I’m in Norway, a place that in summer is part of the “land of the midnight sun.” But I’m visiting in the dead of winter, embarking on an 11 day cruise headed toward the Arctic Circle. Is my timing off? Not at all. I’m on a hunt — a hunt for the northern lights. They say that during winter the colors of aurora borealis come alive with bands of light that dance across the night sky. Dazzling iridescent hues of yellow, green, red and violet overtake the horizon and put on Mother Nature’s light show. I wonder whether the curtain will rise for me. Will my hunt succeed? My hosts aboard the Hurtigruten cruise say I have a good shot once our ship passes the Arctic Circle. That’s when crisp, clear nights make way for solar flares drawn to the magnetism of the North Pole. This year is predicted to have more solar storm activity than any year in the last half-century.
Hurtigruten’s ships are moderate in size and typically carry 600 or so passengers, making for a more intimate cruising experience than mega-ships with mega-crowds. For 120 years, the cruise line has been journeying up and down Norway’s western coast, stopping in scenic ports all along the way, ports that are ice-free year round due to the Gulf Stream that flows offshore.
Bergen – City of Wooden Houses
I start my cruise in Bergen, which was founded in 1070 by a Norwegian king and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s an incredibly picturesque town, its wharf dotted with colorful wooden houses preserved as they stood 300 years prior when the city was the European trading center for cod. I meander along winding cobblestone streets and explore the back alleys, which are resplendent with history and at every turn flanked by charming galleries, cafes, souvenir shops and more. I tour the grounds of a fortress tower that overlooks the harbor, (Bergen’s first “skyscraper”), then visit the charming wooden house museum as well as the city’s archaeological museum, both of which depict life in earlier times.
Seven mountains surround Bergen, and the city serves as the gateway to Norway’s fjords. Directly from downtown, I take a funicular to the top of one mountain for spectacular vistas. From there, I see the sea that beckons me to my cruise, and I’m soon off to my Hurtigruten ship.
The MS Trollfjord begins heading up the coast with a schedule to stop in numerous ports each day. Some stops allow for disembarking to explore quaint towns and the countryside. Other ports are intended as quick stops for the ship to deliver goods like post ships of old, the line’s heritage, as it serves as a lifeline to remote areas.
Alesund – Art Nouveau Town
One of our first stops is Alesund, known as the “art nouveau” town for the architectural renaissance that ensued after the town was destroyed by a fire in 1904 and needed rebuilding. Like in Bergen, each building is more colorful than the next but in Alesund’s case spires and highly ornamental accents, like painted flowered vines, distinguish structures. Walking tours are a popular way to see the city, which is small and easy to navigate. A pretty canal reaches into the heart of it with some of Alesund’s best hotels flanking its sides. The most luxurious is Hotel Brosundet, which has 47 rooms — 46 in the main building while room 47 is in a lighthouse near the seawall of Alesund’s port. Guests staying there have breakfast delivered via a bicycle that traverses a long pier to the lighthouse. To me, room 47 is emblematic of the quirky charm that Norway so often exudes.
Up a high hill that can be reached via a long set of stone stairs, I lunch at Fjellstua Café, which offers stunning vistas over Alesund and its port. I see the MS Trollfjord far below. Soon it will blow its departure horn, but not before I have time to detour to admire the first seasonal catches brought in from the fjords by local fishermen; I am reminded of Norway’s seafaring roots with so much revolving around either fishing — or oil. Norway, of course, has some of the world’s richest reserves up in the North Sea where I’m heading.
Aboard ship that evening, I begin a different type of journey — a culinary one, discovering the “coastal flavors” that form the core of gourmet Norwegian cuisine. (I’ll share tidbits about my favorites from each evening.)
Coastal flavors: Tonight, one of the courses is “clipfish bolinhos,” or salted cod fritters. Cod is known as clipfish locally since it was originally dried on sailing clippers. Traditional Norwegian clipfish dishes may also include tomatoes, olives, chili or peppers. Clipfish has been an important item of Norwegian export for hundreds of years.
Rocking Out in Trondheim
Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city after Oslo and Bergen, is the next major port and the country’s spiritual center. It’s here that Norway’s kings and queens are coroneted in Nidaros Cathedral. The cathedral was built upon a shrine to St. Olav, the country’s patron saint who, it’s said, performed miracles and for that reason the city is an important pilgrimage site. People travel from far and wide, walking, hiking and biking long distances to pray for his blessings. Many meet to share their experiences at a pilgrimage center in Trondheim, which also offers inexpensive accommodations.
Across the river from the pilgrimage center is Trondheim’s old town, and there I enter a legendary cafe, Baklandet Skydsstation. The restaurant once served as a trading station. Now it serves up heart shaped waffles that are the size of frying pans. The grinning hostess, decked out in whimsical red polka dots, reminds me of Minnie Mouse (sans the large ears) and in truth, this small corner of Trondheim is a bit magical.
For more magic, I make my way to Rockheim, a national museum dedicated to pop and rock music. I’m half expecting something kitschy but instead am taken aback by dynamic and mesmerizing interactive exhibits. I can play a 50s jukebox, try my hand at electric guitar with a Norwegian star as my virtual coach, or “ride” a 70’s band tour bus. I run out of time at the museum long before running out of interest, but that Hurtigruten horn is blowing yet again.
Coastal flavors: Tonight’s tasty dessert of panacotta is made with a taste of Norwegian mountain culture, using tjukkmelk or “thick milk” made from a special thick grass. In days of old, when a wife went off to pasture with animals and children, she always left enough tjukkmelk on the farm to tide her husband over till she returned.
The Arctic Circle & Bodo
Our ship continues northward, and passengers prepare for that dramatic moment — crossing the Arctic Circle. A silver sphere on a small icy island marks the point as does the blare of the horn announcing 66° 33′ latitude. The excitement among guests is palpable as thoughts turn to the hunt. But first, we must celebrate a rite of passage denoting entry into the Arctic Circle. The captain and a figure dressed as King Neptune anoint willing passengers with chilly, arctic-like ice poured down their backs. One by one, guests shriek and laugh at the ritual. When my turn comes, I mistakenly ask who will be kinder, the captain or King Neptune, which brings a hail of ice down my back from both.
I recover from my chill fair enough by the time we arrive in Bodo, voted by National Geographic Traveler as one of the world’s must-see places for 2013. I’ll have to take the magazine’s word for it since bad weather brings us into port hours late and most establishments are closed. Occasional rough weather comes with the Arctic, but our Hurtigruten’ captain says that he opts to miss a small port here and there in order to keep guests comfortable when aboard. The itinerary on this day also includes a stop in Stamsund, and an optional excursion to Lofotr for a Viking banquet feast complete with home-brewed mead.
Coastal flavors: Tonight’s menu includes a special salad with Norwegian blue cheese, selbu bla, made from sheep’s milk over which is poured a delicious cloudberry syrup. I am in the middle of relishing it when the intercom announces the words, “Northern lights!”
I race to the upper deck where I see an ethereal grayish white mist in the distance which begins to morph and grows more vibrant. It starts to stretch, curve and sheer, creating dagger-like shards of light in the night sky. Photography enthusiasts set up tripods to try to capture with a long exposure what the retina cannot — the fluorescent green hues that are created when solar particles crash with atmospheric atoms. After about half an hour, as suddenly as they appeared, the curtain drops and blackness in the night sky sets in again.
Tromso & North Cape
Our ship’s journey continues, passing Tromso, a far-north town with a fascinating history that includes walruses and polar bears. Area highlights include a Polar Museum and the Arctic Cathedral, an architecturally stunning church perched like a diamond amid the snowy landscape. An optional excursion includes a midnight concert in the cathedral. I detour to a small village recreated to resemble that of the nomadic Sami reindeer-herding people. From there, I embark on a dogsledding adventure over the frozen landscape then enjoy a hot drink in a Sami “lavvo” tent.
We soon reach the North Cape area, as far north as anyone can go on the European continent. The North Cape features wild sub-Arctic topography with a dramatic plateau that rises up nearly 1,000 feet vertically from the Arctic Ocean. That night, the northern lights surpass the prior evening with gray-green shapes swirling about in the skies like spirits, and in fact in the days of old, that’s what the aurorae borealis were believed to be.
Coastal flavors: The North Cape buffet this evening is a culinary highlight of the Hurtigruten cruise. Seafood dominates and tables overflow with king crab from the Barents Sea, which some say is better than lobster. Reindeer meat is also among the extravagant offerings.
My coastal journey begins to draw to a close when we reach one of the final ports, Kjollefjord. I embark on what proves to be the pinnacle of my trip — a nighttime snowmobile sojourn. Our small group makes its way across the lightly forested, winter-white landscape, occasionally stopping to take in the atmosphere and admire the night sky. And that’s when Mother Nature’s finale begins with her most dazzling light show yet, uninterrupted by the lights of civilization. We turn off our snowmobile headlights to enjoy the spectacle, which is vast and dazzling.
So struck am I by all the previous sightings, that the next day in the final port of Kirkenes, I don’t want to hunt any further fearing the skies will not compare to the spectacle already witnessed. Instead, I revel in daylight pleasures that include a king-crab safari on a frozen lake, snowshoeing with a Sami guide and visiting a snow hotel. I return to a warm hotel room as my shipboard journey ends. There, I drift off to sleep with the glow of aurora borealis lights dancing in my head. I’ve captured the elusive prey.
About Hurtigruten: Norway cruises range from 6-12 days. A six-day winter voyage starts at $1,323 for an outside cabin and up to $4,092 for an Owner’s Suite with private balcony. In summer an outside cabin starts at $1,914; a premium suite is $6,199.
*Prices are per person based on double occupancy.