Hurtigruten—the largest cruise line you never heard of. Norwegian owned and operated, the line owns a fleet of 16 cruise ships, most of which travel up and down the west coast of Norway. The line also offer cruises to Greenland and Antarctica.
We took one of the 12-day Norwegian coastal cruises that both started and ended in Bergen, Norway, stopping about 30 times along the way. Most stops were of short duration, with no passengers exiting. There were about 10 longer stops where, at prices ranging from $40 to about $200 per person, we could take and "excursion" to see various attractions. One that we took, and the best by far, involved a fast, open air pontoon-like boat ride to a remote location to view sea eagles. Taking these excursions can easily add $500 to $1,000 per person or more to your cruise cost. There is very little to do on the ship except eat and sit around (inside or outside) enjoying the scenery, so you more or less have to take some of the excursions. The scenery varies from breathtakingly beautiful (fiords, mountains, farms, forests, small villages) to downright boring (barren hills, rocks and crags, not unlike the surface of the moon). The small villages and farming areas are quite picturesque. In addition to the excursion information furnished to passengers when they sign up for the cruise, there is a daily schedule of excursions, scenery sightings and shipboard activities (principally eating) posted by the tour director's desk, and copies are available for passengers to take.
Our cruise began on September 1st and ended on September 12th. This was early enough in the season for us to enjoy unusually good weather. (We saw rain only three times, with only one of longer duration.) For the first three days, as we traveled northward, it was warm enough for passengers to sit on the open top deck in shirt sleeves. At "Nord Cap" (North Cape), the northernmost land point in Europe, the temperatures had dropped to the low forties, and a fierce wind created a wind chill factor much colder.
It was surprising to us to see how modern and developed even the small villages are in terms of urban amenities and services—even at the top of the world in Kirkenes. The larger cities are like any other large city in Europe.
There were many nationalities aboard the ship, but the passengers were overwhelmingly European, including Norwegians, Swedes, Germans and English. Announcements over the ship PA system (which were irritatingly frequent) were given in three languages—Norwegian, German and English. We encountered very few Americans on the ship (about 10), and at the dinner meal (the only meal served restaurant style; breakfast and lunch were served buffet), we were seated by ourselves at our reserved table..
Our cruise was aboard the MS Midnatsol (Midnight Sun), the newest vessel (2003) in the Hurtigruten fleet. It is attractively decorated, with much use of wood in walls, floors and furniture, and in a style akin to updated art deco. The ship was kept spotlessly clean. It was easy to learn the layout and to get around in, with elevators and stairs between decks both fore and aft.
The public areas are located on decks 5, 8 and 9. The dining room, gift shop and fast food restaurant are on deck 5. Deck 8 has an open lounge in the front, with windows extending up to the ceiling in deck 9. Three-quarters of deck 9 is an outside deck with chaise lounges, a bar and two jacuzzis. There is a larger bar and lounge on deck 8, with live entertainment after about 7 PM. Deck 8 also has a self-service coffee/tea bar—at five bucks a cup! At the start of the cruise passengers are offered an opportunity to purchase a "coffee/tea deal," where for one price you get a Hurtigruten metal mug and all the coffee or tea you want at the self-service bar for the duration of the cruise. We bought it, but I don't remember the cost. Unfortunately, the coffee was virtually undrinkable (somewhere between snake venom and battery acid), so I ended up with just a high-priced mug. My wife made out: she drank lots of tea from the large assortment of tea brands available at the self-service bar.
Our cabin (inside; no windows; the cheapest) was small but very efficient. It included one fulltime single bunk style bed and a sofa that converted into a second bunk style bed. Both were hard but comfortable. There was a mirrored ladies make-up station, a small TV with 8 cable channels, a closet and other storage. The shower was small but quite adequate, except for its propensity to oscillate between hot and cold. For $350 more we could have had the same cabin with a window, but we decided against it because we knew from prior cruises you spend so little time in your cabin.
Eating on the Ship
The food we ate was in stark contrast to the sumptuous fare we had on an Oceania cruise to the Caribbean two years ago. Norwegian food, like the Norwegians themselves, is hardy. There was heavy emphasis on seafood and (usually seasoned) boiled potatoes at nearly every meal. Cold cuts, cheeses, pickled fish and beets and regular pickles were featured at breakfast and lunch, which were served buffet style. There was also coffee and tea available. The coffee was fresh made and very good, unlike the coffee at the self-service bar. Various mostly forgettable desserts were available with lunch and dinner. To my great disappointment, pastries were never served, even at breakfast.
The dining room is decorated like the rest of the ship, with neo-art deco furnishings. The silver service is spartan, usually only four or five pieces. The tables are covered with attractive oilcloth tablecloths, with heavy paper napkins. Hardy. Both lunch and dinner have two seatings, with reserved seats at both. Tables are assigned by table number, and we always sat at the same table. Water in a spring-capped bottle is served at lunch and dinner, if you had purchased the "water deal" at the start of the cruise. There is also free water available, but you would have to wait for refills. A "wine deal" was also available at the start of the cruise, whereby you would receive one bottle of wine at each dinner, specially picked by the head chef to accompany the menu. We passed on that deal since my wife doesn't drink wine. I probably wouldn't have purchased it anyway because of the high cost. On the wine menu, prices started at $65 per bottle and ranged on up to about $115 per bottle. I don't believe these were particularly premium wines, either.
Only the dinner meal is served by the staff, restaurant style. But even then they work the tables in order, starting at the first table with each course. At breakfast and lunch you serve yourself and the staff merely cleans up or takes special orders for the bar. I should say here that the staff were nearly all very friendly and accommodating, and most could speak Norwegian, German and English. One peculiar and unsavory practice at each meal occurred when you were through eating. The waiter or waitress would scrape any leftover food off your plate onto another dirty plate while standing at your table.
As with other cruises and tours we have taken with people from other countries, we were again amused and entertained by the European custom of eating with both handknife in the right and fork in the left—making it seem to take twice the effort. No doubt Europeans are just as amused at our style of eating.
No comment on our cruise would be complete without a note about the high costs in Norway. To start with, our Bergen hotel (the Neptune) which we stayed in two nights, one each at the beginning and end of the cruise, cost $300 a night! It was in the process of being redecorated, but not really upgraded. I would compare it to an older Holiday Inn Express. We understand that the cost of living in Norway is among the highest in the world. Believe it. After checking in to our hotel we went for a walk abound Bergen, a truly beautiful city. We stopped at a café with outdoor seating overlooking the bay and fish market (a big tourist attraction). I had a hamburger and beer and my wife had a small pizza and a coke. Total cost: $85! Welcome to Norway. My wife looked at some gorgeous knit sweaters, but at $300 and up we had to pass. As might be expected, costs on the ship are even higher. For example, at one dinner we ordered Pepsis at $7.20 each, and at another meal I ordered a local beer which cost over $8. One of the reasons for the high costs is Norway's sales tax, which is 25% on almost everything!
Despite any negative comments above, we thoroughly enjoyed our cruise. If we had to do it again, we would probably take the 7-day instead of the 12-day cruise. One of the factors that influenced us to go for the 12-day cruise was the very high cost of our airfare—almost $2,700. This cost would have been the same with either cruise. Moreover, we would have had the added cost of airfare and associated costs from Kirkenes to Bergen if we had taken the 7-day cruise. We had to take a three-legged 24-hour flight as it was (Bergen to Amsterdam to Detroit to Denver) just to keep the fare under $2,700. Another leg would have made it even worse.