Cruising along the fjord-filled coast of Norway

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by Patricia Arrigoni, Fairfax, CA

It was 4:30 in the morning and I had been up since 3 a.m. My natural time clock was completely confused by the bright sunshine pouring through my cabin window, for I was in the Land of the Midnight Sun in northern Norway.

It had taken me four days and four flights through nine time zones (with a stopover in Oslo) to arrive in Kirkenes from California. There I boarded the MS Nordnorge for a 6-day cruise over the top of the world and down to Bergen.

The ship

This was not a cruise ship we were on but a cargo vessel that also carried passengers. Working ships like these, once the lifelines along the Norwegian coast, began service in 1893 carrying cargo and mail. Today the fleet of Norwegian Coastal Voyage, referred to as Hurtigruten within Norway, comprises 12 vessels which look like modern cruise ships.

My cabin on board the MS Nord­norge was a “large standard with sofa/berth,” and it was roomier than I expected, measuring 107 square feet. Though it was designed for two people, I was alone, part of a press group hosted by Norwegian Coastal Voyages, Inc., and the Norwegian Tourist Board.

The bed I slept on was a frame attached to the wall containing a piece of foam which was pulled down in the evening. The second bed was a couch which opened to reveal another piece of foam.

The bathroom was typical for a ship, with a miniature shower, toilet, sink with potable water and cabinets for medicines and cosmetics. A welcome surprise was the heated tile floor.

Built in 1997, the Nordnorge carries passengers to 34 ports between Bergen and Kirkenes, Norway. The ship contains 464 berths but can hold 691 passengers, as some people are just on board for a day between regularly scheduled stops. There is also space for 50 cars.

Like a modern cruise ship, the Nordnorge supplied passengers with a dining room, cafeteria, bar, library, children’s playroom, sauna, a small gym, conference rooms and lounges with panoramic views.

Because this is a working cargo ship, passengers, supplies and vehicles were being moved on and off the ship all along the route, day and night. The night deliveries were a bit noisy, with some cabin passengers hearing more than others.

I could hear engine sounds, the opening and closing of the side compartments to transfer vehicles and cargo, and the lowering of anchors. In spite of earplugs, a stop at any port during the night almost always woke me up. However, after a day or two, I got used to the sounds and learned to sleep through most of them.

The food

The food aboard the Nordnorge was surprisingly good. Breakfast and lunch were served as a buffet, and dinner was a fixed menu. The breakfast featured both an American spread of sausage and bacon; scrambled, boiled or fried eggs; potatoes, and cereal plus more European selections such as sliced cold cuts, liver pâté, Norwegian caviar and a variety of cheeses, salads and fruit. All this was accompanied by a selection of breads and rolls plus coffee and tea.

Lunch offerings included fresh or smoked salmon, halibut and other fresh fish and shellfish as well as oven-roasted potatoes, reindeer stew, lamb chops with rosemary and smoked ham. Among other selections were salads and fresh strawberries and blackberries, with puddings, chocolate chip mousse and chocolate cake for dessert.

Dinners were fixed, but over the five evenings that I ate in the dining room the variety included venison, chicken, pork tenderloin and oven-baked salmon.

The cruise

Our first day on board at Kirkenes was counted as day seven by the ship’s staff, who started their count from Bergen. The ship departed from Kirkenes at 1:30 p.m. and stopped in Vardø at 5:00. There was no planned excursion, but passengers were allowed off the ship during the 45-minute stop to explore the town and the old Vardøhus Fort, built in 1737.

No one kept track of who left the ship, but everyone was given an identification card which needed to be shown when leaving or boarding. If passengers did not make it back on time, the ship left without them.

Several large buses picked up passengers from the ship the next morning at 6:00 for a long excursion to the town of Honningsvåg and the North Cape, Europe’s northernmost point, to have breakfast at the “Roof of Europe.” This was part of a 6½-hour tour through the Finnmark region, the home of Norway’s native Sami population.

After touring the cape, where we saw a fascinating slide presentation, we followed the coastal road past several majestic fjords. The tundra landscape was typical of the area.

We stopped at a Sami village where the native people were dressed in their traditional costumes. They posed for photographs along with their reindeer.

From our bus we saw large herds of reindeer feeding freely on a large range, part of some 210,000 protected animals which live there in the summer. We learned that there are also 800,000 puffins and three million other birds in Finnmark County.

At the end of the day’s tour we returned to the ship at Hammerfest and spent a glorious sunny afternoon stretched out in lounge chairs on the upper deck.

Islands and fjords

Our ship arrived in the town of Harstad at 8 a.m. the next day and we disembarked to take a 4½-hour tour of the Vesterålen Islands. Harstad, a town of picturesque wooden houses mixed with more modern concrete structures, celebrated its 100th birthday in 2004. Situated 155 miles above the Arctic Circle, I was amazed to find temperatures quite pleasant, in the 70s. Norway’s coast is warmed by the Gulf Stream, which keeps it from freezing even in winter.

After leaving Harstad, we drove by green farms with crops of strawberries, large stands of birch trees and wheat fields already harvested. We then took a 20-minute ferry ride from Refsnes across a fjord to Andsfjord.

As we sailed along, we learned there had been many avalanches in this area. I looked up to see high mountains with patches of snow and glaciers, even though it was deep into summer. It began to rain as we neared the fishing village of Sortland, where we rejoined the ship in time for lunch.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a stunning sail through a narrow area called the Trollfjord, a passage a mile and a quarter long and 100 meters wide. The weather remained perfect, and the closeness of the sheer sides of the mountains was heart stopping.

After an early dinner of roast pork and potatoes we arrived at Svolvaer, where we headed out again for an evening excursion of the Lofoten Islands. We stopped in the little fishing village of Henningsvær, which provided passengers with a 3-screen slide show about the local area. Though it was quite late, it was not too dark for photographs. We continued to enjoy the drive along the coast below the Lofoten Wall, a chain of mountains which rose directly up from the ocean floor, before rejoining the ship at Stamsund.

The next day we sailed along the Nordland coast, stopping in the afternoon in Sandnessjøen, a small fishing village. The sun came out and we sat on the top deck enjoying the scenery, including the Seven Sisters Peaks.

In the evening, the Captain’s Dinner featured venison, carrots, Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Dessert consisted of a Norwegian specialty, cloudberries and cream. I had only tasted cloudberries once before, in a liqueur, when I was in Finland, so eating them fresh was a delightful treat.

On to Bergen

In Trondheim we went ashore for a tour of this old Viking settlement, the first capital of Norway. Our guide, Trine, told us that 50 cruise ships visit this thousand-year-old city each summer.

We passed the Royal Residence, built in the 1770s, which functions as a museum in the summer. Old wooden houses, now considered national treasures, line the streets in a rainbow of colors. A tour of the nearly 1,000-year-old Nidaros Cathedral completed our tour.

The final morning was spent packing as we cruised south to Bergen, where we disembarked and headed for Hotel Neptun, owned by Norwegian Coastal Voyage.

Arranging passage

Passengers aboard Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships can book a variety of programs, including 6-, 7- or 12-day cruise-only trips or 12- to 18-day air-inclusive independent or escorted programs combining land explorations with the coastal voyage. I was on the 6-day sailing from Kirkenes to Bergen, which cost $1,303 per person (for my cabin category) and included three meals daily plus taxes and port charges.

Senior savings and AARP discounts are offered on most sailings, and most ships have three handicapped cabins.

Northbound travelers will see different scenery than those sailing south, as many of the daytime port stops are arrived at during the night on the return trip. To see all the sights along the route, you have to take the 12-day round trip.

Land excursions averaged $50, with the North Cape and Geirangerfjord excursions costing about $125 each. Beginning in 2005, all shore excursions will be available for purchase before leaving the U.S. so that space is guaranteed, but there will be a slight increase in prices.

A plus — no tipping is expected on board.

Though most of each day is dark during winter, the Christmas and New Year’s cruises offer special programs, food and entertainment. The ships stop at local churches for services, and lectures are offered on Norwegian folklore and Christmas traditions. There are even classes for making Christmas decorations, and passengers are often greeted in ports by carolers.

For more information, contact Norwegian Coastal Voyage (405 Park Ave., Ste. 904, New York, NY 10022; phone 800/323-7436 or visit www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.us).
For more information on travel in Norway, contact the Norwegian Tourist Board (phone 212/885-9700 or visit www.visitnorway.com).

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Patricia Arrigoni, Fairfax, CA

It was 4:30 in the morning and I had been up since 3 a.m. My natural time clock was completely confused by the bright sunshine pouring through my cabin window, for I was in the Land of the Midnight Sun in northern Norway.

It had taken me four days and four flights through nine time zones (with a stopover in Oslo) to arrive in Kirkenes from California. There I boarded the MS Nordnorge for a 6-day cruise over the top of the world and down to Bergen.

The ship

This was not a cruise ship we were on but a cargo vessel that also carried passengers. Working ships like these, once the lifelines along the Norwegian coast, began service in 1893 carrying cargo and mail. Today the fleet of Norwegian Coastal Voyage, referred to as Hurtigruten within Norway, comprises 12 vessels which look like modern cruise ships.

My cabin on board the MS Nord­norge was a “large standard with sofa/berth,” and it was roomier than I expected, measuring 107 square feet. Though it was designed for two people, I was alone, part of a press group hosted by Norwegian Coastal Voyages, Inc., and the Norwegian Tourist Board.

The bed I slept on was a frame attached to the wall containing a piece of foam which was pulled down in the evening. The second bed was a couch which opened to reveal another piece of foam.

The bathroom was typical for a ship, with a miniature shower, toilet, sink with potable water and cabinets for medicines and cosmetics. A welcome surprise was the heated tile floor.

Built in 1997, the Nordnorge carries passengers to 34 ports between Bergen and Kirkenes, Norway. The ship contains 464 berths but can hold 691 passengers, as some people are just on board for a day between regularly scheduled stops. There is also space for 50 cars.

Like a modern cruise ship, the Nordnorge supplied passengers with a dining room, cafeteria, bar, library, children’s playroom, sauna, a small gym, conference rooms and lounges with panoramic views.

Because this is a working cargo ship, passengers, supplies and vehicles were being moved on and off the ship all along the route, day and night. The night deliveries were a bit noisy, with some cabin passengers hearing more than others.

I could hear engine sounds, the opening and closing of the side compartments to transfer vehicles and cargo, and the lowering of anchors. In spite of earplugs, a stop at any port during the night almost always woke me up. However, after a day or two, I got used to the sounds and learned to sleep through most of them.

The food

The food aboard the Nordnorge was surprisingly good. Breakfast and lunch were served as a buffet, and dinner was a fixed menu. The breakfast featured both an American spread of sausage and bacon; scrambled, boiled or fried eggs; potatoes, and cereal plus more European selections such as sliced cold cuts, liver pâté, Norwegian caviar and a variety of cheeses, salads and fruit. All this was accompanied by a selection of breads and rolls plus coffee and tea.

Lunch offerings included fresh or smoked salmon, halibut and other fresh fish and shellfish as well as oven-roasted potatoes, reindeer stew, lamb chops with rosemary and smoked ham. Among other selections were salads and fresh strawberries and blackberries, with puddings, chocolate chip mousse and chocolate cake for dessert.

Dinners were fixed, but over the five evenings that I ate in the dining room the variety included venison, chicken, pork tenderloin and oven-baked salmon.

The cruise

Our first day on board at Kirkenes was counted as day seven by the ship’s staff, who started their count from Bergen. The ship departed from Kirkenes at 1:30 p.m. and stopped in Vardø at 5:00. There was no planned excursion, but passengers were allowed off the ship during the 45-minute stop to explore the town and the old Vardøhus Fort, built in 1737.

No one kept track of who left the ship, but everyone was given an identification card which needed to be shown when leaving or boarding. If passengers did not make it back on time, the ship left without them.

Several large buses picked up passengers from the ship the next morning at 6:00 for a long excursion to the town of Honningsvåg and the North Cape, Europe’s northernmost point, to have breakfast at the “Roof of Europe.” This was part of a 6½-hour tour through the Finnmark region, the home of Norway’s native Sami population.

After touring the cape, where we saw a fascinating slide presentation, we followed the coastal road past several majestic fjords. The tundra landscape was typical of the area.

We stopped at a Sami village where the native people were dressed in their traditional costumes. They posed for photographs along with their reindeer.

From our bus we saw large herds of reindeer feeding freely on a large range, part of some 210,000 protected animals which live there in the summer. We learned that there are also 800,000 puffins and three million other birds in Finnmark County.

At the end of the day’s tour we returned to the ship at Hammerfest and spent a glorious sunny afternoon stretched out in lounge chairs on the upper deck.

Islands and fjords

Our ship arrived in the town of Harstad at 8 a.m. the next day and we disembarked to take a 4½-hour tour of the Vesterålen Islands. Harstad, a town of picturesque wooden houses mixed with more modern concrete structures, celebrated its 100th birthday in 2004. Situated 155 miles above the Arctic Circle, I was amazed to find temperatures quite pleasant, in the 70s. Norway’s coast is warmed by the Gulf Stream, which keeps it from freezing even in winter.

After leaving Harstad, we drove by green farms with crops of strawberries, large stands of birch trees and wheat fields already harvested. We then took a 20-minute ferry ride from Refsnes across a fjord to Andsfjord.

As we sailed along, we learned there had been many avalanches in this area. I looked up to see high mountains with patches of snow and glaciers, even though it was deep into summer. It began to rain as we neared the fishing village of Sortland, where we rejoined the ship in time for lunch.

In the afternoon we enjoyed a stunning sail through a narrow area called the Trollfjord, a passage a mile and a quarter long and 100 meters wide. The weather remained perfect, and the closeness of the sheer sides of the mountains was heart stopping.

After an early dinner of roast pork and potatoes we arrived at Svolvaer, where we headed out again for an evening excursion of the Lofoten Islands. We stopped in the little fishing village of Henningsvær, which provided passengers with a 3-screen slide show about the local area. Though it was quite late, it was not too dark for photographs. We continued to enjoy the drive along the coast below the Lofoten Wall, a chain of mountains which rose directly up from the ocean floor, before rejoining the ship at Stamsund.

The next day we sailed along the Nordland coast, stopping in the afternoon in Sandnessjøen, a small fishing village. The sun came out and we sat on the top deck enjoying the scenery, including the Seven Sisters Peaks.

In the evening, the Captain’s Dinner featured venison, carrots, Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Dessert consisted of a Norwegian specialty, cloudberries and cream. I had only tasted cloudberries once before, in a liqueur, when I was in Finland, so eating them fresh was a delightful treat.

On to Bergen

In Trondheim we went ashore for a tour of this old Viking settlement, the first capital of Norway. Our guide, Trine, told us that 50 cruise ships visit this thousand-year-old city each summer.

We passed the Royal Residence, built in the 1770s, which functions as a museum in the summer. Old wooden houses, now considered national treasures, line the streets in a rainbow of colors. A tour of the nearly 1,000-year-old Nidaros Cathedral completed our tour.

The final morning was spent packing as we cruised south to Bergen, where we disembarked and headed for Hotel Neptun, owned by Norwegian Coastal Voyage.

Arranging passage

Passengers aboard Norwegian Coastal Voyage ships can book a variety of programs, including 6-, 7- or 12-day cruise-only trips or 12- to 18-day air-inclusive independent or escorted programs combining land explorations with the coastal voyage. I was on the 6-day sailing from Kirkenes to Bergen, which cost $1,303 per person (for my cabin category) and included three meals daily plus taxes and port charges.

Senior savings and AARP discounts are offered on most sailings, and most ships have three handicapped cabins.

Northbound travelers will see different scenery than those sailing south, as many of the daytime port stops are arrived at during the night on the return trip. To see all the sights along the route, you have to take the 12-day round trip.

Land excursions averaged $50, with the North Cape and Geirangerfjord excursions costing about $125 each. Beginning in 2005, all shore excursions will be available for purchase before leaving the U.S. so that space is guaranteed, but there will be a slight increase in prices.

A plus — no tipping is expected on board.

Though most of each day is dark during winter, the Christmas and New Year’s cruises offer special programs, food and entertainment. The ships stop at local churches for services, and lectures are offered on Norwegian folklore and Christmas traditions. There are even classes for making Christmas decorations, and passengers are often greeted in ports by carolers.

For more information, contact Norwegian Coastal Voyage (405 Park Ave., Ste. 904, New York, NY 10022; phone 800/323-7436 or visit www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.us).
For more information on travel in Norway, contact the Norwegian Tourist Board (phone 212/885-9700 or visit www.visitnorway.com).