When you say the word "cruise," one typically thinks of a BIG cruise ship that holds anywhere from 2000 to 6000 guests and features Broadway style entertainment and lavish midnight buffets.
But Hurtigruten truly walks away from this kind of mainstream cruising concept and provides a different kind of cruise experience that sails up and down the coast of Norway. I knew this was a different kind of cruise when we went through the safety demonstration and before you put on your life vest, you must first put on a thermal suit! Luckily we did not have to actually put them on and all of the safety items are kept on the 'rescue deck' not in your cabin (which makes more sense to me anyway).
We boarded the Finnmarken, a ship that even with full capacity only holds 1000 passengers. Since we boarded on Oct. 27th, during the off-season, there were only about 150 passengers that were going the entire voyage, from Bergen to Kirkenes. By that I mean that although this truly IS a cruise ship with staterooms, main dining room and a cruise director, it is also the 'coastal ferry,' whereby the locals (even with their car) can board the ship for just a port or two before disembarking.
These ships also take on cargo and deliver it to various ports along the way. It was quite fascinating to watch - once we were docked, the door of the hold would open up and the forklifts would off-load and load cargo in the 15-20 minutes we were in port, then they'd close the doors and off we would go!
With Hurtigruten, a ship sails every day from Bergen going North and that same day, one sails from other the 'end of the line,' Kirkenes, going South. So on any given day, their fleet of 11 ships are spread out along the coastline of Norway, some going north, some going south.
Needless to say, throughout our 7-day northbound cruise, we passed a number of other Hurtigruten ships, and of course there was friendly competition to see which ship could get the most passengers out on deck waving as we would pass.
While docked at Rorvik, we were even able to board their sister ship, the Midnatsol, during our 45 minute port stop (of course we had to be mindful of the time in order to disembark and get back to our ship in time!).
The Finnmarken is not a flashy ship, although I must say, when we did board the Midnatsol, it truly DOES look more like a modern cruise ship than the Finnmarken. I would describe it as 'comfortable' but VERY easy to get around. We spent most of our time either in the dining room or on Deck 5, where we could go out to the bow. This was the primary reason we had picked this particular ship was so we would be able to go out there to watch the Northern Lights, and that theory proved to be VERY good on the night's the lights were happening. The bow provided the darkness and unobstructed views needed to really see the Northern Lights.
With a traditional mainstream 7-day cruise, the cruise itinerary will typically call on 3 to 5 ports with some 'at sea' days as well. The ship will usually pull into port in the morning, you are in port the bulk of the day and then sail again in early evening.
With a 7-day Hurtigruten cruise, however, the ship calls on 34 ports, which can sometimes means 5 to 6 ports a day! Although some stops are just for 10 to 20 minutes, just long enough to disembark passengers and off-load cargo, sometimes you are in port for a couple of hours, such as Tromso, Trondheim and the North Cape, which was enough time to do a beautiful and informative shore excursion. I must say that for some of those ports, I truly would have liked to have had more time in port... alas.
When we were in Trondheim, we took the Nindros Cathedral excursion, which included a tour of the city, with a stop at a park at a high point in town for a pretty spectacular view. When in Tromso although we did not do a ship excursion, we took the city bus from the pier over to the Arctic Chapel - I was surprised that it was as small as it was, but it was stunning. We also took the Nordcap excursion out to the North Cape - AMAZING - THAT was worth it all! The guide was delightful and we stopped at a small Sami settlement for photos and souveniers. Our pictures at the North Cape told the whole story!
Needless to say, the ship is 'on the move' pretty much the entire time. Some of the stops were made in the wee hours of the morning. However, I must say that even though the ship pulled into port after we had retired to our cabin, it was never bothersome or disruptive to our sleep. Two of the nights we did encounter some 'weather' - it was kind of cute how they 'informed' us of the potential situation - "Ladies and gentlemen, we will be out in open water tonight and anticipate some strong side winds, so tonight might be a good night to stay in your cabin and lay low."
The tour director was very knowledgeable and spoke 5 different languages. She also gave very good presentations (in multiple languages when necessary) at various times throughout the cruise - she knew who spoke what and by glancing over the room and seeing who was there would use whatever languages necessary - pretty cool!
One of the appealing things about this cruise (at least for us) was the casualness of it - there really is no 'dress code' and jeans are acceptable, even for dinner in the dining room.
Speaking of dining room, for meals, there was a rather extensive buffet for both breakfast and lunch that varied daily. As one might expect, there were some traditional English items, such as baked beans and kippers available at breakfast, but also a wide variety of homemade breads, meats and cheeses, including Brie and bleu cheese, available at both breakfast and lunch!
Dinner, however, was usually a set menu with assigned seating, but if you didn't want what they were serving that night, upon request they would also prepare something different for you. The last night of the cruise, they put out an amazing seafood buffet that included mussels, prawns, a couple of kinds of crab and even lobster!
I was NOT impressed by their dining room service though for breakfast and lunch, although at dinner somehow they knew what to do. Odd. I also found it REALLY strange that you could get as much coffee as you wanted in the dining room at breakfast and lunch, but at dinner, you could NOT get coffee. If you wanted coffee after dinner (mind you not with dessert, but just after dinner), you had to get it in the bar - and if you wanted decaf (which I did), they pointed you to the hot water and a jar of Folger's instant! Yes, really!
For entertainment, local performers were often brought onboard, such as a traditional Norwegian fiddler, who played some folk tunes while a young man danced. Another night, a gal from a Sami tribe came onboard and sang some of their folk songs. They were fabulous! Other nights there was a lounge entertainer, but as one might expect, he was barely tolerable, but that was OK since most everyone was outside trying to catch the Northern Lights anyway.
Although not for everyone, for us, the Hurtigruten experience for the most part was pleasant and provided us a relaxing weeklong cruise with a taste of Norwegian everyday life, close up views of majestic snowcapped fjords and the chance to see the Northern Lights up close and personal.