Norway, Part II: The Arctic Circle Adventure Continues
If, like me, you believe that a voyage on a cruise ship entails either a nonstop eating orgy or an orgy of another kind, there's an alternative that combines comfort, fun and real-life, honest-to-Pete adventure.
I'm not talking about those Alaska cruises that are less adventurous than tuning into a nature documentary on PBS. No, these trips are serious about the word adventure - and so are the passengers.
The Hurtigruten line, which flies under the Norwegian flag, has deep roots to that Scandinavian nation. For the past 120 years, the line has conducted cruises along the ruggedly beautiful coast between Bergen (Norway's second largest city after its capital, Oslo) and Kirkenes, far above the Arctic Circle.
For Norwegians, the cruise also has more practical functions. For example, many use it as a seagoing Greyhound bus, while others take advantage of it as a vehicle to carry freight to locations along the remote coast.
Breaking From the Traditional Cruise Experience
Learning this deepened my experience when I took my trip last winter, as I realized that the cruise was more than an opportunity for travelers to gorge themselves on food, gambling and partying. But it wasn’t only the utility of the MS Trollfjord that charmed me. It was the other passengers.
Unlike the homogenous experience of other cruise lines, the Trollfjord’s manifest read like a United Nations General Assembly. Passengers were from Germany and other Northern European nations, including many from Britain, 600 miles across the North Sea; other EU nations; Russia; and China.
If there was one under-represented country, it was the U.S.A. Which was fine with me: Travel should take you out of your comfort zone - though not so far as to be unable to understand what’s going on. On this cruise, basic issues with any language barriers were mitigated by the fact that announcements, signs, menus, and everything else were in Norwegian and English.
Foreign passengers board in Bergen, Norway’s main port city, where Hurtigruten sails 11 ships daily, and the final destination is Kirkenes. With room for just 822 passengers, the Trollfjord is a "Goldijocks" ship: big enough to provide all the amenities, but small enough so that it feels like a classic cruise ship.
There’s plenty to do on board, although my favorite activity was lying in the top-deck hot tub (to the shocked looks on my fellow passengers’ faces nearby). I loved the contrast of the brisk air and the hot, swirling water while I gazed serenely at the frozen fjords, islands, mountains, homesteads, villages and parish churches in the distance.
As for the food - in a word, perfection. The passengers ate like sensible humans, not hogs at the trough. There are three - count them, three - meals. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with fresh vegetables, fruit, local cheeses, preserved and freshly cooked meats (also local), breads, pastas and everything else that’s wholesome and delicious. Dinner is, of course, a sit-down affair. There is a menu, but the chefs can accommodate special diets. As a vegan, I never felt deprived. Far from it: The preparation and presentation was exquisite at every meal.
The Land Adventure Begins
The definite demarcation point between the sightseeing and the adventure occurred when we passed the Arctic Circle. Everyone assembled on the top deck, where a crew member dressed as King Neptune gave the ceremonial "baptism" to all Far North newbies by pouring ice down their backs.
Being either intrepid or crazy (take your pick), I was first in line for the shock and the shot: The ice is followed by an equally bracing measure of Norwegian liquor. I think I did it three times; things got a bit hazy after the first two shots.
If traveling in the ocean at the top of the world sounds like a masochistic exercise, be assured that, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the weather is mostly no worse - and frequently better - than the temperature in New York or Boston, and certainly more pleasant than Chicago or Minneapolis at that time of year. In general, in late February and early March, when I traveled, the thermometer hovers between the upper 20s and the upper 30s, with some days a little warmer and others colder (OK, some others a lot colder).
The adventure kicked into high gear with a dog sled ride on Kvaløya, an island outside of Trømso. As with all such excursions, passengers sign on, but don’t hesitate in doing so: The most popular sell out within a few hours. It’s best to sign up when you book the trip.
Any qualms I might have had about the exploitation of man’s best friend were quickly dispelled when I reached the camp. Unlike the trainers who run camel or elephant rides in other popular tourist destinations, these folks live in an easy state of camaraderie with their animals. If you’re trying to be a conscientious traveler, you can rest assured that these are anything but cynical owners who barely keep their charges alive.
Nor should you feel that the team of dogs is being abused by having to pull you and the musher. As my musher, explained, these dogs are bred to pull a sled and, in fact, get testy when they’re not doing it. True, the dogs live outside. But we Americans like to sentimentalize our house pets. As a dog lover, I spent every moment I could with the dogs in their mini outdoor-kennel city. I may not be the Dog Whisperer, but I’ve developed a pretty good radar in distinguishing happy from unhappy dogs. These dogs weren’t just happy; they seemed to exist in a state of doggy ecstasy.
After an invigorating ride over terrain that provided vistas of the ocean and mountains rising up on its edge, you will be ready for the warmth of a traditional Såmi tent and a hot drink. The Såmi are the indigenous natives of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland. Again, no exploitation here: After the usual attempt at forced cultural integration endemic to "civilized" Westerners in the 1800s and early 1900s, the Norwegian government has been particularly enlightened in allowing its native population autonomy, and respect for its traditions and language.
Next up: a snowmobile trip into the wilderness!
The Northern Lights to the Snow Hotel
At Kjøllefjord, a bus took adventurers to an outpost, where guides gave us instructions on how to maneuver snow vehicles that are no more complicated than a go-cart. We made a caravan through the craggy hills and valleys of Lapland, as northern Norway is known. Once I got the hang of it, I admit to showboating a little, taking an occasional zooming detour up the side of a cliff and hurling back down again without losing my place in line.
It was here that I experienced one of the most fabled natural phenomena in the world: the Northern Lights. Onboard the ship, nighttime announcements that the lights were visible sent passengers scurrying for their parkas and cameras. On a winter trip to Iceland, I spent a futile evening on a bus chasing reports the lights were visible; only in Lapland did I finally experience the vista of the lights spanning the night sky from horizon to horizon.
If it’s a cop-out for a writer to weasel out of a description with only indescribable, I plead guilty. The combination of charged particles, the magnetic field and solar wind was a near mystical experience. Make sure you’ve charged your camera, because the colors really come alive with a brief time exposure.
But wait, as they say in the infomercials: There’s more.
At Kirkenes, near the Russian border, our group was taken to a lodge camp. From there, we boarded a minivan to a large lake, where markers led fishermen to the spot at which they had sunken their traps. After breaking through the ice, we watched a hoard of giant crabs. These weren’t king crabs - more like emperors.
Again, my liberal guilty conscience was once again put to rest knowing these crabs are part of an invasive species that would overrun the indigenous ones if not farmed. I went off my vegan regimen for the feast back at the cabin, and I don’t regret it a bit. Boiled in huge pots, these crabs went from water to table in 20 minutes. After you’ve tasted them, you’ll never be able to face a seafood buffet again.
Now comes the event that separates the men from the boys (although some may see it as the crazy from the sane). Most people chickened out of the Snow Hotel. I get asked more questions about this part of my trip than anything else, but in reality it was lot less formidable than it sounds.
Yes, the entire hotel is carved out of ice. When the fall turns temperatures below freezing, blowers spew water, which quickly coagulates; skilled ice carvers from China create whimsical tableaux on the walls and ceiling of the main hall, complete with a bar. The bathrooms are in a cabin on the grounds.
After instructions, the lodgers were moved to their rooms, where they found a bed (not ice!), linens and a kind of human condom. When it’s time to sleep, you zip yourself into one of these; and the less clothes, the more body heat generated. I found it surprisingly cozy.
The next day I awoke from one of the best sleeps I’ve had in years. The voyage was over. My next trip would be in the air, on a flight to Oslo, and then back to the States, where I will carry with me the memories of my once-in-a-lifetime experience in a part of the world where the elements have managed to keep the "rewards" of the rest of the world at bay.
Before You Go
Craving more Norway? Read the first installment:
Norway’s Coast: In the Path of the Vikings.