Northern Lights Festival Bergen to Tromso, Norway January 20 - 29, 2007
I recently returned from a cruise tour to Northern Lights Festival in Tromso, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle. A little late posting a review, as I just returned from a Panama Canal, which will be the subject of another review when I have time. This review has become longer than planned as I kept thinking of things to add, and I hope it will be of interest to anybody else considering a winter trip to Norway.
The Package My package, one of several offered, included one night in Bergen, four on the Norwegian Coastal Voyage (NCV) ship Trollfjord, and three nights in Tromso (normally two nights, but I extended one day). It included round trip air Boston-Bergen-Tromso-Boston., transfers, and one of the ship's meal plans, of which there are several. Mine included three meals a day on the ship, but most of the British (the majority of passengers) were on a breakfast-and-dinner plan. Local one or two-day passengers appear to bring food on board and /or buy from the on-board buffet.
The Company The Norwegian name of the company is Hurtigruten, which I am told means "quick journey". The Norwegian Coastal Voyage name seems to be used only in North America - in Europe, including the UK where they market heavily, they use the Norwegian name, and I heard that they soon plan to do the same in North America. However, I'll use NCV for ease of reference in this review. What NCV is not: it is not a cruise line; it is a coastal passenger, car and light cargo shipping company, operating working ships with several cruise ship amenities. A ship departs from Bergen every night for the 11-day round trip to Kirkenes on the east side of the North Cape. In addition to the eleven ships plus spares required to maintain this schedule, NCV dedicates two ships to Antarctica excursions in the southern hemisphere summer (our winter), and they have just added a new ship which will be used for Greenland excursions.
The Ship I sailed on the Trollfjord which, like her sister ship Midnatsol, is one of NCV's newest and largest ships. At 15,000 gross tons she is about half the tonnage of the former Renaissance "R" ships, but with about the same number of berths. Therefore, I suspect she becomes a bit crowded during the high summer season, but there certainly wasn't any crowding for this lightly booked journey. I also saw several of the older, smaller ships along the way, but don't know how their amenities compare with the newer ships.
My fare was based on "best available cabin" and I was assigned to a Deck 4 aft outside cabin. Cabin is actually a double, but is sold as a single with no single supplement during the winter months. It was small, about 160 square feet, but certainly adequate for short trips. It is essentially just a place to sleep, all I normally want on a ship. If I were to do the full 11-day round trip I would probably opt for a larger, therefore more expensive, cabin on deck 6, 7 or 8.
Cabin was tastefully decorated, but don't expect frills like TV, refrigerator, safe, fruit baskets, a selection of toiletries, or bed turndown service, although I understand these amenities are provided in the suites and higher-priced cabins. The bed was comfortable, with a warm duvet and extra blankets, and the bathroom, with shower, completely functional. One nice feature: heated bathroom floors, so you step from shower to warm tile. Also, the individual cabin temperature control was the best I have experienced on any ship.
The public areas are on a par with upscale cruise ships, nicely decorated and furnished. Deck 5 forward contains a large conference center with tiered seating and full audio visual facilities, and at least two groups came on board for a day or two to hold conferences. Amidships there are cafes, children's playroom, small shops, and the aforementioned buffet. The comfortable attractive dining room is located aft.
Deck 8 offers a two-deck-high forward observation lounge, a great place to watch the scenery go by, especially when it is cold and snowing on deck. This was also the venue for several festival events while docked in Tromso. Deck 8 also includes a large bar and lounge area with a small dance floor (very few people danced), the library, internet café, and a snack bar. The aft area of Deck 8 is occupied by the high-end suites and cabins.
A singer-keyboard player performed nightly and had a good repertoire Everything was in English, although he is Bulgarian. In addition, I assume because of the festival connection for this trip, there was a soprano and her accompanist who performed on several occasions, everything from opera to old pop songs. I don't think I have heard Abba Dabba Honeymoon since college in the '50s, and certainly never by an operatic soprano!
Meals As noted earlier, there were several different meal plans. Regardless of which plan a passenger had, he or she was assigned to a specific table for the whole voyage. There are only a few large tables; most tables are for two or four. I was seated with three very pleasant English ladies. I believe I was one of only two or three single male passengers. Since the ship was at less than one third capacity, there was only a single seating for each meal - normally there are several. Tables were assigned the first evening, although I have heard that on more heavily booked trips tables and sittings are pre-assigned.
Breakfast was a buffet with open seating; lunch was also a buffet, but passengers were asked to sit at their assigned tables. I assume this is how the kept track of who was entitled to what. Both breakfast and lunch were a treat for those of us who like fish, featuring a large selection of cold fish, including salmon and herring prepared in every way I can imagine. Each day there was also an additional appetizer, such as shrimp, crabmeat, etc.
Dinner was similar to a banquet or Rotary Club lunch ashore with no apparent assignment of waiters to particular tables; waiters teamed up to serve the whole room quickly. Dinner consists of three courses: appetizer, main course, and desert, with no choices. However, the evening menu was posted every morning and if it included something you couldn't eat or didn't like, they would do everything possible to find a suitable substitute, at no extra cost. Portions were generous but not excessive - I don't recall seeing anybody patronizing the buffet or snack bar after dinner.
Onboard Expenses As on land in Scandinavia, food appeared quite expensive on board, but drinks didn't seem that much more costly than on a high-end cruise line. I had bar charges ranging from $3.50 to $15, but I'm not sure what they were for since the bill is in Norwegian. Food costs incurred depend, obviously, on which meal plan has been included in the fare. Unlike cruise ships, NCV is very relaxed about passengers bringing food, liquor, beer, soft drinks, etc. on board. They only ask that alcohol brought on board from ashore not be consumed in public rooms, which is understandable. I assume there is a corkage charge for wine carried into the dining room, but didn't check this.
Upon boarding passengers are offered the opportunity to buy either a wine plan or a water plan. The former provides a full bottle of wine each evening, selected to compliment that night's meal. This was reasonable if a party can consume a full bottle of wine each evening; it's not practical for most single travelers like me. It was also possible to purchase wine by the glass or by the bottle, which they will keep for you from day to day.
The water plan, which is included in the wine plan or purchased separately, provides a full liter glass bottle of water daily, either carbonated or non carbonated. There are no pitchers of water on the tables. The bottled water is produced by the ship's desalination system. It is quite expensive, especially if you're not prepared to drink a whole liter of water with dinner, but the solution is simple: buy one bottle on board or ashore and re-fill it in the cabin (it's the same water). People carried bottles around all the time, including to and from of the dining room, and no one objected.
Beer chits were available, but I didn't check this as I'm not a beer drinker.
There were also charges for various services such as the internet and even a nominal charge to visit the bridge for a non alcoholic drink with the captain.
Tipping, a significant cost on cruise ships, is neither necessary nor expected, although tips for any extra or special services are welcome.
All on-board expenses can be charged to the "Cruisecard" issued upon boarding. It is activated as a charge card by simply providing your credit card information the first time you want to charge something to the on-board account.
NCV booked my air travel on Icelandair for the transatlantic and SAS for internal flights in Norway. Normally they use SAS out of Newark, but in my case it was more practical to send me from Boston. I was happy with this, as it avoided my having to get myself to Newark. Icelandair was one of the few international airlines I hadn't flown with, and I was pleased with their friendly, efficient service. All flights were either on time or early, and during this light travel season I had three seats on three of the four segments. Food was noticeably better than average airline fare.
The one drawback for some might be that most, if not all, Icelandair transatlantic services involve a change of planes at their hub, Reykjavik. This adds an hour or so to the trip, but personally I welcomed the opportunity to stretch my legs in mid journey.
Passport control was in Reykjavik, and this apparently covers all EEC-affiliated countries, as I was never asked for my passport again until starting my return trip from Tromso.
The one small glitch on the outbound trip was that NCV did not allow adequate transfer time in Oslo. They insisted that 55 minutes would be enough as my baggage was checked through to Bergen. I was fairly certain, and turned out to be right, that I would still have to clear and re-check my baggage in Oslo to go from an international to an internal flight, just as you must in any U.S. port of entry. I wasn't particularly concerned as there are frequent flights from Oslo to Bergen. I probably could have made my scheduled flight if it hadn't taken 45 minutes to deliver the baggage (handling undoubtedly slowed by a snowstorm), but I had no problem getting on the next flight 50 minutes later.
When I arrived in Bergen the transfer service had left, not knowing where I was. Driver had left a message for me at the information desk, and when contacted by phone he said he had had another pickup and it would be an hour before he could get back to the airport. Instead, I opted for the airport bus because the weather was nice - dry and in the 40s - and I knew it was only a couple of blocks from the fish market bus stop to my hotel.
Hotel was the Clarion Admiral (one of the Choice Hotels brands). It was created from two waterside storage buildings and has a beautiful view of the harbor. I believe I was the only NCV passenger at this hotel. The included breakfast was much more extensive than those now included by mid priced US hotels and motels.
I spent the rest of the day, Sunday, resting up from the overnight flight and reacquainting myself with downtown Bergen, and Monday exploring on foot and doing a little shopping. In the afternoon I visited Bergen's aquarium, which I hadn't done on previous trips, about a 20-minute walk from the town center, a small but interesting attraction. There was no snow on the ground when I arrived in Bergen but by the time I got back to the hotel it was snowing quite heavily, and continued to do so throughout most of the trip.
Transfer service picked me up promptly at 5 PM and after a couple of other stops, we went directly to the ship where check-in was the most painless I've experienced. The shore agent simply took our baggage and in my case gave me my stateroom assignment. He then sent us onboard to complete registration at the front desk. By the time I got to my cabin my baggage was there. There are none of the normal formalities that you encounter on an international cruise as this is a Norwegian ship sailing between Norwegian ports in Norwegian waters. This applies to embarkation, disembarkation and intermediate ports of call, where the ship simply pulls up to the wharf and lowers the hydraulically operated passenger and automobile gangways. Passengers then come and go at will, just scanning their Cruisecards each time The cruise director warns you the first day that the ship will not wait for you if you are late; in her words, "If you miss the ship, you'll have to get to the next port on your own by air, road or swimming." So, it's wise to double check the boarding and departure times, as I don't think we ever left a port late.
The cruise director was our main contact and served not only as cruise director, but also shore excursion organizer, PA announcer (Norwegian, German and English), and in various other capacities. I was considered part of the British group as my booking had been handled by the NCV London office. Two NCV London representatives came on board as group leaders and functioned as staff assisting the cruise director. It was not necessary to split us into two specific groups as is usually done on a land excursion. Instead of a lifeboat drill, impractical with people embarking and disembarking at every port, the cruise director gave a safety briefing. In case of emergency, passengers are instructed to go to the nearest clearly marked assembly point, where life jackets and further instructions would have been distributed as necessary.
The journey north to Tromso included about 20 intermediate ports of call, ranging from as little as 10 minutes to six hours in Trondheim. I won't go into detail about the itinerary and ports - details are available www.coastalvoyage.com. There was also a 10-hour stay in Bodo, not the usual five hours, when the captain decided to skip the two Lofoten Islands ports due to high winds and rough seas in that stretch of open ocean.
Shore excursions are offered at the longer calls; I only took a couple - I'm not a very good tourist - and having visited the major ports on summer cruises, was content to disembark and walk around in the snow.
Overnight, en route to Bodo, our first major port above the Arctic Circle, the snow changed to heavy rain, which continued throughout the next day. However, it changed back to snow during our final night en route to Tromso, where it continued to snow the rest of my stay, with a few very short letups. Obviously, we didn't see the northern lights.
When the captain decided to stay in Bodo until 10 PM instead of 5 PM the cruise director organized an after-dark tour of the city, which I went on. It was still raining, but the visit to Bodo's very modern cathedral was worth the small cost of the excursion. A group of young children were rehearsing for some event and treated us to a short impromptu performance.
Upon arrival in Tromso about 40 of us were bused directly to the sled dog center for the "Dog Sledge Safari" we had signed up for. Great fun, with about an hour on the sleds and well worth the $160 cost. I had taken along quite a bit of warm clothing but didn't need to get it out, as we were provided with coveralls, boots, hats, scarves and gloves, and we were wrapped in reindeer skins on the sleds. The sled trip was followed by coffee, tea and cakes around a fire in a typical Sami Lavva (a large teepee-like tent). Learned that the native people prefer to be called Sami, not Laplanders.
Next we were taken to our hotels, the Clarion Hotel Bryggen in my case, another pleasant hotel right on the waterfront couple of blocks from the center of town. As in Bergen, an extensive breakfast buffet is included, and it has an excellent, although expensive, restaurant open for lunch and dinner.
My time in Tromso was devoted to a couple of festival events and exploring the city on foot. It was hard to believe we were several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, as the gulf stream moderates the coastal temperatures. It was 24 degrees the morning I left Tromso for home; 10 when I arrived in Boston that night. Interesting places include the ultra modern Arctic Cathedral ( a long walk or short taxi ride across the harbor), the"Polaria" arctic center, short walk from the hotel, and the very modern library in the center of town - great place to relax with a coffee when cold and/or tired of walking. There is also a picturesque, active, old church in the center of town, Lutheran I think.
The main street is a pedestrian mall. Sidewalks at most shops are heated, so you don't have to climb over snow banks to go window shopping. There is also a Burger King for those who can't live without American burgers, but I didn't see a McDonalds.
Northern Lights Festival This is a week-long music festival celebrating the first sunrise of the new year in late January. It includes many events, ranging from symphony to hard rock. I had booked two events from the ship, so my first task after checking into my hotel was to pick up and pay for tickets. It was from this point that I learned what really nice, considerate people Norwegians are. When I got back to my room later that night I couldn't find my ATM card, which I had used at the ticket office First thing next morning I went back to the ticket office, but nobody had turned it in. I figured it was gone for good, probably under a foot of snow somewhere so I called my bank and cancelled the card.
Around 5 PM that evening, the front desk at the hotel called to ask if I had lost a card. They told me it had been turned in at the ticket office. I must have dropped it at the ATM, in a fairly dark area, so nobody noticed it for most of the day. When I asked the ticket lady how she had found me, she replied that she had started calling the hotels NCV uses and found me at the third one she tried. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else? If had trusted human nature a bit longer I could have saved the $10 my bank charged for a replacement card.
Unlike the ships' normal itinerary, the Trollfjord remained in Tromso instead of continuing north. Several events were held on board, the first I attended being a small group performing on the ship in the late evening. Quickly found that the hard rock beat wasn't my type of music.
I went back to the ship a second night for another Norwegian group, but hadn't purchased an advance ticket, and it was sold out.
The second event I attended was a concert by "Tromso Storband" a traditional big band augmented by a couple of additional instruments, for a total of 19 musicians. American jazz trumpeter Randy Brecker was guest soloist. A talented group of musicians and a great performance - I'm sure most of us would have gladly stayed for another hour if the performance had gone on!
Attendees at all of the events were mainly Norwegian, all very well dressed, so this is obviously dress-up occasion.
USA Bound Return trip was completely uneventful. Departure from Tromso was delayed a bit by airport snow removal and de-icing of the aircraft (it was still snowing), but I still had plenty of time for my Oslo connection with even a little time to check out the duty free ships. Our flight route from Reykjavik to Boston took us over southern Greenland and Labrador on a clear day, impressive even from 40,000 feet. We arrived in Boston a few minutes early, but had to sit for a while because our gate was blocked by a 747. However, once we got to the gate, passport control and customs were quick, so I was able to catch the next bus back to New Hampshire.
Would I do this trip again? Probably, as there are several other interesting winter packages and I don't mind cold weather or snow - I wouldn't live in New England if I did. These ships also would be a great way to see the Norwegian fjords in any season if one wanted to break up the voyage with stopovers at the various ports. After all, there's always another ship the next day. The major difference between summer and winter is that the ships go up the Geiranger Fjord in summer. The available overland side trip up to Geiranger is spectacular - I did it on a previous summer cruise - and you still get to see the fjord on the way out.
Comments or questions will be welcome either on the NCV board or by e-mail.