Viking Cruises’ new programme of northern lights sailings promises a luxurious way to explore the Arctic region. Sara Macefield hops onboard one and finds it delivers far more than aurora sightings.
This winter has seen Viking Cruises bring its innate sense of Norwegian style to the Arctic with a debut programme of northern lights sailings, heralding a more luxurious take on what this remote region has to offer.
I’m keen to see how it caters for premium passengers looking for soft adventure, so join the first sailing in January that departs Tilbury for Norway, following the coast as far north as Alta, where our ship, Viking Sky, moors overnight.
It is the second overnight stay, the first being at our previous stop, Tromso – but these long port calls prove to be an ideal way to get under the icy skin of this region, thanks to an impressive range of tours that open the door to a wintry world of adventures.
Guests can speed off on snowmobile safaris to an ice hotel or explore the Norwegian tundra by husky sled. Nordic skiing, reindeer-sledding and a visit to a Sami camp are some of the other unforgettable thrills, though with prices between $300 and nearly $600 you need deep pockets. However, tamer alternatives include concerts and museum visits, which are less than $100.
But Norway is not cheap, and that’s where Viking’s extra touches come into their own. The free excursion in each port, generally a coach tour, proves to be an ideal way for passengers to get their bearings.
“We offer more time in port than many other cruise lines so guests can make the most of any free time as well as joining organised shore excursions,” confirms Viking’s UK head of sales Neil Barclay.
“Our excursions in destinations such as Alta are quite unique, especially overnight stays, which offer unforgettable immersive experiences where guests can try snowshoeing and ice-fishing and then stay overnight in the Igloo Hotel, made entirely of ice and snow.”
He adds: “Alternatively, they can experience the life of a dog musher, enjoying a traditional Norwegian meal with huskies and spending the night in a wooden, stove-heated tepee with floor-to-ceiling windows so they can keep a lookout for the northern lights.”
Viking’s home visits offer a taste of local culture, meeting locals and learning about their way of life while also sampling regional foods and snapping up handcrafted souvenirs.
For me, the excursions and spectacular pristine surroundings are the high points of this 12-night cruise. The northern lights may have been the trigger for choosing this itinerary, but they become more of a sideshow due to cloudy skies and lacklustre showings of a few white streaks.
But it doesn’t matter, because the numerous other bucket-list activities ensure this is the most memorable of sailings. With long nights and whisper-thin daylight hours, I’d previously dismissed this region as a summer-only destination best seen when bathed in the glowing rays and long days of the midnight sun.
Admittedly, with dawn not breaking until around 10.30am and dusk descending two or three hours later, it takes some getting used to. But the long twilight before true darkness falls amid the snowy backdrop makes for the most romantically festive setting.
The pretty Arctic town of Tromso is a case in point, where the cluster of snowy streets could have jumped straight off a Christmas card. But my highlight is a husky dog-sledding adventure that takes us on a magical ride through the snowy wilderness as dawn is breaking and the sun’s first rays creep over the horizon.
Everything is organised with Nordic efficiency, and it is the little touches that count. Crew members handing out water as we disembark and welcoming us back with warming cups of mulled wine.
Another luxury touch I’d underestimated was the heated floor of my slick en-suite shower room – a feature taken from Viking’s “Longship” river craft.
It is so cosy that on returning rather chilled from one excursion, I can’t resist lying on the floor to warm up and end up dozing off!
The strong Nordic ambience onboard perfectly complements this sailing, with regional artworks throughout the ship along with glass cases filled with Viking artefacts.
Even the food reflects the locality, and on one evening I enjoy an outstanding tasting menu of Norwegian cuisine in the Chef’s Table restaurant.
Viking’s Barclay points out that the line’s resident historians and guest lecturers also add fascinating insights into the destinations.
He says Viking’s frequent departures between January and March offer more booking opportunities, especially as it pays commission on the entire trip, including extensions.
“This has proved to be a very popular itinerary since we launched it, so I would encourage our trade partners to get clients thinking ahead to take advantage of special offers and secure their preferred dates,” he adds.
Book it: Viking Cruises offers a 12-night In Search of the Northern Lights sailing alternating between Tilbury and Bergen, calling at Stavanger, Bodo, Tromso, Alta, Narvik and Bergen, and departing on various dates between January and March 2020. It costs from £3,840pp including flights, Wi-Fi, drinks with meals, gratuities and a shore excursion in each port.
Chances to visit an indigenous Sami tribe deep in the Arctic Circle don’t come along that often, especially when an exciting reindeer sled ride is thrown in too.
So I jump at the chance to join one of Viking Cruises’ tours to the Sami village of Maze, a 90-minute drive into the icy hinterland from Alta at the top of Norway, for an unforgettable few hours.
Visiting in the depths of the polar winter means that even though it is mid-afternoon, everything is cloaked in night-time darkness.
Stepping out of the coach is like hitting an icy wall as the -32°C temperature bites. It’s colder than anything I’ve ever known as we walk towards the huddle of reindeer waiting to whisk us away on sleds.
We snuggle under reindeer pelts to marvel at the winter wonderland illuminated by the silvery rays of the full moon. It’s a fantastic experience, but I’m chilled to the bone.
We warm up with delicious bowls of reindeer broth served in a traditional “lavvu” tepee-like tent while listening to Sami herdsmen.
Dressed in giant ceremonial coats made from albino reindeer pelts, they tell us fascinating stories about their lives and traditions.
Despite a roaring fire, the tent is so cold that when I ask for a glass of water, the jugs have frozen solid.
But it’s a fascinating afternoon, and one quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
Would I do it again? Definitely. I’d just make sure that next time I piled on far more thermals.
Book it: The 4½ hour Sami Camp and Reindeer-Sledding trip costs $319pp.