Life in the slow lane
Hurtigruten cruise ship carries travellers from around the world – but also locals and supplies bound for Norway's northern communities.The 2,000-kilometre trip between Kirkenes and Bergen includes 34 stops along the coastline, making it one of the best ways to get to know the country and its culture
It wasn't the kayaking that struck me, though Hakoya is known as an excellent spot for a paddle. A tiny island in northern Norway, Hakoya is set in a calm, pristine strait full of pink jellyfish that pump like heart muscles as they glide by. Nearby white-tailed eagles swoop into the water in search of lunch and not too far in the distance, low-lying mountains are speckled with snow.
But this late-August afternoon was drizzly and cold, and the mountains and water blurred in the mist. (Four days into a cruise up the Norwegian coastline, I'd been spoiled for pretty views and had, until now, seen nothing but unseasonably warm weather and skies so blue I could have been looking through an Instagram filter.)
Nope, it wasn't the location that got me, it was the eavesdropping. Manuel, our kayaking guide who had recently moved here from Seville, was lightheartedly bickering with Marta, a Norwegian who worked on the ship, about life in northern and southern Europe.
"While you guys were building beautiful architecture, we were fishing to survive," lobbed Marta, she went on to remark on the pleasures Mediterranean cultures take in their wines and their olive oil.
Before I set out on the MS Polarlys, I'd heard repeatedly that cruising with its operator, Hurtigruten, was one of the best ways to understand Norway and its people. While Hurtigruten touts the 2,000-kilometre trip from Bergen to Kirkenes is the "world's most beautiful voyage," it was the idea that a cruise could say so much about those inscrutable Norwegians that had me intrigued.
Every Norwegian I spoke with before I embarked seemed intimately familiar with the journey. ("Don't go to bed," my guide around the colourful port city of Bergen instructed, echoing my waiter from the night before. "You have to stay on deck the whole time. It's so beautiful.") More proof of Hurtigruten's place in Norway's national ethos? When the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation telecast an entire 134-hour journey up the coast in 2011, more than half the country tuned in to watch.
While just 0.3 per cent of Canadians live above the Arctic Circle, a tenth of Norway's total population resides in the north. The Gulf stream keeps temperatures relatively warm for the Arctic – even in January, the average temperature in Tromso, northern Norway's most populous city, doesn't dip much below freezing. Meanwhile, rich cod fisheries and petroleum have made the region prosperous and vibrant; its cities host international film and music festivals and the area is home to respected universities. Churches such as Nidaros in Trondheim, the northernmost Gothic cathedral in the world, and Tromso's modern, iceberg-shaped Arctic Cathedral are marvels. But for a long time, the north was also incredibly isolated: in winter, ships carrying mail and supplies could take as long as five months to arrive from central Norway.
Hurtigruten, which means "fast route," is credited with reducing that travel time to days when it first sailed 123 years ago. While there are now faster ways up the coast (Hurtigruten ships move at just 15 knots, or less than 30 kilometres an hour), the line is better known internationally for its scenic cruises. Unlike regular cruises, however, Hurtigruten ships deliver cargo and ferry locals to coastal towns – ships docks 34 times on their way up the coast, the shortest stop lasting just five minutes. Guests are welcome to get off and explore.
It takes no time at all to get the appeal of cruising the fjords. The first evening, after gorging on fish chowder and mountains of fresh prawns, we headed up to the Panorama Lounge and watched the reflection of a coral sunset swirl around in the current and dissolve into the drink, well after 10 p.m. The next morning – the first of those crystal blue days – we clambered atop tall chests full of life vests, the only unoccupied seats we could find, and sat so transfixed that we didn't even notice how uncomfortable the spot was. After a quick stop in Alesund, where after docking late we dashed from the port for a photo-op of what's known as Scandinavia's best art nouveau architecture, we were back at our perch, faces tilted to the warm sun but loathe to close our eyes even for a second to bask in it.
The Polarlys has none of the diversions cruise ships keep adding to their decks – no ice rinks or rock climbing walls, not even a gym or Jacuzzi (some Hurtigruten ships have basic recreational facilities); here the only amenity is the hard-to-claim deck chair.
And – in the most Norwegian of ways – the ship offered a funny inversion between basic and luxury. While a single glass of beer at the bar worked out to about $14, my buffet lunch consisted of a slice of dense bread slathered with, not one, but two types of local caviar. And tiny strawberries, which ripen slowly in the endlessly sunny but relatively cool summer days, tasted so sweet and vibrant that they go by a whole other name here: earth berries. These low-key luxuries – fish eggs and wild fruit – were a perfect fit on board this northern journey on the most Norwegian of cruises.
And then there were those views, which I enjoyed even more greedily. I spent more hours than I'd have thought possible gazing at countless islands, some just large enough to fit a single, almost Lilliputian, lighthouse; gentle hills rolling with moss and lichens; mountainous peaks sluiced with wild white waterfalls and cliffs that plunge hundreds, and, in some cases, thousands of feet to the sea. Small boats full of fisherman and families waved at us as they sped by: Norwegians truly love Hurtigruten. On board, it seemed like every local I encountered thought of himself as an ambassador, stopping to ask what I thought of the fjords and whether I'd seen anything like them anywhere else in the world.
When we stopped, during one excursion, for photos high above Geirangerfjord – it's on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its exceptional scale and grandeur – I noticed another cruise ship far below. It was Italian, one I'd sailed on several years ago, and I remembered calling up wood-fired pizza and prosecco to my cabin whenever the urge struck.
Here, that kind of indulgence was superfluous. In Norwary, I finally understood, there's no need for traditional luxuries. The fjords are more than enough.
If you go
Hurtigruten cruises from Bergen to Kirkenes depart daily year-round. Both one-way (seven days northbound/six days southbound) and return "Classic Voyage" itineraries are available. One way trips start at $1,026 (U.S.), including meals. More details online at Hurtigruten.us.
Air Canada flies to Bergen, Norway, daily via Copenhagen. For passengers travelling the one-way northbound route, which disembarks in Kirkenes, Norway, SAS airline offers flights to Oslo for international connections.
The writer was a guest of Hurtigruten and Innovation Norway.