Tromso in Norway is one of the most northerly towns in the world. Moreover, it is a perfect northern lights location at the right time of the year. It features both an airport and is a Hurtigruten port of call which makes it a highly accessible destination for visitors from near and far. Therefore it is obvious to combine a visit with a few cruise-like days on one of the Hurtigruten ships along the Norwegian coast.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 21 JAN 2020
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.
There is also the question of which season to go. Each season has its own 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 the 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 seeing the northern lights. As a matter of fact every spot in Northern Norway is a possible location to catch a glimpse of the northern lights.
Tromso in Norway is a potential northern lights location
We finally seize the opportunity to go in beginning of April, trying to capture all advantages. With a bit of luck and our warmest clothing we will be able to be out as much as the agenda on board allows us to, and there are maybe still chances to see 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 on the Lofoten Islands!
However, going on a full package tour with Hurtigruten poses, in addition to the priciness, also the problem of how to get enough time to see the Lofoten Islands in the way we would like to.
After all, Hurtigruten is not really a conventional cruise ship. From old times it was the means of transport for people living along the Norwegian coastline. Still today people use it for transport between the small ports and coastal towns. Soon one of us comes up with the idea to design the trip on our own, making use of the opportunities Hurtigruten gives. In the course of a few days we have checked all possibilities of flying into and out of Norway and which ports of call that will be the most convenient.
We then make two bookings directly with Hurtigruten. One from Tromso in Northern Norway down to Lofoten and one from Lofoten southbound to Trondheim. In this way we can make a stopover on the Lofoten Islands and still get all the benefits from the voyage along the Norwegian coast! Shortly, we have everything confirmed and make a reservation for a hotel on Lofoten and check hotels in Tromso. Altogether, it ends up a lot cheaper than the full package (… with some nights on the ship converted to hotel nights on Lofoten).
The flight from Oslo takes a couple of hours and emphasizes the length of the country. When we step out on the ground, it is on a thick layer of snow. As anticipated it seems to be long-lasting winter here! The local bus takes us to the other side of the small island to the city of Tromso or Tromsø as the Norwegians spell it.
Tromso – perfect northern lights location
Snow in spring in Northern Norway
We have arrived in an idyllic old coastal town with wooden houses as the building style here prescribes. Tromso is situated on one of the numerous islands in Northern Norway.
Now, strolling around, we do appreciate that we brought our boots. The snow is everywhere and it is even icy in many places on the Tromso streets, so it is a matter of paying full attention while walking and keeping the 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 harbour front we have a picturesque view to the triangular Arctic Cathedral, or Ishavskatedralen in Norwegian, on the other side of the water at the foot of the mountainside. To get to it we have to cross the impressive Tromso Bridge which rises in front of us.
The cathedral was built in 1965 by the architect Jan Inge Hovig and is characterised by elements of concrete, aluminium and glass, steeply rising towards the sky. One side of the glass façade holds a gigantic cross, and on the other side a fine glass mosaic reveals. The materials and forms are unified in an extreme simplicity, making it one of the most remarkable constructions in Northern Norway. It has become a landmark of Tromso and is visible from many places on the island and in Tromso, even at night since it is illuminated.
Most of the year it features popular midnight concerts. Unfortunately, there is no concert to attend tonight. Days are becoming longer and it is only on the dark nights that the northern lights concerts are held, and it is still much too early for the summer midnight sun concerts.
Instead we find our way to a local bar, Circa, where we get reindeer pizza and the local Mack polar beer from their own brewery. The room soon gets filled with Norwegian students from the Arctic University of Norway in Tromso. 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!
The atmosphere in the bar is greatly influenced by the students and other locals and we spend a couple of hours in good company listening to the topics discussed by the young Norwegians and exchange students. Towards midnight we put on our warmest jumpers and jackets and leave for the harbour front.
Hurtigruten southbound from Tromso
Our Hurtigruten ship, MS Richard With, is due to call at Tromso 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 scarfs, gloves, hats and appropriate thermal underwear. To kill time we look towards the sky to see if we can be as lucky as to observe the auroa borealis since Tromso is a brilliant location to observe the northern lights. Well, we are seemingly not that lucky tonight. 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, mainly European passengers: German, Swiss, French, Spanish, Italian, British, Swedish and of course Norwegian travellers.
It turns out that the ship features a committed expedition team that gives lectures and organises activities related to the flora, fauna, history and culture of the locations visited. 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.
The irresistible breakfast buffet offers halibut, melon smoothies, Troms yoghurt and other local specialities. We enjoy all of it while watching the postcard-like snow-covered mountains pass us all close.
MS Richard With in Harstad
We call shortly at Harstad on Hinnoya, 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 seven there is now, the weather permitting it, an outdoor lecture on the island, Andoya and the small town Risoyhamn. 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 Risoyhamn where the businessman, politician, ship captain and founder of Hurtigruten, 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 Risoyhamn, in Bjornskinn, 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 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 a perfect location to see the northern lights!
We are among a handful of passengers ready to go ashore in Risoyhamn 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 the deck, for coming ashore when the ships 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.
Use Hurtigruten as a Northern lights location in Norway
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 location to view the northern lights!
We even get instructions on board how to photograph the northern lights to get the most brilliant photos to take home. Of course you can also opt for a northern lights tour in the evening ashore in case you stay overnight on land while being in Northern Norway.
Online we check every day what the aurora borealis forecasts are – the chances to view the northern lights.
MS Richard With features gym facilities for those of the passengers who have a need for exercise beyond the activities ashore. Other amenities aboard 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 kind of information related to the itinerary and the surroundings with tour suggestions and inspiring details.
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!
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 ship restaurant: head, eyes, skin … among other things for the delicate fish soup they serve on departure from Bergen!
The chef offers samples of the 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!
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 exposed as part of the museum of Hurtigruten. It served in the Hurtigruten fleet from 1956 until 1993 when it was replaced by precisely MS Richard With! The sun breaks through and we need to move with agility to evade the meltwater on the streets. This is actually the first sign of spring we see on our trip!
MS Richard With blasts its horn and all passengers get back on board ready for the next stage of the voyage.
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