for some very impressive scenery.
A fjord voyage is one of those things that has always been something I’ve wanted to do but never got round to.
Until now, that is, because I was lucky enough to get the chance to go on a fjord voyage this autumn and it was breath-taking, living up to expectations.
The only problem now is that I want to do it when the mountains are snow covered.
I went with Hurtigruten which is the main provider of Norwegian fjord voyages. Hurtigruten seems to be something of an institution in Norway. It was on July 2, 1893 that the first Hurtigruten steamship DS Vestraalen set off from Trondheim for Hammerfest, stopping at 11 harbours on the way.
Not only are its voyages for tourists but residents also use the ships to travel between towns.
One evening I met a Norwegian MP travelling from his constituency hometown of Stamsund to Bodo – a four hour journey.
Somewhat bizarrely one of Norway’s main television channels aired the country’s longest ever documentary filmed purely on a Hurtigruten ship over the course of a week, 24 hours a day.
The ship docks fairly regularly. Stops are usually about two hours so you get a chance to get off and have a look around the town.
The full route that Hurtigruten takes starts in Bergen in the south and goes to Kirkenes in the far north – 240 miles north of the Arctic Circle and very close to the Russian borders. I was told it is one of the most strongly guarded borders in the world behind North and South Korea.
You can do the full trip either one way or return. The full return trip from Bergen to Kirkenes and back to Bergen (or vice versa) takes 12 days and costs from about £1,600 including all meals. There are sometimes offers on the website. Hurtigruten can provide flights and transfers (and overnight accommodation if necessary) for about £400. It is worth checking if flights and travel are cheaper if you book it yourself.
I started my ocean voyage from Tromso but flights from Leeds Bradford Airport to Bergen, changing at Schiphol airport (Amsterdam), are available which is probably the most convenient from this area.
If you do get a chance to spend some time in Tromso I would definitely recommend it. I stayed a night in the Rica Ishavshotel, which is right on the waterfront and is about £85 a night. The evening meal was superb but quite pricey, as are most things in Norway.
Tromso is the seventh largest city in Norway and is regarded as the capital of the north but with 68,000 inhabitants has the population of an average sized English town.
It is very quaint and everyone seems to know everyone. The colourful wooden fronted buildings are picture postcard stuff. The main part of the town is on the island of Tromsoya. It is connected to the mainland by the impressive Tromso Bridge. A lot of the bridges between land on the coast seem to have been built specifically so that Hurtigruten ships can just squeezed under them.
On the mainland side of Tromso by the bridge is the Arctic Cathedral. It is a big minimalist white arch building standing proud of the hillside. When you get inside that minimalist aesthetic is continued.
As part of the cruise you have the opportunity to go to a midnight concert at the cathedral. When I went I was thoroughly moved. There were only three musicians, two of whom sang, but the sound they produced was powerful and haunting. The acoustics of the cathedral and the simplicity of the music conveyed something similar to a Gregorian chant. Some of the tunes were medieval Sami songs. Sami are the native people of the area who are nomadic, some of whom still live off the land.
I went in September and thought I should wrap up warm for the trip as the is city 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I was wrong. My goose down parka was more of a hindrance. Being in the Gulf Streams helps keep the temperatures higher than anywhere else on the planet on the same latitude. It averages about 6-7 degrees in September but it seemed warmer than that – the clear, deep blue sky may have affected my perception.
While in Tromso my group also got to go sea kayaking off an island which translates as ‘Whale Island’ which was very pleasant. Unfortunately we did not get to see any whales. The fjord we went on was very still and the water was incredibly clear. I really felt the immensity of the landscape being on a little kayak in a big fjord surrounded by mountains.
The instructor Tore said he did sea kayaking in the summer months and in winter he took people dog sledding. He owned a husky farm with 200 dogs. He and his wife compete in some of the toughest dog sled races in the world, including the infamous Iditarod in Alaska. And they actually compete against each other. I noticed most of the tops of his fingers were missing. I was later told that this had been due to getting frostbite when caught in a storm while ascending Argentina’s highest mountain, the formidable Aconcagua (6,962m). I got the impression they have to be pretty tough in northern Norway.
Maybe it is in their blood. The explorer Roald Amundsen – the first man to the South Pole – is from the area. In the town there is a Polar Museum which is worth a look at if you have time.
Tromso managed to stave off the Germans in the Second World War. On November 12, 1944 the German battleship Tirpitz was sunk in the waters just off the town, killing 1,000 German soldiers.
There seems to be quite a vibrant pub culture in the town which may be something to do with the large university student population. Somewhat amusingly the British consulate is based in the local brewery Mack, which I can vouch makes some very good beers. Although expect to pay upwards of £6 for 500ml.
After the midnight concert we boarded our ship which was the MS Nordkapp. The Hurtigruten fleet consists of 14 ships with 11 operating up and down the Norwegian coast – some go north to do Arctic cruises and one or two even travel all the way to the Antarctic.
When I got on I headed straight for my cabin, which was the basic class. There was a window, a sofa and two bunk beds which could be folded away, as well as a desk and chair and an en-suite shower room.
The bed was comfortable and I slept well. I found the water and the ship to be surprisingly still.
Breakfast was excellent, with every possible taste catered for. Lunch was a hearty buffet and dinner was table service with a set menu, which again was of a high standard. On the last night there was a special dinner where the chefs and staff came out with sparklers.
It was not overly formal and there was no dress code. This suited the journey; it is not meant to be a massively fancy black tie cruise. The ships are spacious enough to be able to have a good walk around, and have enough different communal rooms, but they are not immense or overbearing like some cruise ships. The ships cannot be too big because they need to access some narrow fjords and turn around in a small space, as well as get under bridges.
I noticed Hurtigruten seem to make a point of referring to what they offer as a voyage and not a cruise. I think that is the point: it is not overly pretentious – you can get a very nice suite and make it luxurious if you can afford it but the point is to witness the amazing scenery and natural beauty that is on offer.
We had to be up early to get off the ship at 8am for our first excursion by bus from the town of Harstad to Svolvaer. The bus could take us further into and along various fjords so we could get closer to the stunning scenery.
After boarding again the ship made its way south through the Lofoten Islands down Raftsund. This was the highlight of the voyage for me, especially the spectacular Trollsfjord. It was like nowhere I had been before. We went through narrow channels with islands of mountains rising up from the sea close to the ship. It was so spectacular that it was almost dizzying.
While on this part of the route travellers get the chance to go on a sea eagle safari. We were transferred while the ship was moving to a much smaller fishing boat which had been adapted for tourists.
We slowly made our way down the Trollsfjord which is as narrow as 100m at points and has incredibly steep mountains cutting straight into the water from as high as 1,100m. Amazingly the ship also goes down the Trollsfjord and turns around at the end so that those passengers who did not go on the sea eagle safari get to witness its beauty. The fjord is named after the Norse word troll, which is a supernatural being in Scandinavian folklore.
We saw lots and lots of majestic sea eagles. There is no chance of not seeing any because the captain of the boat knows exactly where they nest and his helpers continually throw herring out to attract herring gulls, which soon piques the curiosity of the eagles. They have tried to introduce sea eagles to Scotland but I recently read that it is not working as well as hoped because they do not like the amount of rain!
We followed MS Nordkapp back along the Raftsund to the very picturesque and upmarket town of Svolvaer. We got a couple of hours to have a look around before boarding the ship for dinner.
The next day was a day of leisure where I spent most of the time in the panorama lounge reading my book and admiring the awesome views. We passed by the Seven Sisters mountain range and Torghattem, a mountain with a large, naturally formed 100m hole through it.
Along the way we crossed the Arctic Circle. There is a fun little ceremony on the ship to celebrate this and there is a large globe sculpture on the land.
We also stopped at six small port towns for varying amounts of time where passengers can stretch their legs if they wish. That evening we enjoyed a wonderful final dinner.
After dinner we got the surprise we were all hoping for but thought we had missed because we were too far south – the phenomenal Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). I was lucky enough to have gone for a walk outside when I looked up and saw a kaleidoscope of colour dancing across the sky. Slowly more people gathered to witness it. It was a very special feeling and something which I felt very privileged to have witnessed.
The next morning we docked in Trondheim. I did not have time to stay but I am told it is a pleasant and attractive city. I got the train back to Oslo for my return flight.
All-in-all it was a truly awe-inspiring experience and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys spectacular scenery, whatever the season – I definitely want to go in winter at some point.
Hurtigruten ships depart Bergen every day of the year. Through the year it is possible to join a ship travelling either north or south and enjoy either the long summer months and the Midnight Sun, or look to the winter for the Arctic activities and Northern Lights.
In summer, one option is the Classic Norwegian Discovery – an 11-day voyage from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the far north and then back to Trondheim. Prices start from £1686pp from 15 Aug – 14 September including 10 nights full board on the ship. Flights are extra and can be added by Hurtigruten along with a scenic rail journey to Oslo if desired.
A range of optional excursions can be added:
- Sea Eagle Safari – available from 1 April-15 October – from £75pp
- Taste of Vesteralen – available 1 April – 8 September – from £57pp
- Midnight concert in Tromso – available most of the year – from £41pp
- Kayaking in Tromso – available 1 May-31 August – from £129pp
For further details go to www.hurtigruten.co.uk