We took the 12 day 'Classic Round Voyage' from Bergen to Kirkenes and back at the end of January 2010, the main reason being in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. Our ship was the Trollfjord, which is one of the newer and larger vessels (and identical to the Midnatsol), although the trip can be made in a number of the fleet's vessels that ply the coast carrying goods and passengers to numerous ports as well as accommodating their holidaying passengers.
Embarkation is late in the afternoon, but rather than use a flight (from UK) arriving at Bergen the same day as embarkation, we flew to Bergen the day before in order to spend the evening in Bergen for a pleasant but expensive few drinks and meal, and most of the following day sightseeing before being picked up by the Hurtigruten coach at the hotel (the Strand) at 5pm and taken to the point of embarkation. I would recommend this if possible as Bergen is a pleasant town and well worth the visit, and a number of those we met on board expressed the view that they too wished they had done this.
THE SHIP. The boat was bigger and smarter than I had envisaged for a working ferry. Although it doesn't compare with cruise lines - nor should anyone travelling by Hurtigruten expect it to be a 'cruise' in the excepted sense of the holiday - it is well appointed with a large and comfortable dining room, a large bar (with piano/singer in the evenings), cafe, gift shop, saunas, Jacuzzis, small gym, conference facilities, small library and large, comfortable observation lounges. As we were going for the whole 12 days and slightly concerned about the possible boredom factor, we booked a mini-suite to give us more room and comfort should we want to retire to our cabin. Although more expensive, we were glad that we did this as the cabin (no 691) was spacious, with seating area, television/CD player, a large comfortable double bed in a separate area and a good-sized bathroom with shower and hair-dryer. A bottle of fizz on ice was awaiting us on arrival, with a bowl of fresh fruit that was replenished daily, tea and coffee making facilities, and two of their unique coffee mugs that give free access to coffee throughout the trip (these cost 209 NK, or about £24, if bought separately). Also, the cabin was at the back on Deck 6, which is the only deck you can walk round on the outside, so any sightings of the Northern Lights, or need to get some fresh air was very easy as the door to the deck was only a few feet away from our cabin.
Although the bar is large it was very much lacking in customers for pre-dinner drinks (coffee is taken there after dinner). This is not surprising at the prices charged. We had a beer each evening, but two .4 litre glasses cost the equivalent of £13.50. It certainly curtailed my usual beer intake! However, it is perfectly acceptable to take your own drink on board for use in your cabin (and as Norway is not in the EU you can take advantage of duty free prices).
THE FOOD. As other reports indicate, breakfast and lunch are open-seating buffets, while dinner is a set meal (starter, main and dessert) taken at the same pre-assigned table each evening. Tables are generally for two or four, although at the time of the year we travelled the boat was only about a quarter full and most tables were occupied by a couple only. We were told on booking that there are usually two dinner sittings and we opted for the second sitting. However, as it was lightly booked there was only a single sitting. This was at 7 pm and a little early for us, but there was no problem in arriving at 7.30 or even 7.45 (although after that may have been a bit chancey for getting a starter!).
As with everything else, the food does not compare with that available on traditional cruise liners, but subject to my comments below, most of it was perfectly acceptable. The most disappointing was breakfast, as although there is a good selection of cold items (fish, meats, cheeses etc), a few cereals and a limited fruit selection, the 'hot' dishes left a lot to be desired. Firstly it was virtually always the same - inedible rubbery scrambled eggs, small meatballs, tiny red sausages and some small chunks of fried potato. These were invariably tepid at best unless you were lucky enough to get a batch being brought straight from the kitchen (and even then they were only warm) This 'hot' selection got very boring over the voyage and it would have been nice to ring the changes with some grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, different sausages or variety of potato, beans, bacon etc. to make it interesting, but only once in 12 days did we get some baked beans to add some variety, and on three occasions there were pre-fried eggs, topped with a little bacon. These made a welcome variation, but again they were not hot and you had to search for one with a soft yolk. In addition there were two bowls of eggs, one marked 'soft boiled' and the other 'hard boiled', but although I tried a soft-boiled egg when the fried eggs were unavailable, on every occasion the yolk was hard. They might just as well have had a single bowl of hard-boiled eggs! In short, therefore, I was a little disappointed with hot breakfast, as with a bit of variation and better preparation it could have been so much better.
Lunch was better, with a good selection of cold and salad dishes (including several varieties of fish) and two or three hot dishes as well as cheeses and a variety of sweets. There was also soup, but although I had it every day it was never more than warm. Similarly the 'hot' dishes tended to vary between tepid and warm more often than not, and were usually fairly plain, as were the accompanying vegetables (boiled potatoes/vegetables featured a lot!) Nevertheless, there was more than enough to satisfy, and being a buffet was able to be the most leisurely meal of the day.
Although dinner was without choice, I understand that those who didn't like the main course (for example vegetarians) would be offered an alternative. The food was of excellent quality, especially the fish of which there was plenty (only one day didn't fish feature as either the starter or main meal). However, once again I found it was rarely served hot, and serving it on cold plates didn't help. Nevertheless, it was always good quality ingredients and attractively presented, although again the accompanying vegetable often relied on the plain, unimaginative boiled potato.
The problem with the meals being less than hot seems to lie with the food being cooked in the kitchen (and probably the early batches wait in trays) before being brought out to a central serving counter in the centre of the restaurant where it is scooped into canteen-style trays. At lunchtime it then sits and waits in cooling containers, while at dinner it is then dished onto (cold) plates for waiters to distribute.
Wine was available at a high cost (the cheapest bottles were just over £36, rising to over £55, although a 'wine deal' was available that gave a bottle of wine per night. I don't know how much this was other than to surmise it must have been eye-wateringly expensive!) However, despite previous reports mentioning a 'water deal' whereby water could be purchased, this must have been discontinued, as (tap) water with the meal was free. Most people I saw drank water with their meals!
The service was efficient, although could be a mixed bag in terms of warmth and sociability. Some waiting staff were amiable, while one or two were straight-faced and lacking in warmth the whole time. One in particular (she must have been with them a long time as she appears in a photograph in the Hurtigruten museum at Stokmarknes) became a point of interest, as nobody saw her smile the whole of the trip! However, overall the service was good. THE STOPS. The ship stopped at many ports to unload/board freight and passengers. Often these stops were too short to leave the ship, but where it was possible it was nice to stretch our legs and walk in the winter snow that covered everywhere like a white fairyland. There are numerous organised trips available, although all were expensive for what they were. None particularly appealed so we didn't take any, and rather than taking an organised 'walking tour' of a town we preferred to do it ourselves at our own pace.
Despite one or two small negative points, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip. Although a few reports speculate that the full 12 days could be boring, it is OK if you are prepared for it and enjoy absorbing the scenery, which is spectacular. We found it OK. The 6-day cruise would have been too short and we were glad we were staying as we watched passengers disembarking at Kirkenes after what had seemed a very short voyage, although on arrival back in Bergen I was just about ready to leave.
The main attraction, of course, is the scenery and it really is enchanting. I loved it in the winter, with the snow-covered landscape and the early or late sun glinting on the snow-capped mountains giving them varying pink, orange and purple hues as it rose or dipped behind the horizon, and the snow turning the little villages into Christmas card scenes. And to top it off we did see the Northern Lights. Not the spectacular, rolling multi-coloured lights that are shown on TV but the pulsating luminous, greeny and rather spooky lights on the horizon. All in all I wouldn't have missed it.