AUGUST 19, 2012
I was so fixated on the sights outside my cabin window on the MS Nordlys— such as the most beautiful fjords in the world, set into mountains which are, as Norwegian Nobel Prize writer Knut Hamsun described, ” breathing from the granite vaults of their lungs” – that I failed to look around me at the ship which was my home for the past six days.
Forgive me. The MS Nordlys, one of the 13 ships of the Hurtigruten line (Hurtigruten meaning “fast voyage”) which was fast relative to the mail that used to take two weeks as it traveled up the Norwegian coast before Hurtigruten began 119 years ago to carry it in a matter of days, is not your average cruise ship.
To begin, it is midsize, meaning it is not an 18-passenger small-ship type operation such as American Safari, nor is it one of the Carnival/Princess 3,000-passenger behemoths. The MS Nordlys carries 622 passengers. A mega-ship could not slip into the fjords that the Nordlys can, and that’s one of the main reasons people want to sail on her. The narrow and spectacular Trollfjord, for example, named after Norway’s famed fierce trolls, challenges a ship captain to make the entrance and then turn around to get out, without scraping the sides of the mountains surrounding the waters, which our captain did with grace and elegance.
And, unlike the giant cruise ships of most of the world’s waters, Hurtigruten’s are all-Norwegian all the time. The entire crew is Norwegian, the food is Norwegian and the language is Norwegian, although all announcements to passengers are made in whatever languages are represented onboard; in our case, Norwegian, German and English.
If you don’t like seafood, you might reconsider a Hurtigruten cruise, as you will enjoy salmon and herring at breakfast and throughout the day (along with a variety of meats and cheeses and salads and hot foods also) and most evening entrees consist of a cod or other white fish entrée with vegetables and plenty of fresh salads, and always a selection of lovely desserts. The food is very good, but you won’t find hamburgers and steaks, if that is your preference.
The dining room has two seatings for dinner, at 6 and 7 p.m., and the service varies between buffets on some nights and table service on others. On the final night of the voyage Nordlys serves a buffet of the best of their local foods, including Norwegian king crab, prawns, shrimp, even reindeer in a cream sauce.
At the bar, beer costs from $3 to $7, wine $5 to $7 and cocktails $7 and up. Alcohol is expensive, but so is everything in Norway. Oslo is the most expensive city in Europe, and a baguette sandwich of ham and cheese on Norwegian soil can cost $20.
The most unusual feature of the Hurtigruten ships, however, is their primary purpose: to serve the people of the west coast of Norway as a mail and freight service and to carry residents from town to town, in a place where fjords, mountains and winter weather work to keep the populations isolated from one another. About one quarter of the passengers on the Nordlys in August was made up of Norwegians who were commuting from one town or region to another, for purposes of business, hospital visits, family reunions and the like. There were no swimming pools or Jacuzzis or climbing walls on our ship (although it did have a fitness center), no evening song and dance shows, no casinos and no limbo contests. There is a tiny movie theater, and the only time we were there was to see an informative documentary on the North Cape, which we were scheduled to visit the next day.
On the other hand, we had a choice of several shore excursions every day, offering kayaking, boat trips, birdwatching, visiting the northernmost point in Europe or sailing to a glacier. In winter (which the Norwegians love; it’s their favorite season, for all its bitter cold and snow), you can dogsled from one port to another, riverboat to the Russian border (which is about 10 miles from the furthest point where the ship takes you), reindeer sled on a coastal farm or take an entire Astronomy Voyage on two other of Hurtigruten’s 13 ships to see the Northern Lights, and enjoy onboard lectures by astronomers and physicists. Excursions can be taken by anyone who is on board the ship for the full day before and after the excursion and they cost between $32 and $300.
Although the ship makes 34 stops as it plies the waters between Bergen and Kirkenes, the stops do not disturb passengers, as many are made quickly and quietly, in the middle of the night, and the passengers who are hopping on and off the ship do so on the third deck, below all the decks where the restaurants, cabins, lounges and the like are located.
Passengers have a choice of nine different cabin types on the Nordlys, including some for guests with special needs. We had the smallest cabin, which was cozy but a little snug for sleeping two. These start at $1,813 in summer and go up to $12,000 for a large suite with double bed, seating area with television set and private balcony and bathtub, for the entire 12-day north-to-south and return cruise.
Would I go on this same voyage on this same ship again? You bet I would, and it would be in winter! Because among other reasons, although I have now crossed the Arctic Circle and enjoyed the Land of the Midnight Sun, I want to see the Northern Lights, and to see them it has to be winter. In Hamsun’s words, the Aurora Borealis is “a firmament of wings, a conflagration in the mansions of God.”