Norwegian Coastal Adventureby Mary Hartman
The Norwegians have a word for it.
Hurtigruten - the "fast route."
This passage, along the Norwegian Coast, also has been dubbed "the world's most beautiful sea voyage."
And, who could disagree? Cruising Norway's coast, from the fjord-indented south to the rocky Arctic coastline of Finnmark in the north, is a treat reserved for those who travel the fast route on one of the "working ships"of the Norwegian Coastal Voyage. This fleet of 11 ships plies the Norway coast year-round, transporting Norwegians, their mail, cars and supplies between towns and villages from Bergen to Kirkenes - just six miles from the Russian border. But locals aren't the only travelers: the Norwegian Coastal Voyage also is a cruise line catering to visitors who want to see the "real" Norway.
With 34 ports on the 12-day round trip, visitors aren't disappointed. Of course, some of the dockings are 20-minute mail stops - some in the middle of the night - but the voyage provides plenty of opportunities to leave the ship, stroll through the port towns and even take optional excursions. Visitors also can choose segments of the trip between Bergen and Kirkenes, cruising one way and flying the other.
A word of advice, however: Norwegian weather can be unpredictable - even in the summer. Those picturesque scenes showing Geiranger Fjord in all its glory beneath cobalt-blue skies might materialize as a cloud-shrouded chasm of gloom. It happened on our sailing aboard the 691-passenger ship, Polarlys, last June. Geiranger resembled pea soup, but the 12-day voyage gave the skies time to clear. Of our dozen days on the ship, three were fogged in to the ground; nine either were partly cloudy or crystal clear -- photo op days!
And, days of wonder as the ship sailed first into deep fjords carved by glaciers eons ago, then floated north past Grandma Moses-type landscapes of family farms and quaint fishing villages. The tiny hamlets crouch in green clearings framed by mountains thrusting to the skies. It's here - everything you imagined the Norwegian Coast could be: Colorful fisherman's huts along the sea. Bright red barns dotting the landscape. Fishing boats plying the waters of the Norwegian Sea. And, to the north, reindeer grazing their summer pastures.
And, there's more. Norway has maintained its traditional landscape, while leading the way in today's high-tech world. Those picturesque villages that appear to be isolated along the coast are joined by a network of roads that link this long narrow country from tip to tip. And, many of the country's islands also are joined to each other and to the mainland by bridges that pirouette over the water in graceful arches and curves -- sort of an engineer's interpretation of the ballet. Cruisers get close-up views as the coastal ships pass beneath many of them.
Those who might nix cruising because they fear seasickness, need not fret. The fjords and the Norwegian coastline aren't the high seas. For most of our trip, the waters were so placid that, at times, we couldn't tell if the ship were moving or docked. Indeed, rising several times in the middle of the night to check out a potential port, we were surprised to find we were at sea.. Rounding the North Cape, headed into the Barents Sea, we experienced modest swells. But, after all, this was the Arctic, wasn't it?
Although promotional material emphasizes the "working" nature of the Coastal ships, these aren't freighters -- not by a long shot. For one thing, the ships' interior are decorated with paintings, weavings and sculptures by Norwegian artists. The art and the warm color schemes within the vessels are a source of Norwegian pride. For another, from the first-class dining room comes culinary offerings befitting any "big cruise ship." Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style; dinner is a four-course affair served family style. Blonde, blue-eyed Norwegians, many of them college students, make up most of the wait staff.
The Coastal Express began more than 100 years ago, in 1891, with the idea of tying the country together with express boat service. The first ships ran between Trondheim in mid-Norway and Hammerfest in the north. The service, with its nine boats, provided a greatly improved communications link for Norway's outposts. Trips to the north that previously had taken three to four weeks overland - five months to Hammerfest during winter - could be completed in just a few days.
Early on, the Norwegians expected tourists would form the basis of the Coastal Express' operations and, today, captain and crew go out of their way to provide foreign travelers with cruise-like experiences. Consider the Polarlys' excursion into the mile-long Trollfjord - a tiny, water-filled ravine squeezed between soaring blocks of granite. During the summer months, when danger of avalanches has passed, this is the creme de la creme experience for travelers on a Coastal cruise.
The entrance to Trollfjord was preceded by plenty of hoopla - one announcement after another over the ship's intercom imploring cruisers to head for the decks. It was 11 p.m. and the Midnight Sun was high in the sky when the Polarlys eased through a 300 feet-wide gap in the towering mountains. There before us lay the diminutive fjord laced with waterfalls and capped with snowy peaks glistening in the nighttime sun. And, surrounding us was a sea of oohs and aaahs and the click of cameras as passengers tried to record the stunning scenery for perpetuity.
Here is one of Mother Nature's crowning achievements, and travelers are one with it, floating on serene waters in another world, compressed into the magnificence of the granite mountains above.
But, what's this - the smell of something down-to-earth from the kitchen? As the ship eases through the opening into the Trollfjord, the chef and his crew wheel out carts laden with what else-"Troll Soup"-a steaming hot minestrone concoction to be sipped from paper cups! (To leave one hand free for cameras, of course - or at least to make the juggling act easier!) The scenery, the soup - a heaven-on-earth combination.
Ah - but more was to come. There in the cool of the fjord, as the delicious broth warmed our bodies and souls, suddenly appeared the trolls. Little tykes and a few bigger ones, gussied up in gunny sacks, pointed noses and painted faces, materialized on deck seemingly from nowhere, chanting, hopping, dancing and singing to the passengers. And, the passengers loved it! Seems this is a tradition - to recruit the younger set on board and to let them star as trolls for a night! The dancing and singing continued as the Polarlys slowly turned, sailed out of the fjord and into the Raftsundet, a 20-mile strait leading to the open sea.
The Trollfjord and the parade of trolls brought to mind a passenger who showed up at the ship's desk as we boarded in Bergen. The woman asked for a schedule of entertainers on board. The hostess kindly told her what the pre-cruise literature already had: "The entertainment on a Coastal Voyage is your fellow passengers and Mother Nature. I think you'll find all the diversion you could hope for." The hostess was right. The ship did feature a piano bar, with nightly dancing. It also included a large panorama lounge, complete with bar, along with an adjacent library. It did not, however, include any big bands or big-name entertainers. After all, for eight of the 12 days, while the ship was above the Arctic Circle, it was daylight all night. Who needs a nightclub in the land of the Midnight Sun?
As the Polarlys eased northward, the scenery changed. South of Bodo, in mid-Norway, the ship crossed the Arctic Circle (66 degrees, 33'). As it did, the mainland mountains diminished in their grandeur, becoming lower and more rounded. Trees became shrubs. It was a harsher landscape and, a harsher climate, especially in winter. But, the entire Norwegian Coast and beyond -- extending as far as Murmask in Russia -- is blessed by the Gulf Stream, a band of warm ocean current that keeps ports ice free throughout the year. This is why the Coastal ships can sail all year - and take cruise passengers, even during the winter. "It's mystical and beautiful in its own way," said members of the ship's crew. "And, winter is the only time you can see the Northern Lights," that luminescent glow in the dark Arctic sky. While the number of cruise passengers diminish as summer wanes, most ships carry some throughout the year, cruise director, Hilde Hagen said, adding that optional excursions continue, too - weather permitting.
A not-to-be missed excursion, whenever it is offered, is the four-hour bus trip through the Lofoten Islands, lying off Norway's coast above the Arctic Circle. With an economy based on fishing, cod in particular, the Lofotens appear as a grandiose oil painting come to life - with massive, craggy mountains catapulting from the seas. Mother Nature went on a real spree here and mankind finished the job. With every turn on the seaside road, diminutive fishing villages pop into view. Bright red cabins, some on stilts, line tiny harbors. Water-weary boats bob in the sea. And fish racks showcase the islands' catch - cod drying rock-hard in the sun. "A week on the racks and it's hard enough to last a lifetime," said Sindra, our very blonde Norwegian tour guide. This is Viking country. We half-expected Eric the Red to stride through the door of the Lofotens' imposing Viking museum, a long, low building complete with grass-covered roof and replete with Viking memorabilia.
Disembarking the ship at Honningsvag on another day, we rode the bus to North Cape, Norway's northernmost point, so fogged in and blustery that, as we left the bus, we shielded our faces from the winds and ran to the North Cape Hall for shelter. There we viewed the magnificent Ivo Caprino wide-screen video about life in the north country throughout the seasons. Leaving the center, we stopped at a contrived Sami Village, where a Sami man (We grew up knowing this ethnic group as Lapplanders.), posed with his reindeer, while the tourists among us paid a dollar or two to have our photo taken with him. A peak around the camp, especially noting the basic living conditions inside a Sami family's tent, and we were back on the bus. We picked up the ship again at Kjollefjord, a tiny outpost in the far north.
Another not-to-be missed outing is the six-mile trip from Kirkenes to the Russian border. Kirkenes is the last stop on the voyage before the ship begins the return trip to Bergen. The tour stopped first at Andersgrotta, a bomb shelter used during World War II. Here 2,500 people hid during the two-month German onslaught of Kirkenes. In this mountain cavern, 10 babies were born before the Russians liberated the area in 1944. This underground shelter is an offshoot of a huge open-cast iron mine which, until recently, was the basis of the Kirkenes' economy. It's closed now, but with talk of an Australian company taking over, the mine may soon again help pump Norwegian krones into the local economy. The outing continued to the Russian border, though visitors can't cross without a visa. The colorful border crossing set within a vibrant green pasture, belies the stern undercurrent just beyond. Our guide told us that, in the birch forest a mile away, begins an electric fence and the first of 1,500 Russian soldiers who guard this part of the Norwegian-Russian boundary. And, the Cold War is over?
Half the Coastal voyage was now behind us. Some passengers have disembarked to fly from Kirkenes to Oslo and points home. We've also picked up new passengers. Leaving Kirkenes, we ease into the open sea with the promise of six more adventure-filled days ahead. The landscape will change again, from the moss-and-lichen-covered rocks of the north to the deep fjords of the south. We will visit historic Trondenes, home of the world's northernmost medieval church. There, passengers can disembark and attend an ecumenical service conducted by the church's deacon. We again will visit the Lofotens and imagine its fishermen - come winter - sailing away from cozy fishing huts into the cold Norwegian Sea to gather cod. We will feast our eyes on Trondheim's Nidaros Cathedral, where Norway's monarchs are crowned. Continuing south, we again we will be in fjord country. Finally, we will dock at Bergen and explore the waterfront with its famous fish market.
Then, we return home. But, memories -- and photos -- have been made. Quickly, we make our albums so we can put our images in place for perpetuity.
And, as we fill our picture books, we remember that the Norwegians dub this trip the "World's Most Beautiful Sea Voyage."
The Norwegians got it right!
If you go....
Several cruise lines offer trips through the Norwegian fjords, but only the Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships provide an "up close and personal" travel experience. That is because these ships serve a dual purpose: to transport Norwegians and their cargo along the coast, as well as to provide a cruise experience for tourists. The ships stop at 34 ports on the round trip, which begins in Bergen and concludes at Kirkenes, six miles from the Russian border. From there, the return trip begins. Thanks to the warmth of the Gulf Current, all the ports remain ice-free in winter and the Norwegian Coastal ships said year-round.
The fleet consists of 11 vessels that carry from 410 to 691 passengers. The traditional ships, M/S Lofoten and M/S Harald Jarl, were built in the 1960s. Though older and smaller, these ships have their followers-travelers who love the warm and personal atmosphere of the older vessels. Mid-generation ships, the Vesteralen, Narvik and Midnatsol, were built in the 1980s and carry 550 passengers. The 1990s saw a spate of ship-building, with six new vessels coming on line. All ships feature viewing lounges and bars, and the newer ships include libraries and gift shops. A small children's play area also is available on the newer ships. Disabled passengers can be accommodated on all but the two traditional ships.
Travelers headed north board the ship at Bergen. They can fly to Bergen via Oslo, or they can take the scenic Oslo-to-Bergen train. They also can fly to Kirkenes in the far north and cruise one-way south to Bergen. Those who wish can choose the 12-day, round-trip cruise, Bergen-to-Bergen.
As with traditional cruise ships, passenger cabins vary in size and location. Meals are very ample and the food is good. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style. Dinner is a set menu often featuring local specialties, including lingonberries, goat cheese, boiled potatoes with parsley, fish and reindeer steak.
To obtain a cruise brochure and to make reservations, contact FriendlyCruises.com. You also can call 480-358-1496.