Excursions are on the pricey side, but in Norway the expedition hiking pass is good value for keen hikers and in Antarctica all landings are included. Whilst an excursion might be a nice add-on, not doing one won't leave you feeling shortchanged either. Plus, wherever you are all expedition lectures are free and all ports can be explored independently. The ship stops 34 times on the classic route between Bergen and Kirkenes, so there's plenty to see along the way.
In Antarctica all landings are included and whilst extra excursions aren't necessary, a couple of them do offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences. If you're prepared to swap your cosy cabin for a canvass tent, then camping for a night on the White Continent could be an exciting prospect (£400 (about $500) per person). but be warned, it's usually oversubscribed and early booking is recommended. Kayaking is another adventurous (and cheaper) option -- where else in the world can you paddle underneath glaciers and between icebergs, surrounded by penguins and whales? Every day in Antarctica, however, the weather is in charge and wind or ice can (and do) sometimes prevent these excursions from running.
* May require additional fees
Activities in Antarctica (visiting penguin colonies, whale watching, cruising between icebergs in zodiac boats and hikes) are all an extraordinary ways to take in this remote, seventh continent. And the organised hikes in Norway are also impressive and present a brilliant opportunity to explore the wilderness in a way that would be hard to do without the knowledgeable expedition team leading the way. Wherever you are, the scenery will have you reaching for your camera, but living the experience in full 3D is the only way to really do it justice.
In Norway, the Expedition Team guides (led by an Expedition leader) Expedition Hikes and are a real selling point of cruises on MS Midnatsol, embracing the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv (being outdoors and connecting with nature). They're relaxed but physically challenging and will take you to remote places you would never find by yourself, allowing you to see Norway through native eyes. Some are more challenging and longer in duration than others, but most require a good level of fitness as there are usually plenty of stairs and steep inclines to be climbed. Sturdy, waterproof hiking boots are essential. The Expedition Team are well prepared with refreshments (biscuits and drinks) which are served halfway through every hike -- a nice touch. It's worth noting that the hikes tend to be more challenging on the northbound voyage than the southbound one.
The cheapest option in Norway is a visit to a local brewery in the Lofoten Islands which is £40 (about $50) per person. But there really is something to suit every interest and pocket, from cycling to RIB safaris, to Viking feasts and bird watching.
Buy a summer 'Outdoor Activity Pass' on a six-day Norwegian coastal voyage and you'll be entitled to four guided hikes (approximately £205.00 (about $270) per person), with a 25 percent reduction for children; £433 (about $570) per person will buy you six hikes. These passes work out cheaper than buying individual hikes and can be purchased either in advance or onboard (subject to limited availability.)
Excursions cost anything from £40 to £400 (about $50 to $500). Whilst there are no automatic gratuities, there is a tips pot at the entrance to the restaurant, and on the penultimate day of your Antarctica cruise, Midnatsol recommends an optional, discretionary $10 per passenger daily rate for gratuities which can be added to your bill or put in an envelope.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
Mother Nature is the main provider of entertainment on Midnatsol's sailings, and whilst Deck 8's lounge does have a piano and dance floor, there's rarely anyone making use of either. However, on most expedition sailings, there's a crew fashion show, a talent show (the crew is VERY talented), a fruit carving demonstration, and a quiz (the prize is a cocktail!) toward the end of the voyage. And screenings of films or documentaries pertinent to the itinerary is also commonplace. For example, one night in Antarctica, the Kenneth Branagh film about Shackleton was screened; another night it was an episode of David Attenborough's 'Frozen Planet' series.
On the northbound Norway coastal voyage, a 'Crossing the Arctic Circle' ceremony is held on the top deck. It involves the captain and chief engineer "baptising" passengers by ladling icy-cold water down their necks. You don't have to do it, but those brave enough get a free glass of mead afterwards. Of course, those who don't fancy the chilly baptism will have fun watching other passengers suffer! Same goes for Antarctica voyages when passengers are challenged to try the 'Polar Plunge,' which involves a dunk in the freezing Antarctic Sea. It's more fun for those watching than those participating!
Expedition cruises on Midnatsol are all about getting closer to nature, so the itineraries allow plenty of opportunities to see and experience the native wildlife. In Norway this might include spotting rare sea eagles, herds of grazing reindeer, puffins and many more. Exciting excursions, such as whale spotting, bird watching safaris and fishing trips, are also likely to appeal to those interested in the wildlife of coastal Norway and the Arctic Circle. Expedition Team lectures onboard support these excursions. Binoculars are sold in the onboard shop, but Platinum fare passengers can borrow them free of charge.
There are no specific wildlife spotting excursions during Antarctica voyages because the wildlife is everywhere. On the approach to the seventh continent, there's an abundance of seabirds swooping behind the ship's wake -- albatrosses, Antarctic terns, petrels and even the occasional penguin. Once land has been reached, you will visit penguin colonies where there are thousands of these gorgeous birds -- a sight to behold. Most are gentoo and chinstrap penguins, with an outside chance of also spotting an Adelie on the Antarctic Peninsula. Breaching, tail-flipping, blowing whales (mainly Orcas and humpbacks) are another common sighting, so be sure to have your camera ready at all times. Thanks to the expedition lectures, not only will you be able to tell the different penguin species apart but you'll also learn how to snap the perfect wildlife photo, thanks to the photographic team.
Whatever one's nationality, it's always nice to enjoy scenery from outdoors. Top deck's heated alfresco seating area and helipad make perfect vantage points, as does Deck 6's wraparound promenade deck. And whether it's pointing out Antarctica's albatrosses and penguins or Norway's northern lights, the Expedition Team is always on hand with binoculars and expertise to show sights of interest.
The Expedition Team delivers insightful lectures and talks to enhance voyages on Midnatsol, mostly held in the ship's 200-seat amphitheatre. None are too long (some might just show a film), but they are all interesting and entertaining, and you will come away having learned something. In Norway each lecture is held twice -- once in English and once in German. Lectures cover topics such as the northern lights, the Norwegian way of life, how the fjords were made, the Vikings, polar expeditions, and the Sami way of life.
When sailing in Antarctica, the lectures are slightly longer and might be about seabirds, penguins, geology or climate change. The majority of lectures are in English, with headphones available for anyone wanting a simultaneous translation into German. There are, however, lectures scheduled in smaller venues across the ship in different languages, including French. The library, for instance, not only has a good selection of international books but is also a venue for non-English or German lectures.
The Expedition Team can also be found on deck pointing out wildlife and explaining any special points of interest that the ship passes. There's even a Science Lab on Deck 8, complete with microscopes to analyse samples, such as krill -- the staple diet of both penguins and whales. The blue whale can eat up to four tonnes of this small, prawn-like crustacean a day.
Occasionally, guest speakers are onboard. During our sailing there was a retired NASA astronaut who delivered two packed out lectures. The post mistress from the British Antarctic post office also gave a fascinating talk. The post office is only open (and accessible) to ships for three months of the year. In addition to franking postcards marked Antarctica, the post mistress and her team carry out important research on penguins.
Whilst the Bistro cafe (Deck 5) does sell alcohol and has an adjacent seating area, it can't really be described as a bar or lounge.
Mysterior and Paradis Bars (Deck 8): These two midship bars have different names and are marked separately on Midnatsol's deck plan. However, they are essentially just one big bar which serves as the Midnatsol's main bar. They serve everything here from beer to wine to shots to cocktails to soft drinks, hot and cold. And they have a stash of peanuts too, so if you'd like a bowl, just ask.
Panorama Lounge (Deck 8)/Horisont (Deck 9): This is the main and two-tier observation lounge -- Panorama Lounge is the ground level, with Horizont its mezzanine. The crew call it the 'show lounge.' It's where quizzes and the few nonlecture shows are held. Drinks must be ordered from the Mysterior/Paradis Bars because the lounge doesn't have its own bar. What it does have, however, are comfy leather chairs and an outstanding view, thanks to its floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Hamsun Room (Deck 8): This is possibly the nicest public place on the ship -- more a posh drawing room than a lounge -- which feels more sedate and refined than the more bustling two-tier Panorama Lounge. It's a great spot to sit and watch the world go by, with or without a pair of binoculars.
Deck 9 Bar: This is only a small bar, but it's got a great vibe, thanks to its inside location right next to the al fresco seating area on the top deck. It's got limited bar stool space, and most passengers come here to get a drink to take either outside or into the mezzanine level of the Panorama Lounge. Again, there's a stash of peanuts here, so be sure to ask.
Midnatsol has more useable outdoor space than you'd expect on such a small ship. Its two hot tubs have a prime location (and offer great views) in the centre of the top deck (Deck 9) and are next to an al fresco seating area complete with sofas, chairs and tables, as well as heaters to warm it up on colder days. Deck 6 has a wraparound promenade, where a brisk three-minute walk equals a lap. Many passengers can be found circumnavigating this deck again and again, hoping to spot whales or albatrosses or just to enjoy the extraordinary Arctic and Antarctic landscapes.
The Reception desk can be found midship on Deck 4 at the base of the ship's five-deck atrium which also boasts an elevator. Reception is staffed 24 hours and sells a small range of snacks, stamps and effective, inexpensive sea sickness pills. It's also where to go if you want to buy a Wi-Fi package. You'll be given a code to access the Wi-Fi which is good (even in Antarctica it's possible to WhatsApp call home) and covers two devices for £18 (about $20) per day/£145 (about $190) per cruise.
Wi-Fi in Norway, however, is cheaper, costing £4.50 (about $5) per day, £11 (about $15) for three days, and £18 (about $20) for a six-day voyage.
Tokens for the self-service launderette must be purchased from reception too (£3 (about $5)), and the launderette itself is also on Deck 4, round the corner from reception and opposite cabin 463. If you'd prefer a quiet cabin, then be sure to steer clear of this one.
The Expedition Desk can be found next to the library on Deck 8, and the ship's Expedition Leader provides advice on excursions (which can be booked here) and issues daily programmes and news bulletins.
Midnatsol's shop can be found midship on Deck 5 and is a rather smart-looking boutique. It sells a small range of essential toiletries as well as stocking clothes (woollen jumpers, waterproof jackets, gloves, hats, etc.) as well as lovely (if expensive) trinket/gift items. You can also buy the same Arctic Pure Cloudberry & Birch and Sea Buckthorn & Birch toiletries found in your cabin, if you wish to take the scent of your trip back home with you.
There's a medical centre on Deck 3 for emergencies -- it's a good size and even has an X-ray machine. However, there is no medical team onboard when Midnatsol sails in Norway because the ship is never too far from land.
For such a small ship, it's astonishing that there are any spa or fitness amenities, but Midnatsol manages to squeeze some onboard. Deck 9 has two saunas -- one for men and one for the ladies. Be warned, the Norwegians aren't shy about stripping off, but feel free to keep your swimming costume on. In the two outdoor Jacuzzis, however, swimming costumes are obligatory.
The gym is next to the sauna at the front of the ship. Considering its size, it's pretty well-equipped with two static bikes, a running machine, three weight machines and a large selection of dumbbells. And for passengers who dislike an indoor gym, the alternative is the promenade deck three floors below for walking or running laps.
Midnatsol isn't geared toward children -- that said, the ship welcomes the children that do sail (which increase in number during the school holidays), and interconnecting rooms and cabins that sleep three or four people are available too. There are no children's facilities -- although there is a Science Lab complete with microscopes and specimens relevant to the voyage -- but a member of the Expedition Team is dedicated to running a 'Young Explorer' programme for the under 12s on each voyage. This programme is run both on and off the ship and is always educational, teaching youngsters about the environment, wildlife and geology of where they're visiting.
It must be noted that whilst there's no minimum age in Norway, only children 5 and up are allowed to sail on Antarctica voyages. And it's at the captain's discretion as to whether children under the age of 12 are allowed to participate in the Antarctic landings (i.e., get off the ship).
Away from Young Explorer activities, there are plenty of other distractions onboard for youngsters, including engaging lectures, the ever-changing scenery and hot tubs -- all of which might appeal to older children.