Hurtigruten (meaning "fast route" in Norwegian) began life in 1893 as a scheduled means of transportation between cities, towns and islands along a 1,500-mile coastline between Bergen in the south and Kirkenes some 240 miles above the Arctic Circle. The service operates daily throughout the year with a fleet of eleven ships operating both northbound and southbound. Until 2007, the line was known outside of Norway as the Norwegian Coastal Voyage.
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With the passage of time, the ships' accommodations became more comfortable to appeal to those wishing a coastal cruise experience; the cabins, while simply furnished, are comfortable, most with twin beds and all with private facilities (Lofoten excepted). Most of the fleet offers a similar standard of accommodations, though the tonnages vary. Though comfortable and stylish in the case of the most recent builds, these ships lack many of the trappings emblematic of cruising: casinos, organized activities, entertainment, multiple dining choices, etc. In Hurtigruten's own words, Mother Nature provides the entertainment, and interaction with fellow travelers and spectacular scenery are the main draws.
The ships carry freight and vehicles, as well as passengers, and time in port varies, ranging from a half hour (or less) in most small towns up to a few hours in major population centers. The northbound and southbound itineraries are not identical, so a port visited during the night on the northbound route might be visited more conveniently during the day going southbound.
Hurtigruten also operates MS Fram, an expedition cruise vessel that cruises to Northern Europe, Iberia, the Mediterranean, Svalbard (Spitsbergen), Iceland, Greenland, Transatlantic, South America and Antarctica. In 2016, it will be joined by a second expedition ship, MS Midnatsol, which will redeploy for the Antarctic season in late 2016.
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Hurtigruten ships provide a comfy home while touring Norway's charming cities, towns, islands and mountain scenery. Atmosphere onboard is casual, as these ships are on a mission to transport freight and traveling locals in addition to the international mix of passengers making a cruise out of it. Most of the all-Norwegian crew speak English, many fluently. Tipping is optional, though many will remember the dining staff. On the expedition ship Fram, the line recommends 50 kroner per person, per day.
Dining, with meals included for full one-way and roundtrip passengers, takes place in a single restaurant. Breakfast and lunch are open-seating buffets with a good selection of tasty Norwegian and international selections. Dinners are set-time, reserved-seat, three-course meals. Special diet requests should be made in advance. A 24-hour cafe is pay-as-you-go, most often used by those making short voyages. Liquor is highly taxed, and passengers may bring onboard their own alcohol supply for consumption in cabins.
Apart from summertime departures with an occasional musical group aboard, there is no scheduled entertainment. The Arctic Circle crossing ceremony can be a rousing show for those chosen by King Neptune as victims (ice water initiation) and others watching. Mostly, everyone eyes the constantly changing scenery from the decks or in the nicely furnished observation lounges and midship lounge bars, while some also read and play games. Norwegian paintings and sculpture attractively decorate the entire fleet.
An extensive program of tours, some geared to the seasons, include city walking tours, museum and church visits, birding, dog sledding, kayaking, Lapland (Sami) cultural tours, and half-day trips to the North Cape. All tours may be pre-booked online.
Norwegians are mostly aboard to travel point-to-point and to attend onboard conferences, with the next largest nationality being German, then British, other Europeans, Americans and Australians. Mid- to large-size groups may be aboard. Most are well traveled and sophisticated, yet unpretentious individuals who are content to enjoy the spectacular scenery and picturesque communities. Many will be able to speak decent English. The average passenger age is around 50, with families few and far between. However, one of the charms of these voyages is that the passenger load changes often with point-to-point travelers embarking and disembarking along the way.
Hurtigruten's fleet includes 13 ships, broken down into five different classes or categories. The passenger totals are full capacity.
The newest ships plying the Norwegian coast are the three "Millennium Class" ship: MS Midnatsol, MS Finnmarken and MS Trollfjord. These ships, the largest in the fleet, were built between 2002 and 2003, measure approximately 16,000 tons and carry between 820 and 1,000 passengers. They boast Internet cafes and free Wi-Fi, 24-hour cafeterias, suites (including some with balconies), Jacuzzis, swimming pools, libraries, shops, conference rooms, playrooms, laundry facilities and advanced propulsion systems.
Six "Contemporary Ships" -- MS Nordnorge, MS Polarlys, MS Nordkapp, MS Nordlys, MS Richard With and MS Kong Harald -- were built between 1993 and 1997. They each gross about 11,200 tons and carry about 620 passengers. Facilities include a few suites, Internet cafes and free Wi-Fi, 24-hour cafeterias, conference rooms, shops, fitness rooms, libraries, playrooms and laundry facilities.
One "Mid-Generation Ship," MS Vesteralen, dates from the early 1980's. The ship carries a little more than 300 passengers and measures about 6,250 tons. It was refurbished in 1995. Facilities include a glass-enclosed panorama lounge, Internet cafe and free Wi-Fi, conference room, laundry facilities, playroom and shop.
The oldest ship in the fleet is the only "Traditional Ship," 2,621-ton, 340-passenger MS Lofoten, built in 1964 and refurbished in 2003 with a cafe, shop and laundry facilities. Free Wi-Fi will come in late 2013.
In 2007, the line introduced a deluxe, new "Expedition Ship," 11,647-ton, 318-passenger MS Fram, built for exploring Greenland and for lengthy pole-to-pole voyages. Fram is for soft adventure fans and carries small landing crafts that enable passengers to visit remote locations. Facilities include suites (some with balconies), saunas, Jacuzzis, a fitness room, shops, lecture facilities, an Internet cafe and medical facilities.
In 2015, the line announced the acquisition of a new expedition ship which has been given the temporary name of MS Norway Explorer. Built in Portugal in 2009, the 7,025-ton, 320-passenger ship will be extensively refurbished both inside and out, including the addition of an ice-strengthened hull for Arctic waters. The ship will come into service in 2016 and will replace MS Midnatsol on the Norwegian coastal cruises (Midnatsol will join Fram in Antarctica).