By Monique Burns
From the rugged frontier outpost of Kirkenes, a stone’s throw from the Russian border, south to Bergen, gateway to the western fjords, Norway’s coast stretches some 2,500 miles. From the North, Norwegian and Barents seas, and from countless fjords, rise hundreds of sun-dappled islands and islets, topped with fishing villages and farms, as well as major ports like Trondheim, site of medieval Nidaros Cathedral, and Hammerfest, the world’s northernmost city. Sea eagles, with eight-foot wingspans, and flocks of gulls cleave the air while, inland, herds of reindeer gambol across miles of tundra.
Aboard Hurtigruten line, anyone can savor Norway’s charmed coast. The company, which celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2013, began transporting freight, mail and Norwegian commuters along the coast in 1893. Today, its 12-ship fleet also carries vacationers between 34 Norwegian ports.
Some travelers go in winter to see the Northern Lights. Others choose summer when the Midnight Sun stays up till dawn. Spring, when the green landscape emerges from its snowy blanket, and fall, when the forested islands are cloaked in brilliant color, have their devotees, too. Choose one-way sailings of 6 or 7 days, starting in Bergen or Kirkenes, and traveling north or southbound. Or take an 11 or 12-day round-trip cruise that travels both north and south between Bergen and Kirkenes, allowing you to see every port, by day and night.
I signed on for Hurtigruten’s six-day coastal cruise in late summer, when the Midnight Sun stays high in the sky through much of the night. After a couple of days in Oslo, treating myself to Edvard Munch’s work at the National Gallery and the Munch Museum, and innovative New Nordic cuisine at waterfront D/S Louise and at Ekebergrestauranten high in the hills above the Oslofjord, I made the two-hour SAS flight north to Kirkenes, six miles from the Russian border.
A quiet day in this small frontier town turned into a full-fledged adventure when I joined a King Crab Safari, one of Hurtigruten’s many shore excursions. Dressed in bulky black and neon-yellow survival suits, I and eight other adventurers hopped aboard a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or RIB, and were soon speeding across the glassy blue waters of the Bøkfjord, which ultimately leads to the Barents Sea. Along with the sheer joy of being out on the water, buffeted by the cool crisp air, came the excitement of experiencing new sights: a family of reindeer atop a bluff, abandoned World War II Nazi batteries jutting from rocky cliffs, giant tankers hugging the shoreline, little wood-frame cottages painted traditional red and white.
Our guide, a witty young fisherman named Michael, stopped to draw giant red king crabs—also known as Kamchatka crabs—from his traps. Once ashore, he steamed their three-foot-long legs in big aluminum pots, and, before long, we were devouring crabs by candlelight in his rustic, tin-roofed fishing shack and swearing, between bites of the sweet succulent meat, that we’d never eat any other kind of crab again.
But the day wasn’t over. Aboard a long wooden dory and dressed, this time, in royal-blue, black and white survival suits, we cruised up the Pasvik River to the Russian border. A guide pointed out the respective border poles—red-and-green for the Russians and black-and-yellow for the Norwegians—and the nearby hills where, she said, Norwegian and Russian soldiers waited, guns at the ready, to take down anyone who crossed into the wrong territory. Chastened, we sat down to another fine meal of wood-grilled salmon.
By the time I fell asleep that night at the fjordside Thon Hotel Kirkenes, I’d already had so much fun on the pre-cruise excursion—or “pre-excursion” in tour lingo—that I could have happily headed home. But, I realized gleefully, I hadn’t even boarded ship. Six more days of adventure awaited me!
Streaming down the Norwegian coast at a comfortable 15 knots per hour, I’d take my adventure in style, cossetted aboard the gleaming red, black and white MS Midnatsol, a medium-size ship carrying 1,000 passengers. I’d stroll the open-air top deck, relax in art-filled lounges with big picture windows, and enjoy sumptuous buffets of baked cod, golden cloudberries with whipped cream, and other Norwegian specialties in the big, sunny dining room. I’d work out in the fitness room and take saunas as the seascape streamed by. And, if I wanted to make a night of it, I’d join fellow passengers in the piano lounge to hear a Norwegian pianist croon American classics from the 70s and 80s. When the long day was done, and the Midnight Sun still cast its moonlike beams over the sea, my fellow passengers and I would fall asleep in comfy compact cabins with desks, couches and bunks, or roomy suites with sitting rooms, TVs, and bay windows or outdoor decks.
Each new port brought new perspectives on Norwegian culture. In Trondheim, after touring medieval Nidaros Cathedral, a pilgrimage site rivaling Santiago de Compostela, I walked to one of the oldest parts of town to snack on platter-sized golden waffles, with fresh cream and strawberry jam, and cups of steaming hot cocoa at Baklandet Skydsstation, as cozy as grandma’s house with china plates on the walls, and cheery waitresses in red-and-white polka-dotted dresses and blue-and-white embroidered aprons. In Tromsø, the “Paris of the North,” a gifted baritone, pianist and trumpeter transported us into the heart of Norway at a midnight concert of Edvard Grieg and other composers in the stunning, contemporary-style Arctic Cathedral. In tiny Vardø, the seaside Steilneset Memorial, completed by the late French artist Louise Bourgeois and the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor in 2011, featured a long black tunnel with fabric “plaques” recalling hundreds of local women executed for witchcraft between the 16th and 18th centuries, and a separate black cube with a single flaming metal chair inside.
It felt liberating to walk through a port city for an hour or so, but even a brief stop was exciting. Hearing a new port announced on the loudspeaker, I’d rush to the top deck to photograph the harbor and wave back at the townspeople waving far below. In ports big and small, sailboats, fishing boats and even freighters came out, as if to greet us, when we arrived. In Kristiansund, so many gleaming red, green and blue tankers swelled the tiny harbor that it looked like it would burst.
When the ship wasn’t cruising into a new port, it was streaming through miles of splendid scenery. There were little islets and skerries topped by tiny red-and-white lighthouses, and quaint waterfront villages with tiny harbors where sailboats and fishing boats, painted the brightest blues and reds, bobbed in cobalt-blue waters below sunlit cerulean skies. There were natural wonders, too. The sawtooth peaks of the 3,000-foot-high Seven Sisters mountain range extended along one island. Rising atop another was dome-shaped Torghatten Mountain, pierced by a huge 520-foot-long hole produced, legend has it, when Hestemannen, the horseback-riding troll, shot an arrow while chasing the beautiful maiden Lekamøya. In Øksfjord, the glistening tongue of a glacier, one of Norway’s largest, spilled across granite cliffs. And there was the thrill of crossing the Arctic Circle, marked by a metal sphere atop a tiny island.
Not surprisingly, the Norway coastal cruise has been called “the world’s most beautiful voyage.” But the folks at Hurtigruten don’t mind gilding the lily by offering scores of optional excursions year round. On “Reindeer Spotting Under the Midnight Sun, ” I joined a small group at 1 a.m. to ride a ribbon of hummocky road in search of reindeer grazing the grayish-green tundra. Whenever, our guide, Ruan, sighted a herd, we’d hop out of the van to photograph it. Among the grayish-brown adults, and the knobby-kneed calves, with their short, stubby antlers, we’d sometimes sight rare white individuals. Back at Ruan’s hilltop camp a few hours later, we sat on reindeer skins around an open fire, roasting reindeer meat, and enjoying berry yogurt and chunks of fresh-baked bread. Just six hours later, after a bus excursion to the North Cape, the world’s northernmost point, we were posing for photos atop the same high bluff that once drew 19th-century explorers.
Another day, on a “Sea Eagle Safari,” a sightseeing boat took us through the high granite walls of the Trollfjord where enormous white-tailed sea eagles, cousins of our American bald eagles, swooped down for fish amid flocks of chattering gulls. That same evening, we were off on yet another adventure to the Lofoten Islands, and Hov Hestegård, a seaside horse farm where we rode trails around white-sand beaches, rocky strands and high round hills.
Finally, we cruised into Bergen, at the confluence of several fjords and surrounded by seven mountains. An early Hanseatic port where dried cod was once processed for sale around the globe, Norway’s second-largest city is now a cultural capital. Fine art museums line a lakeside park, and there’s an annual festival dedicated to composer Edvard Grieg, whose nearby country estate, Troldhaugen, includes a charming Victorian-style house, a little cabin where Grieg once worked and a waterside concert hall where free lunchtime concerts are given in summer. Make a pilgrimage into the surrounding woods where, blasted into the granite mountainside, is the lofty, rock-girt tomb of the composer and his wife.
We couldn’t have wished for a more fitting climax to our coastal cruise than a visit to Bergen. But had I been granted one final wish it would have been to turn right around and head back up the coast for another six days. On my six-day cruise, I’d seen a lot of Norway’s coast, but I knew there was much, much more to experience.
IF YOU GO
Hurtigruten, P.O. Box 451209, Sunrise, FL 33345, (866) 552-0371. www.hurtigruten.us
To stay before or after your cruise, consider:
Thon Hotel Oslo Panorama, Rådhusgaten 7B, N-0151 Oslo, (47) 23-31-08-00. www.thonhotels.no/oslopanorama
Thon Hotel Kirkenes, Johan Knudtzens Gate 11, N-9900 Kirkenes, (47) 78-97-10-50. www.thonhotels.no/kirkenes
Comfort Hotel Holberg, Strandgaten 190, N-5004 Bergen, (47) 55-30-42-00. www.nordicchoicehotels.no
Before and after your cruise, a few good places to sample New Nordic cuisine:
D/S Louise, Stranden 3, Aker Brygge, N-0250 Oslo, (47) 22-83-00-60. www.dslouise.no
Ekebergrestauranten, Kongveien 15, N-0193 Oslo, (47) 23-24-23-00. www.ekebergrestauranten.com
Jacobs Bar & Kjøkken, Kong Oscarsgate 44, N-5017 Bergen, (47) 55-54-41-60. www.jacobsbergen.no
Sample waffles, fish soup and other Norwegian comfort food ashore at:
Baklandet Skydsstation, Øvre Bakklandet 33, N-7013 Trondheim, (47) 73-92-10-44. www.skydsstation.no
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.