Norway, famous for its beautiful fjords, midnight sun and expensive beer, comes alive in the summer. Cruises are a natural fit for this coastal country, and few images are more romantic than watching the sun caress the horizon late into the evening. So, who would even think of visiting Norway anytime other than the summer?
The Northern Lights are the initial draw. But as a February sailing on Hurtigruten -- the coastal service that has been linking Norwegian communities since 1893 -- proved, an offseason winter trip between Oslo and Kirkenes also can be wonderful. With fewer tourists, the cities and small communities the Hurtigruten visits seem more authentic as locals go about daily life. And while Norway's lush fjords are beautiful in the summer, they are equally stunning draped in snow with the sun casting a golden pall.
What do you see during these limited hours of daylight? Instead of summer's deliciously lingering sunlight, you'll witness a furtive sun that barely climbs into the sky before retreating into long, dark evenings. You'll dress for snow and chilly Arctic winds, although the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures surprisingly moderate.) And yes, you'll probably see the Northern Lights, which will leave you wondering: Why would anyone visit Norway anytime other than winter?
To see more than just the coast, fly into Oslo and take the train to Bergen, where the cruises embark. This seven-hour trip rises steadily into alpine ski country. You'll reach over 4,000 feet above sea level -- no other rail line linking two European cities is higher -- and watch as Norwegians ski right up to or off of the train platform. As the train descends into Bergen, you'll glide past fjords and through small towns.
Tip: If you take the train between November and February, be sure to leave in the morning. If you leave later, you miss the most dramatic scenery, because of the early sunset.
Whether you board in winter or summer, a Norwegian sailing with Hurtigruten differs from a mainstream cruise line. Besides carrying both cargo and passengers, the ships allow travelers to get on and off at any city. Most people choose to travel the full coast route, either northbound or southbound, although the full roundtrip exposes you to the most ports (ports visited during the day northbound are visited during the night southbound and vice versa). Passengers staying on for even one night can buy a meal plan in the main restaurant, although most "short-timers" eat in the cafeteria.
Tip: Because cargo operations go on through the night, light sleepers will want to avoid cabins near or over the car deck and close their blinds to avoid light from the 3 a.m. port stops.
Hurtigruten visits 34 ports in less than a week. Some stops are only 15 minutes, and a few passengers consider it a sport to take a walk in every port -- no matter the hour. If the call is 30 minutes long, everyone fans out for 15 minutes before turning around and clambering up the gangway moments before departure. Passing cod hanging outside houses gives a great glimpse into small towns that most tourists miss.
Highlight: We woke up before 6 a.m. to walk into Hammerfest, the northernmost city in Norway. It was (not surprisingly) deserted at that time, but the colors in the sky and the peaceful, still nature of the abandoned streets created a lasting memory.
Norway's tangled fjords are just as remarkable in the winter as in the summer. Deep snow covers the steep mountains down to the sea, and in the evening, the fjords appear to glow with the reflecting moonlight. It is a different experience than during the summer; rather than majestic and inspiring, the fjords in the winter are intimate and silent.
Highlight: While the Hurtigruten ships all have wonderful, window-lined lounges, many passengers choose to watch the scenery from outside. Each ship has a deck sheltered from the wind where it is surprisingly comfy to take in the passing landscape. Even better: Some of the newest ships have whirlpools, an indulgence that makes for the ultimate in Arctic scenery watching.
Not all port calls are quick dashes in and out; on many days the ship stopped at larger cities for several hours. Hurtigruten offers approximately 50 shore excursions -- many are seasonal. So there are options in all of the longer port calls. One favorite on our sailing was Trondheim, Norway's third largest city and its original capital. Most everyone will find something to keep them occupied here, whether their interest is history, shopping or just strolling along the Nidelva River that cuts through the city center.
Highlight: It is hard to miss Nidaros Cathedral -- its soaring spire can be seen from just about anywhere in the city. Built in 1070 over the burial location of St. Olav, the Patron Saint of Norway, this Gothic masterpiece has been a pilgrimage site for hundreds of years. Need another reason to visit? You'll always be able to say that you’ve been to the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world!
Is there a more Arctic experience than sitting on a sled behind a pack of fanatically enthusiastic dogs and being whisked across the countryside? Hurtigruten offers a fun dog sled tour, and the views you'll see as you're gliding over the snow, with the coastline spread below you, are just breathtaking. The tour gives you a taste of life as musher. (Although, I was glad I wasn't heading out for the 1,000-mile race our driver was anticipating.)
Highlight: Shore excursions that take place in the middle of the winter last until after the sun has set -- meaning you might experience dog sledding under the Northern Lights.
On clear nights, you'll find a dedicated band of passengers tucked out of the wind, eyes staring hopefully heavenward. When the Northern Lights first appear -- often as a faint whisper of dancing light -- you might wonder whether you are imagining things. As they become stronger, everyone makes for the open decks and watches, transfixed, as the lights shift, ripple and hang in the sky.
Highlight: The Northern Lights are most likely to be viewed in the northern half of Norway. If your focus is just the lights, embark in Bodo, sail north to Kirkenes, and stay on southbound until Tromso. This four-night itinerary will capture the most dramatic scenery and maximize your viewing chances. We even spent a night post cruise in Sommaroy, a small island near Tromso, for added viewing.
Part of the joy of Hurtigruten is that the line has provided a vital link between coastal communities for 120 years. Watching cargo being loaded or discharged in each port is fascinating -- everything from compact cars to roofing materials to canned food is carried onboard. Simply taking in the scene during one of the short (30 minutes or less) stops is a fascinating activity.
Highlight: Most of the Hurtigruten ships are modern vessels with large ramps in the side for forklifts to drive on and off. Classic ship aficionados, however, know the 1964-built Lofoten still loads cargo the old fashioned way -- pallet by pallet. Those wanting a traditional experience flock to the ship and spend hours watching the cargo operations.
In the summer, thousands of tourists trek each day to the North Cape, nearly the northernmost point in continental Europe. The day we were there, fewer than 200 people visited. We enjoyed a spectacularly sunny (and windy) day that was a pure fantasy of snow and wild. It was not a stretch to imagine you were really at the edge of the world.
Highlight: While the visit to the globe monument is what compels visitors to go, the drive leading to Nordkapp was an overwhelming mix of snow, ice and mountainous landscape. With the road closed in the winter, the buses have to drive in convoy behind a snowplow, and the trip to reach Nordkapp was an experience few of us will forget.
Norwegians know that the best way to combat winter is to embrace it. Getting outside -- whether on skis, dog sleds or snowmobiles -- is just part of winter. In the port of Kjollefjord, we hopped on snowmobiles and drove off into the hills as the sun set over the mountains.
Highlight: Once a damaged pier gets fixed later this year, the snowmobile tour will get even better. Tours will start in Kjollefjord, traverse a mountain pass and rejoin the ship two hours later in the next port.