Land of light

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

THE ship slices through a murky dark­ness, the sea cast­ing matt-black shad­ows across its path. Above, the sky is vast and low, a broad sweep of char­coal, as if a blunt lead pen­cil has been smudged over the hori­zon. Large, squat rocks, their sur­faces mot­tled with ice, are set like ragged pieces of blot­ting pa­per against the shore­line, mop­ping up the inky depths be­low.

It is 1.30pm in the Arc­tic Cir­cle and the land­scape is al­most en­tirely mono­chrome. In the far dis­tance, there is a reg­u­lar wink­ing of light from an is­land har­bour but oth­er­wise there is noth­ing but end­less dusk, a raw chill of wind and the gen­tle shud­der of the ship’s en­gine.

I am sit­ting in a hot tub on the top deck, sur­vey­ing the in­fi­nite empti­ness and en­joy­ing one of the most sur­real yet de­lec­ta­ble ex­pe­ri­ences it is pos­si­ble to have. I feel like a hu­man baked alaska, a pleas­ant com­bi­na­tion of frothy warmth and ex­treme cold. From the shoul­ders down, I am co­cooned in fizzing heat. But my cheeks are tin­gling with in­cip­i­ent chilblains and my con­tact lenses are freez­ing over so that I can barely blink. It is the most ex­treme hot tub I have been in: lux­u­ri­ous, but suf­fi­ciently part of its en­vi­ron­ment that it is im­pos­si­ble to for­get where you are.

This, in a nutshell, is the Hur­tigruten ex­pe­ri­ence. For 120 years, this Nor­we­gian ship­ping fleet has pro­vided in­valu­able postal and trans­port ser­vices for lo­cals in iso­lated fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties up and down the coast of north­ern Nor­way. More re­cently, the 16 ships have let down their gang­ways to tourists, hence the hot tub, fit­ness cen­tre, buf­fet restau­rant, con­fer­ence rooms, well­stocked cabin mini­bars and the po­lar sauna, built into the side of the ship with views across the wa­ter.

Al­though the peak months for tourism are July and Au­gust, when Nor­way en­joys a mild alpine cli­mate, the com­pany has started of­fer­ing win­ter tours for peo­ple who hope to see the north­ern lights. Pas­sen­gers are warned they will be trav­el­ling on a work­ing ves­sel and are en­cour­aged to em­brace the ship’s in­for­mal ethos.

I think this is what makes Hur­tigruten so spe­cial,’’ says Hild, the in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer on MS Mid­nat­sol. Hild is a phe­nom­e­nally cheery wo­man who looks like one­half of television’s Two Fat Ladies and laughs ri­otously at her own jokes. It is not just a cruise ship, not just a bus ser­vice, not just a cargo ship. In fact, it’s all three, and that’s unique.’’

So there are no dress re­quire­ments, no or­gan­ised samba lessons, no late-night cabaret singers per­form­ing as Ce­line Dion in floor-length se­quins, all of which comes as some­thing of a re­lief. In­stead, you are like­lier to see weather-beaten lo­cals in thick, knit­ted jumpers and fleece-lined anoraks us­ing Hur­tigruten (which trans­lates as ex­press route) to get home. The re­mote vil­lages, scat­tered hig­gledy-pig­gledy on the cusp of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, have come to rely on the fleet for their link to the out­side world, and there is enor­mous fond­ness for the ships as they plough into port 365 days a year, sound­ing their foghorns. Yet de­spite the far-flung na­ture of this part of the world, the Arc­tic seems to have lost some of its im­pen­e­tra­ble mys­tique in re­cent years. It has grad­u­ally opened up as a tourist des­ti­na­tion, with the in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of ice ho­tels and La­p­land Christ­mas pack­age hol­i­days.

Late last year North­ernLights , the first book in Philip Pull­man’s award-win­ning His Dark Ma­te­ri­als tril­ogy, was made into a film, The Golden Com­pass , star­ring Ni­cole Kid­man and Daniel Craig, and it is bound to en­cour­age vis­i­tors in search of the au­then­tic po­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. It tells the story of 12-year-old Lyra, who em­barks on a voy­age to the Arc­tic Cir­cle to res­cue her best friend.

From next month, a Nor­we­gian bud­get air­line will op­er­ate a twice-weekly di­rect flight from Lon­don to Tromso, the pic­turesque city from where the Hur­tigruten ships start their jour­ney north.

The Arc­tic was once one of the least ac­ces­si­ble parts of the world, al­lur­ing pre­cisely be­cause of its dis­tant oth­er­ness. Does it run the risk of be­com­ing a sort of themed win­ter won­der­land? For­tu­nately, af­ter four days on board the ship, my con­cerns melt away like ice caps un­der­neath a hole in the ozone layer. As the ship makes its way up from Tromso to Hon­ningsvag, the north­ern­most town in Europe, we pass the oc­ca­sional tiny set­tle­ment of fewer than 100 in­hab­i­tants, tee­ter­ing on the edge of a windswept rock­face.

Grad­u­ally, out of the gloomy light, I make out a hand­ful of brightly painted clap­board houses, win­dows lit up like Christ­mas lanterns, their wooden jet­ties edg­ing pre­car­i­ously into the icy wa­ters.

On my first night, the wa­ters are rough. The ship pitches dra­mat­i­cally from left to right, send­ing the com­pli­men­tary fruit bas­ket slam­ming to the floor. Above me, chunks of snow slide around the top deck, mak­ing a sound like the slash and jan­gle of a thou­sand shat­ter­ing cham­pagne glasses. The sen­sa­tion is akin to ly­ing in an un­sta­ble ham­mock in a gale-force wind, wob­bling on the edge of a big dip­per roller­coaster, wait­ing for the in­evitable whoosh­ing de­scent.

Next morn­ing, those of us still stand­ing dis­em­bark at Hon­ningsvag and are taken by coach to the North Cape, the north­ern­most point of in­hab­ited Europe and about

Out of the blue: Hur­tigruten’s 16 ships have let down their gang­ways to tourists af­ter pro­vid­ing postal and trans­port ser­vices for iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties for 120 years; ad­di­tions in­clude hot tubs and fit­ness cen­tres but the starkly beau­ti­ful scenery is the same as ever

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