Norway's 1,250-mile coast is a mix of dramatic fjords, colorful fishing villages, narrow straits, islands and inlets, and scenery that changes by the hour -- and it's precisely these views that attract traditional cruise passengers to a Nordnorge voyage. Young European backpackers, on the other hand, use the ship as a means of transportation between towns. Still others bring their cars onboard, as well as their kids for family vacations. In addition to passengers and cars, the ship carries all manner of goods -- from crates of fresh produce to home repair supplies.
I had to keep reminding myself that Nordnorge (the name is taken from Norway's most northerly region) is not a cruise ship in the usual sense. Classed as one of Hurtigruten's six Contemporary Ships, it's a combination of a UPS delivery service on water, a ferry and a cruise ship. (Note: Prior to September 2007, Hurtigruten was known as Norwegian Coastal Voyage to Americans; it's now marketed as Hurtigruten worldwide.) My first (and lasting) impression of the Nordnorge exceeded all expectations. She looks every bit a cruise ship, with polished wood stairways, brass everywhere, fascinating Norwegian artwork and plenty of panoramic windows. Forget about your typical workhorse ferryboat. The Nordnorge is one classy ship. And yet, there's that ever-present self-service aspect -- toting your own luggage up the gangway, picking up your daily program at the excursion desk, fetching your own after-dinner coffee in the lounge and even making up your own bed at night.
Once you wake up to the fact that you're part of remote Norway's everyday lifeline, you appreciate the frequent, brief stops. What other cruise line offers 33 port calls in six days? No matter where we were, there was always someone eagerly waiting for the ship to dock. I loved watching disembarking Norwegian passengers being greeted with hugs and the family dog. And yes, there are shore excursions, but not many. Due to the shortness of time in port, you disembark in one town, hop on a bus tour and meet the ship at the next port. Didn't I say this is a different kind of cruising?
Nordnorge spends summers cruising Norway's coast. In winter, the ship heads to Antarctica for reasonably priced expedition-style adventures complete with naturalists and lectures. During Antarctica trips, the number of passengers is limited to 350. Six inflatable landing craft are carried in the car storage area and used for wet landings and wildlife watching. The Nordnorge is rated Ice Class C, ice hardened but not an icebreaker.