(11:00 a.m. GMT) -- We've just returned from an Arctic Adventure with Hurtigruten to the top of Norway -- flying right up to Kirkenes -- which lies just 15 minutes' drive from the border with Russia. Snow was several feet thick on the ground and the temperature was at a balmy minus 14 Celsius, perfect for spending a night in the Snow Hotel. We then jumped onboard Spitsbergen, and headed south for a taster of what Hurtigruten call the "Classic Coastal Voyage" -- from Kirkenes to Bergen (or vice versa), calling in at 34 ports along the way (sometimes for just 15 minutes!). Hurtigruten has sailed this route for 125 years, providing a vital link to the isolated communities dotted along 1,250 nautical miles of Norwegian coastline.
Here are our hits and misses from an Arctic Adventure with Hurtigruten.
Even in the Arctic cold, getting onboard Spitsbergen was akin to walking into Eden. The warmth, both literally and in terms of the service and greeting, was like meeting up with long lost friends. The ship is small, 280 passengers, with just eight decks, one main restaurant and bistro; a bar, an observation lounge a sauna and a gym. Outside you'll find two hot tubs. It was built as a car ferry but converted into a passenger ship in 2015 and launched in 2016. As such, it feels brand new, done out in typical Scandi light woods, clean lines and stark photography of polar landscapes. We loved it.
The food was a particular standout. Hurtigruten make a point of sourcing sustainably and ultra-locally, so you might be sampling a typical pastry from one of the tiny ports you pulled into that day or fish caught that morning. We were fortunate in our short time onboard to have two highlights: an orca off the bow and the Northern Lights. The captain slowed the ship to allow us a glimpse of the former, which swam a few hundred metres from the bow. As on all Hurtigruten ships there is a little button by the bed called Northern Light info, which you can choose to have on or off, depending if you wish to be alerted that the Lights have appeared. They did for us, though not spectacularly. Standing on deck with my 10-year-old watching the sky glow green was one of the highlights of my life. We were onboard for just 36 hours, and it was a wrench to leave. Make sure you stay onboard for at least the full journey north or south, to fully appreciate whatever Hurtigruten ship you are on.
Tromso is one of the absolute highlights of the Coastal Voyage, with ships calling in for four hours on the northbound journey, and 3.5 hours on the way down (however, they call in at 11:45 p.m. going south). Neither of which is enough time to really appreciate this stunning city. Tromso lies way above the Arctic Circle, but is washed by the Gulf Stream, so temperatures are a few degrees higher than in other towns this far north. It's still cold, but less so than that biting cold that makes your finger go raw in Hammerfest, a few hundred kilometres north and not on the Gulf Stream. Tromso is part mainland, part island, ringed by mountains and criss-crossed by fjords in one of the most picturesque parts of Norway. It has a number of beautiful manmade sights, too, including the breathtaking "Arctic Cathedral" (not, in fact, a Cathedral, but a parish church) which holds a midnight service every night, and is one of the top excursions for Hurtigruten for those on the southbound journey. The city also boasts some good shopping and restaurants, including Mathallen Restaurant, one of the best in town. The city also has a number of excursions. In truth, four hours in this beautiful city is not enough.
Floya, one of the mountains above Tromso, on the mainland, is accessible via a cable car called Fjellheisen. Take this to the top and you are awarded with a breathtaking view (weather permitting) of the town and the mountains which surround it, including Tromsdalstinden. There's a lovely restaurant on top and great walks from here -- so long as you are suitably attired. Our guide/host Svein kindly lent us his snowshoes and we set off to get to an elusive flag on a ridge some distance away. My 10-year-old gave up quickly, complaining of a sore foot; while my 7-year-old bounded off ahead, passing us all, and reaching the summit and passing me on the way back down. The weather held, and the light, even for this amateur photographer, made every picture a portrait.
This the excursion was the one my kids were most looking forward to (Note: you can also do this at the Snow Hotel). It's a short ride from the centre of town to the Villmarkssenter, one of the biggest adventure companies in Norway. The form is as follows: You get kitted out in a warm coverall suit, settle yourselves into the sled (largest at the back), get a sleeping bag thrown over you to keep you warm and then head off. Again, we were lucky with the weather (I can imagine in a snowstorm this would not be fun, though apparently people still do it). You're dragged by a team of eight Alaskan huskies, all specially bred for this. They love it: whining and whimpering and desperate to drag you through the beautiful snowscape. There's not much more to do than enjoy the ride and take snaps, but it's a lot of fun. Afterward, you get to meet the dogs and the puppies, then enjoy a steaming hot bowl of reindeer soup.
The Snow Hotel
Exquisitely beautiful but bitterly cold, the Kirkenes Snow Hotel is built every winter at a spot between two (frozen) fjords, just a few minutes' drive from Kirkenes town centre. It is offered as an excursion with Hurtigruten, along with a number of others including husky sledding and king crab fishing. The hotel has a bar at the entrance which serves ice cold spirits (what else?). Off a long corridor, with playful touches like a glowing log fire (backlit with red light), there are a number of rooms, each with intricate carvings. This year the theme was Hollywood movies, so we had the Grinch, the Joker and Marilyn Monroe, amongst others carved into the walls of the room. Beds are ice blocks with mattresses on top and bedding is a sleeping bag which is apparently good to minus 40 C. Fortunately, we didn't have to test it out to that extent, as whatever the temperature is outside, the rooms are minus 4 C. It's still cold, though. Very, very cold. And however much you wrap up, there is always a part of you that will be exposed -- e.g. the nose.
A few things to note: Although the Snow Hotel itself does not have any facilities, it is joined to a building which includes showers, changing rooms and a sauna. The hotel also has 10 cosy warm log cabins to hire, which my wife and younger son opted to sleep in, while my 10-year-old son and I bedded down in our nautical-themed room. He lasted until 1.37 a.m., at which point his face was cold to the touch and we gave up and headed to the warm log cabin.
The Snow Hotel is a great idea, certainly for a drink at the Ice Bar and to admire the carvings, but as a friend of mine asked me when we got back: Why do it? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's an experience, but not one I plan on doing again. Our advice: Book a warm cabin.
King Crab Safari
King Crabs are an invasive species in the Norwegian fjords, eating their way through all the resources and killing endemic species, which is how our guides make us feel better when they pull up a pot of them and proceed to kill them with large knives. What is the humane way of killing crabs? -- throwing them into a pot of boiling water or dispatching them in one swift stab? Who knows. I doubt there is an easy answer to that. Whatever the answer is, it's not appropriate to do this in front of kids, as my distressed 10-year-old (a catch-and-release) crabber would attest to. The journey out across the frozen lake on a sled driven by a snowmobile was fun, and it had to be said: The crab was delicious.
This should be renamed King Crab Hunt or King Crab Fishing to give a better idea of what it entails (or at least warn guests about what's in store).
Our cruise with Hurtigruten was a wonderful way to experience just a taster of what Norway has to offer in a relatively short space of time. To be able to see a whale, the Northern Lights, stay the night in a snow hotel and do all the excursions we did (and I haven’t even mentioned our first night in Oslo), was a privilege and a pleasure and we're already making plans to go back -- perhaps when it's a little warmer though.
--by Adam Coulter, Managing Editor, U.K.