? The most expensive ferry journey in the world
Review of Trip with Hurtigruten on MS Richard With 18th November 2015 – 29th November 2015. We booked the holiday advertised as “The Classic Round Voyage Cruise” travelling from Bergen, Norway to Kirkenes, Norway return directly through the Hurtigruten website in January 2015. We booked it in order to have a good chance see and photograph the Northern Lights as well as do some exciting excursions, Whale Watching, Dog Sledding and Skidoo trips “into the polar night” whilst seeing the spectacular coast of Norway along with many interesting towns / stops. It was the most expensive holiday we have ever taken, but as it was our 25th wedding anniversary and a milestone birthday celebration we decided to push the boat out. We chose an upgrade to a cabin with a window so we could see the coast line as we travelled even when we were not up on deck. We did not book any of the excursions at this time preferring to wait and discuss our best options with the on board tour guide. We immediately received booking confirmations via E Mail after we had paid an initial deposit and then waited the long 10 months for our holiday. When at the end of September I had still not received any further information / tickets or travel details I phoned Hurtigruten UK only to be told I would receive all the necessary documentation and tickets a couple of weeks before we were due to travel. I waited until one week before we were due to travel and still had not received any documentation so I utilised the “Live Chat” on the Hurtigruten web site and was E Mailed the relevant documentation but could not print any of it out as my printer was broken so I requested the hard copies be sent asap. Still not quite sure from the e-mailed documentation or the Hurtigruten web site what the exact timings of times of arrival and departures at the various ports were as the schedule terminology used “from” and “to” rather than simply the universally understood “arrival” and “departure” with many ports just showing a “from” time giving no indication of how long we were in a particular port for, I utilized the “Live Chat” again. After a somewhat lengthy and confusing chat with their rep it appeared that the Hurtigruten web site schedule was “incorrect” and that “it would be reported” and I finally got E Mailed a link to the correct timings with an explanation that “To” meant arrival and “From” meant departure and not in port “from” until “to” which was the other way of interpreting it, and on the web site where it showed only a single time, the stop in that port was only 15 minutes! Finally I returned to the Hurtigruten web site a couple of days before departure as I still no hard copies of any documentation had been received and asked the very specific question of “what excursions will be available for us to take up on this precise cruise” as their web site was only showing details for the 2016-17 year. Once again I was E Mailed a link to their excursions page and was told that the same excursions run each year and to ignore the dates. Great we thought, there was going to be the opportunity for Whale watching, Artic skidoo trips into the night searching for the Northern Lights and Husky Dog Sledding as they were all still listed. The day before we travelled a Fed Ex document parcel arrived with our travel documents and we set off early to travel to Gatwick from Cornwall for a midday flight with Germainia Airlines. Germainia Airlines is a budget airline. No problem with that we have travelled extensively on many budget airlines in the past and are very familiar with the standard of service you generally get. As it happened the flight was delayed an hour due to what we were told were “high winds in Germany”. Embarking the plane took forever. Never have I had to spend so much time standing in a que whilst people shed multiple layers of coats and struggled getting their baggage into the over head lockers. Given the elderly demographic of the large number people travelling on this flight with Hurtigruten, more assistance was clearly needed by cabin staff to assist passengers into their seats. Not only that, due to the excessive layers of coats and hand baggage which had been allowed to clutter up the overhead storage instead of being placed under the seat in front of them, there was not enough room for larger bags which would not fit under the seats to be stored safely and we were told that they would have to go in the hold luggage. At this point as we were carrying fragile medical devices and even more fragile and very expensive camera glass we refused until space was made. I initially wrote off the difficulties experienced flying with Germaina as an unfortunate “one off” however we had exactly the same experience on our return flight, unexplained delays of over an hour, overhead luggage compartments allowed to be cluttered up with small bags and a multitude of coats, cabin crew unable or unwilling to be assertive and take control of the situation. We were told even whilst waiting to board the plane, that the plane would be boarded from the rear back and seat row 20 to 28 would be boarded first. Of course you would think that given the demographic of the elderly passengers would ensure a degree of respect or consideration for the instructions of the flight crew and cabin staff, but no, another free for all ensued whilst we sat and awaited a none forthcoming announcement to board our rows, consequently yet again by the time we got the plane overhead baggage storage had all been used up with coats and small bags despite the plaintive cry of a very unassertive and ineffectual cabin crew. I’ve flown with numerous budget airlines before and both the flight out and back I can say were the worst I’ve experienced simply due to a lack of consideration by fellow passengers and a lack of control, organisation and assertiveness by Germaina staff. The flight itself apart from now being very late leaving was unremarkable and transit through Bergen Airport went smoothly. We were met by the Hurtigruten reps and all guided with our suitcases onto four large awaiting coaches and transferred to the Hurtigruten terminal dock. This went very smoothly and once arrived we were shown up into an area of the terminal to watch a safety briefing whilst our cases were unloaded from the coaches and magically appeared outside our cabin doors (nice touch I liked that). However it is imperative to write your cabin number on your suitcase luggage as at least one person didn’t and their suitcases became “lost” for a while and were located eventually somewhere else on the ship. The Richard With is a reasonable large ship with space for approx. 600 passengers. It’s clean and tidy, well presented albeit the cabins are smaller than the brochure make them appear and the small size / space for shower cubicle would present some difficulties for the fuller figure or those with joint replacements. The beds for our cabin consisted of two singles, one being a fold up against the wall type and the other a bed settee affair. There were just two electrical points available so taking an extension lead with multiple sockets on is a good idea when you have mobile phones, tooth brushes, camera batteries, etc etc all which invariable need charging at the same time. The cabins are cleaned each day which can be as early at 08:00hrs so if you don’t want disturbing that early best hang the “do not disturb” notice on the door handle. The ship has a gangway for passengers and a large folding our ramp for stores and vehicle loading. These are located midway down the port side of the ship. Although not excessively noisy the operation of those multiple times through the night along with the bow thruster propeller system used to dock invariable led to disturbed nights which lead to an insidious type of tiredness over the 12 days. Our cabin was 317 and right in the bow of the ship on the port side. Other than moving to a starboard cabin there was no getting further away from the noise. I think, as the ship gained a noticeable list to starboard as the trip progressed, many passengers must have taken the option to change cabins to the starboard side. The toilets operate on a vacuum flush system similar to airplanes, and the system ship wide broke down twice during the trip due to “strange objects” being flushed down them. Fortunately this happened at night and the second time just a couple of hours away from disembarking at the end, so the need for crossed legs was limited, but to be fair this was hardly Hurtigrutens fault, rather the inconsiderate nature of some of the passengers. The food aboard ship was of a very good standard in my opinion. Yes there was a lot of sea food on offer but you’re in Norway, you wouldn’t expect to go to China and eat roast beef and Yorkshire puddings would you? Breakfast and lunch was a buffet with an excellent choice as long as you got there early as some things which ran out were not replaced that quickly. The evening meal a single choice waiter /ress service, again quality was excellent however for me the portion size was more of a “child’s” size which when you consider you have to go through the night until the next morning with only that or purchases from the extremely expensive on board shop to put you on. There is something Hurtigruten offer called the “wine” and “coffee” deal. I don’t need to explain those as other reviewers have covered this topic, but needless to say if you buy into them it is going to coast you many £100’s when it’s simpler and more convenient to pack your own wine, spirits coffee / tea, a travel kettle and thermos mug to save you not an inconsiderable amount of money. It perhaps should be noted that a number of passengers who had spent that large amount of money when they pre-booked those packages at the time of arranging the holiday, were significantly upset to find out subsequently that Hurtigruten had offered those same wine and coffee packages as “free” incentives for those who booked much later in order to sell berths and fill up the ship. Staff were always very pleasant and well-presented and as with all our experiences with the Norwegians they are very helpful and very friendly and that is to be applauded. The ship enters open waters a number of time and the sea can be pretty rough. Although the ship is fitted with stabilizers it can reduce the ships speed due to an increase in hydrodynamic drag thus when on a tight multiport schedule it certainly appeared that when we were already running late due to one storm, their use was perhaps restricted in subsequent ones to enable the ship to catch up on time. You should consider how this might affect the enjoyment of your holiday if you are prone to motion sickness, fortunately we were not so affected. When we boarded the ship I went straight to the Excursion Managers desk, even before locating our cabin, only to be told I had been given wrong information by Hurtigruten UK via their web site and that Skidoo trips were not running due to a lack of snow, the dog sledding was fully booked and the whale watching was out of season! Thus none of the excursions we wanted were available. I desperately wanted some land based time at night to have opportunity to photograph the Northern Lights as trying to do Long Exposure photography which is what is required for any sensible attempt to photograph the lights, require the camera to be perfectly still for anywhere up to 30 seconds, which is impossible on a vibrating metal deck, from engines which are never turned off even in port, whilst at sea with the ship going up and down and from side to side in the swell whilst motoring along at anywhere up to 17 knots and lit up like a Christmas tree with lights!! On reflection a coastal sailing ship is probably the worst place to try and see the lights from as due to climatic conditions brought about by the Gulf Stream, the weather tends to be very cloudy as moist warm waters and air meet with the cold land and forms fog and clouds often obscuring any lights which may have shown up. Thus we booked the only excursion which gave us shore time at night, the “Meet the Viking” trip. As the first few days past the available daylight receded until the viewing of the only other attraction for this trip, the spectacular Norway coast line, was reduced to just a few hours over midday as the sun didn’t come up above the horizon, my wife and I decided that if we were going to have any chance of meeting our holiday goals we would have to “jump ship”. Thus with the help of our daughter in the UK, we booked an internal flight at Kirkenes for the day we arrived there and flew back down to Tromso and booked into a hotel overnight to give us a day and a half in Tromso before the ship called back in on its return voyage. During this time we went on a Northern Light safari inland for 7 hours (unfortunately still no lights and the sky clouded over), went whale watching by RIB for 6 hours and did dog sledding where you were given your own sled and a team of dogs and had to drive them through the artic wilderness (a much better experience than the excursion package which by all accounts just involved sitting on a sled being towed by dogs and driven by an instructor for a little while before the next group did that whilst you either petted the puppies of drank coffee and ate cake for two thirds of the time) For those interested the internal flights and excursions mentioned along with hotel accommodation cost us another £800 for the both of us on top of our already very expensive holiday. You should note though the excursions booked directly with the tourist info centre in Tromso (Highly helpful and to be recommended) were cheaper, lasted longer and were better value for money that those booked aboard ship through Hurtigruten when available. But what choice did we have other than to return and do another holiday at another time which would have been even more expensive. It is this detail, where fundamentally, this holiday ultimately fails to deliver. Because this ship is NOT a cruise ship, it’s a working ferry, it’s schedule of 66 or so stops during that 12 days means that there is little to no time in port for any “cruise” customers. It’s quite misleading to call it a “cruise” it’s more of a journey, very much like a long bus journey. In fact the longest we were in port for was 4 hours and mostly 15 minutes to 30 minutes only. Out of those 66 ports it there was really only time in a handful of them to actually get off the ship and then because of the ships schedule, not enough time to either arrange your own excursions or for any excursion Hurtigruten offered to be of any value for money especially given the extortionate prices by UK standards for these very brief trips. For example as I mentioned earlier we booked the “Meet the Vikings” excursion which was to include being bussed from the port to the site of a reconstructed Viking house, fed a meal, entertained and returned back to ship at the next port of call as even for this there was not enough time to re-join the ship at the same port we left to go on the trip at. In reality this trip turned out to be about a 45 min coach journey inland to a reconstructed Viking long house, fed just one modest plate of food, given two glasses of “mead” whilst some Norwegians dressed as Vikings sang to us. Then just 45 minutes after arriving we were told that was it and were given 15 minutes to explore outside after exiting through the gift shop for another hour long coach journey to re-join the ship. For this it coast the two of us in excess of £140 (Bering in mind we missing out on our paid for evening meal aboard ship) The most annoying thing is that I believe Hurtigruten to be a good and genuine company and certainly their staff represent them well, but in trying to run two business models in one (ie a passenger ferry running up and down the coast of Norway and a “Cruise ship”) they fail significantly and by a long margin to provide the latter, especially during the winter months when even the Norwegian coastline is shrouded in darkness and gloom for most of the 24hrs in a day. The stops along the coast seem to be dictated by the need of the “bus route” as many / most have very little to anything of attraction for sightseeing or tourism. Indeed if your limited to just wandering around a few towns which the ship is in port long enough for you to get off at, then you’ll find remarkable similar towns with the same shops to some extent to those we have at home on our own doorstep selling very similar items at twice the price. Norway is a very expensive place for UK people to visit, but you have to bear in mind that I’m lead to believe the minimum wage in Norway is over twice that of the UK at time of writing this. What’s even more annoying is that if Hurtigruten separated both businesses and created a proper cruise product which :- 1) Focused on the just 3 or 4 ports on the way up which had something more uniquely Norwegian to offer along the spectacular coastline. 2) Stayed in them 24 hrs or long enough to actually have excursions which are exciting, value for money and fulfil their promise. 3) Called in at 3 or 4 different ports on the return journey to those on the way up. then they would have an awesome product which would have much more mass appeal other than to those who like just to be on a ship telling everyone else who’d listen where they took their last cruise to whilst fed food whilst reading, knitting or doing a 5000 piece jigsaw, with occasionally being puppy walked on a very expensive excursion around a fairly bland and insipid town every now and again. It’s my impression that the generation which would enjoy such a sedate and quite frankly unfulfilling expensive experience are becoming fewer and fewer in this modern age and belong to a fading generation, this is perhaps reflected by the apparent difficulty in filling the ship. Of a ship with nearly 600 berths it was announced that only 200 new customers were getting on as we departed to go home at Bergen. On reflection I think we were about 30 years too young for this “cruise” and I doubt we’ll ever be old enough. How the couple who brought along three teenagers coped, I have nothing but admiration for them.
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