Ever since I started dreaming of travelling the world, there have been a small number of places that lived at the top of my mental list of, ‘places I have to see before I die!’ Over the past four years I have been slowly checking places off that list, one-by-one; Machu Picchu, the plains of Africa, the temples of India, and many more besides.
Last year we travelled to one of the places at the very top of that list, Antarctica, with Hurtigruten on a 16 day Patagonia and Antarctica Expedition Cruise which took us from the southern fjords of Chile and across the formidable Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula where we swam in icy waters and hiked across volcanic islands among huge ‘waddles’ of penguins! This was our first ever trip to the more end of the polar regions, and it was so awe-inspiring that we immediately knew we wanted more. How fitting then that Arctic Norway should also be my 100th country, marking the end of one phase of our travel life and the beginning of the next – sailing the world!
Almost exactly a year later to the day that we stepped on board the MS Midnatsol in Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia, we landed in Kirkenes (pronounced Chirkines) in the far north of Norway. I think we can be forgiven for not knowing what time of day it was, as the orange glow of the sun hovering below the horizon was a close to daylight as we would see until we crossed the Arctic Circle heading south almost a week later.
We had arrived in the land where the sun never rises, at least for several months in the middle of winter anyway!
We were due to join the ship the following day, so we had planned to spend the night in the magical Kirkenes Snow Hotel, where each year an entire hotel is sculpted from ice and snow, including furniture, beds and a cavernous ice bar where even the glasses you drink from are made of ice, meaning you get to smash them on the floor when you’re done!
While a night sleeping on a block of ice covered in real reindeer skins would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience we would have jumped at, we were almost a little relieved that we had arrived while the Snow Hotel was still under construction, so we had a beautiful wood cabin in which to spend the night instead!
Although the outside temperature was already -22 Celsius (-7.6 F), we wanted to get out and explore the Arctic wilderness. We signed up for one of the many outdoor experiences that the Snow Hotel offers – King Crab fishing out on the frozen ice!
After changing into thick snowsuits and arctic boots, we climbed into a giant toboggan pulled by our guide on a snowmobile and took a ride through the snow-covered woods and out onto the frozen surface of the fjords where a hole in the ice with a rope leading out of it signalled that we were in the right place. Forming a human chain we hauled the crab pot on the end of the line 30 meters up to the surface, at which time we could see it practically pulsating with massive king crabs!
Several of the spiny specimens were selected for our dinner and quickly dispatched with a sharp knife before being carved up on the spot ready for cooking back at the hotel. We headed back, changed and warmed up, before tucking into the biggest crab feast we had ever seen!
We have eaten king crab before, in Chile in fact, but this was the freshest crab we had ever tasted – from the water and onto our plates in less than 30 minutes!
The next morning we started the day with a hearty Norwegian breakfast, before getting out into the snow once again to take a husky dog sled ride with other passengers from the Hurtigruten Spitsbergen.
As the dog handlers, or mushers, lined up their teams of dogs and harnessed them to the sleds they jumped and clamored and barked excitedly, eager to run. Out of nowhere, all the dogs erupted into the chorus of howling that filled the whole valley!
When we started running the dogs took off on command. It’s clear that all these dogs want to do is run and run and run, yet they understand the commands the mushers yell in Norwegian; LEFT, RIGHT, GO, STOP!
The experience was exhilarating, with icy-cold air and chunks of snow flying up off the ground as the sled flies along the snow-covered ground!
When we returned it was time to leave to leave the hotel and take the bus to the port to join the Hurtigruten Spitsbergen for the next leg of our Norwegian adventure – a 7 day coastal cruise all the way up to the northern-most reaches of the country, then west and south along the coast weaving through islands and stopping in the many port and harbour towns until our final destination in Bergen!
As Hurtigruten’s ships also carry local travelers on short journeys along the coast along with cargo, the MS Spitsbergen stopped at several ports in a day at times, but we would only leave the ship to explore for some of the longer stops and for the excursions we had organized.
We hadn’t been able to see the mystical Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, in Kirkenes as the clouds and snow closed in around us during the night, so we were amazed to be able to see them almost every night during the seven days on board. Almost every night the crew would announce the appearance of the Northern Lights around the ship, and despite the below-freezing weather passengers filled the top deck with cameras and tripods ready. Seeing the Aurora Borealis in person is a strange experience, and nothing quite like you might expect; the constantly-shifting veils of green effervescence are fleeting, appearing faintly at times, so you’re unsure if they are there at all, then increasing in intensity to almost a solid sheet and then fading again. There is no pattern, rhyme or reason to it all; you just have to be patient, enjoy them exactly as they are and accept the age-old truth that as soon as you decide to retreat inside, they are going to come back in their most exuberant spectacle yet!
Because our trip was all-inclusive, we had all of our meals on board the ship, which is worthwhile for anyone thinking about booking any cruise with Hurtigruten! We already knew from our 16 days Patagonia and Antarctica Expedition Cruise that the onboard meals are unlike anything you’ll find on any other ship, but I think we had forgotten just how unique the whole dining experience is.
The restaurant is more like dining in a luxury hotel than on what most of us think of on a cruise ship. Whether you are eating breakfast, lunch or dinner, everything is made using the freshest local ingredients possible with specialties like cured salmon, reindeer, and local Norwegian vegetables every day! In the evening, special sit down service meals and menus are designed around themes and stories, and the chefs take traditional Norwegian favorites turn them into something unique.
Everything is also incredibly healthy, we both left the ship feeling like we had been revitalized and invigorated from the food alone!
As the winter days are so short in Norway, barely existent in the north, traveling by ship is the perfect way to see as much of the country’s epic coastline as possible in one trip. If you want to ensure that you get to stop and see most of the major towns on the route, then you should consider taking the full “Classic Round Voyage: Bergen – Kirkenes – Bergen,” since the stops in one direction are different to the stops in the other direction.
So for example, while you may have half a day in Trondheim on the journey north, the ship may only stop for a couple of hours in Trondheim on the return journey south.
The journey wasn’t all cruising, eating and Northern Lights though; we had several opportunities to leave the ship for excursions to experience what Norway has to offer. Our first excursion was snowmobiling, but not any ordinary snowmobiling – snowmobiling in the middle of the night!
We went to bed early and woke up at one o’clock in the morning, which felt like a very counterintuitive time of day to play in the snow in sub-freezing temperatures. We left the ship and a short minibus ride later we were pulling on full snowsuits, balaclavas, heavy boots, and helmets.
It’s amazing just how little tuition you need to drive a snowmobile; it’s pretty much like driving the love-child of an ATV quad bike and jet ski! As our convoy set off into the night, the snow started to fall again, and the bitter ocean wind blew it sideways across us making everyone eternally grateful for the heated handlebar grips.
The snowmobiles are great fun to drive, and up to a point, they pretty much find their way over the already established tracks in the snow, leaving you to deal with the throttle and fully enjoy the sensations of being out in the open in such extreme conditions. About forty-five minutes in we stopped at a little tee-pee tent in the middle of the snow which glowed with an open fire coming out of it. About twenty of us squeezed in at a time to have a quick warm drink before heading back outside into the snow for the final leg of the journey to meet up with the ship.
Our second unique ‘Norwegian night out’ was in Tromso, with a midnight concert in the Arctic Cathedral. As the ship sailed into Tromso in the middle of the night, the city lights seemed to cling to hillsides surrounding the fjord, as if they were trying their hardest not to slide into the water!
The steep architectural profile of the church stands out on the hillside, with the gorgeous stained glass windows illuminating the building for the whole city to the see. A pianist, a violinist, and a singer performed an hour of beautifully haunting Norwegian folk songs and hymns which echoed through the giant vaulted space above us. You can’t help but be moved by the experience.
Finally, we thought we should treat ourselves to a daytime excursion as well, so we chose the Taste of Vesterålen day trip, which started in the town of Harstad. We arrived at the 750-year-old medieval Trodenes Church at about mid-morning, which was just in time to see the change from darkness to the small amount of daylight we would have for a few hours during the trip. The interior of the church was beautiful, but the best view was outside of the white building, and its lights reflected off the rippling waters of Lake Laugen.
Next to the church is a Museum with all kinds of installations and artifacts illustrating life in the region all the way back to the pre-Christian days and the changes that have taken place since then. The open log fire in the center of the entrance hall is the best spot to sit and look at the view of the lake through the full height windows. From the museum we drove through the snow-covered countryside of Hinnoya Island, stopping for short walks and photos of the magnificent landscapes peppered with farmhouses.
We even crossed a fjord by local ferry where hot coffee and a special Norwegian brown cheese was waiting for us! From the ferry, we continued to Sortland to rejoin the Spitsbergen, but not before a perfectly timed bridge crossing right as the ship was approaching, so we could get a photo of the ship entering the harbor from above!
We spent the rest of the voyage enjoying the experience from inside the ship, taking the chance to go outside and explore when we had enough time in port.
One of these longer stops was in Hammerfest, which has been defending its title as the northern-most town in the world for hundreds of years. We’re a little confused about what this means for places the settlements further north on Svalbard, so perhaps those are only considered settlements or outposts, rather than official towns. We’ll find out one day.
Title or no title, 70.7° degrees north is pretty far north by anyone’s standard, and you will notice it; in the Arctic temperature, the snow and ice on the ground and the lack of sunlight in the middle of the day!
As soon we stepped off the ship we found the Polar Bear Museum right next to the port, with exhibits of full-sized bears and the long history of humans living among such huge animals in the Arctic regions. We then walked to the top of the hill to find a very triangular shaped church overlooking the city on one side and the sea on the other.
When we did stay on board, we spent most of our time in the explorer lounge with panoramic views of the ship and super comfortable leather reclining chairs. The design of the interior of this ship is unlike any cruise ship we have seen before, with a style I keep calling, ‘simple Scandinavian luxury!’ Everything about it all comes together to make a truly pleasant place to be.
When we arrived in our final port of Bergen, even though we were excited to explore the city, we were sad to be leaving the ship with all of its home comforts and incredible food – I honestly think that I could live on that ship quite happily!
Now we can finally say that we have visited both of the planet’s polar regions!
Note: We were traveling as guests of Hurtigruten on board the MS Spitbergen but all opinions are our own!
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