By Penny Cole
Travelling with Hurtigruten along the coast of Norway is a magical way to go in search of the Northern Lights, says Penny Cole.
Up in the wilderness of Northern Norway, getting about is a challenge that the hardy folk who inhabit this spectacular land have been facing for thousands of years. However, there is one method of transport that takes you in comfort between historic cities, towns and remote hamlets, along an ever-changing panorama of dramatic scenery. Not only that, but I found that it provides a splendid platform for viewing the Northern Lights.
I am, of course, talking about Hurtigruten, the shipping line that has been sailing up and down the coast of Norway for well over 100 years. Part of the joy of travelling on one of its daily services is that the line still serves its original purpose of carrying cargo, mail and local passengers between isolated settlements, so I felt it offered a real taste of community life in the far north of Europe.
Yet Hurtigruten’s modern ships have all the facilities that turn a journey into a relaxing cruise, with cosy cabins, panoramic viewing lounges, plush bars and ﬁne dining.
Being offshore for much of the time, Hurtigruten ships are away from light pollution – not that this is a signiﬁcant problem in the lightly populated wilds of Northern Norway. This means there are darker skies against which the full glory of the Northern Lights can be seen, as well as millions of stars.
Hurtigruten offers a number of options for those in search of the Aurora Borealis. The most popular, which makes an outstanding short break in winter and the one I chose, is Arctic Highlights. After a ﬂight to Tromsø, I boarded the ship in late afternoon and sailed to Kirkenes, near the Russian border, and back – that’s right around the roof of Europe.
Three nights on board plus a ﬁnal night in a good-quality hotel in Tromsø allows plenty of time for sightseeing and activities and, as the whole trip takes you high above the Arctic Circle, the chances of seeing the Northern Lights are excellent.
On my voyage, there was an especially powerful display one evening when a small plume on the far horizon gradually developed into a series of greeny-white “explosions” that reached right over the ship. On another evening, the glittering band of the Milky Way could be clearly observed. An extra night in Tromsø at the end of the cruise is an option for those who wish to see more of this very likeable town, or try some different Arctic experiences.
Or, if you’d like a slightly longer voyage, The Arctic Wonders covers the full route from Bergen to Kirkenes, visiting 34 ports over six nights, followed by an unforgettable night in the Snow Hotel at Kirkenes before ﬂying home.
HIGHLIGHTS AND ACTIVITIES
At each port you can expect something different. Explore the smaller ones on foot or stay on board and watch as goods and passengers leave and join.You may wish to join one or more of the many excursions offered by Hurtigruten, ensuring that you get to experience the life, culture and landscape of this spectacular coastline.
Tromsø, the start and ﬁnish point of the shortest voyage, is not only a lovely town in a majestic setting but is well geared up for activities such as dog- and reindeer-sledding and visiting a lavvu (tent) to meet indigenous Sámi people.
Hammerfest bills itself as one of the world’s most northerly towns and boasts its own Unesco Heritage Site, the Meridian Column, commemorating the ﬁrst measurement of Earth.
For many, an excursion to the North Cape will be a major highlight, not just of this voyage but of any holiday. From Honningsvåg, I joined a coach for a mesmerising journey along icy waterways and across snowﬁelds, partly behind a snowplough, to reach the top of the continent. The North Cape is the most northerly accessible point in mainland Europe (although this piece of land, Magerøya, is actually an island).
A well-regarded visitor centre added to my feeling of exhilaration of standing at the edge of the ﬂinty, sheer 1,000ft cliffs.
A stop of several hours in Kirkenes opened up a number of options. I took the opportunity to go dog-sledding on a frozen lake, adjacent to which are a little reindeer park and the Snow Hotel, which can be visited even if you’re not staying there. Alternatively, there are some exciting excursions to the Russian border and snowmobile safaris.
As your ship approaches Finnkirka, make sure you’re looking ahead asthis impressive rock formation – sacred to the Sámi people – sparkles with colourful lights. Another snowmobile trip is available on the return voyage, this time a true adventure across the mountains from Mehamn to Kjøllefjord, always with one eye on the sky for the Northern Lights.
Hurtigruten recommends that you book excursions before you travel as this gives you the chance to secure a place on the most popular land tours – only places remaining are sold on board, limiting your choice.
If you’re keen to learn more about the Aurora and astronomy, Hurtigruten offers special themed astronomy voyages. On selected sailings, Dr John Mason MBE and Ian Ridpath, Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, will be on board to present a series of fascinating lectures on the Northern Lights and the night sky in general.
Dr Mason is principal lecturer at the South Downs Planetarium in Chichester and has appeared many times with Sir Patrick Moore on BBC’s The Sky at Night. Ian Ridpath, formerly of the University of London Observatory, is a proliﬁc author of astronomy books and regularly broadcasts on the subject.
Through a series of lectures and a guided tour of the night sky from the deck of the ship, your lecturer will bring stars, planets and meteors closer while also exploring the myths and legends linked to the constellations.
The Astronomical Voyage is available in October 2012 and January, March, September and November 2013; see www.hurtigruten.co.uk for details.
LIFE ON BOARD
Much of your time on a Hurtigruten voyage may be spent in the warmth of the panoramic lounge, watching the beguiling landscapes drift past – or better still, follow my lead, wrap up in coat and hat and stay out on deck in he crisp, clean air. During the short daylight hours from November to March, the low sun plays tricks on the scenery, sometimes illuminating the snowﬁelds with a golden hue and gradually fading into a long twilight when everything becomes bathed in a ghostly blue glow.
Normally, the ship’s crew will alert passengers to any Northern Lights activity, so you need not worry about missing nature’s light show if you are enjoying dinner or reading a book in your cabin. I remember rapidly ﬁnishing my dessert to dash outside to grab a grandstand view when an announcement came over the loudspeaker.
Now and again, guests are introduced to an aspect of Norwegian culture. The captain often gives a talk about the way of life along the Norwegian coast.A crew member may give a demonstration of sailors’ knot-tying.
On my voyage, a local ﬁsherman brought aboard some of the giant king crabs that lurk in these waters – a great photo opportunity – and I also got to try the chewy dried ﬁsh that’s a favourite snack in these parts, along with a special energy coffee drink.
On-board amenities vary according to the ship but there’s always a beautifully decorated main dining room. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style, while the three-course set menu dinner is served at your table; I sampled delights such as aquavit-cured reindeer, Arctic char with asparagus and blueberry parfait. And the night before reaching Kirkenes we were treated to a magniﬁcent seafood banquet.
A friendly café serving hot soup and snacks, a small gift shop, library, at least one bar and a hot-tub or two are other features, while one of the newer ships even has a swimming pool. There’s plenty of comfortable seating, a daily bulletin board and a help desk at which you can book excursions or ask any advice about the ship or the places you are visiting.
As a way of seeing some of the most alluring sights, trying a few exciting activities and experiencing the local culture and ﬂavours of Northern Norway, Hurtigruten is hugely appealing. Add the prospect of a great view of the Northern Lights and the voyage becomes quite irresistible.
For further information contact CruiseExpertBob – (888) 278-7776 or CruiseExpertBob@gmail.com