Day 1 (West Cape & Ålesund): We round the western most point of Norway, which is on the same longitude as Marseille, France. Here we cross one of the many open stretches of sea. Today it is relatively flat and the Expedition staff say we are lucky. "Usually people are leaning over the side at this point," they say. Look how dark it is at 08:30 in the morning.
Ålesund is our long stop for the day (3 hours). Ålesund is a town of approximately 45,000 and is spread over five islands connected by sea tunnels. The ship offers a walking tour to climb the 500 steps to the top of Aksla Mountain behind the city for a spectacular view of the town and surrounds. There is also an optional excursion to an Aquarium but this is cancelled due to lack of interest. We opt for a walk around the town to admire the Art Nouveau architecture. The town was completely destroyed by fire in 1904 and was rebuilt . We find an artist in his gallery and purchase some watercolours. On the dock next to the ship, a local fishing boat from the late 1800's is being restored. We can smell the fresh pine wood as it is worked.
Day 2 (Trondheim): We wake up in Trondheim for a 6 hour stay. Trondheim is Norway's third largest city with 180,000 people and it shows, with large shopping malls containing chain stores such as H&M and McDonalds. We walk the 15 minutes into town and visit Nidaros Cathedral, the world’s northernmost gothic cathedral.
Built from 1070 onwards over the tomb of St. Olav, the Viking king who brought Christianity to Norway and who founded the city in 997, the cathedral was completed around 1300. Olav's approach to converting the Vikings to Christianity was blunt, to say the least. People were baptised - read: had their heads held under water until they converted.
We walk back to the ship via the old town, full of cobblestone streets and wooden buildings. Even at 11:00 in the morning the streets are nearly deserted. The temperature was -10 degrees though.
In the afternoon we pass Kjeungskær Lighthouse, a curious octagonal building on an archipelago of rocks scattered across the fjord mouth. The lighthouse was large enough for a family and a teacher for the children. The only problem was that the children had to be tied to the house with rope to stop them falling into the water.
Day 3 (Bodø): The previous night we were blessed to see the Northern Lights but are still up at 7:00 for the crossing of the Arctic Circle. A sculpture of the globe marks the spot and the previous day we had to guess the exact time we crossed the line. The Navigator was closest (12 seconds off) and so got ice water tipped down the back of his neck as the prize. We also purchase a glass of champagne to celebrate the crossing.
At Bodø (2.5 hours) we take the bus tour to Saltsraumen. Here over 370 million cubic meters of water pass through a 150 meter wide channel every six hours as the tide changes, reaching speeds of up to 22 knots. There is a 1 meter difference in water levels between the fjord and the open sea and this height difference and the volume of water creates maelstroms (whirlpools) where the difference in water height is clearly visible. In some locations the water even flows in the opposite direction to the tide. In the summer time you can ride the maelstrom in rigid inflatable boats but this is not available in the winter. Understandably, as we get snow on the ride to the fjord.
Bodø has the densest population of white-tailed sea eagles in the world and we see one fly out from the undergrowth as we walk down to the waterline. It is a small town with half of the population of 50,000 made up by the nearby military airbase. Apart from the maelstrom, the only other attraction is the glass covered shopping mall. The town is quite modern having being mostly destroyed in WWII, apart from the area surrounding the brewery.
That night we dock in Solvær for an hour and then voyage to the Trollfjord. We are treated to a spectacular display of the Northern Lights as the ship pauses at the head of the fjord and lights up the cliffs which rise sheer out of the water.
Day 4 (Tromsø): On the way to Tromsø the sea is throwing off sea fog due the difference between the temperature of the water and air.
Tromsø is the largest town above the Arctic Circle with a population of over 70,000. During the 19th century, Tromsø became known as the "Paris of the North" and whilst the origin of the nickname is unclear the city still dines out on it. The stop here was 4 hours but we didn't get to see much of the city as we went straight to dog sledding (see http://www.marinus.com.au/blog-1/2016/1/20/who-let-the-dogs-out-husky-sledding-in-tromso-7-january) and the light was already fading even at 14:30. We did see the spectacular tunnels through the mountains, which include roundabouts! The Norwegians know how to do infrastructure. A tour of the city is also available from the boat.
In the evening we are treated to stockfish tasting. Stockfish is unsalted fish, typically cod, dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks on the foreshore of the any village.
The captain tries to break it apart with a hammer, until a local lady exclaims in disgust, takes over and smashes it against the side of a table. It's generally used as a snack (like potato chips) and apparently goes well with beer. It has a unique taste and smell. The Norwegian lady asks the Navigatrix if she likes it. The Navigatrix (who likes fish) has to decline.
Day 5 (Honningsvåg & Kjøllefjord):
In the morning we get a demonstration on how to de-bone a reindeer leg (yum, this will be dinner tonight) and have a taste of reindeer carpaccio.
Honningsvåg lies on the island of Magerøya but still technically part of the European mainland. Hence, Honningsvåg claims to be the most northern town in Europe. The stop here (3.5 hours) is solely for the bus trip to Nordkapp (North Cape) which we decline as the clouds are low and full of snow. Nonetheless, people who did take this tour said it was well worth it and there was enough light to see the monuments at the Cape.
Instead, we walk through the snow to the service station placed exactly on the 71st parallel, stopping to talk to locals clearing snow from their balconies and driveways, as well as dodging the snow ploughs clearing the roads. None of the cars have chains but rather tyres with deeper tread which runs laterally across the tyre as well as longitudinally. It helps that the snow is soft, dry and powdery and the temperature so cold that it doesn't have a chance to form ice.
Kjøllefjord itself is not much of a stop by itself at only 15 minutes. However it's the trip into port which is the highlight. We pass Finnkirka, a rock formation which has special significance to the Sami population as a place of sacrifice. Some smart electronics lights up the formation for when we travel passed (note: it's 4 o'clock in the afternoon!) and the Expedition Team play a recording of Sami music.
Then a local fisherman comes on board to show us King Crab caught in the area. The Russians introduced this species to local waters and as it has no natural predators it is wiping out the sea floor. Despite this, the Russians still control how many are fished annually. The local fisherman has three crabs in his basket which he says will be worth about Kr2400 (about AUD$400).
One of our fellow Australian passengers uses the fisherman's gloves to hold the crab.
"These gloves are so warm," she says. "I'd like to keep them."
"Keep them," says the fisherman. "I have many."
"I was only joking," replies the Australian. "It's just our humour."
The fisherman points to his beanie which displays the Australian coat of arms.
"How did you get an Australian beanie?" we ask.
"A friend on Facebook."
Day 6 (Kirkenes & Vardø): Kirkenes marks the end of the northern leg of the journey and some passengers disembark at this port, many headed for the Snow Hotel. We stop here for 3.5 hours. Other tours operated here include a trip to the Russian border (approx. 20kms away) or dog sledding. We catch the local bus to the Borderland Museum, which has a fascinating display showing the period through WWII and describing the Norwegian resistance and liberation by the Russians in 1944.
The museum also had a description of Sami indigenous culture, their history in this land and an exhibition by John Savio, a famous Sami artist from the early 20th century. We walked the 2km back to the town and caught the bus back to the ship. This is the only port where we saw ice in the water. The Gulfstream does not come passed the North Cape and there is plenty of fresh water (which freezes at higher temperatures) coming into this fjord.
We head back south on the return leg. At Vardø we stop for an hour. Vardø is the easternmost town in Norway and is actually further east than St Petersburg, Kiev & Istanbul. There is a guided tour to the Witch House which commemorates the witch trials from the 1600's. The house is built over the "witch-hole" where the accused were imprisoned. On the way to the Witch House there is a fortress on a site which has been fortified since 1460. It has a small exhibition including an original Enigma machine from WWII.
The other reason to stop at Vardø is the opportunity to have an Arctic swim in water that is 2 degrees. Participants walk a couple of minutes passed the rear of the ship to a small community hall. There they change into swimmers and don neoprene boots to walk the last twenty meters through the snow. At the plunge pool they take lots as to who will go in first as there is only room for a few people at a time. In they go!
Our Dutch friends take the slow approach and choose to walk in. The trick is to take your time, get past the first sucks of breath and then wait for your heartbeat to settle down. They last about 60 seconds in the water before getting out. However, they enjoy it so much they choose to do it again. One unlucky soul has to go in again because his wife didn't get a suitable photo!
Then it's back to the hall for a shower and get back into warm clothes. Even before the shower, the swimmer's blood flow is rushing back to the surface of the skin which makes them look like they have a bad case of sunburn.
"What temperature is it when you do this in the summer?" asks the Navigator.
"We don't do it in the summer," replies the ship's tour operator (who also swam).
"The water is too warm."
Day 7 (Hammerfest & Tromsø): We stop for two hours, which is long enough to do the Polar Bear Museum and sign up for the Polar Bear Club (Isbjørnklubben), which gives you a certificate, a sticker and a beautiful silver and enamel pin. If you can make it to Hammerfest on the third Sunday of January you can attend the annual general meeting. However, you have to attend in person. Elvis Presley was famously denied membership because he wouldn't come to Hammerfest. Take that!
The boat offers organised walking tours but we choose to wander around by ourselves. There is a large hill behind the centre which gives a great view of the surrounding bay (including the LNG plant which provides most of the employment). With more time we would have done this but instead we walk up to the local church and sneak in to the midday service.
After what turned out to be our final display of Northern Lights, we arrive into Tromsø at 23:30 for a tour hour stop. The boat offers a tour to the modern Artic Cathedral for a midnight concert of Grieg, Bach and Norwegian folk music is offered. We decline but many people attend and return with rave reviews.
Day 8 (Harstad, Sortland, Stokmarkenes & Svolvær): We hop off the boat at 08:00 in Harstad for a 4 hour overland bus tour. Unfortunately at this time of the morning it's still pitch dark, so not much can be seen. We stop outside of town at Trondenes Cathedral, the oldest medieval church above the Arctic Circle dating back to the 1300's. We sit in this amazing building and experience a short service as we all say the Lord's Prayer in our own language - Norwegian, German, Afrikaans, Dutch and English. Afterwards we watch the boat sail away from Harstad - a slightly worrying experience.
Across the road is the Trondenes Historical Centre, which traces the history of the region from Sami times to the Vikings and then to the German occupation during WWII. Harstad housed a battery of "Adolf's Cannons" which were originally built for battleships and then repurposed as land cannons. There was also a POW camp for Russian prisoners.
Back on the bus and we drive inland, passing around the edge of fjords and then crossing over via a car ferry. More amazing Norwegian infrastructure: an island of only 200 people gets a bridge costing Kr200 million (about AUD$33 million). The Norwegians know what to do with their oil riches. On the ferry we are served a delicious snack of Brunost (caramelised brown Scandinavian whey cheese) on waffles and mini crepes infused with cinnamon.
On the other side of the fjord we stop at a lake framed within spectacular mountains.
At Sortland we catch up with the boat. The bus driver times his run to make sure we cross the bridge at the same time as the boat passes underneath.
A few hours later we stop at Stockmarknes, which has a hospitality school run by Hurtigruten as well as a museum. Unfortunately even for ship guests it costs Kr80 to get in. Most of the museum can be missed but a visit to the 1955 vintage Finnmarken (up on blocks on the dock) is well worthwhile.
For the Navigatrix it brings back memories of long voyages between Australia and the United Kingdom, with four bunks to a room and the toilets and showers down the hall.
At Svolvær, the boat stops for two hours which is enough time to visit the Lofoten Warmuseum (Kr80). We are too tired after the previous long night and the early start but our fellow travellers returned with excellent reviews.
Day 9 (Brønnøysund): In the morning we cross back over the Arctic Circle. No competition this time but we all get a spoonful of cod liver oil for the privilege.
For some (especially the British passengers) it brought back memories of their childhood. Immediately the landscape changes - the snow doesn't come down to the waterline anymore. It's still cold though... - 8 today, most of which is wind chill from a brisk breeze. The ship heels over to one side as we struggle to dock at Nesna. Later we can't stop at Sandnessjoen and unfortunately one of the crew has to wait until the next port to get off. Hurtigruten will send him back home via train.
Outside of Sandnessjøen, we pass the mountain range "The Seven Sisters". At first, it looks like there are only six but after a few minutes the perspective changes to show the second of the "twins".
Later we stop at Brønnøysund (1.5 hours) and most of us get off to join the Expedition team for a brisk walk around the town. During the Viking era, the town was a nationally powerful chieftain seat and an important commercial centre along the coast. The original inhabitants were wiped out in an outright massacre by a conquering chief in the Norwegian civil wars that raged around the mid 1200's.
Day 10 (Trondheim): We awake again in Trondheim for a 3.5 hour stay. However, due to the early morning start we choose not to get off the boat as all the shops will be closed. About 20 of our remaining passengers disembark the boat here so the remainder of the voyage is an intimate gathering of about 80 passengers.
On the way out of the fjord later that morning we see the sun for the first time in a week. Even with the light during the day, it is still an uplifting experience to actually see the sun. We have a greater appreciation of how the locals manage three months without any sun.
At 16:30 we arrive at Kristiansund for 30 minutes - just enough time to go to the supermarket for chocolate and a softdrink. It's a shame we don't get more time in this port (on the way north we docked at around midnight) because this town of approx. 25,000 people looks really pretty.
Day 11 (Bergen): Last day. We leave the penultimate port of Florø during breakfast, so the whole day is about the last leg into Bergen. We pass through tiny passages and sail amongst expansive archipelagos of low lying islands.
The temperature has finally got above freezing, so all of the ice is melting from the ship. The Expedition team gathers us in the bar and we listen to classical music as we cruise the last stretch into Bergen.
We can't say this enough - we had a fantastic time with Hurtigruten on our voyage. We may well have been lucky with the weather as we didn't get any strong wind and only a couple of rough patches in open sea. Generally these only last a couple of hours at worst. The scenery is spectacular, the Norwegians are incredibly friendly, and there was always plenty of things to do on and off the boat. It was impossible to be bored. We will be back for sure.