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Northern Lights cruise

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31 December 2009 by Scott Anderson

Hurtigruten operates a fleet of 14 vessels that ply the coast of Norway. They offer daily departures from Bergen to Kirkenes, calling at 34 ports of call along the way.

They are vital to the Norwegians as many villages are only accessible by water, and these ships bring food, goods, cars and provisions to the tiny hamlets and towns along the rugged coast.

Scott Anderson travelled up the coast of Norway on Hurtigrten’s MS Kong Harold on their "Taste of the Arctic" itinerary. He was invited as part of ACE, the Association of Cruise Experts, and the groups’ hosts were Adele Foster from ACE, while representing Hurtigruten was Maxine Dunsdon and Neil Barclay. They travelled for four days from 24 March 2009.

Norway cruise - Day 1
Norway cruise - Day 2
Norway cruise - Day 3
Norway cruise - Day 4
Norway cruise - Summary

Day 1

We flew with SAS from Heathrow after experiencing the SAS lounge, which was very comfortable and had a good selection of food and drinks, as well as business areas. We flew to Oslo and after collecting our bags caught a domestic flight to Tromso - the plane landed on a snowy runway with no problems and we were met and transferred to a waterside hotel. The hotel had a storage room prepared where we could leave our luggage and also provided lunch. After that we ventured out into Tromso for a bit of exploration in the snow - some of it was four or five feet deep in places, however the town was obviously used to this and functioned perfectly well.

At 6pm we joined the group and were transferred to Villmarksenter for our dog sledding experience, and hopefully we would see the Aurora Borealis too. As we pulled in, the sound of the baying dogs filled the crepuscular sky - they were as excited to see us as to get sledding! They were kept in small doghouses, each with their name on and a small hole for them to climb into. There must have been nearly 100 husky dogs in all!

We were shown to the changing room where we were given snow gear (like a big adult-sized thermal romper suit!) that we put on over our own coats, and thick snow boots were also provided to complete the look. It was very, very cold - seriously cold, my feet hurt they were so cold! Tip: Wrap up very warm and take extra socks to keep your feet toasty!

Whilst we were getting changed the mushers had prepared the sleds and they were waiting for us. Twelve dogs, with the lead dog steering the whole pack, pulled each sled. The sled was small, and had room for two people, with the musher standing on the back to shout commands at the back and to balance the sled as it sped over the snow. The daylight was fading to a deep blue when we set off, but the dogs were eager to get going and yelping in anticipation of the trip. The brake was released and we were off with a surge of speed as the sled slid easily over the snow. It was a great experience to have these 12 huskies pulling you along, with the musher at the back keeping them in check. We got a fair speed going and the wind in your face was pretty cold - we were very glad we had the thermal snowsuits on! The dogs got a good speed going, and it can get a bit bumpy on the 40-minute ride, but well worth it.
Tip: The dogs can sometimes cock a leg while on the run - so keep covered in a blanket if you are sitting in the front (or sit in the back!)

We returned to the camp and got off the sleds and were given plenty of time to pet and thank the dogs for all their hard work. These animals are in tiptop condition and genuinely love to pull the sleds. The best dogs are trained up for the Iditarod race - a gruelling 1,150km race from Anchorage to Nome on the Western Bering Sea. Puppies are also raised on the camp, and we were allowed to enter the puppy pen to play with the husky pups and have a cuddle or two with them - they were absolutely adorable and a great photo opportunity.

It was dark now and very cold so it was off to the lavvo (imagine a tepee shaped tent but built from wood with an open top to let smoke out) where the staff had prepared a welcoming wood fire. Seating was provided around the edge of the lavvo and our group of 25 had plenty of space, warming our feet on the roaring fire. Here a local soup was served, along with dinner, which was reindeer stew - delicious and hearty with chunks of meat in a clear broth along with vegetables. Tip: If you don’t fancy eating Rudolph, ask the staff for a veggie meal and you will get a nice rice and vegetable stew.

After dinner it was a chance for us to ask the staff about their life on the camp and of course learn about the dogs, the races and the Aurora Borealis. When the Aurora Borealis appear the dogs start howling and it was not too long before we heard a chorus of dogs, so we rushed outside, cameras in hand. Looking into the night sky we were lucky enough to see the green aurora start to appear - it looked like a green shape-shifting cloud in the night sky, growing in colour density then fading away. We were lucky to see them, as it depends on the cloud cover and also if there are enough solar flares permeating the atmosphere for them to appear. It was an amazing phenomenon to witness and the memory will stay with me forever. Tip: I had my tripod handy for photos and would recommend one, as this is the best way to capture the aurora. If you have a compact camera set it to Fireworks Mode and you should be able to capture some of the colours.

Returning to Tromso we boarded the Hurtigruten ship MS Kong Harald just after midnight and headed to our cabins for a much needed sleep!

Day 2

Breakfast is served in the restaurant and is buffet style with a good choice of cold fish (of course), cereals and even a cooked breakfast consisting of fried or boiled eggs, local sausage, bacon, potatoes and other Norwegian treats. After our breakfast we disembarked in Harstad for our "Taste of Vesteralen" tour. As we left on the coach, the ship left port - we would meet up with her again later.

Our tour took us briefly through the streets of Harstad before arriving at the Trondeneshalvoya peninsula and a visit to the white medieval church, Trondenes Kirke, which, as well as housing some of Norway’s finest art treasures, is also a premier cultural heritage sight dating from the middle ages. There was also opportunity to enjoy the Trondenes Historical Centre depicting local history from the Middle Ages through to present day.

After our stop here, it was back on the coach for our journey across Hinnoya Island, passing wonderful scenery, including beautiful fjords, steep mountains and frozen lakes. The scenery was really breath taking, with majestic snowy mountains rising up high, outlined against a crisp blue sky - we were really lucky with the weather and the sun reflecting of the snow was a wondrous site. Arriving at Gullesfjord we boarded a ferry to cross the water to Sortland. Tea, coffee and snacks are provided for the short trip across the fjord. Tip: Do try the Brown Cheese - although it sounds un-appetising, it was sweet and delicious on the waffles!

Arriving on Sortland we headed to the port, and crossed the main bridge just as our ship was passing beneath us! Much waving and the captain even sounded the horn as we passed over the ship!

Then it was back to the dock to board the ship and head to the restaurant for lunch.
At about 2pm we arrived in Stokmarknes for a short one hour call. There is a fascinating museum here that is free to Hurtigruten passengers and, attached to the museum, is the old Finnmarken ship, raised out of the water and left as a homage exactly as she was. Built in the 1950s and in service until 1993, it was a bit creepy walking around her dark corridors and peering in her small cabins. Its like visiting the Marie Celeste as there are charts and crew ephemera scattered about as if they had just left - a fascinating time-warp trip that makes you appreciate the luxuries of modern cruises. Tip: As you only have an hour here, skip the museum and head straight for the old ship, you wont be disappointed.

Back onboard and after setting sail, we cruised the scenic Raftsundes before arriving in Svolvaer. Here, there is an Ice Bar - a huge refrigerated room with statues and the bar, including the glasses, all carved from ice. The town is very quant with lit streets and statues - and there was time for exploring before the ship left at 8pm, while serving dinner.

Evening meals are served course by course and the food was delicious - we had a rolled cod in a sauce dish that was excellent! During the crossing to Bodo, the ship crosses an open stretch of water that is notoriously rough - we hit it at about 10pm and it didn’t subside until about half past midnight. Tip: get to a mid ship area or take your seasick pills as it pitches and rolls quite a bit!

Day 3

This morning we had seminars from SAS, ACE and Hurtigruten, along with a bridge visit. There was just time for a quick visit in Sandnessjoen before a buffet lunch was served.

In the afternoon we stopped at Bronnoysund for 45 minutes to take on new passengers and the post and then we were off again to Rorvik for an hour’s stop.

Day 4

We disembarked after breakfast for our Trondheim city tour and then went to the airport for our flight to Oslo and back to the UK

Summary

We travelled on MS Kong Harald, an older ship in the Hurtigruten fleet, however the basic cabins were a good size, the showers hot and beds comfy and warm.

The various public rooms were decorated in a modern style and looked like they had recently been re-furbished to a high standard - in fact they would not look out of place on a modern cruise ship.

Food was actually very good and I was pleasantly surprised - buffet for breakfast and lunch and a served three-course meal in the evening. Lots of fish, of course. The ship was very clean and anti-bacteria hand gel was available outside all dining areas and at the gangway. Onboard drinks were expensive - this is Norway after all.

Evening entertainment during the winter consists of a Bulgarian duo performing on stage - singing songs you think you recognise but where something has been lost in translation.

However, you are not on this trip for the luxuries and pampering of a cruise ship, this is a working vessel that is in fact very comfortable, and is the perfect way to enjoy the stunning scenery of the Norwegian Coast, visiting ports of call that no cruise ship has ever called at.

Wexas recommend it for adventurous people who want a trip-of-a-lifetime to see the Northern Lights and to experience the coast of Norway. It does get very cold if you opt for the dog sledding or like to spend time out on deck, so wrap up warm. However the ships do have observation lounges if you prefer to stay inside. It’s not suitable for people who like to spend the evening drinking, as the bar prices are very steep, or if you want the glamour, amenities and sophistication of a cruise ship. Apart from that it is suitable for all ages - but there is plenty of snow about!

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