While it’s literally an everyday occurrence, the departure felt momentous, like a shipload of explorers launching north, searching for unknown worlds—with terra incognita, guaranteed. Having spent a few days knocking around the seaside city of Bergen, riding its funicular up a verdant mountainside believed to be inhabited by trolls, and browsing at the storybook waterfront shops built centuries ago by the Hanseatic League, I was eager to get my sea legs. Rolling out of the harbor, we were bound for the frozen expanses of the Arctic, with plenty to do along this country’s famous express route.
I was on the Hurtigruten, Norway, national steamship line, which transports passengers up and down the country’s famously serrated coastline. Every day, one ship leaves Bergen, going north, while another departs from Kirkenes, in the far north, headed south. Pronounced “hurt-a-grooten,” its name—which means “express route” in Norwegian—is a bit of a misnomer, as the ships call at 34 separate ports. The voyage takes about a week from start to finish, and I’ve sailed it three separate times, watching the leafy south turn to shades of blue, gray, and white.
Hurtigruten launched its first voyage in 1893. Norway is exceptionally mountainous, sliced through by fjords, and girded by seas of the North Atlantic and the Arctic, making communications and transportation a major challenge. Until the 1940s, communities north of Trondheim—a fairly southern city—were unconnected by road, and air service only became common in the 1960s. For decades, these blue, red, and white ships were absolutely essential to the survival of isolated villages and towns, ferrying people between ports and, importantly, carrying the mail. Once these ships took on this task, they reduced delivery times by weeks.
And while Norwegians now have other options—today, an impressive network of tunnels and bridges unite most of this country—onboard the steamships is a mix of locals and tourists uncommon on most cruise ships. The fleet still carries the mail, and people board and disembark throughout the voyage, hopping between ports. Chatting with these Norwegians adds a nice cultural element, as well as learning about their lives in villages and towns along the way. The ships are comfortable but unfussy, with typically Scandinavian utilitarian cabins, stylish common areas, hot tubs on the upper decks, and hearty, satisfying meals.
Life at a Slower Pace
Half of the fun was the sailing itself. Sitting in the streamlined lounge, which crowned the fore of each vessel, there was a distinct pleasure in grabbing a coffee and a good book and sinking into a sofa while a never-ending display of the country’s best scenery rolls past. Just outside of the floor-to-ceiling windows were glimpses of life at a slower pace—a pretty little house, sitting all by itself, or the docks of a bustling fishing village. Then there was the endless wilderness, the white snow caps on the mountains growing bigger as the ship crashed through increasingly frigid waters.
Crossing the Arctic Circle, an invisible line around 66 degrees north, passengers gathered on the open decks, snapping photos of a small monument onshore and toasting our entrance into the land of the midnight sun with flutes of champagne.
The captain made an appearance, giving the willing a traditional “baptism,” scooping up ice cubes and ladling them down the backs of passengers—who lined up for the chilly honor. At Trollfjord, the ship made an impressive maneuver, squeezing through the 300-foot mouth of the inlet. Everyone was up on deck again, marveling at waterfalls tumbling down its sheer cliffs that rose to 3,000 feet, as the captain executed a difficult U-turn to extricate us from the narrow waterway.
And there were the eagles. Boarding a smaller boat at Trollfjord, we cruised away from the ship. Arriving in a calm, sheltered cove, the crew opened up buckets of fish. As if from nowhere, they came: big, majestic sea eagles. With guides holding the food into the air, the birds swooped down, snatching the fish right from the hands of the staff. Gripping the meal in their sharp talons, the eagles’ eyes flashed as they returned, their massive, powerful wings propelling them back into the sky.
The Lofoten Islands
The next day, we toured the Lofoten Islands, with their picturesque, colorful villages. There’s a long history of cod fishing there, and in some places, you still see the fish drying, baking on tall racks, under the sun. Those islands were also home to Vikings, whose settlement there dates back 1,000 years. In 1981, a farmer inadvertently uncovered the remains of a massive longhouse, once home to a powerful chieftain. More than 250 feet in length, it was rebuilt and turned into a museum, where visitors can learn hands-on Norse weapons skills, including ax throwing; try some blacksmithing; and partake in a Viking feast.
While winters there can be harsh, Norway’s northern latitudes are tempered by the Gulf Stream, a warm current that flows across the ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. Conditions are far more liveable than in comparable polar regions, where the sea ice remains almost year-round, and temperatures can hover around freezing all summer long. The moderation of the islands has enabled the growth of larger cities, like Tromso.
It’s the third-largest city north of the Arctic Circle—the other two are in Russia. Steaming into the harbor there felt a bit unbelievable. A futuristic bridge soared over the harbor, and the white peaks of the Arctic Cathedral capped the skyline. On summer trips, passengers are invited to attend a midnight concert at the cathedral, its roof a little reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. As we emerged afterward, in the wee hours of the morning, the sky still glowed.
Proceeding north and west, the landscape became more severe, with the green disappearing and the mountains more rugged and weathered. At Hammerfest, we were given the option of joining the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, touring their small but informative museum. At the North Cape, once thought to be the northernmost point in Europe, we saw the place where the Atlantic meets the Arctic Ocean, the gray seas splashing at the bottom of cliffs that dropped away more than 1,000 feet on each side.
Final Port of Call
Finally, we reached Kirkenes, our final port-of-call, a small town of about 3,500 people that sat right on the Russian border. It was a hardy place, cradled by a stark landscape. Crab awaited, the perfect finish to a weeklong voyage.
“Get ready for the best meal of your life,” said the guide, with a smile. And he wasn’t kidding.
Donning survival suits, we crashed out onto the ocean on a zodiac. Pausing to pull a trap, he explained that the millions of king crabs that now crawled below Norwegian waters were actually descendants of a 1960s experimental fishery in Russia. Invasive and fast to multiply, they moved about 60 miles west, into those waters. Fishermen were initially frustrated, as the crustaceans damaged their equipment. But now, these huge crabs have become a boon, reviving the economy in many of the villages, with the catch serving as one of the most valuable in the world.
That day, we saw a dozen or so specimens. the guide stacked them in the little boat and took us to a small, seaside cabin, where he boiled them up over a fire. The meat was juicy and sweet, and served simply, accompanied only by crusty bread, butter, and mayonnaise. It was a meal worthy of any explorer. Or maybe just a casual cruiser who had conquered the length of the Norwegian coast.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.