Norway Arctic Cruise – Day 1: Boarding and Departure

When I get back to the Hurtigruten terminal, the same girl is on the reception desk.
She had mentioned when I originally checked in that I should return to the terminal before the boat left, when I explained that I pretty much understood the principle that if I was not on the boat when it left, I would miss the cruise… She hands over my envelope which contains tickets and my pass, and then I head up for the ‘safety briefing’.
There are a few other people waiting with me. The safety briefing has been highlighted multiple times, including the ominous ‘The safety briefing is mandatory and if you do not take it, you will not be allowed to to get on the boat!’ so I’m expecting something significant.
In fact, it’s a video, which says, quite simply, if you hear the alarm, get to the lifeboats, put on a life jacket, and get off the boat. The video goes through this entire statement in about 2 minutes, then spends 90 seconds repeating the same basic information all over again, including another example of the alarm we should listen out for. I dont know what I was expecting, but from the description and warnings I expected more than the common sense info they provided.
Once the briefing is over, we are taken to the ship. There is a nice covered walkway, but the MS Lofoten is so small, that we have to go down the steps and take the fire escape and walk out to the boat, and are introduced to a very familiar process.
The primary contents of the envelope contain your Hurtigruten key card, and each key card is unique to you and the voyage and boat you are taking. The keycard is important for a number of reasons:
  • It’s your room key. Dont forget it (although they will let you back in if you ask nicely!)
  • You can associate it, on board, with a credit or debit card. This means you can use the card each meal for drinks (if you haven’t prepaid for water or wine), at the cafe, and even the on-board souvenir shop.
  • You will need it every time you leave and enter the boat. You cannot leave without it, and you certainly wont be let back on board. It’s how they track whether all the passengers on the ship are on board before they leave a port.
It’s a brilliant system, not only from a safety perspective, but also convenience. If I had a complaint, it’s that I often forgot it when rushing out of my room because of the northern lights or other announcements.
Once on the ship, I start to take a look around and get my bearings around the decks before ultimately finding my room. My suitcases have been placed outside of my room, and I get the bags in and then do some very brief unpacking so I can hang up my shirts and put stuff away as good as I can. My room is, compact, about what you’d expect, with two fold out beds and a small desk, as well as a wet-room shower/toilet. I actually love small tiny spaces like this, so I’m perfectly happy.
Afterwards, I head back out to look around the deck and take some photos, before heading down to the restaurant for the buffet evening meal and start to meet the other passengers, although I eat alone as do many others, all slightly nervous of the other people on the cruise. This also introduces yet another standard operating procedure – before entering the restaurant you must use the hand sanitiser to prevent spreading infection around the boat.
After dinner I go and check why I do not have the coffee mug that will provide me with unlimited coffee for the journey (and also acts as a souvenir), and then we get an info blast from our ‘tour organiser’ Aesgir.
The ‘bar’ area at the aft of the ship
We are introduced to the senior members of the crew and then we are given instructions about life on board, including the importance of your key, and how things will work. A few interesting pieces of information come from that:
  • The phone in your room also provides announcements. Press the F11 button (which was already pressed on mine) and you will hear all general announcements. These start at 7am and finish at 10pm and announce departure and arrivals at different ports, interesting views while out, excursion availability and many other things.
  • The F12 button, if pressed, will work only between 10pm and 7am and will provide notification of northern lights if they are seen so that you can wake up and go see them. Obviously they are easier to view at night, so if you came expecting to see them, the alarm is vital.
  • The hand sanitiser is crucial, not only in the restaurant, but also when leaving and joining the boat, even if you only step off for a minute.
  • The MS Lofoten was built in 1967 and although refitted recently, still keeps a very traditional feel. The Hurtigruten line has been running for many years and still does the same basic route stopping at the different ports.
  • We also learn what will turn out to be a significant piece of information. There are only 43 passengers on board a cruise ship that can take 150, so we are a small, very tight knit group. In fact, only 43 of us went all the way to Kirkenes, just 23 made the entire northbound and southbound trip.
  • Finally, perhaps the most crucial piece of information of all, is that each night after dinner there will be an information sheet downstairs in the reception that will tell us all what is happening over the next 24 hours. It will contain a list of the stops, excursion, and activities, as well as any special sights we will see on the way past.
After the info dump, we still have two hours before the ship will leave Bergen. It’s dark outside, but the air is very crisp and I am loving the cold. It’s also surprisingly peaceful. I sit for a while out on one of the decks listening to some audiobooks and just enjoying the tranquility.
At 10:30, the last few people have arrived on the boat and we finally set sail. Although it is pitch black I do try my best to capture some photos of Bergen as we leave. Some of the decks are slippery. In fact, the main rear deck is entirely covered in an inch thick layer of ice. By 11pm I have had a long day, and decide to head to my cabin and bed.
My first problem is working out how to turn my sofa into a bed. I decide to sleep on the lower bunk and finally work out the catch and release mechanism and fall pretty much straight asleep.

Norway Arctic Cruise – Day 1: London to Bergen

Sunday morning, 6am, and I’m leaving the hotel in a taxi. The ground outside is frosted up so much and the taxi driver mentions to me how cold it is and hopes I’m going to a warm country. I think he’s shocked to realise I’m going to the arctic circle.
I booked the flight through Hurtigruten, and it’s a scheduled British Airways flight that is surprisingly busy. The plane journey is routine, but we get to see some lovely little islands and rocks as we come in to land in Bergen.
The airport has the small airport feel as you get off and they check your passport almost just inside the door. I get my bearings after collecting my luggage and then head outside to the coach for the transfer to the Hurtigruten terminal. I’m the first to the coach, with a very friendly driver.
In fact, I’m the only one on the coach at all. So I spend the 30 minute journey from the airport to the terminal talking to the bus driver about economics, immigration and Thailand. Amazing how deep and detailed you can get in the few minutes of travel.
Once at the Terminal we say our goodbyes and then there is a short wait while another cruise is assembling and the Hurtigruten desk opens. A lovely takes my details and checks in my bags so I am able to go for a walk. The boat does not leave until 10pm, so I have a full day to spend taking in the sites.
The terminal location is somewhat industrial, so I start walking towards what I hope is the old town. Everything is shut. And I mean really shut. At first I walk up and over the a hill that overlooks the terminal and sit down from another woman who is obviously doing her Sunday morning ritual and enjoying the view, while a girl in the distance plays with a dog. I can see a boat at the terminal, but it’s obviously not the MS Lofoten.
I realise, after checking my location, that I’ve got a way to walk, this time down a steep hill until I reach the quayside opposite Bryggen, the old medieval quays of Bergen. The old buildings are colourful and very recognisable and are much better viewed from the other side of the port so that you can take in the full vista. This is not where I’m headed, I want to get up to the top of the nearby mountain.
I take a walk around the port, passing the fish market and an impressive array of fish and shellfish. As I round the corner I’m tempted by a few of the restaurants but I know there is one at the top of Fløibanen, one of the seven mountains that surround Bergen. The Funicular starts at the bottom of the hill close to the main port – literally a few hundred years from both Bryggen and the fish market. The roundtrip ticket (up and back down again) is 90NOK, so about £7 or $10.
The hill is steep – the funicular itself is stepped inside so that you have a variety of different levels to stand on, which not only makes because of the physical layout of the carriage, but also means every single level gets access to the same unrestricted view. The journey is quiet and takes a few minutes to get the side of the mountain, passing the downhill carriage in the process. The views quickly became amazing, although a good chunk of the route that still lies within the city is actually walled and covered,  suspect to provide some barrier for the people who live and work in the building, The funicular runs every 15 minutes and although it’s silent is probably quite a distraction. Not to mention tourists looking into gardens and through windows.
At the top as we exit you are presented with a massive stepped viewing area that looks out directly over Bergen and the fjords beyond, and from where you can see the other mountains and surrounding landscape. To see the views are magnificent is an understatement. It is a beautiful crisp, blue skied autumn day which makes the view and atmosphere perfect. It takes a while to sink in just how majestic the landscape is.
I head for some lunch in the cafe at the top – it’s self service and the food is excellent and traditional fair, although it takes me some time to get used to the currency as I’m trying not to end up with so many coins. It is very busy, and this is obviously the place to be for locals and tourists. I have some trouble finding a table and eventually have to share with a group of Norwegian having a deep conversation I obviously cannot follow.
After lunch I decide to go for a walk with the hoards of locals, entire families, friends, out for a similar walk in the afternoon sun. There are people running, hiking or just out for a stroll. The top of Fløibanen is covered in pathways that you can follow without needing to be too fit, and also off-track routes.
There are also a number of lakes and ponds, most with picnic areas and even barbecues if you’ve come prepared.
After years of walking in the lake district on paths and crags that are very similar I take a route off the beaten track and switch into what I can only call ‘mountain goat’ mode, stepping quickly from rock to rock and crag to crag as I go both up and down the hills and terrain. This is what I’ve missed – it’s been a long time since I was able to go on a hike that felt so wild and rough and I’m loving it.
Still the views are magnificent and I find myself stopping frequently just to take in the views and breathe in the very fresh and clean air.
There are various wooden carvings around the forest at the top, and near one I spy a family and their children walking out over the ice. Although I wouldn’t like to try it, I’ve already seen that the ice in places is several inches thick so I’m not worried.
After trekking for a few hours, both on and off track, I head back to the steps and start to look out at the setting sun. It will set at 15:55 and I make it back to the view just after 3pm. I watch as the sun slowly sets – takes a long time due to combination of the northern location (we are 60º north here), the time of the year, and the elevation, but the view is too magnificent to miss.
I stay until just before the sun goes down, and then take the funicular down the mountain and walk back to the Hurtigruten terminal in the twilight.

Norway Arctic Cruise – Day 0: Preparation

I cannot remember precisely what point I wanted to go on a cruise to the arctic, but it was in my teens, and for a while I obsessed about it. I actually remember walking into a travel agent in Northampton – where I went to college – and asking for some catalogues. By this time I’d already been wanting to go for some years.
There are probably a number of different factors around this:
  • I like the cold. I mean, I really really like the cold. My family calls me toastie. As we’ll see on the boat, I walked around outside in just a T-Shirt for nearly the entire trip.
  • I’m a huge Douglas Adams fan, and feel privileged to have actually met and spoken to the man himself. For those that do not know, Slartibartfast (from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), designed the Fjords of Norway.
  • I also love Monty Python, and although Michael Palin sang about Finland, not Norway, I think the countryside, Fjords and other beautiful descriptions of the landscape suit Norway just as easily.
  • As a fantasy fan, having read Tolkein, Feist, Howard, Moorcock and many others, the rough and barren terrain holds some kind of draw for me.
  • I do like being on my own, and I fully expected to spend a lot of time on the boat not necessarily in my cabin, but out on the deck with only my thoughts to listen to while I marvelled at the landscape. Being out on a ship – if not in the middle of the ocean, distant enough to not be in constant contact, had always appealed. Things didn’t work out like that, but I wasn’t annoyed by that, in fact quite the opposite.
I’m sure there are other reasons not immediately obvious, but I think those are the main ones. When I finally got the opportunity, and more importantly, when I was reminded of my desire when talking to a friend about boats, I decided to take the leap and book the cruise.
The cruise was picked on the basis of two very specific requirements:
  • I wanted a small ship – I had already decided that a big ship would mean just a floating hotel that could be anywhere, and I would lose the feeling of being out on the ocean.
  • I wanted one that stopped at multiple places – Being on a ship that just goes fvrom one point to another did not appeal. I wanted something that stopped and visited different places, same or different countries didn’t matter, I just wanted to see more country than sea.
This ultimately led me to book Hurtigruten, who use working ships on their route up and down the coast of Norway, and the MS Lofoten, which is the smallest of their ships.
I booked the cruise actually while on another trip. But I decided that I didn’t just want to do the cruise, I wanted to do as many excursions as possible so that I could experience many different things. So that meant picking things like the husky sledding, the aquarium, and trips to different locations and points. If I was going to arctic, I wanted to go to places that made it clear it was the arctic.
But it didn’t feel real until I’d stopped travelling for work and then gotten the tickets in the mail.
Once picked, now it was time to prepare for the journey. I have a lot of walking gear, but not a lot that would help me in potentially sub-zero temperatures, a lot of water, or a lot of snow.
Now I have been a big fan of Rohan for years, in fact, I’ve kept to three basic rules for my equipment for some time. I put Salomon’s on my feet, a Suunto on my wrist, and Rohan for everything else. So a trip to my local Rohan shop in York was in order.
I must say that Charlie, Max and Gary were ever so helpful and patient, although I’m pretty sure that they do not get many people  going with a list and the statement that they are going on a trek to Norway! Charlie in particular was so patient, and very kindly placed all of the clothing into our already-owned Rohan bags.
So for all of the effort, what do the piles contain:
  • Some new walking trousers that are more waterproof than my normal ones.
  • Some comfortable trousers for when I’m not on an excursion
  • Some waterproof over trousers
  • A nice super-warm padded jacket
  • Some thermals
  • Gloves (both thin and super insulating), hat
  • A few more bags and waterproof phone/iPad holder
All absolutely vital, and for this trip, by far the best selection of travel gear I’ve ever owned. We’ll see how practical it became on the cruise in due course.
What else did I prepare for?
  • I got a GoPro Hero 4, so I could record both the views (it’s got a fantastic wide angle lens) and the husky trip (which the assistance of a chest-mount)
  • Charge up both my other cameras – I knew in the cold they would need help, so I also packed and charged many secondary-batteries
  • Prepared a list of things I wanted to do on the cruise, like go through my reading list, sort out my photos, etc. It’s not that I thought I might be bored, I just like to make sure I’m prepared to do things I like while I’m away.
  • Packed my iPad to the gills with books, Spotify lists of music I haven’t listened to yet, and a few movies in case I was super-bored.
That was it, I was ready!
Packing proved to be problematic – I had just too much photo gear to fit into my usual carry on bag, so I ended up taking a suitcase in the cabin and checking a suitcase into the hold to carry it all.
Because of my early flight to Bergen on the Sunday morning (7am) I decided to stay at a local hotel on the Saturday night, which gave me the opportunity to settle in and relax a little before what would turn out to be a busy day.