Exploring Norway from a Hurtigruten Cruise Ship
For several years my attention has again and again been caught by ads from Hurtigruten promoting the most breathtaking sea voyage in the world. Only the hefty price of this trip has so far put it off.
It has also been a matter of which season to go. Each season has its own specific advantage. Summer, being the most expensive season to book, has the obvious advantage of higher temperatures and more daylight hours. Around midsummer it does not even get dark at all, and you can sit on deck reading in the natural light all night, if you prefer. It is then a lot more enticing to be outdoors than during the dark winter with only a few daylight hours, if any at all! On the other hand, the winter season excels in the best chances of catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
Where to stay before or after your cruise? Anker Hotel (Oslo) – spacious rooms / bright decor, near Karl Johans Gate, Scandic Svolvær (Lofoten) with panoramic views, Comfort Hotel Xpress Tromsø (Tromsø) in the heart of Tromsø near Polaria.
We finally have seized the opportunity to go in the beginning of April, trying to capture all advantages. With a bit of luck and our warmest clothes, we will be able to be on deck most days, and there are maybe still chances to spot the Northern Lights in Northern Norway. Moreover, at this time of the year we will probably get the opportunity to see the stockfish hanging to dry everywhere in the Lofoten Islands!
However, going on a full Hurtigruten package tour poses, in addition to the priciness, also the problem of how to get enough time to explore the Lofoten Islands!
We then make two bookings directly with Hurtigruten. One from Tromsø in Northern Norway down to Lofoten and one from Lofoten southbound to Trondheim. In this way we can make a stopover in the Lofoten Islands and still get all the benefits from the voyage along the Norwegian coast! Shortly, we have everything confirmed, and we make a reservation for a hotel in Lofoten and check out hotels in Tromsø. All in all, it ends up a lot cheaper than the full package (… with some nights on board the ship converted to hotel nights in Lofoten).
The flight from Oslo takes a couple of hours and emphasizes the length of the country. When we step out, it is on a thick layer of snow – it seems to be long-lasting winter here! The local bus takes us to the other side of the small island to the idyllic coastal city, Tromsø.
Now, strolling around, we are happy that we brought our boots. The snow is everywhere and it is even icy here and there, so it is a matter of paying full attention while walking to keep our balance! In most places in the northern hemisphere it is supposedly really spring-like now in April, and here it still seems to be plain winter!
From the waterfront we have a picturesque view of the triangular Arctic Cathedral, or Ishavskatedralen in Norwegian, opposite, at the foot of the mountainside. It is from 1965, designed by the architect Jan Inge Hovig. To reach it we have to cross the impressive bridge.
We find our way to a local bar, where we have reindeer pizza and the local Mack polar beer from their own brewery. The room soon gets filled with Norwegian students and exchange students from the Arctic University of Norway. It is the northernmost university in the world and has, in addition to the conventional university studies, a special focus on regional interests such as for example auroral light research, fishery science and Sami culture!
Towards midnight we put on our warmest jumpers and jackets and leave for the waterfront.
Our Hurtigruten cruise ship, MS Richard With, is due to call at Tromsø at 11:45 p.m. It is freezing cold – less than 5 degrees centigrade – when we patiently wait on the wharf. Strangely enough, there is no building, no waiting room or any sign of a Hurtigruten terminal. We just stick to the spot indicated on the map received from Hurtigruten. Three backpackers and a young Norwegian join us in the cold.
Due to the Siberian temperatures, the wait seems infinite. The cold, biting wind justifies our scarves, gloves, hats and appropriate thermal underwear. Eventually, the ship arrives with a delay of half an hour. The view of the ship with all its prism-like lights against the black sky, flanked by the reflection of lights from the houses and the Arctic Cathedral on the other side, is absolutely stunning.
On board MS Richard With we meet, besides the odd group of Asians, mostly European passengers: German, Swiss, French, Spanish, Italian, British, Swedish and of course Norwegian travellers.
Exploring Norway from a Hurtigruten cruise ship
The ship features an expedition team that gives lectures and organises activities related to the flora, fauna, history and culture along the coast. The team is also in charge of the land-based tours between the ports of call.
Our cabin is relatively spacious and offers great views through the window to the gorgeous mountainsides and sporadic, tiny islands we pass. Sunrise is already at 5 a.m. and the light wakes us up with breathtaking sceneries just outside our window.
An irresistible breakfast buffet offers halibut, melon smoothies, Troms yoghurt and other local specialities. We enjoy all of it while watching the picture-postcard snow-covered mountains pass us all close.
We call shortly at Harstad on Hinnøya, Norway’s biggest island, to pick up new passengers and have a variety of goods and provisions brought on board. A ramp is competently maneuvered out from the side of the ship, such that a single car can come ashore.
Harstad is one of the most important towns in Northern Norway. It is surrounded by fertile land for agricultural purposes and features especially during summer numerous cultural activities, festivals and concerts. Trondenes Church is a remarkable landmark and the northernmost medieval church from the 13th century. The location has also brought important findings from both the Bronze Age and the Iron Age which are evidence of the presence of these ancient cultures in the area in the past.
There is just time for a walk in central Harstad. We have put on our ‘polar clothing’ and go for a refreshing stroll on the white, ice-covered streets. It is a crisp April morning and the brief visit is an obvious opportunity to get the feel of the place. Five minutes before departure, the ship blasts its horn to get everyone on board again.
On deck 7 there is now, the weather permitting it, an outdoor lecture on the island, Andøya and the small town Risøyhamn. Simultaneously we pass through pristine, emerald waters. It is the old coral seabed that is the explanation of the shades of green. Hadn’t we been at these latitudes, I definitely would have fancied a swim in the enticing water! Ignoring the temperatures, it is very inviting indeed! Anyway, even if it is relatively mild at sea here thanks to the Gulf Stream, it is definitely still too cold in April!
Soon we arrive at Risøyhamn where the businessman, politician, ship captain and founder of Hurtigruten in Norway, Richard With, settled and lived part of his life. He had two of the Hurtigruten ships named after him: the one we are on, MS Richard With from 1993, and SS Richard With from 1909. Another important person born just 2 kilometres from Risøyhamn, in Bjørnskinn, was the Antarctic explorer Helmer Julius Hanssen, who joined the explorer Roald Amundsen on the ship Fram for the South Pole expedition in 1911.
A little bit further to the north you will find Andenes, a community originally developed around fishing and which in the years to come became rich in fishing history. Later, it also became an important site for Dutch whaling, after this discipline was introduced by Dutch explorers. They discovered the whaling opportunities in the Arctic seas, around the coasts in Northern Norway, Svalbard and Greenland. Today, Andenes still benefits from the presence of the giant animals as a popular whale watching location featuring year-round whale safaris – in addition to also being the perfect location to watch the Northern Lights!
There are many whales in the seas around Northern Norway: humpback whales, killer whales, porpoises, sperm whales, minke whales, orcas etc. I ask about the possibility of whale watching from the ship. It seems that the whales in general at the moment are not as close to the coast as they sometimes are. Nevertheless, precisely the day before we boarded the ship, the passengers were very lucky since there were awesome whales well within sight!
In Risøyhamn we are among a handful of passengers ready to go ashore at the very moment our ship touches the wharf. The calls are not long, and if you want to benefit from the stops and see the places from the shoreside, it must at times be at brisk pace.
Hardly aboard the ship again, we go directly to our cabin to swap our outdoor outfit for appropriate indoor wear. Changing clothes is a discipline you get to master here since it is required many times during the day at this time of the year! We alternately need indoor and outdoor wear for the meals in the saloon, for great nature experiences and related activities on deck, for coming ashore when the ship reaches the small ports of call, and then again inside for an enriching lecture or a well-deserved rest in our cabin with an effortless sea or mountain view.
Next cruise stop is Sortland, the ‘blue’ picturesque coastal town in Norway, which we enjoy from our lunch table on board the Hurtigruten ship.
It is a small community with only around 10,000 inhabitants, but yet a thriving town. Artists and locals have used their imagination and painted a number of houses and other structures in bluish colours.
During the night the crew announces to all of us through the speaker if there are suddenly chances to view the Northern Lights. It is fabulous to see it while at sea, since the sky is completely dark and there are no other lights to weaken the visual effects. When still in Northern Norway, the Hurtigruten ship is therefore an excellent spot to view the Northern Lights during the cruise!
We even get instructions on board how to photograph the dancing light to get the most brilliant photos to take home. Of course you can also opt for a Northern Lights tour on land in the evening in case you stay overnight ashore at some time during your trip.
Online we check every day what the aurora borealis forecasts are – the chances to view the Northern Lights. We have actually before our trip followed the forecasts for beginning of April closely. The evenings and the nights start getting lighter now, and therefore the chances are smaller than during winter.
The aurora is caused by the interaction of electrons with neutral atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere. The green Northern Lights result from oxygen atoms being excited and subsequently emitting photons and visible light of the wavelength producing green colour, when the electrons return to their original position and energy level. This is what creates the green Northern Lights. We are captivated by what we see, and extremely grateful that we actually get a chance to view this great phenomenon as late as in April. The forecast for seeing the Northern Lights during our trip is only about 20%, so we are more than happy!
MS Richard With features gym facilities for those of the passengers who have a need for exercise beyond the activities ashore. Other amenities on board include a small shop with a selection of Norwegian souvenirs and traditional knitwear, as well as the explorer team’s information desk. Here we find all kinds of information related to the itinerary and surroundings, including inspiring tour suggestions and interesting facts.
We get ready for the next port of call which is the small coastal community, Stokmarknes. Here we see the oldest Hurtigruten ship, MS Finnmarken, which is on display as part of the Hurtigruten museum. It served in the Hurtigruten fleet from 1956 until 1993 when it was precisely replaced by precisely MS Richard With! The sun breaks through and we need to walk with care to evade the meltwater on the streets. This is actually the first sign of spring we see on our trip!
We are on our way to the chef’s demonstration of salmon filleting on the top deck. His professional approach to handle the fish is nothing but exceptional! Confidently he separates the skin and the flesh with a single and well-placed cut, taking all of us watching completely aback! Amazingly fast and elegantly he has filleted the entire fish! As he explains, only the gills are discarded since their taste is not really pleasant. Everything else from the salmon is being used in the restaurant: head, eyes, skin … among other things for the delicate fish soup they serve on departure from Bergen!
The chef offers samples of raw fish, as well as soya marinated and chili marinated salmon in the open! It is a blend of absolutely exquisite tastes and the fish really melts in your mouth!
MS Richard With blasts its horn and all passengers get back on board ready for the next stage of the voyage.
From the outset we have wanted to include Svolvær and the Lofoten archipelago in our southbound Hurtigruten cruise along the West Coast in Norway.
Our Hurtigruten ship is both a means of transport for people living in remote coastal areas in Norway, as well as it is being used as a cruise ship for tourists wishing to get close to the unique Norwegian fjords and awe-inspiring mountains.
We will be entering the breathtaking Trollfjord soon, but before then a group of passengers will leave the ship to go on a sea eagle safari. I have not really been able to figure out how they will set off while the ship is still at sea. My attention is now suddenly caught by a small vessel catching up, coming all close to our ship.
A deep, distant roaring sound is now noticeable. From the window of our cabin we are baffled to see a gangplank rolled out from the ship side, way above the water surface! 15-20 passengers, seemingly dressed for the polar climate, step out on the platform, which is then slowly being lowered as a lift until it reaches the deck of the small boat! Shortly, the boat detaches from our ship and leaves for awesome nature experiences in the biting cold!
The Trollfjord is the unusually narrow and stunning canyon-like fjord at the Lofoten Islands, and Hurtigruten has on the southbound route in direction of Svolvær incorporated a tiny detour in between islands and mountainsides for mere sightseeing purposes. The captain competently maneuvers our huge Hurtigruten ship, MS Richard With, around, such that all cruise passengers can get a remarkable glimpse of one of the top-rated fjords in Norway. At its narrowest point it is only 100 m (328 ft) wide, and at its deepest point the depth is 60 m (197 ft). Our immense ship navigates around the narrow stretches of the fjord in a nearly surreal way.
At 6:30 p.m. we arrive in Svolvær. Although already having very high expectations, the entrance is even more scenic than I have imagined. As MS Richard With enters the Svolvær harbour area, we pass traditional Lofoten racks which during the month of April really abound with fish on ‘hjell’, as they say in Norway.
We have booked a room in the hotel Scandic Vestfjord Lofoten in Svolvær which is within walking distance of the harbour. To our delight our room even turns out to have spectacular view to a couple of fish racks!
All day we keep an eye on the weather and the weather forecast, in particular the chances of viewing the colour play of the Northern Lights.
In the evening we treat ourselves to delicious fish cakes from a local place. An hour or two later I suddenly observe an elongated ‘cloud’ on the dark sky from our room window. Can it be …? We act swiftly, put on our thickest clothes and get out. Then we see the long, green stripes on the sky. Waving lights turning into clear stripes. The night is starry and we become spectators of a light show of shades of green.
The hotel Scandic Vestfjord Lofoten, located in Svolvær, offers rooms with views of the Vest Fjord and the mountains. It features a breakfast restaurant overlooking Svolvær Harbour. Free parking on site. The Hurtigruten Cruise Ship Terminal is just a few hundred metres away.
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Located on an island in Svolvær Harbour just 150 m from the town centre and 10 minutes’ walk from the Hurtigruten Terminal. Hotel restaurant and bar in a boat-shaped building with panoramic views of the harbour. Some rooms offer a sea view.
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However, Lofoten is unpredictable. When we reach Reine on our road trip across the islands, the weather abruptly changes and in beautiful Reine, all among the numerous fish racks, we experience the powerful forces of nature and a true snow storm.
It doesn’t last very long, and it clears up again. South of Flakstad we all of a sudden spot an impressive prey bird very high up. It is a sea eagle majestically soaring into view. Its serrated wings remove any doubt that it really is a sea eagle. Moments later we identify another one which hardly moves in the air at all, but seemingly uses its super eyes to scan the sea for prey.
Filled with impressions from our trip around Lofoten exploring the exceptional stockfish culture, unique in Norway and in the world, we return to Svolvær at the end of the day. We go for a walk along the traditional rorbu cabins which today are highly reputed accommodation here. If you can stay in a rorbu with a view to the drying cod on ‘hjell’ as well as the scenic fjord landscape, it just cannot be any better!
The next day we continue our itinerary at sea. All during our cruise in Norway it is announced through the loudspeaker when we meet a northbound Hurtigruten ship, and the ship horn duly sounds when passing!
The Helgeland Coast (Helgelandskysten) is magnificent with snowcapped peaks both to the starboard side and the port side, since we go inshore between the rocky islands. The Seven Sisters at Sandnessjøen are partly covered in light, white clouds which nearly melt together with the mountains.
Sandnessjøen is both a fishing, a shipbuilding and an oil town. The oil and natural gas resources are a welcomed injection into the local communities with the jobs they create.
In Brønnøysund, on the long peninsula, we walk at brisk pace to reach the small lake full of nimble and chirping birds as well as the old neogothic church from 1870 with medieval foundations.
Back in the port we notice a group of people gathering on the wharf. Seemingly, their attention is captured by something in the water. Slowly approaching, we realise that it is a lively otter that has found its way to the dock. It swims along the ship, under the car tires attached to the pier. Every now and then it sporadically peeps up before continuing among the clearly visible small fish in the ice-cold sea water.
The captain competently navigates between the rocks all the way round Torghatten. It is the spectacular rock with a considerable hole inside, which you can look all through! At first we think that we will not really be able to see the hole from the cruise ship, but with an appropriate course, the Hurtigruten ship is maneuvered in position, such that we get the right angle to discover the phenomenon! From the deck we actually get a great view of it and clearly see the light through the hole in the massive rock!
After a stop in Rørvik and the final five-course cruise dinner on board the ship, including champagne, as well as specialities like the Lofoten cod and a cloudberry ice cream dessert, the sea voyage in this part of Norway comes to an end for us. Next morning we disembark from MS Nordnorge at Trondheim Fjord.
Here we just have the time to see the famous Cathedral, which is today a popular northerly pilgrim destination, the scenic old timber buildings on the embankment of the Nidelva River, and the picture-postcard wooden bridge, Gamle Bybro, before continuing to the airport.
Eco-certified hotel in the heart of Tromsø close to the Polar Experience Center and the Hurtigruten Terminal. Some rooms offer a sea view. Convenient 24-hour lobby shop where you can buy breakfast items and snacks.
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Centrally located hotel near Storgata pedestrian street and just 200 m from Tromsø Cathedral. Near the Polar Museum and the Polaria Aquarium. Rooms have a fully equipped kitchen or kitchenette.
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Located just 15 minutes’ walk from Karl Johans Gate. The hotel features spacious rooms, bright decor and a lobby bar with a small garden.
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Located in central Oslo just 300 m from Karl Johans Gate. Aker Brygge is just 14 minutes’ walk away. The hotel features stylish rooms and offers luggage storage.
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