After several weeks exploring the Norwegian coast this Summer, following the Hurtigruten route between Kirkenes and Bergen in possibly the slowest fashion possible, last week I swapped my Schiller Bike for the comfort of Hurtigruten’s newest ship, the MS Spitsbergen.
The last (and only) time I had been onboard the Spitsbergen, I was being served the most bizarre meal of my life on the tender deck, one foot above sea level. That water bike drive-thru will remain one of the standout moments of a memorable journey, and apparently it had made an impact on the crew, as well.
“I thought you looked familiar when you joined us last night,” a young waiter told me at dinner, “and the switch has just gone off. It’s really nice to meet you.”
“Ah, the burger man!” Frederick, the Hotel Manager and the mind behind setting up the table for one, had chuckled as he bustled into the lounge with Sonny, the Bar Manager who had also been present on the tender deck two months earlier. And then Tommy, the chef who had presented me with that famous meal, turned up to say hi.
Although my water bike journey had been peppered by endless encounters with kind, welcoming Norwegians, the trip could not have been considered comfortable. So it was that as Hurtigruten’s ships passed daily, I had asked myself a regular question: would I prefer to be down here, or up there?
The answer varied, depending on the wind, current, rain or sun, and sometimes the time passed since my last shower.
What I can say is that now, two months on with the fatigue of an attritional mission still present in my joints, it is a pleasure to be sailing north with a comfortable cabin nearby, three meals a day, and regular port stops which require no prior-thought on where to dock and safely leave my transport.
My personal Hurtigruten experience so far has been unusual, of course, but beyond appreciating the home comforts taking this more traditional route has just bolstered an opinion that this is just as much a family as a company. Hurtigruten don’t stress the ‘cruise’ element of their voyages along the Norwegian coast or, indeed, along their other routes which include Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica, but boy they do it well.
The ships are well conditioned and simple, with passenger experience at the fore of Hurtigruten’s mission. Most amenities are kept to the fifth floor on this ship, which keeps navigation simple, and with less than 300 passengers on board the atmosphere is intimate and familiar.
Various excursions and tours are available at the long-stops in port, or guests can choose to explore on their own. In Alesund I joined three Americans on a slippy ascent to the Aksla Viewpoint, which offers a gloriously snowy panorama over the town and its surrounding fjords and islands.
At lunch the communal water dispenser has run dry and one of the kitchen staff must have noticed my fly-by. I’d diverted my attention to the buffet and returned to the table to find a full glass of water waiting. It’s the little things.
Every couple of hours I wrap up warm and wander up on on deck, where a giant lit-up Christmas decoration welcomes those who are taking in the vast expanses. I study each stretch of water knowingly, once travelled at a little less than walking pace. The Norwegian winter comes with added bite, but an endless range of snow-capped mountains, glaciers and dark, wild fjords are no less impressive just because the nearest coffee is two flights of steps away.
On Day Three we cross the Arctic Circle and the passengers are invited to the aft deck, where one member of crew is dressed as Neptune and two officers ‘welcome’ any willing passenger into the Arctic with a handsome delivery of ice cubes down the neck. The range of distinctly uncomfortable faces and accompanying shrieks are as entertaining as the line of volunteers is impressive.
I’m only on board for half of this voyage and am invited to give a presentation about my water biking exploits, the night before I disembark at the port of Bodø. While it is an opportunity to reminisce and prepare the story structure ahead of three weeks of book writing on the same topic, sharing tales from the coast is the ideal ice-breaker. The next morning a few people stop by around the ship, to say thanks and to share their own adventures. I make a point of asking them about their journey with Hurtigruten and the reaction is never ordinary.
One lady stared out of the window at the painting-worthy scene and paused before whispering, “this has been a dream of mine for so long,” her eyes filling with tears. “It’s even more beautiful than I hoped,” she smiled shyly, embarrassed at her reaction.
Another man, a solo German named Joe who earlier told me that he has an addiction to mountain biking, perched in the jacuzzi at the ship’s stern wearing a contented smile beneath a grey beanie. “Does it get better than this?” he laughed, lifting his arms from the water and moving them simultaneously towards the horizon.
Visit the Hurtigruten website to start dreaming about your perfect voyage
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