Not many reviews have been written on the ships belonging to the Norwegian Hurtigruten company, so it was with some little ignorance and trepidation that we booked our Arctic Highlights 4-day cruise in an attempt to witness the often elusive Northern Lights. We'd read that the Nordlys was commissioned in 1994, had a capacity of 475 passengers and that it was a working ferry."Hmmm" we thought, "back to basics then, a bit of an old tub". Well, how wrong our perceptions were.
The Nordlys (and Hurtigruten) was refreshingly honest without the unsubstantiated marketing hype that has proceeded our cruises with Celebrity, P+O, Cunard et al. We'll run through some basics which may help in developing a more accurate picture of what to expect than we were party to.
We flew out from Heathrow (at 07.30) with SAS to Oslo, coupled with another 2hr transfer flight to our embarkation port of Tromso. The H'row / Oslo flight offered us no complimentary beverages at all so be prepared for a 2 hours of no grub. For some reason on the internal transfer flights you are offered soft drinks, tea and coffee.
We were met at Tromso airport by a Hurtigruten rep and very efficiently herded on to the coach transfer to our ship at the port. Being a working ferry, it was like waiting for a bus - and it was blooming cold. After about 25 minutes the boat pulled in and the chaotic check-in commenced, carrying our own luggage over the snow and ice, up the gangway to a very small reception desk for check-in. Not an impressive start but where did it say we would be waited on hand foot and finger? It didn't. But, the crew were very obliging and polite in helping us all out and this was generally the theme throughout our cruise.
Our cabins were not ready immediately but we waited in the lounge to be informed, which was about an hour. The cabin itself was small - very small - and equipped with 2 single beds (one was the lower half of a bunk bed, where the top bunk was folded against the wall, the other was a sofa bed). The bathroom was small but, in fact, not that much smaller than the one we endured on our recent Azura cruise and the shower was 10 times better! The beds were quite firm (well Lynne said uncomfortably hard).
Our cabin (note -not hyped up a Stateroom)was positioned on the 3rd deck and about two thirds down towards the aft. This meant you had fairly constant engine noise and other mechanical noises as the ship manouvred and docked throughout the day and night - remember it's a working ferry.
We were half board and enjoyed a fairly substantial buffet breakfast of typical European fayre comprising cold meats, cheeses, fruit, cereal, rolls and bread, fruit juice etc together with some cooked items for us Brits. No queues, no fighting for tables, carrying your tray for miles. All very pleasant and freshly prepared and replenished.
For lunch and snacks there is a small cafe but be warned of the prices - £4 for half litre of water, £5 for a coffee, £7 for a baguette. Ouch!
The evening meals were taken at designated tables at either 6.30pm or 8.30pm. It was very re-assuring to be greeted by a supervisor at the door insisting on the use of a hand sanitisor. We enjoyed such things as fresh soup, freshly prepared fish (pollock, salmon, cod) and venison steak all presented from a set menu. One evening saw us tucking into a wonderful fresh seafood buffet including salmon, king crab, lobster, mussels, king prawns, cod etc. Indeed, the food generally was more than a match for the "exquisite and sumptuous 5-star gourmet fayre" Celebrity would have you believe you are in for. But another "Ouch" - £8 per glass of house wine.
The decor is what you would call "traditional" with much use of wood (not veneer, P+O) brass and glass. The seating areas are comfortable with 2 bars, a very good observation lounge at the bow and a quiet area with library. And - BLISS - not a shred of that awfull intrusive piped music. No art auction. No constant announcements of yet another opportunity to part with your cash.
Hooray, just the sound of gentle chatter.
Hurtigruten offer excursions and they seem to be pretty well run, if not a little pricey. But again, they don't wax lyrical about them in a glossy brochure and there is no hard sell. We went to the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes and it was facinating as well as informative throughout. And all at minus 15 degrees too.
There's little in the way of entertainment save learning how to tie knots and being introduced to freshly caught king crabs.
Yes, we saw the Northern Lights - twice - and sightings are relayed over the ship's tannoy. You can also arrange to be phoned in your cabin if it's during the sleeping hours. But, don't go out in your nightey!!
So, to recap, this is a no frills, honest to goodness cruise in a jolly hostile but very picturesque environment. Be sure to take your camera as the snow clad fjords present a marvellous outlook. It's a working vessel so there is some disturbance but it's certainly not intrusive. The staff and the whole ambience on board is one of helpfulness and welcoming. There are no pretentious promises that fail to live up to expectations. Indeed, this may even undersell itself. What a refreshingly welcome change.