On a Hurtigruten winter cruise, Andreas Lundgren reports on a remarkable journey along Norway’s dramatic coast.
“Havørn. Sea eagle.” The speaker announcement on board the Hurtigruten ship Trollfjord practically went in through one of my ears and out the other. Normally, that would not have been the case. Normally, I would have dropped everything else and started to look up toward the sky. I did not, so you could say things weren’t exactly normal.
Just to clarify: I haven’t seen enough of sea eagles. In fact, I’ve still never managed to see one – even though it seemed as if most of the other passengers on board the Trollfjord managed to spot the two majestic (so I was told) birds that circled around our ship for a few minutes. Meanwhile, the ship laid still at the entrance to the Trollfjord (the tight bowl-like fjord that gave the ship its name) in Lofoten, Norway. It was the fjord that made it difficult for me to focus on anything else.
We had travelled through Raftsundet (the Raft Sound) on our way from the town of Stokmarknes to Svolvær, another Norwegian town. As the sun broke through the thick clouds that gathered over the mountains that we set course toward, the play of light was fantastic. Finally, the fog embraced us completely, and the visibility was limited as Trollfjord entered Raftsundet. We were surrounded by mountains on both sides, mountains that were so close that one could easily believe that it would be impossible to navigate a 443 feet long ship in an even narrower passage. But that is possible – at least sometimes.
This time, though, we had to turn back after seeing the entrance of the Trollfjord. There was a risk of snow and stones falling down along the sides of the fjord if our ship had begun the journey. Trollfjord, which is only 230 feet wide at the mouth, is at the heart of one of Norway’s most famous and dramatic landscapes.
Norway is a country that both gives and takes. A country where mother nature in an uncompromising way makes people who live here adjust to her – in the same way that our ship had to turn around and plot a different course. “Here you are,” she seems to say. “I give you high mountains, deep valleys and fantastic views to enjoy. But it is up to you to figure out how to deal with everyday cares.”
A little more than 100 years ago, in 1893, Richard With picked up that challenge by starting Hurtigruten. It could take months for supplies and mail to reach the most remote parts of the country before Hurtigruten was started – especially during winter. This was, of course, what led With to consider the possibility of starting a regular service with steamers along Norway’s serrated coast, which is not always easy to navigate.
Freighters were the ships of the day back then. Trollfjord, which we boarded at the end of February, is something completely different. It is a freighter, but at the same time, it is also a cruise ship that allows passengers to experience the route between Bergen (the southernmost port) and Kirkenes (the northernmost port). Hurtigruten proudly refers to it as “the world’s most beautiful voyage.”
We headed out from the port of Kirkenes on a brilliant winter’s day. It was one of those days when the creaking from the snow under the shoes has such a crisp ring to it that it almost seems as if that sound could fly all the way up to heaven – or, if you are in Kirkenes, at least to the Russian border. Soon after our ship departed Kirkenes, we saw mountains on the starboard side: the Russian Kola Peninsula. It was a very concrete reminder of how far north we had ventured.
Another reminder came after only one hour at sea. “Whales on starboard side,” the captain announced on the ship’s speaker system. His calm voice indicated that it was certainly not the first time he saw whales in these waters. No doubt, he knew what excitement there would be among the passengers. We quickly moved to the ship’s right hand side to get a glimpse of the animals.
Water jets some 300 feet or so from the ship revealed that two whales were making their way into the bay that Trollfjord was just about to leave. Although we did not see so much more than the water jets and a glance of something dark underneath, it felt rather solemn. We had seen a glimpse of animals that most of us only see on TV – thanks to the Norwegian postal service, you might say.
The postal service? Yes, Hurtigruten is basically a travel- and freight route along the Norwegian coast. Cargo and mail is what underpins the business. The Norwegian government pays a yearly subsidy to Hurtigruten for the company to keep up the connection.
“We refer to the ship as “a working ship,” said Hans Ringsby, a Swede who is one of two tour leaders on board the Trollfjord. “Many passengers watch the loading and unloading of the ship, and there are many people who are fascinated by it. Many are very aware of what Hurtigruten is, and actively choose to travel with us. ”
For those who want to see Norway from the sea when clad in snow, there are really no other options. Norway is one of the world’s most popular destinations for cruise ships, but only during the summer. As fall arrives, ships depart, charting their course to warmer destinations. It is really a pity: In many ways, winter adds another dimension to the journey along the Norwegian coast. Amid the snow, ice and the northern lights, Norway shows a different side of herself than during summer.
The lack of competition for passengers from other ships during the winter months has not prevented Hurtigruten from increasing the number of activities for travellers during the cold period of the year. Among other things, spectacular land excursions are offered – primarily on northbound sailings. Examples include snowmobile safaris, dogsled journeys and sea eagle safaris (for those who fail to see sea eagles on their own, one might guess). Traditional bus tours are also available. On our southbound journey, we went on a bus tour that took us from the town of Harstad to Sortland in Lofoten, and were fascinated by the dramatic landscape.
It is not only the land excursion options that make Hurtigruten comparable with international cruise ships. Hurtigruten’s newer ships, in particular, are designed with the intention to compete in all areas: food, service, accommodation and on-board facilities. At the same time Hurtigruten wanted to take advantage of the fact that the journey along the coast is as Norwegian as possibly gets. The outcome can be quite innovative. What about a jacuzzi outdoors, on the upper deck, in 14F? It is offered on board the Trollfjord, which is one of Hurtigruten’s newest ships (built in 2002).
After the bath, passengers staying in one of the ship’s largest suites can head one deck down to get dressed again. Most of the suites are located on deck 8. The two suites at the stern are the biggest: They have private balconies. Some suites are also found aft on deck 7 and on deck 6. Deck 6 also has two suites that offer the same view as the captain, situated forward. Standard cabins are available on decks 4, 6 and 7.
No matter where you stay, everything on board the Trollfjord is close at hand. Compared to most of today’s modern cruise ships, the Trollfjord is a handy vessel, 443 feet long and 69 feet wide. This, of course, has to do with the route that the Hurtigruten ships take, their daily zigzagging keeping a number of Norwegian towns together.
That zigzagging between the various ports sometimes result in fairly short stops. Some of them are only 15 minutes long, so passengers that want to get ashore need to hurry up once the gangway is in place.
For those wanting to add a little speed to their visits ashore, Trollfjord carries three so-called “spark.” Literally translated as “kick,” the vessel is best described as a stool on runners. The “kicks” were highly appreciated by passengers. There was laughter and jokes in German, Dutch, French and English as passengers who had never seen a “kick” before tried to keep a straight course.
It was an interesting mix of passengers on board our cruise in late February. Japanese and American passengers sat side by side with Belgians and Dutch. In the Trollhall lounge at the forward end on decks 8 and 9, Swedish motorhome enthusiasts sat next to German cross country skiers. In the queue to the dining room, German pensioners stood next to middle aged Britons while waiting for the doors to the Norwegian delicacies to open.
It almost goes without saying that much of what is offered on board has a connection to the sea. Halibut, cod in various forms, smoked fish, king crab and – of course – salmon was served practically each lunch. Lunch was buffet style, with a set menu offered for dinner during the evening. Similar to the buffet, the menu was anchored in local tastes and ingredients. As an example, we were served reindeer a couple of times.
There is only one restaurant on board the Trollfjord. Anyone looking for an alternative to the dinner menu is referred to the cafeteria on deck 5. This is where regular passengers buy their food, those who travel with Hurtigruten simply because it offers the easiest way to get from one town to another along the coast.
“If I would have taken the car, my journey would take two days,” a sea captain who had exchanged Royal Caribbean cruise ships for Norwegian freighters said. He was on his way back home, to Trondheim. “The boat trip also takes two days, but now I can take the opportunity to relax,” he said as he placed an empty beer bottle on the table in front of him. Then he turned to an American cruise passenger in order to continue the discussion on the subject of if and why European cars are better than U.S. built cars.
That’s all part of life on board the Hurtigruten ships. With the spectacular nature as a backdrop, people with completely different goals meet in a relaxed environment where the captain at any time can announce “Whales on starboard side” or “Sea eagle” in the speakers.
Upon reflection, I don’t mind too much that I did not get to see any sea eagles last time. Now I have a reason to go again.
Note: this cruise from Kirkenes to Trondheim took place in February 2009