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Hurtigruten: A journey to the top of the world

Nordlys in Trollfjord, Norway
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Hurtigruten’s Nordlys in Trollfjord, Norway, seen from our eagle safari boat.

The stunning West Coast of Norway was living up to its reputation as the most beautiful coastline in the world. This region is renowned for its spectacular landscape of fjell, fjord, and foss (mountains, fjords, and waterfalls).

We had awakened early on the first morning of our Hurtigruten cruise for a motor coach tour along a dramatic rocky terrain. Whales flourish, as do the reindeer that have been domesticated by the nomadic Sami people, the indigenous people of the North. Seals and a wide variety of sea birds like puffins can be sighted along the cliffs and shore.

This day’s adventure in the Arctic took us to the northernmost tip of Europe—the area where it meets Finland and Russia. A globe monument marks latitude 71º10’21” atop a North Cape cliff that soars nearly 1000 feet above a seemingly infinite horizon of a churning Arctic Sea. We were in the land of the Midnight Sun and Polar Nights.

Here, the sun can disappear for months or shine twenty-four hour a day depending on the season you choose. It was summer, a time of colorful wildflowers and delicacies like cloudberries—fit for the Queen, who has been to this remote part of her kingdom to pick them. We were in Finnmark, a county in Northeast Norway that is larger than Denmark and the top salmon fishing region in Norway.

Once here, a system of bridges and tunnels connect even the remotest areas. One sub-sea tunnel is over four and quarter miles long.

Our drive included several stops for reindeer on the road and a visit with a colorfully dressed Sami family and their reindeer at a local handicrafts shop.

On the Top of the World

After a bountiful breakfast buffet at Nordkapphallen (North Cape Hall) that included fishcakes and herring we headed for a riveting wide-screen film that brings the extremes of the seasons here to life. Exhibits on local history and culture, a chapel, and bar are in a cavernous tunnel that leads to a wall of glass showcasing the view.

The North Cape was an important strategic position for supply convoys and was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. We traveled on the blood road built by underfed Russian prisoners of war, many of whose bodies were tossed along the sides of the road. Few historical structures remain since most villages were burned to the ground under Hitler’s scorched earth policy.

We rejoined our ship in Hammerfest, the northernmost town in the world. Nansen and Amundson began their expeditions to Greenland from this Arctic port, which is now booming with the oil industry and a high tech offshore gas field project. Hammerfest is home to the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society and the Meridian Monument, symbolic of the first official and exact measurement of the size and shape of our planet.

That night, we arrived in Tromso, “Paris of the North”, for a midnight concert at Tromsdalen Church, known as the Arctic Cathedral. Norwegian folk music, hymns, ballads, and Sami Joik (chanting songs) were performed against a backdrop of glass mosaic — a spectacular end to the first full day of our Hurtigruten cruise.

Colorful gardens, fearless Vikings, and lefse

Our next day’s stroll took us past colorfully painted houses, wildflowers and gardens of the town of Harstad, on Norway’s largest island, Hinnøya. Its latitude is the same as Greenland or northernmost Alaska, but the Gulf Stream makes for a milder climate. Salmon farming is a major industry in this region. The waters were filled with locally cultivated mussels, said to be best savored with local dandelion wine while enjoying the views of the mountains.

We would also walk through what was in the Middle Ages a powerful Middle Age Viking settlement with a strong chief that is now the site of the Trondenes Historical Center. King Olav knew that the best way to control the mighty Vikings was to convert them to Christianity. Here, in what must have seemed the end of the earth in the 13th century, he built the northernmost medieval church, replacing the old Viking site. The adjacent museum houses exhibits of regional artifacts from the Viking and Middle Ages.

Our tour continued across Hinnøya past farms, fjords and mountains. We crossed the Gullesfjord by ferry, enjoying coffee and the Norwegian specialty lefse before joining the Nordlys in Sortland, in the Vesterålen Islands that was named the Blue City after over 50,000 liters of paint were used to give the town a distinctive new look.

Mountain creatures

In Trollfjord, Norway, e used tasty morsels to lure these white gulls to our boat to attract the attention of White-tailed Sea Eagles.
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In Trollfjord, Norway, e used tasty morsels to lure these white gulls to our boat to attract the attention of White-tailed Sea Eagles.

We were soon in Trollfjorden. While our ship, the Nordlys, turned around in this narrow area we headed out on the MS Orca. White seagulls were lured by tasty morsels of fish, attracting the attention of the sharp-eyed inhabitants of the towering mountains.

An eagle safari was part of our Hurtigruten cruise in Norway.
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An eagle safari was part of our Hurtigruten cruise in Norway.

There were no sightings of the sun-wary creatures of Scandinavian folklore for whom the fjord is named, but shutters clicked away on our Sea Eagle Safari. These photogenic white tailed birds of prey with wingspans of six feet or more swooped down by our boat, their powerful talons extended, and snatched the fish that had been thrown into the sea.

The smell of money

Still north of the Arctic Circle, we were soon in picturesque Lofoten, a group of islands named third most appealing in the world in 2007 by National Geographic Traveler.

Between November and January are sunless days of Polar Nights. This is the best time to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). In summer, however, you can tee off during the endless days of the Midnight Sun at the world’s northernmost golf course and play through the night.

Cows, sheep, and goats graze and potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and berries are harvested. Cod is the major industry, and we were regaled with maritime tales of the benefits of cod liver oil, the longevity of the dried cod, and how to use a cod bone to predict the weather.

Generations of fishermen and their families have tied cod two-by-two and hung it on wooden racks to create stockfish, or the salted version, clipfish. Three months of wind and sun, beginning in the end of February, preserves the nutrients in a rigid form that can be kept in storage houses for years.

Quality depends on length, hardness, and the scent—which should be strong—and is referred to locally as the smell of money. About 90% is exported, primarily to Italy for bacalao. It is also used in Scandinavia for the Christmas delicacy lutefisk (lye fish), so named for its method of preparation. Lutefisk traditionally served with aquavit (water of life), the distinctive Scandinavian caraway flavored distillation.

The fishing village Henningsvaer , Norway, is popular with vacationers.
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The fishing village Henningsvaer , Norway, is popular with vacationers.

Artists are drawn to this area for its lush, green, dramatic mountains, white sandy beaches, and unique light. The picturesque fishing village of Henningsvaer has an outstanding art gallery with depictions of local life. The restored red fishermens’ cabins known as rorbuer are popular with vacationers and must be reserved well in advance.

The greatest erotic adventure in the world

In an event described as the greatest erotic adventure in the world—the largest population of herring in the world–12 million —come to Vestfjord to mate. Following them are six to seven hundred hungry Orcas—the planet’s greatest concentration. These killer whales have developed a “carousel feeding” technique observed only in this area. They circle the herring and chase them into a tight area near the surface, then slap and stun their prey with their flukes.

Trondheim

Nidaros Cathedral was built over the burial site of St. Olav, patron saint of Norway
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Nidaros Cathedral was built over the burial site of St. Olav, patron saint of Norway

The Viking town of Nidaros was founded around 997 by Viking King Olav Tryggvason. It grew to be Norway’s third largest city, Trondheim, a university town, technology capital, and research center with small town charm. It was Norway’s first capital, and is the city of coronations and royal blessings.

The view from the overlook Utsikten, “The View”, reveals a city nearly completely surrounded by water—the fjord and Nidelven (Nid River).

There is a colorful wharf area, monastic ruins, a red bridge with distinctive Gates of Happiness and wooden palaces of wealthy 17th and 18th century merchants, one of which became a royal residence. The 17th century Kristiansten Fortress was built high above the town to defend against the Swedes.

Some narrow alleys and streets remain from the Middle Ages, but after the devastating fire of 1681 most of the city was rebuilt with wide boulevards. In the center is Norway’s most beautiful church, the Gothic Nidaros Cathedral. It is the kingdom’s largest stone church and northernmost cathedral in the world. Constructed over the burial site of St. Olav, patron saint of Norway, it became a religious center and pilgrimage site. It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1531 and reconstruction began 300 years later.

About Hurtigruten and the MS Nordlys

Hurtigruten’s Nordlys is shown here approaching the Blue City, Sortland, named for the color of its downtown buildings,
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Hurtigruten’s Nordlys is shown here approaching the Blue City, Sortland, named for the color of its downtown buildings,

The Hurtigruten ships that sail the west coast of Norway are working ships that carry goods and mail as well as passengers. The company was founded in 1893 to service small communities more accessible by sea than road.

Eleven ships sail year round between islands, into fjords, and out in the open sea. Passenger itineraries are tailored to the schedule of this working ship. The sailings are part of life along the coast.

From the tip of the North Cape to the fish market in Bergen, the view is an ever-changing panorama and passengers can experience three seasons in one trip. Awaken to see a waterfall gushing from a mountain or a fisherman setting out for the day.

Depending on when you choose to travel, you can experience the Midnight Sun or Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Winter adventurers include Northern Lights, Sami reindeer races, and dogsledding in Tromso, followed by a meal in a traditional Sami tent.

The benefits of cruising are in unpacking once and spending your time enjoying your destination, not getting there. This type of cruise is best suited to those seeking an authentic regional experience, not a party or spa ship.

If you require fancier toiletry items than in the liquid soap/shampoo dispenser, bring your own. Leave gowns and tuxedos at home. You can pack light, for there are self-service laundry facilities.

There is one 6:30 pm seating for dinner, with assigned seating and a plate of the day and vegetarian options. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, with herring and other fish certain to be among the selection.

No casino, art auction, formal nights, or fancy entertainment here. There is a small lounge with music, drinks, and after dinner coffee. Buy a colorful hand knitted hat from a craftsperson on the dock. Listen as two children in traditional costumes welcome you to their port with favorite melodies. Your adventure is being part of the rhythm of everyday life in busy harbors and remote villages.

Hurtigruten ships have been known to stop to rescue a fisherman in a small boat. It was, in fact, Hurtigruten’s MS Nordnorge that aided in the rescue of the 150 passengers and crew from the cruise ship MS Explorer in Antarctica in November, 2007.

At one of the stops along the coast of Norway, enterprising young musicians in traditional costumes entertained passengers with popular songs.
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At one of the stops along the coast of Norway, enterprising young musicians in traditional costumes entertained passengers with popular songs.

Watch cargo being unloaded in villages that depend on this service. Become immersed in life based on the sea. By traveling on a regularly scheduled working ship, you minimize your carbon footprint.

And there’s more…

The Oseberg ship and other grave finds are in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway.
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The Oseberg ship and other grave finds are in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, Norway.

Extend your adventure in Norway’s two largest cities before and after your cruise. In capital Oslo, you can learn more about the polar expeditions, see the best preserved Viking ships, and visit an open air showcase of Sami and Norwegian history and culture at the museums of Bygdoy Island. Stop by Vigeland Sculpture Park, the Munch Museum and Nobel Peace Center in this city considered one of the greenest in the world.

Monolith, Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo, Norway
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Sculptures like The Monolith by Gustav Vigeland in Frogner Park, Oslo, are one the country’s top attractions.

In charming and picturesque Bergen, city of culture, ride the funicular to the top of Mount Floyen for the spectacular view of Norway’s second largest city and its fjords. Shop for snacks, souvenirs or handicrafts at the colorful fish market.

Bryggen wharf area, Bergen, Norway
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Bryggen wharf area, Bergen, Norway

Browse the boutiques and artisans’ shops of the harbor area. Learn the Hanseatic history of Bryggen. Spend an afternoon on a street lined with art galleries. Visit a leprosy museum in a former hospital for those afflicted. After a busy day, enjoy the best views in town of Bryggen’s colorfully painted wooden warehouses over aquavit cocktails at the renowned Femte I Andre Bar in the Strand Hotel.

Recipes

Our guide, Maria Adolfson, shared her grandmother’s Lutefisk recipe

Soak fish in cold water for 6 days. Change water each day. Add 1 Tbsp. caustic soda (sodium hydroxide or lye) per 10 liters of water for one day. Next day, rinse. Christmas Eve, boil for 10 minutes. Eat with potatoes, bacon, white sausage—Do not add too much lye or fish gets jelly like.

From Hans Bru, owner of Femte i Andre Bar

Varg Veum Aquavit Cocktail

For each drink:
1 ounce Bergens aquavit
1 ounce apple liqueur (apple sour mixer may be substituted)
— Dash lime juice
— Sprite to taste
Serve with ice in a Collins glass and garnish with a fan of thin slices of green apple dipped in lemon juice to prevent browning. Delicious as an aperitif or paired with herring.

 

Distance Kirkenes to Bergen 1310 nautical miles.

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