Hurtigruten: Bergen-Tromso and 19 ports in between on MS Finnmarken 18-22 August, 2015

28 Aug

I’ve always decried cruises. I’ll happily leap on any number of ferries and boats, but cruises, no thank you. I don’t do buffets, rotaviruses and onshore bus excursions. I barely do queues. My position has been that if/when one/both of us needs to be wheeled on and off a boat I’ll consider a cruise. Having said that the Hurtigruten line comes mighty close to the definition of a cruise and we’ve just finished a four-night trip threading our way up the jagged coast and islands off Norway’s west coast, a part of the world I’ve wanted to see since my first trip to Norway 15 years ago. I wasn’t disappointed. The scenery was spectacular, from close encounters with dramatic fjords and waterfalls to moody, seemingly endless twilight over the Lofoten Islands. Norway’s lousy summer turned on the sun for this week with indigo skies and azure seas. 

  
  
    
  

  

At any one time 11 white, red and black Hurtigruten ships are on the move. One of the highlights of each day was watching a sister ship steam past at around 15 knots within 25 metres of our port side, each captain giving two greeting blasts on their horn.  

 Our ship, MS Finnmarken, carrying up to 1,000 souls, is one of the more luxurious of the line (well, she does have a pool with two jacuzzis on the top deck). Hurtigruten still delivers the mail and all manner of cargo spending as little as 15 minutes dockside. Watching fork lift drivers buzz pallets on and off the boat through a hole in the side was amusing. I was so excited the first night I made Stuart get up at 1am for our first port of call, Flore. 

 What wasn’t so amusing was the inflexibility of the company’s rules and the heavyhanded way staff implement them. For example we heard a group of French people berated for trying to hold seats in the panoramic bar. Fair enough let them know the etiquette, but for pity’s sake don’t treat them like children.

 

Roughly 60 per cent of our shipmates were Germans aged over 65. The remainder a United Nations of nationalities and languages, still weighted heavily to the senior set. A basic two-bunk cabin with sea view on a bed and breakfast basis starts at AUD1,100 a night, so this is far from budget travel. A few backpackers boarded in the Lofoten Islands and hopped off at the next port. 

   Many people had bought the full cruise package from cruise agencies, 11 nights Bergen to Kirkenes and back with buffet breakfast and lunch and two seatings of a three-course set dinner each day. Others, like us, booked directly online for a section on a bed and breakfast basis. Norway barely does vegan so there was no way I was fronting a buffet, the waste and the gluttony offends me. Nor could I justify the price.
 

I’d been assured the ship provided plenty of other dining options, including an a la carte restaurant and 24 hour cafe. Turned out the a la carte restaurant’s menu had precisely zero vegan options and the cafetaria stopped serving cooked food to order after 6pm. Even then there were no vegan options on the menu. I had to beg the chef to make me a burger without the meat one night (basically salad on a bun with chips) and a vegetable pizza without cheese another night. When I went along last night to request the ‘burger without the burger’ again the cafetaria cashier repeated, ‘I have to check with the chef’. She came back and said straightfaced,’You are lucky, it’s the same chef as the other night. He says he can do it’. I had to bite my tongue while paying AUD26 for a soggy salad roll and a few french fries. Not good enough Hurtigruten. Seafood in all its forms may be Norwegians’ preferred protein but for the future of our shared home, planet Earth, and its suffering creatures, it’s time you introduced plant protein for those of us who do care enough not to consume other living creatures. There endeth the sermon.

 

Our trip embarked from home port Bergen at 8pm on a Tuesday and we disembarked well inside the Arctic Circle at Tromso at 2:30pm on the Saturday. Some stops allowed time to do expensive side excursions, with the excursion groups rejoining the boat further up the coast. Other stops we could walk around the port in the hour or so available. We stopped in Alesund twice, once on the way to beautiful Gieranger Fjord, and then on the way back. We had time to watch boatbuilders constructing a small two-masted, wooden boat dockside in Alesund. Head boatbuilder, Alfred, took a smoko as we passed by and was happy to tell us about the project. They were building to an order from the Hardanger Centre of Historic Vessel Conservation, a replica of a 57.7 foot 1880s Sunnmore Bank fishing vessel to be housed in the Stiftinga Sunnmore Museum. In many ways she resembled trinity.org.uk fishing vessels with a long bow sprit and gaff rigging. 

  Pretty Alesund 

    
Seven Sisters Waterfall, Geiranger Fjord 

 After some consideration of excursion options we booked two side tours, a two-hour guided kayak trip down the River Nid in Trondheim, plus a small boat tour out of Bodo to a glacier and wildlife spotting.
 

Only one other passenger, Kim, a plucky, multilingual 17-year-old German highschooler, chose the kayaking tour, so with our guide, an athletic twenty-something Lithuanian woman, Giedre, we set off from the countryside just outside the city. Paddling with the current past beautiful old painted wooden houses, the Nidaris Cathedral, traditional varnished wood fishing boats and old wharves was the perfect way to experience the city and prepare for sea kayaking in Gudvanger. Disappointingly the small boat glacier tour was cancelled due to an engine problem.

   
   

  

  

If I sound disappointed with Hurtigruten I am a little. I had such high expectations of this trip. In my past work life I hugely enjoyed working with Norwegian education agents and university colleagues. Norwegian journalism students were among my favourites and I stay in touch with some alumni to this day. In many ways Norwegians resemble Australians; pragmatic, direct, hard-working, hard playing, good-humoured people with a great love of the outdoors. Hurtigruten have not capitalised on these characteristics. The overwhelming impression we gained was that the company is only interested in getting punters from point A to point B while extracting the maximum amount of kroners out of them. It’s not just the 60 per cent markup on excursions and exorbitant prices on board (more than five dollars for an Americano coffee is frankly silly), but public announcements urging us to purchase ‘Troll cocktails’, ‘Troll Soup’ (do they hunt the Trolls or are they farmed?), fifteen dollar ‘traditional’ Svele pancakes on the top deck, it never stopped.
 

For all that I will treasure the sights of the past four days. The sparse Norwegian coastal landscape with scattered evidence of man’s habitation, deep red or white cabins and tiny boats set against the clarity of the natural elements, sea, stone, fir trees, sky, speaks to a deep urge we share to strip back our existence to a simpler life.

    
Stuart’s favourite spot. 

   

   Troll Fjord 
    
 MS Finnmarken leaving us behind in Tromso. Arctic Cathedral to her right.

     

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