On Top of the World

Patricia Cleveland-Peck sails on a Hurtigruten cruise to witness one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders

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A trip to see the Northern Lights features on many a wish list – and it did on mine. The downside of this endeavour is that there is no way of knowing if this natural phenomenon will appear or not. At least four people, including my son, made journeys north and were disappointed. When however, my wish was granted earlier this year, I embarked worry-free in the knowledge that the company Hurtigruten, offers passenger a free cruise if the elusive lights fail to materialise.

Materialise they did wonderfully, three times. Even if they hadn’t, this would still have been a marvellous trip. The idea of sailing from Dover across the North Sea and up the coast of Norway to the Arctic Circle in perfect comfort seemed a very tempting prospect and so it proved.

The ship MS Maud, with a maximum capacity of 500 passengers is a lovely vessel. The interior is decorated in glowing golden tones and while the design is Nordic and clean there is a hint of the glamour of the old 1930s liners. All cabins, from the simple inside ones to the luxury suites are well fitted and immaculately clean. The food is quite simply outstanding. Much is plant based and locally sourced. When we docked at Honningsvåg, a hub of the King Crab industry, this delicacy was on the dinner menu the same evening.

I had chosen to travel by ship as I wanted to avoid taking planes wherever possible and although some of the monster cruise ships emit a frightening volume of toxicity, Hurtigruten gave up using heavy fuels over a decade ago and indeed some of its fleet (with more to come) are now hybrid vessels. Sustainability is the core of the Hurtigruten ethos with respect for nature and local communities high on their agenda. No single use plastics are used on board and every passenger is given a water bottle (and a waterproof jacket) to keep.

Another example of Hurtigruten’s sustainability ethos is that that on some cruises passengers are given the chance to take part in a ‘beach clean.’ So, on the beautiful little island of Tyssøy near Bergen a group of us gathered to bag up plastic bottles, fishing lines and other items harmful to wildlife. Later, in the afternoon we went to visit Bergen’s wonderful Natural History Museum where, beneath the enormous and magnificent skeletons of cetaceans which hang in the Whale Hall, we saw 30 plastic bags, taken from the stomach of a whale they had gradually killed – a reminder of what we are doing to our seas and the lethal effect it has on marine life.

All this adds up to a cruise which is very different from the stereotype. It best thought of as not just as holiday but as an expedition. As well as the normal crew and the housekeeping staff, the passengers are looked after by an Expedition Team of mostly young, very enthusiastic experts from all over the world. They give onboard talks on such things as wildlife, geology, history et al and hold workshops and demonstrations on natural history and science subjects as well as accompanying passengers on shore excursions to visit the towns and villages when the ship docks. They also supervise a variety of sporty outdoor activities which include hiking, kayaking, SUP, cross county skiing and dog sledding.

Every day is packed with things to do but of course no one is obliged to do anything at all. The majority of passengers I met were nearing, or just past retirement age but I was impressed by the way many of them undertook quite taxing hikes, sometimes in semi-darkness as of course the nearer we drew to the Arctic Circle, the fewer hours of daylight there were. I even met a charming septuagenarian who even took the ‘polar plunge’ into the icy sea.

Others contented themselves with easy city walks. I particularly liked Ålesund, where we had our first experience of wearing city spikes over our boots as the streets were covered with snow and ice. Ålesund is unusual in that so much of the architecture is in the Art Nouveau style. This is because in 1904 the city burned to the ground in one of those fires by which Norwegian towns, largely built of wood, were often devastated. 10,000 people were left homeless but amazingly only one person died, a woman who went back to try and save her sewing machine, which ironically had been the source of her livelihood. The Kaiser, who had spent holidays in the area sent materials and architects to rebuild the city, and they did so in the fashionable Jugenstil.

The further north we travelled the deeper the snow and the darker the days became. In fact after we reached the Arctic Circle the plan to visit the Northern Cape had to be cancelled because there was just too much snow. Normally it is accessible only by a convoy of vehicles following a snow plough but even this had to be abandoned. The hard working Expedition Team rapidly arranged another excursion overnight.

A similar thing happened with the dog sledding, this time because bad weather at sea prevented us landing at the scheduled port. Alternative dog sledding arrangements were quickly made with another company. It felt quite odd to set off mid-morning in the semi-dark but by the time we arrived the snowy landscape glittered with sunlight. At the dog camp we first met the 48 lively huskies, all very friendly. Each dog had a kennel on stilts in the snow to which it was loosely chained. We were also shown some six-week old puppies, one of which I was allowed to cuddle. Then we were put into pairs and I was lucky in that being alone, I accompanied the guide Øyvind and we set off first. It was surprisingly comfortable sitting on the reindeer skin Øyvind had put on the metal sled and I felt no bumps as we sped across the dazzling snow. This in fact was a highlight of the trip for me.

We also made a visit to the Lofoten Islands which are very popular with Norwegian holidaymakers in summer. In winter the drive through the snowy mountainous landscape to the fishing village of Henningsvaer which involved crossing several bridges linking islands and skerries, was made all the more mysterious by the half light. This has always been stockfish country and we saw the racks where the cod are dried before being sent to the Mediterranean countries where they form the basis for bacalao. I was impressed to see how attractive the houses are even in small out-of-the way villages. Norway is a wealthy country which has invested its considerable oil income wisely and it is rare to see an abandoned, tumbledown or scruffy cottage as one travels.

An exhilarating excursion was to the Atlantic Ocean Road on either side of which the unsheltered seas are rough and wild. This famous route connects 8 islands and skerries by a network of bridges and tunnels and tunnels. We stopped at the little island of Eldhusøya which we were able to walk round on a suspended walkway which offered splendid views of the famous cantilevered bridge, Storseisundet, which features in the latest James Bond film.

This bridge is s just one of Norway’s impressive engineering feats. Driving from Kristiansund to the Atlantic Ocean Road we had already passed through a 5 km deep-sea tunnel and there was another 14 km at Stavanger – and these are just a couple of Norway’s 1000 undersea tunnels. I also learned that on the Strad peninsular (a particularly dangerous area for shipping) construction is underway of the world’s first deep sea tunnel-canal through which vessels, including cruise liners will be able to pass safely, cutting hours off the sea journey.

I returned for this trip not only delighted to have seen the amazing Northern Lights and so many beautiful parts of Norway but also enriched by the whole Hurtigruten experience which has provided me with so many unforgettable memories.

Fact Box

Patricia Cleveland-Peck was the guest of Hurtigruten Expeditions

Northern Lights Expedition Cruise from Dover

  • Duration: 15 days
  • Regular sailings from 6th October 2022 to 18th February 2023
  • Price: Starts from £3,059 per person (includes breakfast, lunch and dinner)
  • Experience the Northern Lights and learn all about this spectacular phenomenon as well as finding out more about Norwegian culture, history and nature with the Expedition Teams
  • Northern Lights Promise. If the Northern Lights do not appear on your cruise to Norway, Hurtigruten will give you a 6 or 7-day Classic Voyage free of charge. The promise is applicable on select voyages between 1 October and 31 March.

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