Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Hurtigruten & SAS Experience

At an art gallery in Eden Prairie, Minnesota about 1995, there was a painting that caught my eye, that would lead me to a magical place in Norway many years later. Passionate about the cruise industry, I have been on over 300 cruises around the world and have even worked on the ships as a Cruise Director and Entertainer. Today, as a Cruise Industry Journalist, I set out to find creative and fascinating cruises and itineraries that will be of interest to the listeners of my talk show and viewers of my videos. Back to the painting I saw back in 1995, at first glance this beautiful scene was of a mountain that rose out of the sea with a quaint fishing village at the base of this magnificent, magical, and mountainous rock. I thought it was a fictitious location, because the image was so powerful, so I inquired further only to see the gallery manager bring out the actual photo from which this painting was based on. I’ve travelled all around the world and had yet to ever see a sight as magnificent as this place and told myself one day I want to go there to see it first-hand. On a business card from the gallery, I wrote the name of this beautiful village with the intention to research more about this remote location in Norway called Reine Lofoten. And so finally in October of 2010 I saw an opportunity to possibly journey to Reine. I considered which cruise lines might visit Lofoten, and finally determined the best option was with Hurtigruten, which has operated passenger ships along the Norwegian coast for over one hundred years. I called this the Hurtigruten and SAS Experience because what better way to get to Norway than on a Scandinavian airline. Join me on this journey where we experience the “Most Beautiful Voyage” aboard the Hurtigruten ships and get to Norway in luxury with SAS.

From the U.S. it’s a full day and a half of travel to get to Kirkenes, our initial port of departure with Hurtigruten aboard the Nordlys. It certainly was a pleasant experience in Business Class aboard the SAS trans-Atlantic flight from Chicago to Copenhagen. The seats in this section have video and movies on demand, there’s a plug to charge your lap top if you so choose, and what I found to be truly fascinating was the electronically operated seat which reclines to a near horizontal position for sleeping at the touch of a button. Dinner was exquisite. This was the first time in my hundreds of flights all over the world where I could select my entrĂ©e from a menu of choices. I decided to have the Halibut and a fine wine. There’s also a special snack bar open to Business-class passengers where they have fruit, candy, chocolate, drinks and sandwiches available throughout the eight and a half hour flight. We enjoyed a nice dinner then decided to sleep through the flight since we were traveling eastbound. Flying on an SAS trans-Atlantic flight was the perfect way to prepare for a trip to Scandinavia.

After four different flights, we finally arrived at Kirkenes Norway in the Arctic Circle. After a long day of traveling it was a pleasure to stay one night at the Rica Arctic Hotel in Kirkenes. This hotel reminded me of an Ikea, in fact most of the items in the room seemed to be from Ikea. I liked the wood floors and the comfortable beds. Norwegians seem to like wood floors. Most of the airports we went through in Norway had wood floors. Speaking of floors, my wife enjoyed the “heated” floors in some of the bathrooms we encountered. The Rica Arctic Hotel had a very typical Norwegian buffet breakfast that included an assortment of fish, cheeses, breads, meats and some eggs. We could board the Nordlys at around noon, so we caught the bus at the front of the hotel around 11:00am. My wife has been on a number of cruises with me, but this “voyage” with Hurtigruten was an entirely different experience for her. I somewhat knew what to expect, because I read a lot about Hurtigruten prior to this trip, and I understand the concept of a multi-functional passenger vessel. I was looking forward to the experience of being on a “working” passenger ship because there is more of a “purpose” rather than simply a round-trip “bus tour” through the Caribbean like most cruise ships….not that there’s anything wrong with what cruise ships do.

Boarding the Nordlys with Hurtigruten was a far different experience than boarding a cruise ship. There were no lines, no other passengers in sight, only the Nordlys’ fascinating fold-out gangway awaiting our arrival. Most of the Hurtigruten ships have a self-contained robotic gangway and huge cargo hatch that open up onto the pier. We stopped for a photo then climbed up the gangway into the lobby of the ship. The Hotel Manager and another staff person greeted us. It was an absolute requirement, apparently, for us to have our hands squirted with anti-bacterial hand sanitizer as we boarded. We checked in, were given our room keys, and headed off to our little sanctuary “cabin” for this first leg of our five-night Hurtigruten journey. Our itinerary included two nights on the Nordlys, then three nights in Lofoten, and finally another three nights aboard the Trollfjord where we would disembark in Bergen.

Cruise Ship, Ferry, Cargo or Passengers ship?

I set out on this Hurtigruten Experience to determine where these ships fit within the cruise industry. The Hurtigruten ships can be broken down into several classifications, and there certainly is an element that resembles a cruise ship, however, when you look at the full picture, these ships are very different than your typical cruise ship. The Hurtigruten ships also carry automobiles, but I wouldn’t say they are one hundred percent car ferries either. The same applies to cargo, mail and these ships act as a passenger transport as well, bringing local passengers on short hops between point A and point B along the coast of Norway. I have heard a number of explanations for these multifunctional ships and their true nature, which range from “Ro Ro Ships” to “Hybrids” and “Working Vessels”, however, I place these ships in the “Coastal Passenger Liner” category….oh wait that’s not an official category. In the days of the trans-Atlantic liners, the ships were “working” vessels that carried passengers, cargo and mail from point A to B, which is quite different from what the cruise ships do today, but very similar to what the Hurtigruten vessels do. The Hurtigruten ships often visit up to four or five ports a day. These are short visits that last between ten to fifteen minutes to an hour or so, but mostly these visits are comparatively shorter than what you would expect on a cruise ship. So a note to typical cruise ship passengers, the Hurtigruten ships are not in the ports for extended periods of time, and barely long enough to go a shore to see the sights. There are some exceptions to this where the ship will stay long enough for an excursion, but overall, a voyage should focus on the beautiful scenery as the ship cruises along the coast from port-to-port.

The ports and scenery

A Norwegian coastal voyage aboard a Hurtigruten ship is a very visual experience. I often saw passengers quietly cuddled up in a chair, reading a book, in the observation lounge, watching the scenery pass by. Photographers could often be seen on deck near the bow or on the aft decks adjusting their apertures and depth of field on the incredible panorama of peeks, mountains and seascapes. Sitting in a cozy chair on the main promenade, my wife would laugh at me, as I would suddenly jump out of my chair to head outside to snap a photo or two. The scenery is so amazing it’s like sensory overload at times, and I would often scramble to the open deck to capture the moment either on video, a still shot, or both. Because the ships are not in port long, it’s best to sign up for the excursions, but often there were not enough participants for the tours so they were canceled, leaving me to fend for myself using a taxi to visit the sights. A few of the ports we visited stood out as being particularly memorable. We stayed one night in Kirkenes and had an opportunity to see the town a bit. Apparently the main industry in Kirkenes was iron mining, however, that industry has slowly shut down over the last few years leaving many without jobs. I was told a new tourism industry was rising up for that area, with tourists from Norway, Germany, England and France. In the winter season you could go dog sledding, or visit a hotel made of ice.

Hammerfest was a fascinating port that I enjoyed very much. As we approached the city aboard the Nordlys, we passed by a huge natural gas facility, which provided power and energy to the entire region. Hammerfest is also known to be the World’s most northernmost town at 70 degrees 39’ 48”N in the arctic region. There are ten thousand people who call Hammerfest home. This is the place where my wife and I experienced an amazingly rapid change in weather. It went from cold and clear to colder with near snowy and blizzard conditions in a matter on a couple of minutes or so. We watched as a wall of snow and wind hit us. In Hammerfest, I became a member of The Royal And Ancient Polar Bear Society. With only about 200,000 members this is a very exclusive club with members all around the world. The only way to become a member of this elite and exclusive club or society is to visit Hammerfest, and apply for your membership in-person. Elvis Presley wanted to become a member and sent one of his buddies to Hammerfest to acquire a membership for him, but he was declined because applicants must physically be there to apply for membership. This exclusive society seeks to preserve the polar bears and the unique and delicate ecology of this arctic region. It was fun to tell my wife that I was able to literally take her to the top of the World.

Before the Nordlys arrived at Svolvaer, Lofoten, we went on a special Sea Eagles Safari, an excursion that brought us up close to this mighty bird. We boarded a smaller boat that took us into the kjellfjord where these sea eagles nested and hunted for food. Our guide inflated the fish bait with air, then threw them out into the water near the boat so the Sea Eagles would swoop down, grab the fish out of sea and fly off to enjoy their meal. We were able to take pictures of this amazing bird as it buzzed right past our boat and nearly grabbed the fish out of the hand of our guide. The Seagulls were everywhere and they too were fun to watch.

The Nordlys stopped at the little town of Stokmarknes where my wife and I experienced a very interesting museum. The 1956 built Finnmarken was a Hurtigruten vessel that had been retired and turned into a museum. What was unique about this museum was the Finnmarken vessel was hoisted up onto land in a cradle so that you can actually walk under the hull of this ship. To me that was really cool to see a big ship like this on land and to walk under the hull, to be able to touch and see the propeller and rudder was a thrill. You can go aboard the Finnmarken and see her old staterooms and lounges. As a ship buff this was a highlight for me. I really enjoyed this museum!

A highlight of our Hurtigruten and SAS Experience was our three-night visit to Lofoten. After two nights cruising the coast of Norway aboard the Nordlys we disembarked in Stamsund, Lofoten at 10:30pm, rented a car and drove for about an hour south, in the dark and in the rain, to a quaint and amazingly picturesque town called Reine. Of course it was dark when we drove down to Reine, so we really couldn’t see much until the next day when we woke up in our little rorbuer and looked out the window. We checked into a rorbuer or boat house at about midnight in a wonderful place called Reine Rorbuer which is like a resort or bed and breakfast cottage in the middle of a fishing village that has been in operation since about 1785. The little rorbuer we stayed in could very well have been nearly two hundred years old, however it was rebuilt, refurbished and fitted with modern facilities, so it was very cozy. I have been all around the World and I am not exaggerating when I say Reine, Lofoten is perhaps the most beautiful and scenic place I have ever seen with my own eyes, and it was the fulfillment of a dream to visit this place. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it was a beautiful painting that inspired me to one day journey to this place of Reine, Lofoten, and finally that dream became a reality and I was not disappointed. It truly was a magical place and I felt like I was in a dream as I marveled at the scenery. I could almost sense that there was a spiritual echo among the amazingly picturesque mountains, where God was saying, “Look what I have made for you”! The Managers of Reine Rorbuer, Hans van Kampen and Daniella de Vreeze were gracious hosts, and one day Daniella, a chef, prepared a special Norwegian dinner for us in their little rustic restaurant called Gammelbua. We also toured the fascinating fishery next to Reine Rorbuer that has a long heritage of sending dried fish all around the world. We saw first-hand how the fish was prepared and processed. The Director of this fishery told us about the theory that God specially created the Reine Lofoten area as a perfectly balanced environment for the fish to flourish abundantly because of the warmer Caribbean waters coming from the south, that seem to blend with the arctic waters from the North. A delicate and perfectly balanced ecosystem that seems to indicate there was a great deal of intelligence and design to the environment, allowing fishermen for centuries to enjoy an abundance of quality fish to catch. I didn’t want to leave Reine after three days, but we had to catch the Hurtigruten ship, Trollfjord in Stamsund, to continue our journey along the coast of Norway.

Another highlight of our voyage with Hurtigruten was our visit to Trondheim, which is the third largest city in Norway. As I mentioned earlier, the Hurtigruten ships do not stay in the ports very long and this fact was evident when we embarked on our excursion or bus tour of Trondheim, which lasted about two hours. Our bus tour quickly took us through town and up onto a hill where we could look out over the city. Next we visited a cathedral that has been there for over one thousand years. Trondheim is a historical and friendly community with a large university and a number of cultural centers and museums. After about an hour of touring the cathedral we returned to our ship the Trollfjord and shortly thereafter we enjoyed a chilly departure.

As we came closer to our final destination of Bergen the Trollfjord went through some beautiful passages and fjords. Our ship crossed the Arctic Circle 66 degrees 33’ North, on October 19th in the morning, and we were issued an official certificate indicating this accomplishment. Among the many rock formations and mountains, we came upon an interesting mountain that literally had a hole through it. I thought as we went further south the weather would improve and we would experience a little warmer climate, but this did not turned out to be true on our cruise because it was colder, with sleet and snow, which can be expected for this time of year. We were blessed to experience the first snow of the winter season when we arrived in Bergen. The hillsides near Bergen were covered in a fresh coat of beautiful white snow allowing for some nice photos. Bergen is the second largest city in Norway, tucked in the hills along the coast. We met up with a third cousin of mine who lives in Voss, near Bergen, and had a delightful Chinese dinner and visit with her. We walked around town through some of the shops and a mall.

Our journey with Hurtigruten had ended and the next morning we were off to the airport to fly home via SAS. Flying on SAS was an enjoyable experience because of the care and service of the friendly flight crew. During our eight and half hour flight from Copenhagen to Chicago we watched a few movies and entertained ourselves to stay awake so we could have a good sleep when we finally arrived at home again in Minneapolis. What type of person embarks on a Hurtigruten voyage? I’m going to come out and say that your typical cruise passenger might be disappointed because of the more specialized elements to a Hurtigruten voyage. There are no casinos, there is no formal entertainment or show lounges, the port visits are short, and the onboard amenities are comfortable but minimal. The dining is Eurpoean-style which some Americans may not understand. Europeans dine at a more leisurely pace, and the menu each evening is fixed to a set course as opposed to multiple options. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style. Expect a lot of fish and cheese. A Hurtigruten voyage will appeal to those who enjoy the quiet, scenic, go-at-your-own-pace routine. Photographers and those who enjoy a rich Norwegian cultural experience will feel very comfortable on a Hurtigruten journey. For those who have a desire to visit an ecological and environmental wonderland, a Hurtigruten voyage will fulfill the quest for natural beauty, spectacular panoramas and abundant wildlife. As I compare our Hurtigruten voyage with our Alaska cruise we did in 2009, I can now say with complete confidence that while Alaska is very beautiful, a Norwegian coastal voyage with Hurtigruten is magnificent and the scenery pushes and exceeds my expectations to a higher level than I had anticipated. We have heard many people say, after we tell them of our trip to Norway, that a Norwegian coastal cruise is on their bucket list, and it should be, because I cannot imagine anyone visiting Norway like we did and not return feeling completely overwhelmed with the incredible scenery. Other cruise ships may visit Norway, but you can truly become entrenched with the culture when you embark on a Hurtigruten voyage. The Hurtigruten vessels have an all-Norwegian crew onboard and in fact, Hurtigruten is a Norwegian company with a genuine and rich Norwegian heritage and history. The artwork onboard all the ships reflect Norwegian artistry at it’s best. Cruising on any other cruise line along the coast of Norway would be like going to the grocery store and buying frozen fish for dinner, as opposed to going out with the fishermen on their boat to catch the fish, and preparing the fish dinner right there on the boat.

For those who have a Norwegian coastal cruise on your bucket list, do not delay, make your plans sooner than later to experience for yourself this incredible voyage, this beautiful journey with Hurtigruten. Your expectations will be fulfilled and you will come away with memories of Norway that will inspire you and fuel your imagination. Embark on a southbound or northbound itinerary or do what we did and custom-design your own itinerary so you can have an extended visit to a particular village or town of your choosing. Expect to be enriched by the culture and beautiful scenery.

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