The coastline of Norway is surely one of the most beautiful places on Earth, an ice-carved fairyland of filigree peaks, sheer-sided cliffs, glistening glaciers and tumbling waterfalls, all reflected in depthless fjords.
The best way to see it is from the water, and one name is virtually synonymous with sea travel in the region: Hurtigruten. For almost 125 years the company has plied the 1,200-mile route from Bergen around the North Cape to Kirkenes near the Russian border, forming a lifeline to dozens of seafaring communities large and small.
“Plied” is still the right word, because Hurtigruten’s fleet remains the major carrier of freight and people between many of the 34 ports on its route. Every day a Hurtigruten ship sails from Bergen on the 12-day round trip. Now they carry cruise passengers in full style and luxury, but there’s still the extra frisson of knowing you’re on a “real” journey to real places with real people, just as it was in the heyday of transatlantic liners or the Orient Express.
Although summer is the most popular season, real connoisseurs will tell you that Arctic Norway’s winter profile can be just as beautiful – when mountains and forests are hushed by fresh-fallen snow, turned briefly to gold by the fleeting Arctic sunrise, and the lights of coastal villages are reflected in the fjords like glowing embers in the twilight.
Most captivating of all are the Northern Lights, an iridescent panoply of neon-like light formations resembling anything from a silent firework display to a giant lava lamp. They’re only visible after dusk, so Norway’s long Arctic nights are the prime time to see them, and once you have, you’ll never forget.
No one can predict when the Lights will appear – that’s part of their appeal. But when they do a Hurtigruten ship is about the best place to be. The sharp-eyed crew will alert you as soon as they spot anything, and then you’ll have a ring-side view, far from the light pollution of big towns and with the ship’s own lights deliberately kept to a minimum – unlike the “Blackpool Illuminations” approach seemingly favoured by some of the larger cruise lines.
And you don’t have to worry about the expense of special excursions, or freezing toes in snowy fields, not when you have an attentive steward to hand and the prospect of a warm stateroom when the curtain falls.
Twenty-two of Hurtigruten’s 34 ports of call are within the Arctic Circle, where the Lights are strongest, and you stand a good chance of seeing them several times. In fact, the chances are so good that if they don’t show at all during a full, 12-day cruise between October and March, Hurtigruten will give you a free six or seven-day cruise in recompense. As far as we know, there isn’t another cruise operator that does this.
When the Lights are out, Hurtigruten can find plenty else for you to enjoy. The company’s onboard expedition teams have an unsurpassed knowledge of the region and throughout the year they organise more than 90 different excursions that will help you experience Norway like a local.
Winter highlights include meeting Sámi reindeer herders near Tromso, a Viking feast at Stamsund, ice fishing for crab in Kristiansund, horse riding on the beaches of beautiful Lofoten Island, and numerous opportunities to explore the wintry landscape by snowmobile, husky sled and snowshoe.
Winter is also a great time to sample northern Norway’s fresh Arctic seafood, with cod, char, salmon, scallops and king crab all in season, along with moose, grouse and reindeer. Hurtigruten’s fine dining experience, Norway’s Coastal Kitchen, ensures you get the widest possible choice, with fresh, farm-to-fork local cuisine and menus changing every day.
If you don’t have time for the full, 12-day round trip (Hurtigruten’s Classic Round Voyage) the company also offers five, six and eight-day slices of the route. And with charter flights from a dozen UK airports, Hurtigruten also makes light of joining your ship.
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Image Credit: ØLE C. SALOMONSEN, VIDAR LYSNES