Norway-based Hurtigruten is best known for its journeys up and down the Norwegian fjords, which it’s been operating year-round since 1893. But the 2007 launch of the 256-passenger expedition vessel Fram reflected the company’s growing commitment to other far-flung destinations such as Antarctica, Spitsbergen and Greenland.
I recently joined Fram’s Greenland-focused “Glaciers and Ice” sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to see what it’s like to explore a remote destination aboard this small expedition ship. Fram will sail a similar itinerary in July and then again in the summer of 2015; the ship also explores other parts of the country such as the rarely visited North East Greenland National Park, which is frozen over for all but a few weeks of the year.
During my 11 nights onboard, I had plenty of time to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Hurtigruten experience. Here’s what worked well — and what could’ve used a little improvement.
The itinerary. The ship only made one call in Iceland, but it was a good one; the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is quintessentially Icelandic, with sheep and horses roaming green hills, fishing villages dotting the coastline and a volcano brooding over the whole scene. Then we reached Greenland, where the fjords glittered with ice and brightly painted houses provided the only splashes of color in a stark, rocky landscape. It’s a fascinating part of the world that few travelers get to explore.
Local experiences. In Itelleq, our last port of call, Hurtigruten offered a couple of memorable chances to interact with the 120 Greenlanders, the Inuit residents who live in this small settlement. All of us got tickets for a kaffemik, a visit to a local home for coffee and pastries; then we had the chance to join (or watch) a friendly soccer game between Fram passengers/crew and the residents. We shared little common language – Greenlandic is akin to Inuit languages spoken in northern Canada – but sports and smiles managed to bridge the gap.
Enrichment. Except for the busiest days in port, most daily programs included at least one or two lectures by members of the ship’s knowledgeable expedition staff. Topics included the natural world — ice, polar bears, whales — and the history of Greenland, from the earliest nomadic peoples to Vikings such as Erik the Red. These helped us better appreciate the towns and landscapes we were visiting onshore.
From the expedition team to the waitstaff in the bar and restaurant, Fram’s crewmembers were nearly all flexible, friendly and multi-lingual. During one hike, our enthusiastic guide switched effortlessly from German to French to English, depending on which passengers he was speaking to. At dinner, our waiter quickly learned our drink preferences, and the housekeeping staff always greeted us with a smile in the halls.
Missed calls. We were unable to make four of our 11 scheduled port stops due to excessive fog and ice. (Ours was the first Greenland sailing of the season; such significant ice is a little less likely on cruises later in the summer.) Our extra days at sea were filled with lectures and afternoon snacks in the lounge — interesting and fun, but not quite enough to make up for the experiences we’d hoped to have ashore.
Buffet meals. Dinners onboard alternated between plated meals served at the table, which were generally quite good, and buffets that too often didn’t live up to the same standard. Some dishes were lukewarm or overly salty, and the fixings at the salad bar began to look awfully familiar after a few days of seeing the same ones at both lunch and dinner. (Unlike larger ships, Fram offers no alternative restaurants.)
Internet access. During our 11-night sailing, I only managed to get online twice via the computers in the ship’s Internet cafe, and I couldn’t connect at all on my own laptop (though I tried daily). When I did get online, the connection was agonizingly slow. One crewmember told me that the staff couldn’t connect either and that Hurtigruten is working to get the issues fixed — but for now, prepare to rely on your phone for calls or be out of touch completely.
*Read more about Arctic cruises.