A toast to the coast

Rugged and ro­man­tic cruis­ing along Nor­way’s scenic edge

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - ANNE FUS­SELL

De­spite the late­ness, the sud­den an­nounce­ment causes a frenzy of ac­tiv­ity. “The cap­tain has no­ti­fied us that the north­ern lights are vis­i­ble to the rear of the ship.”

Within min­utes it seems ev­ery pas­sen­ger on Hur­tigruten’s MS Nord­kapp has ap­peared on deck in var­i­ous stages of cold-weather readi­ness. There is scarcely any con­ver­sa­tion. Even the fren­zied click of cam­eras quickly abates. The ethereal green swirls that dance across the clear inky sky are en­tranc­ing. Our voy­age up the Nor­we­gian coast has promised myr­iad nat­u­ral trea­sures and has al­ready paid off.

We are cruise neo­phytes wary of set­ting out aboard the equiv­a­lent of a gi­ant float­ing city. A friend sug­gested Hur­tigruten (it trans­lates as “fast route”), a line that has made its name trans­port­ing pas­sen­gers and cargo, in­clud­ing mail, along the nooks and cran­nies of Nor­way’s coast­line. Most of its fleet carry a rel­a­tively small num­ber of pas­sen­gers; MS Nord­kapp can ac­com­mo­date 622, but there are just over half that num­ber on board our voy­age, with the pre­dom­i­nantly Euro­pean pas­sen­gers oc­cu­py­ing cab­ins solo. The ship has a re­strained ap­proach to on­board en­ter­tain­ment and has the abil­ity to take you up close to breath­tak­ing scenery.

We join the ship at Ber­gen, Nor­way’s sec­ond city, af­ter a spec­tac­u­lar seven-hour train ride from Oslo. Ber­gen is a charmer most fa­mous for Bryggen, a UNESCO World Her­itage site of colour­fully painted wooden Hanseatic build­ings on the quay side. It’s easy to am­ble around and we have man­aged to see the unique pen and ink version of Ed­vard Munch’s The Scream at the im­pres­sive KODE mu­seum as well as lunch at the wa­ter-edge fish mar­ket.

MS Nord­kapp calls in at more than 30 coastal towns, the ma­jor­ity within the Arc­tic Cir­cle, and some­times as many as eight in a day. We sleep through sev­eral dur­ing brief mid­dle-of-the-night dock­ings. But each day there are a num­ber of ma­jor stops with on­shore ex­cur­sions, which vary ac­cord­ing to the sea­son. A few pas­sen­gers seem never to move from the com­fort of the ex­pan­sive ob­ser­va­tion lounge, but we have signed up for pretty much ev­ery­thing.

On our first full day af­ter cross­ing the Stadthavet, one of many stretches of sea, we sail into the Hjorund­fjord, 33km long, and moor at the tiny town of Urke. We think it could not get more beau­ti­ful. In the af­ter­noon, we dock in the cen­tre of pretty lit­tle Ale­sund and wan­der past colour­ful wooden canal ware­houses and el­e­gant artnou­veau build­ings. Next morn­ing, by the time we have fin­ished break­fast, we are ar­riv­ing in Trond­heim, Nor­way’s third-largest city, founded more than 1100 years ago by the Vik­ing king Olav Tryg­gva­son. We have a morn­ing to ex­plore, and the stand­out is its mighty goth­ic­style cathe­dral.

Two hours af­ter leav­ing, we pass Kje­ungsk­jaer Fyr, the eye-catching oc­tag­o­nal light­house that is switched off as the Mid­night Sun takes over il­lu­mi­na­tion du­ties, and marvel as we pass through the nar­row Stokksun­det with its curious 90-de­gree bend. In Bodo, we go on a sea sa­fari, decked out like a spe­cial-ops team, and ride full pelt to the Salt­strau­men, a nar­row chan­nel link­ing the Salt­fjor­den and Sk­jer­stad­fjor­den, which has the strong­est tidal cur­rent in the world. Even on the calmest of days it looks black and me­nac­ing. On the way back we are buzzed by a sea ea­gle then see half a dozen more, silent sen­tries watch­ing from clifftops. In the evening, we join a fam­ily of Vik­ings for din­ner, end­ing with a singsong rather than a raid­ing party. History didn’t used to be this much fun.

Some sights are part of mod­ern Nor­way, such as the Arc­tic Cathe­dral in Tromso, its shape re­flect­ing the frames used to dry fish, and reg­u­larly used for con­certs. Tron­denes Church, the north­ern­most me­dieval build­ing that dom­i­nates the windswept promon­tory at Harstad, ex­ists be­tween the old and the new. Solid and un­adorned, it is a still-func­tion­ing fortress for God, but for many years it was also an im­por­tant place of re­sis­tance against Rus­sian in­vaders. In­side it is peace­ful and exquisitely dec­o­rated, with three beau­ti­ful trip­ty­chs to the Vir­gin Mary.

We break­fast at North Cape, the north­ern­most point in Europe, shrouded in a dense fog that some­how makes it more dra­matic than if we could see the abyss be­yond. Then we re­turn to the ship past herds of rein­deer, which spend the sum­mer months in the north be­fore the still­no­madic Sami fam­i­lies move with them down to the (slightly) warmer pas­tures for the win­ter.

This is not a voy­age where on­board en­ter­tain­ment is nec­es­sary or wanted. Star­ing at the scenery is vir­tu­ally a full-time job: the sub­tle dif­fer­ences in the way the wa­ter moves; the seem­ingly un­end­ing pal­ette of colours that makes up the sun­rises and sun­sets; the patch­work con­gre­ga­tions of wooden houses; the con­stel­la­tion of is­lands that forms the ar­chi­pel­a­gos we si­lently weave through. We marvel at how even the most rugged moun­tain­side or in­hos­pitable out­crop has a lone cot­tage.

We visit places that are part of leg­end, such as Trollfjord in the Lo­foten Is­lands, a dead-end in­let where in 1890 a fierce bat­tle be­tween ri­val fish­er­men was fought. The tow­er­ing, sheer cliffs feel close enough to touch, but the cap­tain still man­ages to take MS Nord­kapp into an im­mac­u­late 180-de­gree turn. Then there’s Kirkenes, a tiny vil­lage just a few kilo­me­tres from the Pasvikelva River, which marks the border with Rus­sia. We drive quad-bikes through forests that are decked out in a jew­eller’s dis­play of yel­lows and or­ange to the chain­link fence that marks the border with Rus­sia. Quiet now, but in World War II it was a bat­tle front­line, with only 13 houses sur­viv­ing.

Af­ter Kirkenes, MS Nord­kapp turns around and heads south again, al­ter­nat­ing its sched­ule of stops to al­low for ex­plo­ration of towns missed out when head­ing north. The pas­sen­gers are con­stantly chang­ing, mix­ing and match­ing the length of travel that best suits. A few dis­em­bark at Kirkenes and head for Rus­sia. More get off at Trond­heim for an ex­tra day in this im­pres­sive city be­fore re­turn­ing to Oslo. As they leave, new pas­sen­gers join. It makes for a lively so­cial swirl.

MS Nord­kapp, which cel­e­brates its 20th birth­day next year, is far from the posh­est of ships, but it doesn’t aim to be. The cab­ins are ba­sic, but have ev­ery­thing you could need, in­clud­ing good stor­age. There is one restau­rant and one cafe for the few pas­sen­gers who aren’t on full board, and for the lo­cals us­ing Nord­kapp as pub­lic trans­port. The bar is friendly, but not rau­cous.

The food is all-you-can eat smor­gas­bord at break­fast and lunch, and a fixed menu in the evening. The fresh­est of lo­cal pro­duce is added to the menu as the ship makes its way along the coast. Only hours af­ter vis­it­ing Skarsvag — the tiny com­mu­nity that is Europe’s north­ern­most fish­ing vil­lage and where hun­dreds of ki­los of king crab go straight from ocean to crate for live ex­port by air to China and South Korea — we are en­joy­ing the sweet­est of crab salad on MS Nord­kapp. As we eat, we toast our un­for­get­table trip.

MS Nord­kapp moors close to Urke, Nor­way, top; the light­house near Trond­heim, above; Trond­heim wa­ter­front, left; Tromso Arc­tic Cathe­dral, be­low

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