Taking it slow on Norway’s fastest route is a great way to delve into the culture, traditions, and awe-inspiring landscape of this far-flung corner of the world.
The ship’s horn roars and bellows, the sound booming and dancing its way down the narrow valley, echoing off ancient stone walls and filling every weather-worn crag and cranny. It lingers in the ear, reluctant to succumb to the absolute silence that permeates the fjord we’re sailing through. We’re winning in a friendly ship-on-ship tooting rivalry as another ferry passes on our port side, but I can imagine that from the peaks above, we’re nothing more than noisy specks of white on a winding ribbon of Arctic blue.
If you ever need a reminder of how insignificant we are in the face of Mother Nature, simply cruise the Geiranger Fjord in western Norway. This mesmerizing landscape is a significant drawcard for tourists to the island-strewn west coast, and many cruise lines ply the narrow channels of the Storfjord, the intricate Great Fjord, of which Geiranger is a tributary.
Here on the aft deck of Hurtigruten‘s MS Nordlys, passengers scramble for a better view as yachts and other ships glide past, if only to give their photographs scale against the sheer, mile-high cliffs and plummeting waterfalls on each side of the fjord. While many cruise lines include Norway in their itineraries, none offer the connection with the West’s isolated communities and the sense of place that comes with Hurtigruten’s ships.
A Norwegian icon, the line’s ferries offer a very different experience from the other holiday liners; they’re working ships, essential lifelines for the fishing villages that have called the rugged western coast home since the time of the Vikings, and offer travelers a unique perspective in one of the world’s most beautiful, and remote, landscapes.
Hurtigruten actually means the ‘express route’, and refers to a journey first forged in 1893 by a government mandate to connect the isolated communities of the west coast. The route first ran between the former royal capital of Trondheim and Hammerfest; today the Norwegian Coastal Express, often referred to as the world’s most beautiful sea voyage, links the fishing town of Bergen with the Arctic city of Kirkenes, connecting 34 ports on the six-day journey. A few years back Hurtingruten diversified into tourism and now hauls as many saucer-eyed tourists as it does bags of post or palates of frozen fish. This humble little cruise line, with its 14 ships (meaning every port is visited by two vessels per day) now boasts a whopping two percent of the world cruise market – not bad for a fleet of postal ships plying the world’s extremes.
For many of those tourists, the journey up the ruggedly beautiful west coast starts in the horseshoe-shaped harbor of Bergen. The gateway to the west coast, Bergen (below) is an ancient city that has been defined by two things; fire and fish. Once one of Scandinavia’s largest cities, Bergen is a brilliant place from which to set off on a maritime journey; the heritage and influence of passing trading cultures are infused into every building, every street name, ever seagull-straddled statue.
Thought to have been a trading post since 1020AD, the former royal capital flourished as it traded cod liver oil, used at the time as a heating fuel, between northern Norway and the rest of Europe. The merchants of the Germanic Hanseatic League once owned Bryggen, a quarter of the town on the edge of the harbor, prospering on the fish oil trade, and the recreations of their colorful row houses that now line the harbourfront are Unesco-listed.
The original narrow timber-clad tenements repeatedly went up in flames as the city’s second most abundant resource (after fish) turned from building material to bone-dry kindling. Fires were caused by dry summers and poor living conditions but also set during attacks and as protests. The city was completely or partially destroyed in 1198, 1248, and again in 1413. In 1476, Bryggen was burned down by a fire started by a drunken trader, while in 1686 a great fire claimed 231 city blocks. In 1702 almost 90 percent of the city turned to ash, and many other infernos followed. On April 20, 1944, the cargo ship Voorbode, packed to the gunwales with explosives, ignited in the harbor, destroying much of Strandsiden, the merchant quarter across from Bryggen. Anything left standing was flattened during Allied bombing raids.
However, the city has always been able to dust itself off (or perhaps douse itself off) thanks to the fish trade, and there is no better place to experience Bergen’s fishy fascination than at the city’s bustling fish markets. Although somewhat touristy, the market, with its sizzling grills and touts yelling daily specials, is a must-visit; you can nibble away at everything from grilled lobster, heaped spoons of caviar and clam chowder, to thick tuna and cod steaks cooked to perfection. There are also a few unusual bites, including reindeer sausages and minke whale meat, caught as part of Norway’s controversial annual harvest. Across the harbor, an indoor fish market is set within a chic, design-savvy building, but it lacks the draw of the traditional fishmongers.
Evidence of Norway’s other economic windfall can be seen from the summit of Fløyen Mountain, reached by a popular funicular that climbs the steep gradient with ease. Far below, imposing, blunt-nosed anchor handling tugs jostle for position in the harbor, evidence of Norway’s extensive off-shore oil industry as the world’s third-largest exporter.
We pass more of the oil rig ships as the MS Nordlys departs Bergen bound for Kirkenes. Families wave goodbye to loved ones traveling home to the north, and tourists lean on the rail watching our departure. The Nordlys was commissioned in 1994 and caters to 622 passengers, with 462 bunks and plenty of cruise ship-like lounges in which day passengers can while away their passage. Much of the outdoor activity takes place on the spacious aft deck, but like a handful of others, I’m drawn to the smaller bow observation deck. Here, I watch the dying rays of a reluctant Midnight Sun bask across mirror-like seas. Formations of water birds race like jet fighters above the water and the orange plume of the sun sets the landscape ablaze. It’s a staggering way to finish a day at sea.
Daybreak, also encountered from the wind-whipped bow, is equally dramatic as the ship plows its way through a brief patch of rough sea towards a sunrise that cascades across the distant peaks like golden rain. To one side is the grey nothingness of the ocean, and to the other, waves smash themselves against towering cliffs.
The sun quickly climbs into the sky as we pull in for a quick stop at Ålesund, a tiny town wreathed by deep blue water and snow-tipped mountains that’s famous for its abundance of Art Nouveau architecture. Cargo is loaded and families embrace on the pier but in typical Hurtingruten fashion, the stop is short and the ship’s horn soon announces our departure, into the fjords.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day to explore these deep valleys; the waters of the nine-mile-long Geiranger fjord and the cloudless sky above compete for a deep, velvety blue, and the numerous waterfalls tumbling down the sheer cliff faces kick up misty clouds filled with shimmering rainbows. One of Norway’s most visited sites, the Geiranger (below) is Unesco-listed and a marvel to behold from the deck of our ship, which has suddenly become toy-like in comparison to the precipices on each side.
Geiranger is the first of several fjords we encounter during the day as we depart on the Geiranger Panorama, a cruise ship-styled bus excursion that navigates the peaks surrounding the fjord, before winding its way across a landscape punctuated by lakes, valleys, waterfalls, and colorful fishing hamlets. From the top of the Eagle Road, a steeply winding route that climbs straight up from the town of Geiranger at the fjord’s end, we are rewarded with a staggering vista down the waterway and across the mountain tops.
A ferry takes guests across beautiful Lake Eidsdalsvatnet before the climb to the Gudbrands Gorge and the crown of the Trollstigen Pass, where little pyramids of rocks mark the paths of travelers before us. Snow-capped peaks ring the highway, named for the mystical creatures that are said to inhabit the high mountain passes. The 11 hairpin turns of the Troll Road, a narrow path which clings to the mountainside and ducks beneath staggeringly-tall waterfalls, is a highlight for everyone. We rejoin the ship at Molde having had a brilliant slice of Norway’s fjordland.
It’s the excursions along the way that enhance a Hurtigruten adventure. Experiencing the working ship as it plies the waterways north is fascinating; meeting holidaying couples, backpackers, and locals returning home is brilliant, but excursions to Europe’s largest saltwater aquarium at Atlanterhavsparken, walking tours of Trondheim, visits to the Arctic Cathedral and the Svartisen Glacier, and journeys to North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe, really make the journey truly unique.
At Bodø I wrap up tight in bright yellow survival gear, complete with plastic goggles, as we brave the waters of the Saltstraumen strait by high-speed RIB boat. The strait is home to the world’s most powerful tidal current, in which 13 billion cubic feet of water race from the fjord and then return with eddies and swirling maelstroms with each changing tide. In the Lofoten Islands, I watch reenactments of a Viking feast complete with honey-laced mead and traditional songs that are thousands of years old. In Kjøllefjord we learn how the Sámi live in the far north and dine on reindeer soup in a traditional lavvo tent to stories of the summer’s midnight sun and the winter’s long night. The excursions bring context and depth to the inspiring landscapes that surround us along the way.
As a dog lover, in the Tromsø Wilderness Centre on Kvaløya Island, I have my favorite encounter as I play with teams of huskies, including excitable five-month-old dogs and a handful of newly born puppies. These beautiful animals are part of teams that compete in Alaska’s annual Iditarod sledding race, and guests can learn how the pack runs, and dish out the doggie love to more than 100 stranger-friendly icy blue-eyed huskies.
For many guests, arriving at North Cape signals the end of the journey. We take turns to pose for pictures beside the massive metal globe that represents the milestone, while far below, at the base of terrifically high cliffs, waves crash from a sea chilled by the ice of the Arctic, only 620 miles away.
While some guests will leave the ship the next day in Kirkenes, others will head south again, following the express route as the ships of Hurtigruten link the communities which call this epic landscape home.
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