To witness the Northern Lights was on our bucket list, so when we saw a UK package offer for a 3 night cruise and 1 night hotel in Norway including flights from London Gatwick, we booked the Arctic Highlights offer with Hurtigruten.
This is our first experience of a cruise, and Hurtigruten are quick to point out that their Norway Coastal Routes are a scheduled ferry service, they are working vessels, which for us added to the attraction. If you’ve been on cruises before, this will be unlike your previous holidays, the ship docks several times a day to a strict schedule, some stops are just 15 minutes and others a few hours. There isn’t evening entertainment, and passengers don’t dress smart for dinner. What you will find is a comfortable & warm ship, very friendly crew, good gastronomy using fresh local ingredients and a diverse range of excursions.
We met our tour leader Anita at the welcome & information meeting shortly after boarding the MS Finnmarken in Tromsø. Whilst it was our first day, we were actually joining on day 5 of an 11 day route Bergen – Kirkenes – Bergen which is a distance of 2510 nautical miles / 4649 km. Anita completed the safety briefing and advised us on the availability of forthcoming excursions.
We had been allocated table 11 and the dinner sitting at 20:30 which is the last one of the evening, the others are 18:30, 19:00 and 19:30. Each night there was a menu including information about where the food had been sourced. There’s no alternative choice on the evenings with the set menu, it’s a 3 course meal and if you don’t like it, tough! Luckily we eat almost anything, so enjoyed the gastronomy, which includes a lot of fish and seafood. Hurtigruten do offer a vegetarian option, which has to be booked at least 2 weeks in advance. I really liked the detailed menu each evening which explained the Norway Coastal Kitchen dishes, sourced regionally along the route.
Other dining options included Babette’s a la carte restaurant open in the evenings from 19:00 – 22:00. Tapas in the Brotoppen Bar on deck 8 from 12:00 – 21:00, and the cafeteria which was open 24 hours a day.
Our cabin was very comfortable, we booked an Arctic Superior (best view available), which was allocated as 578 on deck 5 at the stern. We had twin beds, one which folded away into a sofa during the day. There was tea & coffee making facilities, plus you can drink the water in your cabin. The TV had Sky News and one channel with programmes in English language. The ensuite shower was a good size and included toiletries, plus a hairdryer. We also had a desk with chair, and a safe. Our suitcases stored away comfortably and plenty of space in the wardrobe for our clothes.
The MS Finnmarken has a gym, sauna, heated swimming pool and two jacuzzis, which are free for passengers to use.
We had a choice of the following excursions during our 3 night cruise. We booked the snowmobile and husky dog adventures.
Honningsvag: North Cape bus tour 1369 NOK or Fishing Village 440 NOK
Kjollefjord: Snowmobile trip in the Arctic meeting the ship at Mehamn 2949 NOK
Kirkenes: The Russian Border by bus 599 NOK or Husky Sledge Adventure 1799 NOK
Mehamn: Snowmobile trip in the Polar Night 3549 NOK
Hammerfest: City Tour by bus 419 NOK or Into the Ice 799 NOK
Tromso: Midnight concert in the Arctic cathedral 649 NOK or Singing Whales by bus & boat 1990 NOK
Hunting the Light Programme
We looked forward to the daily programmes produced by the tour leader, usually available around 4pm, we were able to plan the following day around any special events happening on ship, and our planned excursions. I’ve picked out some of the highlights for an idea of events we were invited to join in.
Day 5 – Hunting The Light Programme
21:00 The captain serves Stockfish (Torrfisk)
23:00 We start the crossing of Lopphavet, an open stretch of sea (approx 2 hours)
Tonight we are crossing 70 degrees North!
Our first night onboard went well, we slept right through, enjoying the rocking motion of the ship. The shower was hot and powerful, with plenty of room to manoeuvre. Breakfast is a buffet menu and free seating, so you can go anytime from 07:00 to 10:00 to eat. There’s a good selection of hot and cold food available, from a cooked breakfast with bacon, eggs and sausages; continental style with cold meats and cheeses; Norwegian style with fish and pancakes.
Day 6 – Hunting The Light Programme
09:45 North Cape stamps available today only
11:15 Arrival at Honningsvag which is 34 km from the North Cape
14:45 Apple cake and hot chocolate served on deck 8
15:15 Film in English about the Sami history and culture on deck 4
16:30 Presentation & tasting of local produce as we pass the Finn Church (Finnkirka) said to be the most graceful sea cliff in Norway
16:45 A local fisherman comes onboard with his daily catch of King Crabs (Kongekrabber)
18:45 Nordkyn, the northernmost point on the mainland of Europe
19:15 Arrive at Mehamn, the northernmost port on this voyage
By luck more than planning I had some Christmas cards to post, so took advantage of our position at the North Cape to send them with special post marks. We decided not to take the excursion to the North Cape monument or the local fishing village and went for a wander around is a really picturesque harbour town.
The ship arranged a special ceremony when we were at sea passing the Finn Church, serving fish or reindeer soup out on deck. The sea cliff was lit up with mood lighting and ambient music played on ship. Next a local fishing boat pulled alongside, and we got to meet some live King Crabs which had just been caught. These crabs were introduced to Norway as a food source, they don’t have any natural predators and reproduce prolifically. They can grow up to a span of 1.8 metres, just the meat from the legs is consumed as a local delicacy.
Day 7 – Hunting The Light Programme
09:00 Arrive at Kirkenes which is only 10 km from the Pasvik river which forms the national border with Russia.
14:30 Presentation of the Pomor trade in English on deck 4
15:45 Arrive in Vardo, which is the easternmost town of Norway and situated on the island Vardoya, with a chance to go ice dipping in the Barents Sea or a walk to the Vardohus fortress
The sea had started to freeze on our way in to Kirkenes, there were blocks of ice floating on the surface of the water. Apparently the gulf stream doesn’t reach this coastal area of Norway, which is what stops it from freezing in other locations. The water temperature has to be lower than minus 1 degree for salt water to freeze. We had a fabulous excursion in Kirkenes to go husky dog sledging, feed reindeers and visit the snow hotel.
I sort of regret not signing up for the ice dipping in Vardo, a few brave souls shed their warm clothing, donned swimming costumes, diving boots and woolly hats to plunge into the Barents Sea during our stop there. Lots of passengers gathered to cheer them on, they were rewarded with special certificates and prizes for their bravery. A few of them even paused to create some snow angels on the way back into the changing room!
Our evening meal tonight was baked reindeer from Finnmark, served with brussel sprouts, baked turnip puree and lingonberries. The meat was pink and tender, I really enjoyed it, my apologies to Rudolph and the team.
As it was our last full night on ship, and the forecast was good, we were on high alert for the Northern Lights. We’d not been lucky so far as the sky had been heavy with snow clouds. The night before we heard an announcement after we’d gone to bed and raced to get dressed, heading for the top deck. We stood staring into the blackness with a crowd of other passengers but couldn’t sight the elusive Aurora Borealis. Tonight however was different…… we were just departing the port of Berlevag at 10pm when there was a murmur of excitement that the Northern Lights could be seen. This time we weren’t disappointed, there was a definite green glow streaking across the sky. I tried to capture it on camera, shooting off photos and video, which were disappointing to say the least. The light wasn’t like I’d seen in footage, it didn’t cover the sky, this was like the first signs of dawn, long before the sun rises, when you get that lightening of the night sky. We watched the display off the starboard side of MS Finnmarken for some time as we left Berlevag behind us, I saw my first ever shooting star and we had found the light!
We didn’t head for bed at that point, we were due to leave the ship at Mehamn to go on a snowmobile excursion with Arctic Coast at 1am in the morning. The excursion company provided all the warm clothing, gave us a short lesson on how to drive the vehicles and then we were off. We followed our guide, one per snowmobile on a 20km route. I’ll be honest, it was difficult at first, I hadn’t grasped the basics of how to operate the vehicle, and was starting to drop behind, plus my wrists and shoulders were aching with the effort. Then it dawned on me, I relaxed and let the snowmobile follow the tracks, it was similar to being on a roller coaster ride, I simply had to keep a smooth acceleration and move my body weight around the corners. It was exhilarating, there was a full moon which lit up the snowy landscape and the sky was full of stars, this was definitely worth staying up for. We stopped briefly for a hot juice, photo opportunity and quick chat, before completing the end of our adventure.
Our guide on the bus back to the ship was excellent, telling us information about the county of Finnmark and the Sami people. Finnmark is the same size as Sweden but has a population of 75,000 inhabitants compared to 8 million, in fact they are outnumbered 2 to 1 by the reindeer population. The drive down the mountain to the port of Kjollefjord was full of twists and turns, our competent driver didn’t falter once in the ice and snow, it was us who had our hearts in our mouths. We could well believe the fact that Kjollefjord is isolated regularly through the winter, the locals know to follow the snowplough over the top or stay at home if the road is closed and the barrier down. We also learned that there are snowmobile highways, these are marked out and monitored by the local police, most families have at least one snowmobile.
When we arrived back in port, the ship was already waiting to leave. We had docked 30 minutes later than schedule in Mehamn and the captain was eager to make up time. It was lovely to get cosy and snuggle down into bed after our night excursion.
Day 8 – Hunting The Light Programme
10:00 Energy coffee served on deck 8
10:45 Arrival at Hammerfest for a 2 hour stop where you can visit the Polar Bear Society and do a town tour
14:30 Learn how to make knots in the Panorama salon on deck 8
15:00 Presentation of local specialities on deck 8
22:15 Fashion show on deck 4
23:45 Arrival at Tromso, excursion to a midnight concert in the capital of the Arctic
We rose for a late breakfast and was ready to explore Hammerfest when the ship docked.
Hurtibear posing with his membership to The Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society in our cabin. We spent the rest of our last day on board chilling, we had to vacate our cabin by 20:00 on our day of departure and was due to dock in Tromso at 23:45.
The Blu Radisson hotel is visible from the harbour in Tromsø and only a few minutes walk from the ship. Our cases were transferred by the crew, which made check in very easy. I was looking forward to exploring Tromsø in the morning, I had planned a cable car trip as well as a visit to the oldest pub in town.
Instead of driving through the tunnel to the airport, our coach took us over the top where another northernmost landmark was pointed out to us…… Burgerking! I kid you not. It was time to board our Germania flight back to London.
We’d really enjoyed everything about our Hurtigruten charter package to Norway, it’s definitely a country and holiday we’d happily recommend. We look forward to returning one day, maybe next time it will be for the midnight sun in the summer, or a stay at the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes.