As a young girl, ‘Hurtigruten’ was one of those Scandinavian words I remember thinking sounded funny. I didn’t know that Hurtigruten means ‘Ocean Express’, or that it was founded 125 years ago as a port to port postal service in Norway. Nor did I know that I would one day take part in what was, to all intents and purposes, a mini cruise – and absolutely love it.
It is impossible to travel through Norway without being very aware of the importance of the sea. Villages dot the shore, their harbours full of fishing boats large and small. The Norwegians are masters at building sweeping bridges and deep tunnels joining their many islands. In the absence of bridges and tunnels, ferries carry vehicles from shore to shore across fjords and from island to island.
We have always enjoyed ferries – there is something so exciting about driving on to a ship and being at sea. Seeing the beauty of the Norwegian coast gave us the idea of hopping along part of it by ferry to experience the different perspective travelling by water can give.
A quick search on Google immediately brought up Hurtigruten. Their website offered Norwegian coastal cruises, cruises to Iceland, Svalbard, Alaska, the Caribbean and even Antarctica. While these cruises looked amazing, with their images of polar bears, penguins and icebergs, they weren’t precisely what we were looking for.
After a bit more digging and a couple of phone calls we discovered Hurtigruten’s port to port service, allowing us to use the ship as a ferry, subject to availability. Now we started to get excited. We were near North Cape at the time so decided to take the Hurtigruten ferry from Honningsvåg to Harstad, from where we could explore the Lofoten Islands.
So we started the on-line booking process; we’d chosen our route, the date of travel, the ship and the cabin. It was then that I noticed a small description of the ship’s vital statistics giving the following crucial detail: ‘Maximum vehicle height: 230cms’. With roof rack and tent, our vehicle stands at 245cms.
Immediately determined to find a solution to this apparent problem before our hopes began to crash, I started scouring the vital statistics of the eleven ships in Hurtigruten’s Norwegian fleet. Most had maximum vehicle heights between 210 and 230cms. Beginning to give up hope we found MS NordNorge, with a maximum vehicle height 240cms. Maybe we could let some air out of the tyres and squeeze under 240? Maybe they weren’t too strict and our 5 centimetres wouldn’t matter.
It had been a dream of mine since studying glacial geology at school to visit the fjords and I couldn’t imagine when I would have a better opportunity than this. As we were staying overnight at North Cape, we were within easy reach of Honningsvåg – one of Hurtigruten’s ports of call. We were sure that there would be a Hurtigruten office there where we could ask whether the crucial 5cms would prevent us sailing with them.
The following morning, we made our way to Honningsvåg harbour, where Hurtigruten’s MS Trollfjord stood in dock. Apart from the huge red and white vessel in front of us, there was no sign of anything relating to Hurtigruten. The gangplank on to MS Trollfjord was down and passengers were moving on and off the ship. We decided to ask the crew member at the top of this gangplank where we could find information about Hurtigruten ferries. He welcomed us on board and directed us to the ship’s reception, who he said would help us.
As with everyone we met in Scandinavia, the question “do you speak English” was entirely unnecessary – being met with a perfect “yes, of course. How can I help you?” Explaining our 5-centimetre problem, the receptionist looked grave. She believed that they were indeed very strict about the height limit as there was little room on the car decks. She didn’t know if any of the ships would accommodate us but said she would look on the system. After some minutes anxiously waiting while her computer did its thing, she announced that MS Finnmarken could take vehicles up to 250cms – but that didn’t sail from Honningsvåg for another week.
So now we had a ship that could take the Land Rover, but as each ship cruises inexorably backwards and forwards along the Norwegian coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes – a 12 day round tip – we had to work out the best way we could catch MS Finnmarken, assuming it had space for us and the car, without spending another week in the inhospitable-to-camping climate of North Cape.
After much poring over the map and the Hurtigruten website, we settled on a journey from Harstad, just north of the Lofoten Islands, to Ørnes – back on Norway’s west coast just north of the Arctic Circle. The ship would travel through the Lofoten island fjords and straits and the journey looked like it would be stunning. Our qualms about the cost were reasoned away by factoring in the saving on fuel, the benefit of a night in a proper bed safe from the Arctic winds – and the included all-you-can-eat breakfast. Booked.
A week and a day later, we were waiting at Harstad harbour for our morning departure on MS Finnmarken. We knew we were in the right place because a large red and white ship stood proudly in port. It was not our ship though, it was MS NordNorge, on her way northbound to Kirkenes.
As soon as MS NordNorge vacated the dock, MS Finnmarken arrived. We were immediately impressed with the tight U-turn such a large ship performed to arrive port-side. We waited in the car while the gang plank was lowered and the car deck door raised. Passengers began to disembark, and cargo was loaded on to the car deck via a fork-lift truck. Eventually a man beckoned us on to the car deck via a car lift that lowered us about 2 metres to the deck. We realised as we emerged from the car lift that the height restriction was there for a reason. There was little room to spare above us.
Harstad had been very cold and wet over the past couple of days, but this morning the sky was clear and last night’s rain had fallen as snow on the mountains. The view leaving harbour was stunning. We had the deck to ourselves; most passengers having been on board for some time apparently more interested in the breakfast buffet than the departing shore.
After enjoying our own breakfast, we started exploring the ship. Each ship in Hurtigruten’s fleet is unique, and MS Finnmarken was decorated in an Art Deco style, giving it a slightly nostalgic feel. The cabin was comfortable and spacious, with the usual small bathroom in the corner containing ‘Arctic Pure’ soap which, the label assured us, was made from cloudberry and silver birch.
Having explored inside we went out on deck again, well wrapped up against the cold arctic wind. Everywhere mountains dropped into the sea, with arching bridges carrying roads from one island to another. The bridges have to be high to accommodate the ships constantly sailing beneath them with such precision it seemed there was only a metre or two to spare between ship and the impressive structure overhead.
Our day on board MS Finnmarken was spent between excursions on deck when the weather would allow, and stalking the public areas inside looking for free chairs to occupy while we warmed up with the free tea and coffee on board. Making our way southward, we approached the Lofoten Islands, where the ship entered Raftsund, the 20 km narrow stretch of water separating the Lofoten from Vesterålen islands.
An announcement on board sent us out on deck despite the cold, as this was to be the most spectacular part of the journey. We were surrounded by steep mountains dropping straight into the water, with scattered dwellings dotted along the shores. The deck was now crowded with passengers. A crew member had joined us to inform us about the straits we were crossing and about the Trollfjord, after which one of Hurtigruten’s fleet is named. If weather permitted, the Captain would take MS Finnmarken on a small detour into the Trollfjord, which, we were told, was only 70 metres wide at its narrowest point.
Not knowing what to expect from this we eagerly waited to hear whether the weather was favourable, while our crew companion told us that this was one of the best places to find sea eagles. As if on cue, a sea eagle flew past the ship low to the water. Others flew high overhead allowing Steve the chance to photograph them, while I randomly waved the GoPro in what I thought was the general direction of an eagle. The nauseating video I produced from this activity confirmed that it wasn’t.
Despite being bitterly cold, the weather did not hinder our detour into the Trollfjord and we waited on deck while the ship gracefully turned and headed for what appeared to be a mountain side.
At the last minute the entrance to the tiny fjord appeared before us, its sides climbing almost vertically out of the water. A small dinghy had entered the fjord ahead of us and at this point we assumed they were making their way through and out the other end. As it turned out, there was no ‘other end’. On a map, the Trollfjord is the shape of a keyhole; the narrow entrance widening out into a roughly circular basin, entirely enclosed by steeply walled mountains. Inside it was cold and quiet, the water still and silent beneath the ship.
We didn’t have long to wonder how we were going to get out of the fjord having arrived in this dead end. The ship came to a halt and then started to turn clockwise on its own axis, barely deviating from the spot. Not content with turning the 180 degrees needed for us to sail out of the fjord, the captain took the ship through an additional 360 degree turn before sailing out of the fjord and re-joining our route.
As darkness fell, the wind picked up and the ship pitched and rolled as we made our way across the Norwegian sea towards the mainland and our destination port – Ørnes. We were enjoying being on board so much, that on arrival in Ørnes we extended our journey to Trondheim – another 24 hours on board – bringing us much further south into what we hoped would be better weather. A storm was forecast that night that would render camping in the roof tent impossible.
Our second day on board was spent in similar fashion. The scenery, although less spectacular, was no less beautiful but the approaching storm kept us inside most of the day. We used the time to catch up on writing our blog, sorting out finances and transferring the many photos and videos we’d shot the day before onto the laptop.
We arrived in Trondheim before dawn the following morning. Leaving the ship was an unremarkable affair as far as the crew was concerned; they are so used to passengers embarking and disembarking at every port that they took little notice of us. We, however, felt genuinely sad at leaving. Although looking forward to continuing our journey in the Land Rover, we had both loved being at sea. We have already decided to return to Scandinavia, the Arctic and Hurtigruten.