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On top of the world

Gabrielle Sander joins Hurtigruten for a sailing into the Arctic Circle to see the northern lights… and a whole lot more

We were five days in, traversing the inky fjords of northern Norway, between Trondheim and Kirkenes, when the announcement came; just as I was teasing a strip of king crab from its orange spiky shell, with a long, sharp implement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you go outside now, you will see the northern lights.” 

Down went the claw, on went the coat, gloves and bobble hat at Supermarket Sweep-speed, and up and out I leapt to deck seven. The moment I’d been waiting for, had failed to achieve in Iceland a few years before, and been excited about for weeks leading up to this trip, was finally here. Boy was it worth the wait. 

A neon ribbon the colour of Slimer from Ghostbusters looped over the bow of the ship, flaming at the edges. Seconds later, a bright red square skated swiftly from one end to the other, bursting above our heads like metal shavings being pulled by a magnet from underneath. It was so quick, so unreal, that I ducked – and joined the chorus of gasps. In Viking times, the northern lights were feared; it was thought they could scoop you up from life into death. In that moment, it didn’t seem such a stretch of the imagination. 

This was mid-October, nearing the end of Hurtigruten’s seven-day Classic Voyage North, and although it was peak aurora season (October-March), travelling to areas of Norway renowned for being excellent spotting grounds, seeing the lights was never guaranteed. For this reason, these trips can often feel like an expensive gamble. Not so with Hurtigruten. If the lights don’t appear the first time, they’ll offer you a free trip. There’s so much on this route to make your limbs prickle with goose pimples and your heart beat faster that heading back for a second chance wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing. 

The route started in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, known as the gateway to the fjords and for its colourful Unesco World Heritage wharf, Bryggen. From there the ship winds along 1,600km of fjords and sea, pulling into 34 port towns and cities, until reaching its final destination, Kirkenes, in the extreme northeast of the country close to the Russian border. 

It’s a journey Hurtigruten embarks on daily, throughout the year, and has done for over 125 years, since it began as a service for transporting mail, cargo and people between ports. On MS Nordnorge, one of 12 in the fleet, we’re carrying frozen fish, snow blowers and vehicles in the hold; local and regional travellers, who hop on and off along the way, and holidaymakers like me (a mix of solo travellers, couples, small families, from all over: Germany, Canada, Wales, Australia, Japan), who have checked-in for the full-board experience. It feels less like a typical cruise and more of an adventure.

The ship pops along at a leisurely 14-18 knots (about 25-33kmh), perfect for soaking up the splendid Norwegian landscape. Something
I do from the outside decks, through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Explorer Lounge, while tucking into egg and soldiers at breakfast, and from the comfort of my Mini Expedition Suite’s not at all mini bed. 

By day, the fjords stretch out beneath endless blue skies, like silvery satin, meeting mountainous land dressed resplendently in autumnal colours. The further north we venture, the darker the water; the taller, more dramatic the mountains jutting from it. Their imposing silhouettes softening to reveal remote cabins, wind turbines, waterfalls and the occasional sea eagle, as the sun rises, like one of those mugs that unveil a hidden message when you add hot water. A little more snow peppers the peaks, the daylight dials to an almost perpetually rose-tinted glow. The temperature creeps down and the number of layers go up, until the final northerly stretch, from Tromsø to Kirkenes, when the scenery is at its most beautiful and arctic, and every one of my thermals has been summoned for duty. 

Occasionally we pass another Hurtigruten ship or a fishing boat flocked with hundreds of birds vying for its catch. A remote village here and there, the twinkling, brightly-painted wooden houses, exuding ‘koselig’, the Norwegian equivalent of hygge. Otherwise we have this delicious wild way all to ourselves. 

We stop at some ports just long enough to pick up new passengers, others where we have a whole day to join an optional excursion or do our own thing. At Trondheim, I took a sightseeing coach tour, taking in the Skansen Bridge, designed by the same structural engineer behind San Francisco’s Golden Gate, and Nidaros, the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world. In Bodø, while others donned waterproofs for the rib safari, I scouted out the souvenir shopping, but there’s not a lot to see in the town and I wished I’d booked the Arctic Coastal Walk as the photos looked amazing. In Stamsund, a fishing village in the Lofoten archipelago, an evening jaunt to the Viking Museum came with tales of ancient gods and lashings of sweet, potent mead. Best of all was the trip to the North Cape, the northernmost point in continental Europe, where the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans meet, where we drove through some of the most ethereal landscape I’ve ever seen, passed a lake bobbing with porpoises and took giant giddy footsteps in untracked snow, which sparkled under the dreamy pink light. In the summer, this area is a carpet of green; home to mink, otters and around 5,000 reindeer. It’s enough to induce anyone’s inner Greta Thunberg.

MS Nordnorge makes for comfortable travel between ports of call. A maximum capacity of 590 means it never feels crowded, and a complete refurbishment in 2016 means everything is polished and new. A sauna and two outdoor hot tubs add a touch of luxury and the rooms tick important boxes: powerful shhowers, cosy beds, and drinking water on tap (literally). 

The food throughout, is excellent, with huge breakfast and lunch buffets and a three-course set menu at dinner. The Hurtigruten Coastal Kitchen approach brilliantly reflects the area just travelled, through traditional dishes, and ingredients from ports along the way. The day we left Trondheim we tucked into the most delicious salmon I’ve ever tasted. It was landed that morning, and you could tell. Further up the coast, baked celery soup was topped with sausage from a producer in Tromsø. Arctic char (a cod-like fish exclusive to these waters) followed, picked up overnight when we docked into Sortland. The day we reached the North Cape was marked by a spectacular Nordkapp buffet including freshwater Lyngen fjord shrimps and Finnmark reindeer. 

A daily schedule of onboard talks, presentations and films added further flavour. The nightly Norwegian Way of Life shared insight into destinations en-route, dished out with ladles of Norwegian dry wit, and there was a workshop on photographing the northern lights. Regular ‘points of interest’ teased us outside, for commentary on the notable landmarks passing by: the Arctic Circle crossing; a 130-year-old lighthouse accompanied by bowls of fennel and beer-cooked blue mussels; a midnight sail through the Trollfjorden, a narrow pass hugged by steep mountains both sides, straight out of The Lord of the Rings, where we supped steamy cups of rum-spiked ‘troll juice’. Memorable moments I’ll reflect back on with as much fondness as dear aurora borealis. 

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