Copyright- Gordon Turner
It was a spring afternoon and, unexpectedly, the sun shone in Bergen, Norway’s rainiest city,
Not that it mattered much to me that day, because I was about to leave in a few hours and would be gone for 12 days.
I was waiting to board the ship Midnatsol on a journey that is advertised as “The world’s most beautiful voyage.” At Kirkenes, a town near the Russian border, the vessel would turn around and begin the southbound segment. This would be my sixteenth trip, so why, I asked myself, do I keep returning? I had two compelling reasons—most ships in the fleet provide comfort bordering on luxury, and the ships sail through superb scenery to historic cities, flourishing towns and unassuming villages.
Make no mistake, Midnatsol is not a conventional cruise ship. If you are hoping for a flashy casino, a silk-and-sequins floorshow or a lavish midnight buffet, you have stumbled aboard the wrong vessel. That said, Midnatsol and eight of her newer fleetmates are far from being no-frills transportation, with their attractive lounges and dining rooms and well-furnished cabins. All sail on an identical itinerary and were built with a threefold purpose: to take visitors on a scenically striking journey, to carry local residents from one port to another, and to pick up and deliver cargo en route. The ships carry everything from tires to tombstones, from beer to booster seats.
A bit of background is in order here. The coastal voyage, or hurtigruten (“express route”), to use its Norwegian name, has drawn overseas travellers from the time it was established in 1893. It continues to do so to this day. For most of the nineteenth century, the remote towns and villages of northern Norway were isolated from each other as well as from the more populated regions to the south. Roads were nearly non-existent; railways had not arrived. Ships were the sole means of transportation to the larger centres of the south, but they ran only intermittently in summer, and hardly at all in winter. Narrow channels between the mainland and the scattered islands were poorly marked; ships frequently ran aground. Residents of this far-flung and lightly populated area demanded better connections with the rest of the country; they wanted a regular steamship route, with fixed arrival and departure times at each port. Into the breach stepped Captain Richard With, who established a one-ship service between Trondheim and Hammerfest. Nowadays, on a much-expanded itinerary, one ship leaves Bergen every night of the year. And overseas visitors keep on coming.
We sailed out of Bergen at 8:00 PM. It was still light outside, and by the time we reached the far northern waters of Norway, we would have more than 20 hours of daylight. But that was still several days away. First I had to unpack. My compact yet comfortable cabin had no television, personal safe or mini-fridge. What it did have were two lower berths, a dressing table and chair, a clothes closet, and a tiny bathroom with an unexpected treat—a heated deck.
The 680-passenger Midnatsol’s handsome dining room has picture windows on three sides. Hint: try to reserve a window table; remember, you came to Norway to enjoy its scenery. The dinner menu is table d’hôte, but the three-course meal that first night and throughout the voyage was pleasing to the eye and tasty to the palate. This being Norway, fish formed the backbone, so to speak, of many main courses. Breakfast was spread out over two-and-half hours, 7:30 AM to 10, buffet style. Lunch, too, was self-service. Midnatsol provided a wide choice of hot and cold dishes; if the sea air had sharpened your appetite you could always go back for more. The three main meals were included in the fare. If I wanted morning coffee or maybe a mid-afternoon snack, I could buy them in the cafeteria. By Canadian standards, Norway is a fairly expensive country; however, the coastal express ships may be one of the least costly ways to see it without resorting to backpacking, hitchhiking or youth hostels.
Our first port of call was Floro, where we docked at 2:15 on Monday morning. That, at least, is what I think happened. I was fast asleep and did not actually see or hear anything. But not to worry. Whatever Floro’s attractions were, I could discover them on the southbound half of the voyage. In 12 days Midnatsol would make 66 stops, calling at 33 cities, towns and villages northbound and the same 33 southbound. If the northbound stop occurred during the night, the southbound stop would likely be in daylight hours. While Floro passed unnoticed by sleeping passengers, later that day everyone was wide awake for the ship’s daylight side trip into the spectacular Geirangerfjord. Cameras worked overtime as the fjord’s steep cliffs, perpendicular waterfalls, and miniature mountain meadows filled the viewfinders. The Geirangerfjord detour takes place only on the northbound leg of the voyage, and only between mid-April and mid-September.
Coastal-voyage ships spend six days above the Arctic Circle, but in Norway, “north of the Arctic Circle” does not mean ice-infested seas with polar bears leaping nimbly from floe to floe. Waters of the Gulf Stream warm the coast, and keep the ports ice free year long. Neither does “north of the Arctic Circle” automatically mean tumultuous seas. Midnatsol sailed mostly in confined waters, with land visible on one or both sides.
Each day our ship made three to seven stops, which lasted from ten minutes to four hours. Ports ranged in size from Trondheim, population 150,000, to villages of only a few hundred inhabitants. Our ship had a fairly rigid timetable, but passengers could disembark at every port. Twice I left the ship, took an overland tour through areas of scenic or historic interest, and re-embarked at a later town. If the ship were in port long enough— about four hours each in Trondheim, Tromso and Honningsvag northbound—local tours could be booked. I tried a few: Trondheim tour—good; Tromso—mediocre, mostly because the guide (“Ms. Motormouth,” according to one passenger) talked incessantly; North Cape—very good.
Just before the voyage ended, I took an informal poll among my table companions. Which was the most attractive port? Several named Svolvaer, a fishing town in the Lofoten Islands, with codfish-drying racks along one side of the harbour entrance, and a dramatic mountain backdrop that almost overwhelmed the town itself.
I disembarked in Bergen with the intention of making the voyage again. The slogan writer that tagged the journey as “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage” certainly makes a compelling case. It is not compulsory to book a round trip. Some people take the northbound segment, while others book the southbound one. If you asked me to decide between them, I would vote for northbound. In my opinion, it edges out southbound by a narrow margin because it calls at some of the more interesting ports in daylight hours.
I spent two days in Oslo and two in Bergen, both attractive cities in their own right. To get from Oslo to Bergen, I went by rail, a 300-mile seven-hour journey, with the train climbing from sea level at Oslo to 4,000 feet at Finse, then descending another 4,000 feet to reach sea level at Bergen. And the scenery was absolutely splendid.
The vessels fall into four groups: two small ships from 1956 and 1964, one from the 1980s, six from the mid-1990s, and three, including Midnatsol, that entered service in 2002-03. The 1990s ships are larger, about 11,000 tons, while the three newest run to 16,000 tons. All except those from 1956 and 1964 have cabins for the physically handicapped, elevators and laundry rooms. Dress code is casual. Tipping is not essential.
Rates for the coastal voyage are complicated. Prices vary according to the time of year, and there are different rates for about 15 cabin categories. Travel agencies that specialize in either Norway or unusual voyages are more likely to understand the intricacies of booking than general travel agents. I booked through The Cruise People (tel: 1 800 268 6523), website: www.thecruisepeople.ca.