I was very privileged recently to go on an educational trip to Norway with Hurtigruten who operate a fleet of ships up and down the coast.
My outbound flights were with Scandinavian Airlines via Oslo to Tromso. Word of warning: ensure you have longer than an hour in Oslo as I found this a very tight turnaround and having to recollect luggage and re check in was a bit stressful. Oslo is a beautifully designed airport but if you have trouble walking I would recommend taking advantage of airport assistance as the walkways are very long.
Upon arrival in Tromso (approx 5pm) we were collected by a driver from the Villemarkssenter which is where we were going to go Dog Sledding! We had just arrived after a huge blizzard and there were mountains of snow everywhere, it was like a picture postcard.
The transfer to the dog sledding building took approximately 30 minutes and I spent this time glued to the window looking at all the beautiful wooden houses with lights in every window. Discovered later that this was due to the dark times when there is no light for almost three months and therefore all the houses are lit up like Christmas Trees during this period.
Upon arrival at Villemarkssenter the first thing you notice was the cold as you stepped off the coach as at this time of year the temperature in the evening can get to well below minus however I was all equipped for this with thermal everything in place! After stepping off the bus and acclimatizing to the dark all you can see in front of you are about 300 kennels each with a dog nearby. The guides quickly took us into a boot room where we were issued with another layer of protection in the form of a full thermal suit and boots. Definitely not for the fashion conscious amongst us!
As we left the boot room and approached the sleds the barking of the dogs seemed to crescendo as they were desperate to get away and run as this is what they are bred for. I was teamed up with a fellow travel agent from Blackpool and we were shown over to our team of dogs and musher who told my colleague, Phil to get in first and then I was told to sit between his legs! I hardly knew the man and here I was literally sat on top of him! Trying to discreetly get into position I discovered there is nothing to hang on to to lever yourself in and after contemplating getting in head first by kneeling decided to give Phil a warning with a big war cry of ,” Hang On , I am coming in!”. Suffice to say we are now good friends!
Our team of dogs was made up of 11 Siberian and Alaskan huskies and soon we were off. Another word of advice: if you are in the front position try not to speak whilst in the sled as the dogs do not stop to do their business and kick it back towards you! Although this was a definite downside I would not have missed this for the world. It is one of those things that you must do in your lifetime. A truly exhilarating experience. We covered about 12km in total (approx 2 hours) by which time I had lost the feeling in my lower regions so you can guess trying to get out of the sled was as hard as trying to get in and we ended up in a big heap in the snow!
We quickly warmed up as we were taken into a sami tent where we were given some warm bouillon followed by Reindeer Stew (I had to promise my son that this was none of Father Christmas’ reindeer’s) and the most delicious chocolate cake I have ever tasted in my life.
On the journey back to the port we were dropped off at the Rica hotel at approximately 10.45pm as the ship was not due to arrive till midnight. Hurtigruten seemed to have a relationship with the hotel whereby their passengers can help themselves to complimentary hot beverages. The ship arrived at midnight and we were onboard by 12.15am!
My cabin number was 667 which was a P grade outside cabin. Although basic it had all the facilities that you would need with twin beds, a small table in between, dressing table, duvets and blankets, bathroom with shower and my favourite – underfloor heating in the bathroom.
Our first stop was Finnsnes but as this was at 4.45am I missed it although I think we were only there for 15 minutes.
Breakfast in the morning was open dining and there was a good selection of pastries and meats etc. The hot breakfast was mainly herring or some other form of fish.
The ship, MS Midnatsol, docked at 8am in Harstad and we were on a coach by 8.05am for our coach trip,” A taste of the Vesterlaen”, whilst en route to collect the ship again in Sortland. We visited a church whose origins dated right back to the 13th Century and listened to a short service by the local priest. Our guide was extremely informative and informed us about local Norwegian traditions and everyday life. Part of this tour included a ferry crossing from Flesnes-Refsnes which included afternoon tea onboard. We were served hot drinks along with waffles with brown cheese, apple cake and cinnamon cake. The brown cheese was definitely a hit or miss as most people thought it was caramel until they had taken a bite. The ferry crossing took about 20 minutes. We arrived in Sortland at midday and within 5 minutes were back on the high seas.
Lunch onboard was again open seating and buffet style with a selection of hot dishes with fish again playing an important part!
At 2.15pm we were back off the ship in Stokmarknes where there is a museum dedicated to Hurtigruten. This was worth the visit.
We then sailed through the Raftsundset Straits which apparently is only 6-7 metres deep on our way through the Lofoten Islands which have the traditional wooden coloured fishermen’s cottages. Our next port of call was Svolvaer where we went to the Ice Bar where there were ice sculptures and you were served with a Raspberry Vodka in a conical shaped glass made from ice. The cost of this was 135KR.
Dinner back on board is served in two sittings and we were on the 8.30pm sitting. Dinner has a different format and you are served a set menu with no choices although I have to say the food was exceptional.
Entertainment is made by yourself as there is only one bar onboard although in the evening they do have a keyboard player for dancing and karaoke till about 1am. Alcoholic drinks are very expensive with a Gin & Tonic costing nearly £7 per shot!
The next day we were out on deck between 9-9.30am as we were crossing the arctic circle where there is a small island with a globe on it as a marker. Three stops had already been made during the night and the next stop for us was Sandnessjoen where there is a pretty town to walk through and after this was Bronnoysund where the ice cream is the best ever tasted although I discovered its quite hard to eat ice cream in a snow storm as you are not sure where one ends and the other begins.
Upon returning to the ship we had a visit to the Bridge as an open bridge policy is in place. There are two officers on duty at all times and they do 6 hours on and 6 hours off. 22 days on and 22 days off. The top speed of the ship is about 19 knots and cruising speed is 15 knots. The ship operates the most up to date technology available with an AIS (automatic identification system). The bridge has dual controls and these are used depending on whether the ship is docking on the port or starboard side.
Our last day was in Trondheim where we disembarked the ship and went for a tour of the town. The most spectacular parts were the Niadoros Cathedral and the old part of the town which had the traditional wooden coloured houses on stilts at the riverside.
Personally I cannot fault Hurtigruten for their organisation and service. The only thing I would say is if you are after luxury then this is not for you as this is niche cruising where you are going for the scenery which is spectacular. The only thing we missed out on was the Aurora Borealis but I guess I will have to go back for that.
Hurtigruten are currently operating fantastic offers with a 5 or 6 day package called Arctic Highlights And Northern Lights.
Departure dates are January – March 2014 and November – December 2014 and prices start at £999 per person.
Call me now for more details on 0800 408 6178 or email me MollyM@cruise.co.uk.