The Hurtigruten

Ever since I first saw the Hurtigruten, Norway’s “Express Route” ferries-slash-cruise ships in Trondheim in May 2011, I’ve wanted to travel on them. However, boats and emetophobia don’t go all that well together and I’ve put it off. Until this December when for Reasons I very suddenly wanted to do it. I umm’d and ah’d for ages about whether I wanted to go from Bodø to Tromsø (23 hours) or Harstad to Tromsø (6 hours). On the one hand, six hours didn’t seem very long. On the other, twenty-three seemed far too many. So eventually I went for the shorter one.

I arrived in Harstad in the dark on Friday evening, failed to find anything to eat, had a nice bath and fell asleep earlier than usual because I had to be up pretty early. I sort of knew where the ship would be and when I got up, in the dark, the boat was visible from my window so there was no doubt about where I had to. Or so I thought, until I got closer. The boat was parked behind a warehouse. There was a taxi trying to make its way around the side of the warehouse so I followed it and discovered that it led to the ship. There was no ceremony about boarding, just a ramp going up to a door. In I went and inside, there was a shiny reception, just like in a hotel.

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I handed over my paper confirmation and was given a plastic card, with my name and booking number and my ports and the date etc, directed to the luggage store and when I’d loaded my pockets with anything valuable or necessary, I spent a few minutes exploring before discovering the restaurant. It seems that if you’re on the ship during breakfast time, you’re allowed breakfast. I scanned my boarding card at the door and it let me in, so I sat down in this restaurant, which was so much more shiny and gold and gleaming and posh than I’m used to, and helped myself to a hotel-sized glass of pineapple juice and some crusty rolls and butter because that’s what I like for breakfast. It had all the rest, the meats and the cheeses and the jams and the cereals and coffee and whatnot. (…I may have borrowed some bread for later in the day. Given that I could have eaten my body weight in breakfast, I don’t think they should begrudge me a few bread rolls). But the breakfast did get hurried because while I was eating, we set sail. I think I’d been trying to get the breakfast over with before we went because I knew once we were off, I’d rather spend the journey outside enjoying the scenery.

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Oh, such scenery! We left before dawn and we were weaving our way up with the Vesterålen on our port side and more mountains on the starboard side. The sun was rising behind the spiky mountains on our starboard side, turning the sky all sorts of beautiful colours and then turning the sky opposite other interesting colours – yellow on one side and purple on the other and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. I’d chosen an absolutely perfect winter day. Any scenery not silhouetted by the sunlight was covered in gleaming white snow and as we ploughed further north, the effects of the long polar night meant that two or three hours later, we saw snowy white mountains lit up red and pink by the sunrise.

We paused at Finnsnes and I enjoyed watching the young crewman on the front tying up – he throws a lead rope attached to a rubber ball onto the dock where someone else picks it up, pulls it in and pulls with it the much bigger and heavier rope tied to the end. Except that the first one missed and fell in the water and had to pulled back, recoiled and thrown again. I opted to stay on board because we only had just under an hour and an hour on land goes much quicker than an hour on the ship. I really didn’t want to risk missing my boat and being stranded in Finnsnes.

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Because it was cold and the scenery was unchanging for an hour, I took to the warmth of the Orion Lounge, which had a starry ceiling and a dancefloor (unoccupied at that time of day) and a row of armchairs arranged in front of the panoramic window and a permanent, though ever-changing, lineup of people enjoying the scenery. I think you should have the wind in your hair, or hat at least, and the salt in your face, so I prefer to be outside.

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The ship also has the Sirius Lounge, a thinner lounge along the port side behind the Orion Lounge, a restaurant and cafe and shop a couple of decks below and hidden away in a corner of deck 2 was a sauna, open only to men at certain hours and only to women at certain other hours although as you have to go and request the key at reception, I don’t really understand why you can’t just go in as and when and with whom you want. There was a public lecture on the subject of Fram, Nansen and Amundsen’s ship which did a lot of exploring in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Hurtigruten have a ship named after it. And finally, as we approached Tromsø, there was a talk by one of the expedition team out in the fresh air about the narrow strait and the island we’d be floating past.

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Up on seventh deck, behind the lounges, is a glass-covered outdoor seating area and behind that, a sundeck with a helicopter landing pad. I’m sure it’s very lovely in the summer, since it’s lovely enough on a beautiful winter deck but there had been snow at some point and it had been piled up in two very slippery heaps at the back, which you had to climb over if you wanted to take pictures off the stern.

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As we got closer to Tromsø, I began to see very small chunks of ice floating in the sea. This part of the coast is generally kept ice-free by the North Atlantic Drift and this certainly wasn’t enough ice to impeded shipping in any way. This wasn’t even enough ice to impeded a canoe but it was more ice than I’ve ever seen in the sea in this part of the world. Let’s be frank, in actual fact, I’ve seen more ice in my drinks at the pub at lunchtime.

I was quite sad when Tromsø came into view, a big sprawly city of a size that just doesn’t otherwise exist in this part of the world. There are plenty of significant settlements – Alta, Hammerfest, Kirkenes, Kiruna, Gallivare, Kittila, Inari, Rovaniemi, many others – but none of them are anywhere near the scale of Tromsø and even so, it’s not a particularly big city by sub-Arctic standards. You can quite easily walk from one end of Tromsø city centre to the other and almost as easily walk out of the town centre to Polaria or over the bridge and past the Arctic Cathedral to the cable car.

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It’s not that I didn’t want to go to Tromsø, it’s just that I’d got a bit attached to the ship and I didn’t want it to sail off without me. I don’t know how much I’d enjoy being on the ship in bad weather but we had it perfect – the sea was like glass, the wind was non-existent (as long as you stayed on the right side of the ship), the sky was clear and beautiful and it was glorious. I don’t think I’m ready for the twenty-three hour trip from Bodø just yet but I’m very happy to have done the short trip I did.

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