. The Norwegian Coastal Voyage by Ben Lyons : ROAD & TRAVEL Magazine

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Norwegian Coastal Voyage

The Norwegian Coastal Voyage by Ben Lyons

Gathering by the door, we checked our watches and sprang ashore as soon as the gangway was landed. Knowing we had only 30 minutes in port, we fanned out in all directions to explore this small Norwegian village as quickly as we could. After exactly 15 minutes of walking, we turned around and started the return hike to the ship, confidently arriving moments before the gangway was lifted. Soon we were underway again, sailing up the Norwegian coast for four hours before stopping at another port and repeating the process all over again.

Norwegian Cruiseline

Making 67 port calls in just 12 days, the Norwegian Coastal Voyage is one of the most port intensive and culturally rich cruises available. Known to Norwegians as the Hurtigruten, or Coastal Express, it remains a unique sea voyage, blending cruiseship comforts with cargo ship purpose and aura. With a different ship sailing each day from Bergen along the western shores of Norway to above the North Cape and all the way to the Russian border and back, the Hurtigruten has been a vital part of living along the coast for over 110 years, shuttling not only people but essential cargo and supplies between seaside communities. Today, the service is still used by the Norwegians like a bus as they hop on and off between remote villages, sometimes staying onboard only a few hours. The day-passengers and the cargo carried are the underlying reasons for the daily service and you'll find yourself sharing the ship with a local family and their dog, a school group out for an afternoon excursion or a bridal party- still in their wedding gowns- celebrating en masse till the next town. By sailing on the Hurtigruten, you are more than taking a cruise-you are being integrated into a culture and seeing one of last routes where sea travel is part of daily life.

Known as "The World's Most Beautiful Voyage," it certainly did not disappoint on my mid-September sailing which showed me far more of the country than any conventional Norwegian fjords cruise could have. We did hit the major tourist spots, including sailing miles inland to the spectacular Geirangerfjord on a warm, sunny day, with lush mountains towering thousands of feet overhead and waterfalls dripping down on either side. While we visited major ports like Trondheim, Alesund and Hammerfest, we also explored narrow channels and constantly skirted rocky outcroppings in the middle of the night, and witnessed the jagged peaks of the Lofoten Islands rising victoriously from the ocean. Later on, we ventured into the tiny Trollfjord, where the ship seemed barely able to turn around, and constantly marveled at the small farming communities nestled in tracts of land between the sea and the dramatic, grumpy looking mountains towering above. In fact, Norway's coast is so spectacular, so thrilling and so continuously beautiful that even after 12 days of nonstop sightseeing, you never become jaded from the scenery.

Norwegian Coastal Voyage Cruise Line

As we went further north, ultimately spending over half the trip above the Arctic Circle, the green hills and quaint villages gave way to a harsher Arctic climate as mountains became blanketed with snow near the North Cape. With winter approaching, the weather became a bit more brutal, and we watched with interest as the cargo operations carried on despite rain or snow. At night, groups of us would huddle out on deck to watch for the Northern Lights, with sightings that left us in awe and sent others scurrying around the ship to wake up fellow passengers who had already retired for the night.

The full roundtrip voyage takes twelve days and calls at 34 different ports while making 67 stops, with the same ports being visited when heading northbound as southbound. However, if you only go one way, you see only half the story. A one-way voyage is certainly a wonderful trip, but the full flavor of the coast and the true bonding with the ship, the passengers and Norway itself really occurs on the full roundtrip. With the ship's transportation and cargo requirements dictating the schedule, port calls are often limited to 30 minutes, with only a few major ports offering longer stays. That is part of the fun, however, as all of these small villages can be explored on foot in short time and everyone relishes these quick jaunts. Some made it a sport to try and step foot in each port, and there was always a spirited crowd waiting to go ashore even when the ship docked as late as 11PM. This does not mean, however, that passengers will be deprived of a chance to go ashore on longer visits or explore a bit further inland. A program of 18 shore excursions has been developed, with some of them leaving the ship in one port and rejoining the ship in another port later in the day. Some are fairly conventional motorcoach tours while others are a bit more exotic, including bird watching safaris, dogsledding trips, and snowmobiling and lasso-throwing with the Sami people. Note that during the winter, the shore excursion program is more limited with only 8 options. Food is an important distinction between the Hurtigruten and cruiseships-there is simply not the tremendous abundance nor quality of food that you find on a normal cruise. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with a good variety, but with a strong focus on Norwegian food (i.e. an astounding variety of seafood and fish.) Dinner is a fixed menu of an appetizer, entrée and dessert. The menu is posted during the day, so if the entree (which is usually fish every other day) is not appealing, you can ask for something different beforehand. The food is hearty and good, but not gourmet, and a 24-hour café not included in the cruise fare is available. During the peak season, lunch and dinner are fixed tables with two seatings.

Norwegian Coastal Voyage Cruise Ship

There are now four different types of ships that operate on the Hurtigruten, each offering a different style. The three 650 berth "Millennium Class" may feature balconies, swimming pools or saunas and are very similar to smaller, modern cruiseships. The six "New" ships accommodate approximately 460 passengers in a slightly more intimate but still very modern and attractive ship. Two "Mid-Generation" ships, however, left me feeling cold, with neither the amenities nor beauty of the newer ships nor the charm of the "Traditional" ship. If possible, avoid sailing on the Mid-Generation ships, although NCV does offer special "No Frills" package rates for these ships for those looking to save some money.

One Traditional ship, built in 1964, still sails on the Hurtigruten during the off-season from September to April and is the most authentic way to experience Norway. Adorned in rich wood paneling and accommodating a maximum of 170 passengers, the MS Lofoten has a log-cabin coziness and, for some, is the only way to travel due to its warm ambiance and old fashioned feel. Cabins are tiny (some even without private facilities) but the charm and atmosphere, including a significantly smaller percentage of Americans, more than makes up for it. If you can forgo cruiseship comforts like elevators and balconies and want a bit more nautical environment, sail this well maintained classic that is Norway's only floating national historic monument before it- and a link to the past- is retired.

With a recently lowered Norwegian government subsidy, the Hurtigruten has been increasingly turning to tourism, and they have even broadened their cruise program, now sending a ship to Antarctica as well as offering adventure cruises to Spitzenberg and the Lofoten Islands. To further tourism, NCV has put together extensive pre- and post-cruise packages ranging from a 14-day program featuring a few days in both Iceland and Norway to multi-day excursions in Lapland. The summer season is the most popular, and consequently crowded, as passengers come to see the Midnight Sun and enjoy the relatively warm weather. The winter season is an amazing chance to experience dramatic Arctic landscape, but most shore side attractions will be closed and you should expect some rough weather. Possibly the best time to sail is the so-called shoulder season in September and April. Here, the attractions are still open, but the crowds are gone. (The North Cape typically gets 6,000 visitors a day during the summer- when I went in mid September, we 35 passengers were the only ones there.) The weather in the south is still warm, you get the chance to see the start of the winter landscape up north, and there is a fair chance of seeing the Northern Lights. No matter when you go, however, you'll be among the fortunate few to experience this most memorable voyage and see Norway the way it was meant to be seen.