Cold comfort way up north
The ships of the Hurtigruten line link the most remote parts of Norway
IT is the northern summer and I’m travelling to a long-cherished destination, Norway’s Lofoten Islands, which reach into the cod-spawning waters of the Norwegian Sea like a series of historical footnotes frozen in time.
The seven islands retain centuries of cod-fishing tradition and while Norway has more recently embraced its North Sea oil wealth with some enthusiasm, the pristine waters west of these islands are off limits to exploration rigs.
Located above the 67th parallel, the chain of islands now joined by bridges provides a perfect venue for viewing the midnight sun during the summer months.
I first read about the Lofotens while researching a World War II history about Australian commandos. As it happened, the British officer who trained our men, Freddie Spencer Chapman, was involved in a daring March 1941 raid by Allied special forces on these Nazi-occupied islands. Lofoten islanders still remember the Nazi occupation, as evidenced by a privately run museum in Svolvaer, the largest town. It boasts a confronting collection of Nazi uniforms, including a full-length leather jacket with SS badges.
While distracted by the history and natural beauty of this place, however, I drop myguard when it comes to paying attention to the local ferry timetable.
My hope of catching a Sunday afternoon ferry back to the mainland to meet a flight to a conference evaporates when I meet a more seasoned traveller, Melbourne-based engineer Ashein Abeysekara, who has just come from where I am heading.
He tells me there’s no such ferry the following day, a Sunday afternoon, and that if I continue south I am destined to become completely stranded in one of the most remote parts of Norway.
After some quick online checking at a cafe, we work out that my only option for getting to the mainland on time is to hop aboard a 120-year-old coastal cruise service, the Hurtigruten, which means express route in Norwegian.
So, quite by chance, I find myself on board a medium-sized cruise ship, MS Midnatsol ( midnight sun), which is part of a service that departs daily from 34 coastal centres to sail along the jagged Norwegian coastline.
It’s a comfortable and stylish vessel that carries a maximum of 1000 passengers. It looks and feels like a classic cruise ship, although one that is not too cavernous and unfriendly.
Established in 1893 by government decree to improve communication for the remote north, the Hurtigruten has survived and expanded, despite the advent of air travel, to become a unique form of cruising. Passengers can take a seven- night cruise in one go or stop off along the way.
The cruise is so flexible that I don’t have to book online — I turn up at the ship’s reception desk and buy a ticket for the overnight cruise.
Abeysekara, who rates Norway as perhaps the most beautiful part of the world he has seen on his year-long trip, tells me, ‘ ‘ It’s fundamentally a hop on, hop off cruise ship that stops at each town twice a day — once in each direction — allowing for a completely flexible route. A lot of the stops are not very well connected by other means of transport so this quite often works out to be the best way for making the journey.’’
Taking the standard seven-day cruise from Bergen in the south to the extreme northern destination of Kirkenes, latitude 70 degrees, works out at about $400-$500 a person a night for a small ensuite cabin with all meals included. When the cost of getting to these remote places by other means is considered, the cruise becomes a very reasonable means of getting around Norway.
All but two of the 11 ships in the Hurtigruten fleet are modern and wellappointed vessels built in the 1990s and 2000s. I am hooked after my overnight voyage from Lofoten and ready for a second go.
The next cruise, however, is on one of the older ships, MS Vesterlen, which is in need of a refit as it approaches its 30th birthday. The design, however, offers spectacular 360-degree views from a glasshouse bar on the top deck.
The oldest ship in the fleet, MS Lofoten, which will celebrate its 50th birthday next year, was refurbished and refitted in 2003, though most of the original style and atmosphere are preserved. A key design feature of most of these ships is open-air hot tubs on the top deck so passengers can sit comfortably outdoors in sub-zero temperatures while towering icebergs pass by.
Another addition to the fleet, which is separate to the Hurtigruten service, is MS Fram, designed specifically for sailing in polar waters and with most of the 318 passengers accommodated in cabins.
While the service may seem like a vestige of a bygone era of cruising, what’s even more remarkable about the Hurtigruten is that it remains a profitable service operated by a listed company. Paul Cleary was a guest of the government of Norway.
MS Midnatsol operates as a hop-on, hop-off service along the mountainous Norwegian coast