Searching for the Northern Lights

Online Editor Monica Poling sails through the Norwegian fjords on Hurtigruten’s Trollfjord in search of the Northern Lights By: Monica Poling
With Hurtigruten, clients can sail along the Norwegian coast and take a number of unique excursions, including snowmobile rides and a deep-sea...
With Hurtigruten, clients can sail along the Norwegian coast and take a number of unique excursions, including snowmobile rides and a deep-sea crabbing experience. // © 2012 Hurtigruten

The Details

Hurtigruten
www.hurtigruten.us

The six-day Classic Voyage South sails from Jan. 1 to March 14 and from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31. 

Pricing begins at $1,208 for an inside cabin and $1,255 for an outside cabin. Suite pricing starts at $1,762. Early booking discounts apply to all fare classes.

I would have made a good Viking, I think, as I worked my way through my third (or maybe my fourth) helping of fresh king crab. I was sitting in a wooden shack, well above the Arctic Circle, in Kirkenes, Norway, happily munching away on a crustacean that a fisherman pulled out the sea through a hole in a frozen fjord. The meal was easily one of the best I’ve ever had, and I realized that I was probably going to be disappointed the next time I saw king crab on a Las Vegas buffet.

The crabbing adventure, one of the optional excursions offered to passengers booked on Hurtigruten’s coastline voyages around the Norwegian Fjords, would not have been possible, however, without some advance preparation. After all, since the late-February temperature is hovering somewhere in the high single digits, we needed to be suited up in special gear before heading out. Once we were firmly tucked into our requisite snowsuits, fuzzy hats and insulated mittens, we boarded wooden sleighs — powered by a snowmobile — to enjoy a quick ride onto the frozen glacier. Even the rumble of the snowmobile couldn’t mask the eerie silence of the solitary, snow-packed landscape.

Wooden sticks marked the path along the snowy fjord, which eventually led to a small, wooden A-frame structure that held our meal-to-be. Here, fishermen explained the process of catching the crabs, which are normally brought up by divers but, today, have been contained in a trap for our convenience. After hauling in enough bounty to feed the group and leaving some offerings for the birds and other wildlife that make the area their home, we went to a fisherman’s shack to feast on our catch.

The mounds of king crab disappeared and, eventually, we returned to the Kirkenes Snow Hotel, the launching point for our adventure. Our program finished with a tour of the snow hotel, which has 20 “snow suites,” each with a different theme and design.

I have to admit that my inner Viking did balk when it came to spending the night here. It wasn’t so much the idea of sleeping in sub-zero temperatures, but nature tends to call regularly during the night, and the sleeping bags — rated for below 35 degrees Celsius — looked darn difficult to get in and out of. Instead, I stayed at the Thon Hotel and enjoyed a gorgeous view of Kirkenes’ waterfront.

The following morning, we set sail on Hurtigruten’s Trollfjord, which would deliver us to exotic ports along Norway’s jagged coastline, with hopes of encountering the famed, but elusive, Northern Lights along the way.

Although American passengers might be tempted to call Hurtigruten a cruise line, Hurtigruten staff members are quick to point out that it is actually a luxury ferry line. The vessels are primarily used to transport cargo, automobiles and locals — as well as visitors — and locals rely on the regularly scheduled departures to make their way around the countryside.

For travel agents, however, that means ships depart daily, with plenty of booking options, including a six-day southern voyage, a seven-day northern voyage or a 12-day roundtrip program. 

Optional Excursions
Hurtigruten’s ferry status also means that the ships make well over 30 ports of call on a one-way journey, although many stops are just 15-minutes long and, in the middle of the night, so not all warrant disembarkation. Still, there are plenty of ports to explore and excursions to take advantage of. 

Mehamn Snowmobile Ride
A middle-of-the-night stop at Mehamn gave us the opportunity to hop on snowmobiles and motor into the frozen night in search of the Northern Lights. For me, there was something surreal about watching the snow blizzard around me, only to dissipate, with the only sight for miles being the glowing headlights of the other snowmobiles. Although we only caught a light dusting of the Northern Lights, this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

After returning to the ship at 4:30 a.m. and catching a quick nap, I was ready for the 11 a.m. disembarkation at Hammerfest. With a billing as the northernmost town in the world and the oldest town in the north of Norway, who wouldn’t want to explore? 

Arctic Energy in Hammerfest
In Hammerfest, we visited the Energy House, an interactive center that sits on the site of the first power station in Northern Europe, where hydroelectricity powered the city’s street lamps, also the oldest in Northern Europe. The stop in Hammerfest is a short one, just an hour, so passengers have to make the difficult decision between poking around the waterfront and taking a formalized excursion.

Midnight Concert in the Arctic Cathedral
Moving slowly south, by late evening, we found ourselves stopping in Tromso, which is home to the gorgeous Arctic Cathedral. Here, passengers can enjoy the optional Midnight Concert in the Arctic Cathedral excursion, which is, again, well worth doing. The concert features a selection of Norwegian folk songs as well as a few of the more popular classical songs, including a lovely flute performance of Norwegian Edvard Grieg’s Morning Mood.

Taste of Vesteralen
The following day, we called upon Harstad, where we embarked on the Taste of Vesteralen excursion. Because we left the ship behind to catch up with it at a later port, this program offers a little more breathing room. Our first stop is at Trondenes Church (the northernmost medieval stone church in Norway), where the priest conducted a short, but moving, service in English, German and Norwegian. The tour travels along the scenic Trondenes Peninsula before rejoining the ship in Sortland. The journey’s most sentimental moment happens, as the bus crosses the bridge into the Sortland port, at exactly the same time the Trollfjord passes below. Passengers fill the ship’s deck to wave to us, and the captain blasts the ship’s horn in greeting.

Life Onboard
When we aren’t off the ship, exploring the Norwegian coastline, life onboard moves along at a leisurely pace. Absent are the casinos, the glitzy shows, the excessive extras that can be synonymous with ocean cruising.

The Trollfjord, built in 2002, is one of the Hurtigruten’s newer ships, so she offers plenty of great vantage points for just watching the scenery roll by. Deck 9 is the “sun deck,” although during the Northern Lights voyages, it serves more as an all-weather deck.

Still, when the crew blasts an announcement that there has been a Northern Lights sighting, Deck 9 is the place to be, no matter what is happening with the weather. Deck 9 is also the location for the Arctic Circle ceremony where passengers receive a souvenir spoon, after taking a sip of cod liver oil.

The Trollfjord holds 822 passengers, but has 646 berths, as many passengers are locals and remain in the public areas for their portion of the sailing.

The cabins were intimate but comfortable with plenty of closet space, which was a welcome surprise. My outside cabin, 811, consisted of two separate bunks, with one converting into a sofa. My cabin was also conveniently located near many of the ship’s public areas, including the library, so I had around-the-clock access to the free Wi-Fi, another welcomed surprise.

Dining Onboard
When it comes to dining, there are essentially two options onboard: the main dining room, located on the Deck 5, or the cafe, also on the fifth deck. The cafe is largely created for the shorter-term passengers and food and drink here is only available for purchase.

The dining room, set up as a buffet for breakfast and lunch, converts into a sit-down restaurant with two dinner seatings. 

The cuisine onboard definitely leans towards Norwegian and Northern European specialties. I was delighted with the opportunity to eat pickled herring and caviar at nearly every meal but, admittedly, that isn’t something that will satisfy all travelers. Still, there are plenty of excellent options during the breakfast and lunch buffet. Not to worry, even the most picky eaters will find plenty of options served up by the ship’s amazing pastry chef.

Dinner every night was a high-end, amazing feast. Be warned, however, that travelers used to the excesses of more traditional cruise lines will only have two dinner choices: the set menu and the alternate menu for vegetarians. Having said that, however, I was never disappointed with the meals and found them to be delicious and varied.

Seeing the Northern Lights
So did we actually see the Northern Lights?  Well, yes and no. The Norwegians are such kind people — I think they are reluctant to upset their guests. So you’ll often hear them say “Look, there’s the start of the Northern Lights.” We heard that a lot. I’m not saying that they weren’t the Northern Lights, but they weren’t quite how I envisioned them.

On our final night above the Arctic Circle, however, and thank goodness the ship makes announcements when sightings are upon us, I did make it to the all-weather deck to catch an intense, but short-lived, burst of green light that had all 800 passengers chattering excitedly. Even my inner Viking was cheering.

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