Norway isn’t that far, especially if you are already in Europe. Natalie and I flew from Frankfurt to Bergen and flight time was just 90 minutes. On the return, we flew Oslo to Paris, and that flight was 1 hour and 45 minutes. We landed in Bergen 36 hours after the horrible tragedy in Oslo. The pilot on our Lufthansa flight set the tone when he said he’d just come from Norway and it was a very depressed country, but he hoped our visit would bring some happiness to the people. As you can imagine, all the papers and most of the TV stations had nonstop coverage of this tragedy, and there was at least one makeshift memorial in each town we visited. Here’s a video of the two biggest ones we came across.
When we landed we discovered how expensive Norway is. A sandwich at Upper Crust deli in the airport goes for 70NOK (Norwegian krone), which translates to US$12.31. That’s also the price of a grilled chicken salad at Burger King in the city (I didn’t eat there–just saw the advertisement). One thing that’s not expensive is the Internet. Most hotels and airports offer it for free. Hurtigruten did too, but it was pathetically slow. Actually, it was basically nonexistent, which is why I’m writing this story a month later.
The Norwegians Are Friendly
OK, they aren’t anywhere as nice as the Fijians, but they are nice people, and efficient, and they all speak perfect English (at least everyone I encountered). There was an information desk at the Bergen airport and the representatives told us our three options to get into the city: The 30-minute ride would’ve set us back 350NOK ($61) in a taxi, 95NOK ($16) by bus, or 170NOK ($29) on Hurtigruten’s bus. Below are two examples of how nice the Norwegians are:
1. In the city of Molde, Natalie and I were visiting a memorial alongside the main church where there were hundreds of fresh-cut roses and notes. It was raining, so only a few people were out, including a distraught Norwegian man who came up to Natalie first and hugged and kissed her on the cheek. I thought it was one of her long-lost friends from home until he did the same to me. He had tears in his eyes when he said, “I’m sorry–this is a very tough time to be traveling in Norway.” It really is a difficult time for everyone, but just like 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, these senseless acts bring out the best in a place and its people. Norway is no different. More.
2. On our trip from Oslo to Paris, we flew standby on an earlier flight. We both received middle seats and after I said to Natalie “see you in Paris,” my Norwegian seatmate said he would switch seats with her so we could sit together. I said she had a middle seat too so he probably wouldn’t want to do that. He said, “That’s OK–it’s a short flight.” How nice is that?
You Can Use NOK or Euros
Looking back, I really didn’t need to withdraw so many krone out of the ATM, because almost all places took my Visa card and the ones that didn’t almost always took euros (I always keep some on me) and some even took US dollars.
Working Ship, So It’s Ecofriendly
I remember speaking at the Adventure Travel World Summit last year in Scotland, where I told one of the Norwegian representatives that cruising the Norwegian fjords is on the top of my list since I’d heard from so many friends that it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. He said, “Yes, but don’t go on a traditional cruise ship; they are bad for the environment and we are trying to get them boycotted.” What he did recommend was the Norwegian company Hurtigruten. They have a fleet of 11 ships in Norway that ensures at least two (one northbound and one southbound) will visit one of their 34 ports daily.
The northbound voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes takes six days while the return takes five. Some passengers go for the whole 11-day round-trip, while others go just one way (like we did); some even just take it as a ferry from one port to another. Since they go to some very remote ports, this is how the residents in those areas get their supplies and mail.
I had no idea what to expect because people kept telling me it’s not like a cruise ship–there’s no pool (they do have two Jacuzzis), entertainment, discos, or shows. Although my expectations might have been low, it was way nicer than I had ever imagined. First of all, there was some entertainment–they had a singer and a piano player in one of the bars each night. But who needs entertainment when you have Norway’s fjiords? They were the real star (more on that in a bit).
We were assigned a suite (yes, we were hosted by Hurtigruten), but we were shocked that we got an upgrade. It was the largest cabin I’ve ever had on a ship, and I seriously could’ve lived there if they had had better Internet. FYI: I met a bunch of other passengers who had regular cabins; they said they were small but comfortable and they would recommend it to all of their friends. One person told me that next time they will try not to get assigned a room on the lowest floor toward the back because they could hear the workers moving around while in port (and stops in some ports take place in the middle of the night). Others said the only thing they could hear was their neighbor’s toilet flushing. We didn’t hear a thing.
Just keep in mind, the boat is not a destination. It’s transportation and a hotel.
Good to know: Because it’s a working ship, people are constantly coming and going, so there’s no dreaded muster drill. But they do ask passengers to read the safety instructions.
The Ships Are Plush
We were on the MS Trollfjord, which was much more plush than I expected. She was built in 2002, is 135 feet long, can go 15 knots, and holds 822 passengers and 45 cars. We passed her sister ship the MS Midnatsol, which is Hurtigruten‘s newest ship (built in 2003). I wasn’t expecting to see marble floors and glass elevators in the atrium. Or have heated floors in our bathroom.
The Food Is Good
Hurtigruten isn’t cheap, and neither is their food. They have meal plans available for their dining room, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But they also have a café; for those going the a la carte route. There’s no room service. If you plan on drinking a lot of coffee or tea, buy their souvenir coffee cup, because you get free refills.
The first and last night the main dining room has a dinner buffet. The rest of the nights there is a set menu. Every breakfast and lunch is a buffet, and Natalie and I were shocked at how good the food was, including the desserts. I thought for sure I would be losing weight on this voyage since I’m a fairly picky eater–I don’t like much seafood or lamb–but there were plenty of options, even for vegetarians and diabetics (I met both on our voyage). FYI: Natalie said the salmon was the best she ever had.
The only thing I didn’t like is that at lunch and dinner you have to pay for drinks when you order them. It’s kind of weird they don’t let you start a tab.
FYI: You can drink the tap water, even on the ship, so there’s no wasting money on bottled water.
One thing that bums me out when I go on cruises is that they always have a dress-up night and I have to lug my suit or tuxedo. On Hurtigruten there’s none of that, so no packing the tie or fancy dress.
Oh my gosh: when it was sunny I understood why Hurtigruten‘s tag line is “The most beautiful voyage in the world.” The highlights were going through the Geirangerfjord (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Trollfjord, the Lofoten Islands, and some random ports we visited in the middle of the night that I stayed awake for with my jaw dropped.
The one long ferry ride I took in the past was from Ireland to France, and I got seasick. I wasn’t sure how my body would react to this boat, but there was no problem whatsoever. In fact, 95 percent of the time it was as smooth as a lake. A couple of nights it got a little choppy, but nothing even remotely bad enough to get you sick. I didn’t see or hear of anyone getting seasick, so no worries there.
If you take the voyage in the summer, be prepared for “white nights” or the midnight sun. From May 21 to July 21, the sun is up 24 hours a day. Locals told me that this time of year everyone is happy and active, and some even mow their lawn at 2 a.m. We were there at the end of July, so down in Bergen the sky was getting a tad dark, but the higher we went the longer the days got, and on our last night the sky never got dark.
Note: From November 21 to January 21 the sun does not come up above the horizon at all. I hear on January 21 there are big parties called “sun parties” because the sun comes up for one minute. Then after that it stays up 10 minutes longer each day. If you want to see the Northern Lights, I was told the best time to see them is December to March from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. They also said Norway is the best place in the world to view them.
It’s pretty cool to be able to tell your friends you’ve been to the Arctic Circle, but it’s even cooler to see it. It was nothing like I had pictured, and it all began on the fourth day when the purser made an announcement that in 10 minutes we would be crossing the Arctic Circle. Those on the portside would be able to see the island of Vikingen, which has a globe marking the line. The latitude is 66 degrees and 33 minutes north.
Our first major stop was Bodo, where we had two hours to explore. The town looked cool but we had to get some work done, so we skipped our excursion and headed to the tourist information office for some inexpensive Internet. It cost just 15NOK ($2.66) for the Wi-Fi password and an unlimited amount of time.
You Can Do Laundry
Back on the ship I hit the laundry room. I think it cost me $5 (30NOK) to do a load (I needed to get a special coin from the front desk) and detergent was supplied. It’s awesome that ships provide washing machines because it allows passengers to carry even fewer clothes. FYI: The washing machine took 87 minutes and the dryer wasn’t much better–they aren’t state-of-the-art.
You Get to Visit the Largest City North of the Arctic Circle
On day five we had a four-hour stop in Tromsø, which is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. The population is 68,000 and the two main attractions are the Polaris Aquarium (entry fee 105NOK = US$18) and the Arctic Church (entry fee 120NOK = US$21). The church was built in 1965 for Lutherans on the island and it’s inspired by icebergs and fishing racks, among other things. In the winter the streets are heated and there’s an underground pedestrian tunnel system similar to Montreal.
FYI: In Tromsø a Norwegian bird sh*t on my head while I was outside a café getting free Wi-Fi and since I was pressed for time I didn’t even clean it up until I got back to the ship.
It’s Not That Cold
Since we were going up to the Arctic Circle I was debating bringing my winter jacket, hat, and gloves, but luckily a friend told me that it wouldn’t be that cold. I just needed a sweater, windbreaker, and rain jacket (also bring binoculars). The average summer temperature is 12C (53F) but the record is 30C (86F). When we were there it was 61F for the high and 49F for the low. I was told the winters are relatively mild because of the North Atlantic drift. It’s usually -3C (26F) and the coldest temp was -18C (-4F). FYI: The water temp in summer is 9C (48F).
You Can Get an Arctic Baptism
The morning of day five they announced the winner of the Arctic crossing guessing game and that they would be conducting Arctic baptisms on the top deck. I had to see what the heck the latter was all about, so I went upstairs, and boy was I glad I did–it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever witnessed. They had an evil-looking dude dressed up as Neptune (he looked more like the Burger King king) and passengers were lining up to get a ladle full of ice cubes dropped down their bare backs. Even one woman in a wheelchair lined up. The last guy in line got the whole bucket poured over him (see my video at the end). It was so funny and partakers got a free shot of schnapps to warm them up.
You Can See One of the Most Beautiful Places on Earth
As we pulled up to the Lofoten Islands I kept shaking my head, thinking this has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I was not expecting the scenery to look like the South Pacific minus the gorgeous inviting blue shades of water. We went on the Lofotr Viking Feast excursion (90 euros= US$123), which took three hours. The highlight was driving 35 minutes to dinner and then an hour back to the boat (we picked it up at another port). The drive was outrageously scenic and we learned that eight islands make up Lofoten (we visited three) and 25,000 people live there in total. TIP: Sit on the right side of the bus for the best photo ops.
1,500 people live in the Viking town where we ate, and dinner was only about an hour long. It was a hokey show and not that great but the food was pretty good (they served lamb, turnips, carrots, barley, bread, lingonberries, and skyr) and there’s no fork–just a spoon and knife. It’s worth it just to experience Lofoten.
On the ride to the ship we learned about the different house colors in the old days. Red was for the poor; the paint was made from cod fish oil and lamb’s blood. The middle class had yellow houses, and the rich painted their houses white. Since white was the most expensive paint, some only painted the front and sides that color but the back red. Tricky little Vikings, huh?
When we boarded the ship at 10:15 p.m. they made an announcement that at 11:45 p.m. the real beauty would start. I was thinking, how can anything be more beautiful than the Lofoten Islands? Almost everyone went up to the top deck or sat inside at the bow. It was chilly out, but they served hot vegetable soup (for free). When the captain took a turn into the mouth of the Trollfjord we were all thinking, how’s he going to manage this? It’s only 100 meters wide and the mountains surrounding it are 600 to 1,100 meters high. It was surreal. The kicker is it’s a dead end, so the ships have to turn around at the far end in a space that is 800 meters wide. They go real slow so the whole thing takes about an hour. It’s definitely an experience, just like Hurtigruten and Norway. Highly recommended.
Here’s a little video montage of the trip highlights:
Video of Norway’s Moment of Silence on July 25, 2011: