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Katherine's Journey From The Arctic Circle

30 March 2011

Arctic Circle

One of Iglu's cruise experts, Katherine Thornley, enjoyed the hospitality of Hurtigrüten last week, here's what she had to say about the experince.

With 34 ports of call and 11 ships Hurtigruten is by far the best way to see and truly appreciate Norway’s stunning coastline, and to be fully immersed in its rich culture and history. Recently I was lucky enough to join Hurtigruten for three nights on their ship the Midnatsol on a Southbound journey from Tromso, high above the Arctic Circle to Trondheim.

Hurtigruten have been linking ports along Norway’s coast for the past 115 years carrying mail, cargo and passengers, and often the only lifeline for some of Norway’s most remote places. The ships are still today working ships boasting an interesting mix of luxury cruise, cargo ship and passenger ferry.

Day 1

After a very early check-in at Heathrow airport we boarded our SAS flight to Oslo, where we picked up our connecting flight to Tromso. Looking out the aircraft window the landscape was changing, from the lightly snow covered southern Norway to a continuously thick blanket of snow as far as the eye could see, as we approached Tromso, far above the Arctic Circle.

A short coach transfer brought us to the Hotel Rica located right by Tromso’s small port, just a few hundred metres from where we would be boarding our ship. A perfect place to add on a couple night’s stay at the beginning or end of your cruise.

Sitting at our table in the big dining room, looking out the panoramic windows onto the water I had my first taste of Norway; the freshest piece of salmon I’ve ever tasted, cooked exquisitely.

Tromso is a small and very picturesque city; a few steps took us up to the main shopping street, a straight pedestrian zone lined with the typical colourful Norwegian wooden buildings, with their pointed snow covered roofs. Across the water is the Tromso Arctic Cathedral, a modern, pyramid shaped design with a huge stained glass windows, famous for its Midnight Sun Concerts in summer. Being Sunday all the shops and many restaurants were closed and we were almost the only people out and about.

Returning to the Hotel Rica we added extra warm layers of clothing ready for our next adventure — husky-sledding. A bus took us at dusk to the Villmarkssenter outside Tromso. The deafening sound of about 200 huskies howling and barking greeted us. The Villmarkssenter is completely out in nature and fantastically uncommercialised. We asked to have a try at driving the sleds ourselves and were dually presented with our own sled, pack of dogs, and some very brief instructions before being left to just hold on and hope for the best. It was an incredible rush speeding through the polar wilderness in the darkness just being pulled by these amazing dogs. Steering the sleds is not always easy as I soon found out — speeding around a curve my grip slipped and I fell off the sled, flying through the nightime sky, landing face first in the deep snow...

Once off the sleds we enjoyed a dinner of reindeer stew served in a traditional Sami tent called a Lavvo, sitting around an open fire on warm reindeer skin rugs. What a shame the Northern Lights failed to make an appearance.

By the time we arrived back to Tromso our ship the Midnatsol was waiting and we were more than ready to board, tired out after a long day and lots of clean, fresh air. Boarding is incredibly straightforward and easy, no messing around in long queues in big passenger terminals.

The Midnatsol is one of Hurtigruten’s newer ships built in 2003 with a beautiful glass atrium and stylish interior. We were allocated an inside cabin on deck four, nothing fancy. The cabin was comfortable but very small, though the en-suite bathroom had an excellent shower. I would recommend upgrading to at least an outside cabin which are just that extra bit larger, which makes all the difference. Also, being down on deck four proved to be a bit noisy as you can feel the ship’s vibration and hear the commotion of the ship loading and off-loading cargo in the middle of the night. Personally I thought this added to the whole experience of being on a ship but if you are a light sleeper definitely go for a higher deck.

Day 2

We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day, the sun was shining and the air and water were as clear as glass. After an early rise we enjoyed the very substantial breakfast buffet with plenty of Norwegian delicacies and where I discovered their delicious brown cheese, which must be tried to be understood!

Our ship arrived in Harstad where we joined one of Hurtigruten’s many prebookable excurions, ‘A Taste of Vesteralen’. This four hour coach excursion is a fantastic, relaxed way to experience Norway’s dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful scenery of mountains, fjords and small villages. The excursion stops at the pretty, medieval Trondenes Kirke (church), then goes on to the Trondenes Historical Centre and continues over the bridge to Hinnoya Island.  We were lucky enough to see wild reindeer and sea eagles along the way. After crossing the Gullesfjord by ferry we arrived in Sortland and rejoined the Midnatsol.

After lunch on the ship we had time just to sit back and relax never tiring of gazing out to sea watching the landscape glide by either from the Midnatsol’s fantastic panorama lounge, with two storey high windows, or from out on deck.

Next stop along the way is Stockmarkenes where we visited the Hurtigruten museum exhibiting Hurtigruten‘s interesting history and ships, not to be missed and free for passengers.

Continuing further south we arrived at the Lofoten Islands, an archipelago of islands characterised by their mountains, peaks and sheltered inlets. This is where the famous Trollfjord lies, a narrow fjord with steep cliffs on either side. We weren’t able to enter the fjord which is only 100 metres wide as the risk of avalanches in winter makes it too dangerous for ships to pass through.

All the gazing out onto the beauty of the Norwegian coastline, the fresh air and good food is tiring stuff so I retired to the cabin for a well earned afternoon nap. That evening we arrived in Svolvaer, disembarked the ship and headed straight to the ice bar which is right where the ship docks. The ice bar was amazing, more like a museum, and once a month artists create incredible works of art cut out of ice. We spent a good hour there, admiring the sculptures and knocking back lovely blueberry schnapps in ice shot glasses.

The evening was our first dinner on board the ship. The dining room is very tastefully designed and the service superb. Once again we feasted on fresh fish, cod this time. There is always only one choice on the dinner menu however the menu is displayed outside the dining room during the day and if someone doesn’t like or can’t eat something the chef is more than happy to alter the menu for them.

We followed up dinner with drinks in the cozy main bar in the midship area. Alcohol in Norway is very highly taxed and drinks are expensive. The cheapest bottle of wine goes for about 320 Krone which is about £35. The good news is that Hurtigruten let their passengers bring their own alcohol onboard to enjoy in their cabins but remember to bring it with you, as alcohol is difficult to buy.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that organised entertainment and activities, shows and casinos should not be expected onboard the Hurtigruten voyages. These trips are all about the destination, the scenery and experiencing Norway.

Day 3

After a bit of a lie-in and another hearty breakfast an announcement called us up on deck for the crossing of the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees 33’ marked by a metal globe on a small rocky island. Following tradition of the Southbound journeys crossing the Arctic Circle the crew fed us a spoonful of cod liver oil washed down with a shot of brandy. Which definitely beats the Northbound tradition of having ice put down your back!

We were then invited up to the Bridge to meet the Captain and First Officer and to watch them navigate through the daunting maze of fjords and islands. This was followed by a tour of the ship.

All cabins onboard are very comfortable, the best by far being the suites. They are extremely spacious and luxurious with floor to ceiling windows, the Owner’s Suites have balconies. All of Hurtigruten’s ships have disabled cabins. The Midnatsol has a gym but it’s small so we spent most of that afternoon in the hot tubs on the top deck, which are fantastic whatever the weather, and it’s great fun running across the deck afterwards in the freezing cold wearing next to nothing and straight into the toasty sauna — beautiful!

That evening the Midnatsol left the fjords and entered completely open waters for the first time. In a ship the size of the Midnatsol you can really feel the motion of the ocean and it wasn’t my best moment as I soon became quite seasick and had to call it a night...

Sadly we had to leave the Midnatsol the next day in Trondheim for our journey back to London.

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