Cold com­fort way up north

The ships of the Hur­tigruten line link the most re­mote parts of Nor­way

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - PAUL CLEARY

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

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