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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2003
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Independent Travel

Norway’s Coastal Steamers

Cruise Ship Comfort, Cargo Ship Atmosphere

Known to Norwegians as the Hurtigruten (coastal steamer), the Coastal Express blends cruise ship comforts with cargo ship purpose and atmosphere. Every day a vessel sails north from Bergen along the western coast of Norway—almost to the Russian border—before turning around and sailing south. By providing a government-subsidized lifeline to smaller coastal communities, the Hurtigruten has helped Norway maintain its rural population.

Most visitors come to sail on what is billed as “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage” because of the scenery. We sailed 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. We navigated through narrow channels and saw the jagged peaks of the Lofoten Islands rising from the ocean. Further north, the green hills and farming communities gave way to a harsh Arctic climate (over half your trip is spent above the Arctic Circle). At night, groups of us huddled on deck to watch the northern lights. The pulsating shapes and colors left us in awe.

With one northbound and one southbound ship stopping at each town at the same time each day, the locals still use the service like a bus as they hop between villages. Passengers and residents meet and mix. On our sailing a bridal party-with the women still in their wedding gowns—celebrated till the next town. Sailing on the Hurtigruten is not a cruise but temporary integration into one of the remaining cultures where sea travel is still part of daily life.

Village Stops and Shipboard Camaraderie

All the small villages can be explored on foot during the short stops, with a ship-provided guidebook on what to see. Passengers soon learn to walk for exactly half the time the ship will be in port before turning around, confidently arriving only minutes before the gangway is lifted and the ship sails. These jaunts ashore become so enjoyable and refreshing that most passengers flock ashore for a walk even when the ship docks at 11 p.m.

Foreign passengers appreciate the total lack of organized entertainment and enjoy each other’s company on deck and in the lounges. On my trip, the extent of entertainment consisted of a local band on its way to a concert. An old-fashioned bond develops between the passengers as everyone partakes in this communal experience. Food is hearty and ample but hardly gourmet, with a heavy emphasis on seafood, including fish every other night.

The 650-berth “Millennium Class” ships—with balconies, swimming pools, and saunas—are very similar to smaller, modern cruise ships and accommodate approximately 460 passengers in slightly intimate comfort. Three “Mid Generation” ships, however, have neither the amenities nor beauty of the newer ships nor the charm of the now retired “Traditional” ships.

In the summer season a full program of shore excursions range from inland visits to glaciers to trips to the North Cape and a Sami reindeer farm. The ships are often full of tour groups and the prices are at their highest.

Shoulder Season Is Best

Perhaps the best time to sail is the so-called shoulder season in September and April. All the attractions are open but the crowds are gone. The North Cape typically gets 6,000 visitors a day during the summer but in mid-September we 35 passengers were the only ones there. The weather in the south is still warm, and you get the chance to see some of the winter landscape up north. There’s also a good chance of seeing the northern lights.

In the winter season there are virtually no tourists save for a few brave souls who delight in the cozy shipboard atmosphere and the sight of a society thriving in extreme conditions. This is a chance to experience dramatic Artic landscapes, to see phenomenal northern light shows, and to spend hours talking with your fellow travelers. Expect some rough weather.

If you stay on for the entire 12 days you will visit 32 different ports but stop 64 times, since the same ports are visited northbound as southbound. The one-way is certainly a wonderful trip, but the full flavor of the coast and the true bonding with the country and your fellow passengers really only occurs on the full roundtrip. 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.

High season (summer) prices range from $122 per person per day for the lowest cabins to $163 per person per day for junior suites, with the top suites going for up to $500 per person per day. Significant savings exist, however, for seniors, AARP members, and for all passengers during the shoulder and winter seasons. Norwegian Coastal now offers a series of pre- and post-cruise land excursions to round out your stay in Northern Europe. For information contact Hurtigruten at www.hurtigruten.us.

BEN LYONS is a 23-year-old graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy who spends half the year working on cargo and cruiseships as a Second Officer and the other half as a travel writer specializing in cruises and sea voyages. He has been on over 30 cruises and visited well over 150 cruiseships.