How many port calls in a one-week sailing qualifies a cruise as "port-intensive"? Six? Seven? Eight? How about 35 ports in seven days?! Improbable as that may seem, the vessel that sails this itinerary is the equally unlikely combination of a luxury cruise ship, a cargo ship, a car and passenger ferry, and an expedition vessel. Hurtigruten's MS Midnatsol, of the line's "Millennium Class," joins the fleet of 13 ships that together sail year-round up and down the west coast of Norway. (Note: Prior to September 2007, Hurtigruten was known as Norwegian Coastal Voyage to Americans; it's now marketed as Hurtigruten worldwide.) Passengers may book the seven-night northbound trip from Bergen to Kirkenes, located hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, or the six-night southbound sailing, which reaches the same ports. However, since ports called at during daylight hours on northbound sailings are reached at night on the return -- and vice versa -- many passengers choose to combine north and southbound itineraries into a 12-night roundtrip, with different shore experiences offered each way.
In addition to traditional cruisers, many passengers -- mostly Europeans -- use the Hurtigruten ships as point-to-point transportation along the Norwegian coast, including up to 50 who travel with their automobiles. The result is a continually changing passenger makeup. One day on our sailing, for a few hours the normally mature ambience of the ship was strikingly enlivened when a group of preteen Norwegian backpackers boarded. Four hours later, at the next port, they were gone, and the atmosphere changed yet again.
Hurtigruten ships also carry cargo, calling at villages large and small, docking only as long as necessary to load and offload passengers and cargo, sometimes in as little as 15 minutes. And, unlike the long, drawn out docking procedure we're used to on conventional ships, the Midnatsol zips in and out of port in a flash, aided by triple bow thrusters and a state-of-the-art pod.
Though many port calls are short, extended shore excursions are possible; passengers merely rejoin the ship at a port further along the route. Midnatsol's small size and maneuverability also allow it to explore narrow and out-of-the-way fjords that the big ships simply can't enter. To make the experience even more expedition-like, the cruise director describes natural and cultural aspects along the way over the ship's PA system.
Bottom line: Midnatsol is a ship for the self-entertaining seasoned traveler who wishes to get a really close look at the fjords and communities along Norway's coast, is comfortable traveling with a passenger load that is mostly European (Americans number about 10 - 12 percent), and whose cruise experience is not diminished by the absence of many of the usual trappings of life at sea: entertainment, casino gaming, bingo, etc. Hurtigruten caters to the same clientele for the Norwegian fjords that would choose Cruise West or Society Expeditions over the "majors" for cruising Alaska.
Service onboard is efficient and extremely friendly, but without the fussy, almost obsequious attention often equated with cruising.