Hurtigruten? That’s not a real cruise is it?
We started our long-planned Hurtigruten Norwegian cruise travelling by rail from Oslo to Bergen. The train journey across the mountains made a fitting start to the cruise – the occasional village or small town hugging the riversides and the individual wooden dwellings dotted amongst the snow giving a foretaste of the sights along the coast.
Before boarding the train, booked directly with NSB, we had stayed the night at the perfectly located Comfort Hotel Grand Central, the nearest hotel to the station. In fact, so near it’s actually part of it. That it was integrated into a large food hall with several restaurants meant we only needed a few paces to find an excellent evening meal. The hotel itself was modern, quirky and very comfortable.
Our first hotel in Bergen was the Zander K, adjacent to the rail station. Another modern boutique hotel with so many interesting design features they even had their own book for sale giving full architectural and design features, including the amusing example of their curtains. Knowing that Bergen is known as the rainiest city in the world, they thought guests who had travelled to Bergen just to see the rain might be disappointed if it stayed away, so they designed the net curtains with raindrops so if it happened to be dry outside you could close the curtains and pretend it was raining. Brilliant!
Checking into our ship, MS Polarlys, was easy and our cases were delivered to our cabins. The ship was smart and unpretentious, being recently refurbished in Scandinavian style with no sign of the usual American cruise ship bling. One aspect that will be a shock to large-ship cruisers is that there were never, ever, any queues for the lifts. True, on a couple of occasions, we had to share a lift with two other people but over the twelve days I could cope with that. The ship is small enough that nowhere was very far away and large enough to offer all the facilities that were needed.
Bars and cafes offered a choice of dining and refreshment venues and all were open and airy. Public floors are surrounded by windows - no art galleries, photo shops or casinos to block the views - these ships are purpose built to see the amazing scenery and they do that extremely well as the ship glides (usually!) on steely-blue seas past dramatic snow-covered mountains.
The Scandinavian crew were friendly, welcoming and genuinely enjoyed being part of the Hurtigruten team. Many were multitasking – you were as likely to see the restaurant manager clearing tables as you were to be served by someone who was cleaning the rooms earlier in the day.
Food, brought on board fresh at several stops during the trip, was a highlight and it was not unusual for the evenings fish course to have been loaded just hours earlier (and probably caught just a few hours before that!) Mealtimes varied between buffet or fixed menu, the later giving a chance to try local specialties that one may not have chosen if given the choice. Dried clipfish, curried herring, baked reindeer and battered cod tongue were some of the mouthwatering delights – even if you don’t believe me!
Despite the fixed menus, special diets and tastes were catered for without issue. Here was one example where the seemingly effortless organization of the company really shone. We had been prompted to advise allergies and dislikes when we booked some 16 months before sailing and had added to the list in the intervening period. We were amazed that without further notification on our part that the dining staff placed alternative meals in front of those with food concerns. “We know you don’t like cherries, so have replaced the cherry sauce with a raspberry compote. Is that OK?” And yes, they knew what language we spoke too!!
Drinking water was plentiful and cold, wine and beer equally cold but rarer. Everyone has something to say on alcohol prices but in practice the prices of wine and beer are similar to those charged on the larger cruise ships - probably even cheaper as there is no added 18% ‘service charge’ that Celebrity charges.
Dress code on board was simple: Casual for breakfast, casual for lunch, casual for dinner and at all times in between. Preparing for dinner was simple – you didn’t need to. I have to admit that once I did comb my hair before going into the dining room, but I soon got used to not bothering with all that palaver.
Booking ‘Select’ full board meant we received unlimited tea and coffee during the voyage and free water flowed freely. Wi-Fi was as almost as good as our fibre broadband back home (unlike the usual cruise ships) and was included in the fare.
Rooms were compact, but our Artic Superior had plenty of storage (do take a couple of trouser hangers though if you need to) and tea & coffee facilities were provided. The bathroom was even more compact but perfectly adequate and the tap water was as good as any bottled variety.
We had chosen a rear starboard room on Deck 6 as the most advantageous position - opposite side to the gangway and cargo openings (which are on the port side on every Hurtigruten ship), above the walk round deck and high so as to be untroubled by the sound of the engines, which were actually as smooth and quiet as any large cruise ships with just some, not unexpected, noise when manouvering with bow thrusters.
Lectures on places visited, Nordic myths and way of life were short, informative and professionally delivered and there was a well-equipped shop with everything from postcards to Norwegian woollens and jackets.
The ship makes multiple stops en route, some for a few hours, some for 10-15 minutes. We were able to combine a bit of DIY sightseeing in several ports in combination with longer (albeit fairly expensive) excursions at others.
‘The Artic Capital Tromso’ was a guided tour around the town to what would have been a magnificent view from the top of the cable car had it not been snowing so heavily. Back into the city for a visit to the modern cathedral with its magnificent stained glass and then to Polaria, billed as the ‘world’s most northerly aquarium’, an interesting building but only managing a passable impression of a Sea Life centre.
‘The North Cape’ excursion, was, like all the other days off ship, a day for donning thermals – it’s rather chilly at the most northerly point of Europe, being minus 16°C when we were there. Travelling in convoy for the last few miles led by a snow plough with a rescue vehicle bringing up the rear added a certain piquancy to the excursion.
‘Husky Dog Sledding’ at Kirkenes was a bucket list item not to be missed. The setting was awesome: clear blue skies, bright sun but with the temperature nudging minus 20 it was definitely big coat weather. The bumpy ride behind the eager huskies was over far too quickly especially in view of the eye-watering cost, but the dogs were in their element and amazing to witness ‘in action’.
At the ‘Midnight Concert at Tromso Cathedral’ we were privileged to hear soprano Anne-Berit Buvik, Pianist Ole Bolås and cellist Georgy Ildeykin. Breathtaking perfection.
‘A Taste of Vesterålan’ took us on an extended coach trip through the magnificent countryside, with a view to die for at every turn. A short service at a remote ancient church was a surprising pleasant and unexpected experience. Consistently rated as the best Hurtigruten excursions - if you do no other excursions make sure you do this one (but do all the others too).
‘Trondheim and Nidros Cathedral’ gave us a taste of the town and its magnificent cathedral even if the visit to the latter was curtailed due to time constraints. The Hurtigruten ship may arrive a little late into port but they always endeavour to leave on time!
‘Bergtatt Marble Mine’ was the destination of our last excursion but for many a secondary reason for this particular trip was travelling on the Atlantic Coast Road. Like the rest of Norway, it did not disappoint.
Every day on this cruise gave us more memories to take away:
A large pod of pilot whales playing close by the ship, sea eagles flying as close as you would like them to, wild reindeer unconcerned at our passing by.
Being driven on roads of sheet ice as if this was normal (clue: it is there).
Brightly painted, wooded houses in picture postcard isolation.
Towering snow-covered mountains rising from the fjords like giant mythical guardians.
The Norwegian people: hospitable, welcoming and justly proud of their country.
Sadly, our Winter Wonderland cruise had to come to an end. Disembarkation (by deck, top down, starting with our deck 6) was swift and with taxis waiting outside the terminal we were inside our chosen hotel (The Hanseatic, in the old town) probably before the last passengers had left the ship. This hotel, chosen to contrast with our earlier Norwegian hotels, was in an ancient building but fitted with all, very modern, conveniences. The beds were just as dreamily comfortable as at the other hotels (and ship), and the staff welcome just as warm and friendly.
After a morning sightseeing (and Norwegian wool buying!) we made our way to the airport to catch our KLM flight to Amsterdam and then home, the next Hurtigruten ship already boarding her passengers for their voyage north. I hope they all enjoyed it as much as we did.
Hurtigruten? That’s not a real cruise is it?
No, it’s something far better!
Cabin was small, modern and very clean. Bed was incredibly comfortable. Bathroom was small but had all essentials.