Hurtigruten ("Express Route") is a daily passenger and freight shipping service along Norway's western and northern coast between Bergen and Kirkenes. The locals call it the Coastal Express and Hurtigruten ships sail almost the entire length of the country, completing the round-trip journey in 12 nights.
The line was originally conceived as a transport and communications link to the remote coastal communities of Norway, stopping about every two - three hours. With improved road and air transport in Norway (including some astonishing bridges as well as land and sea tunnels), the role of Hurtigruten has gradually changed to emphasise tourism. However, locals still get on and off to travel between communities and the ships can get quite busy if weather closes the roads. We saw a man get on carrying only a computer bag and a briefcase. Some people also bring their car (there is capacity for 35) or motorcycle on board. The boat takes on the post and offloads small volumes of supplies at every stop.
We board the Nordnorge and listen to a short safety briefing. The briefing includes the worrying site of the thermal waterproof suit, which apparently only buys you about 15 minutes in the water - fingers crossed we do not need to use it. Afterwards we head up to cabin 620. As this is still a working boat, all the loading facilities are on the port side. Cabins on the port side are impacted by noise and lights from the dock, so we have chosen a cabin on the starboard side. Our cabin is officially listed as "obstructed view" but a careful inspection of the deck plans revealed 620 is right in the middle of the two lifeboats so our view is barely obstructed at all.
The standard cabin is small at approx. 13 square meters but functional. It has a single bed on one side and a lounge on the other. The lounge can be turned into a bed and if required the other bed can be folded up against the wall. There is a cupboard with hanging space, two cupboards with shelves and a small desk with a mirror. The bathroom is maybe only 1m x 1.8m with only just more than 1.8m headroom, so space is tight! With a little bit of effort we get everything stored away, however the many layers of thermal dressing is a one-person-at-a-time exercise.
On any of the 6 day voyages either south, north or the full 12 night return journey, the fare is full board. The breakfast buffet is served from 7:00 for the early risers and consists of cereals, yoghurt, hot English style breakfasts of sausage, meatballs, fried and boiled eggs as well as omelettes. There is also the traditional European style breakfast of cold meats, cheeses and many breads which can be toasted. Lunchtime varies between 11:30 and 12:30 depending on the port schedule and is also a buffet of hot food such as soups, stews and roasts as well as cold meats, fish and salads.
Dinner consists of a 3 course set menu, matched to local fare from each of the many regions through which we journey. Provided the chef is informed beforehand, gluten free and allergies are easily accommodated and there are substitutions for vegetarian and diabetic diets. The main course menu varies daily between either fish or meat, including dishes such as reindeer; vodka marinated beef; cod; salmon, char and king crab. The food is as fresh as fresh can be (generally brought on board each day) and is delicious. The only complaint is that tea and coffee is not available after dinner and must be purchased at the cafe or bar.
The voyage consists of 33 stops in each direction. In general, towns we visit at night going north we visit during the day (or what consists of a day) on the return south. At most ports the stop is anywhere from 15 - 30 minutes and once a day the boat will stop for 2 - 3 hours.
In the ports with the longer stopovers, shore expeditions are organised by the delightful tour operators on board. They also conduct 'point of interest' briefings at various times during the day, as well as host a nightly gathering to discuss the events of the day, what's on for tomorrow and most importantly the weather and aurora forecast.
On the return leg from Kirkenes to Bergen we upgrade to a suite. If available, these can be picked up at the last minute for about half the list price. We move just down the hall to cabin 610 which is nearly twice the size. The extra space is given over to a double bed, fixed lounge and two easy chairs, a larger desk, TV, sound system, fridge and tea and coffee making facilities . The bathroom and storage space is unchanged, although bathrobes and toiletries are supplied.
The Nordnorge was built in 1997 and is elegantly appointed with varnished wood, brass and carpet. The lounge, bar and cafe areas have soft leather easy chairs. There is also a laundry for travellers to do their own washing (Kr30 per token). Beautiful Norwegian art hangs in all of the public areas, including paintings, tapestries, charcoal drawings as well as plans of the previous Nordnorge ships. Occasionally we docked at port alongside other Hurtigruten boats, some of which have pools and hot tubs. Fellow travellers went on board for a look and came back universally agreeing we had the better ship.
The combination of the new cabin and the different ports make the southward leg feel like a different journey. We are blessed by the weather for the entire trip, with only two stages impacted by rough seas for only a few hours at a time. The Navigator (despite his moniker) can get seasick in a bathtub but is able to manage the voyage without problem. About half of the voyage is between the archipelago islands of Lofoton, Vesteralen and across the top of the North Cape, so the going only gets rough out in open seas as we cross the mouths of fjords. We get soft, powdery snow on four nights and above the Arctic Circle this stays on all external surfaces. It is not until we approach Bergen on the last day that the temperature warms up enough to melt away the snow.
The staff on board were very friendly and extraordinarily helpful. All announcements are in Norwegian, English and German and many of the staff also speak Dutch, French and Spanish. The restaurant staff were attentive without being obtrusive and the lovely Sigrun in the bar was a wealth of information about things to do in the ports and Norway in general. At one point Sigrun even offered the Navigatrix the use of her hairdryer, which was going far above the call of duty.
Our fellow passengers included five other groups of Australians (we thought we would be the only ones on board), Dutch, German, British, Norwegian, South African and American travellers. We started the journey with about 150 passengers. About 50 got off in Kirkenes and were replaced by another 20 but other people got off in Tromso & Trondheim, so for the last few days we had about 80 people on board. On a ship capable of nearly 600 passengers this meant the boat was almost deserted and certainly contributed to the attentive service from the staff. Of course there were itinerant travellers getting on and off at most ports. We chatted to one Norwegian family on their way to Tromso for a two week hospital visit for their son who was the youngest of eleven. Norway's health system pays for all travel costs if the treatment cannot be provided at or in a timely manner close to home.
A bit of snooping on our part revealed the lack of passengers is normal for the week or two after New Year, so if you are looking to chase the Northern Lights this is the best time to do it. We are keen to come back on do the voyage in the warmer months and were advised April, May or September are the best times - cheaper, not as busy, plenty of light but still some snow on the ground above the Arctic Circle to enhance the experience.
All in all we had a fantastic time on the M.S. Nordnorge and highly recommend it to anyone. Yes, it is not as cost effective and has less bells & whistles as other cruises. Amongst other things a 25% VAT in Norway contributes to the high prices. Drinks are expensive (AUD$10 for the cheapest beer) as is tea and coffee (AUD$4 - $5 per cup). We asked for tap water at lunch and dinner which was gladly provided.
Despite the lack of light there was plenty to do. Some people chose to read books but we found there was plenty look at outside the windows from about 11:00 - 15:00. The Expedition staff also held plenty of lectures, discussions and briefings to help pass the time. We also made sure to get off the boat when we could, even if it was just to walk to the local supermarket for chocolate. Internet is plentiful and only drops out in narrow passages or on the open sea, although Skype refused to work and large uploads and downloads are problematic.
Make sure you're prepared with the right clothes and then the Arctic weather it is not a problem, even for the Navigatrix who gets cold easily. At a minimum you need a thermal base layer, merino wool mid layers, outer layers with minimum 80% down insulation, balaclava, scarf, beanie, gloves, snow boots and ice spikes. Don't forget hand and foot warmers!
Some (clearly unprepared) people complained it was "too cold"; the lack of choice at dinner time; "penny pinching" by charging for champagne when we crossed the Arctic Circle; and the tours being disorganised (they weren't). Some people just need to complain about something.
Our only complaint was the refillable coffee cup advertised on the website was withdrawn on 1 January for a card system (buy 5 get 1 free). Also, the Hurtigruten museum charged Kr80 for entry - previously it had been free for ship guests. Even the ship staff did not know about that one. However, these are trivial issues in the grand scheme of things.
We will do this journey again in the warmer months and can not wait to start planning it.