Land of light
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