The Northern Lights don’t look how I imagined. They are a warm caramel brown and there’s nothing fleeting about them. As a visitor to Norway’s Arctic Circle in early July, when the famed midnight sun reigns supreme, I cannot of course see the aurora. But that doesn’t stop me from drinking them.
At Olhallen in Tromso, the Northern Lights (or “Nordlys”) is just one of 67 Norwegian beers on tap. The pub opened in 1928 and is attached to one of the country’s oldest breweries, Macks. For a long time it held the title of world’s most northern brewery, though that mantle has now been purloined by an outfit in Svalbard.
It’s a kooky, cosy and charming place. “Rock music is the fifth ingredient in brewing,” explains fifth-generation family owner Harald Bredrup, who is also chairman of the Norwegian Brewers’ Association. “It gets the yeast moving.” Accordingly all of the beers from the microbrewery next door bear rock names – from the Lemmy (frontman of Motorhead) to the Haakon (named after the Norwegian rock star) – and are brewed amid the soundtrack of head-banging tunes.
Tromso is our first port of call on Hurtigruten’s Coastal Express. The full route extends from Kirkenes in the uppermost reaches of the country’s north, to the Hanseatic city of Bergen in its south-west, operating year-round, every day of the week. But happily customers can pick and choose exactly where they want their journey to begin and end.
Touring Tromso’s microbrewery and sampling its wares is just one way your clients can spend their downtime at this city near the end of the world. There’s also the Polar Museum, or a cable car. Or they can simply mosey around, perhaps enjoying a reindeer burger at Skirri, or a fish feast at upscale Fiskekompaniet.
For more structure Hurtigruten offers a number of seasonal excursions. We suit up in a rather fetching combo of a hooded blue waterproof; ankle-high slip-on water shoes; a lifejacket; and an asymmetric waterproof “skirt” before jumping into a kayak. Small, shrill Tor leads us across calm waters shrouded in mist, past cherry-red clapboard houses nestled among swathes of greenery and clinging onto craggy rock faces. Come winter she leads a charge of huskies over the polar landscapes for Hurtigruten’s more intrepid customers.
Before leaving the Arctic city we make one last stop: a midnight concert under the midnight sun in Tromso’s Arctic Cathedral, where a flautist, a pianist and a singer play Norwegian folk music. I can’t say it’s an evening activity I’d normally partake in, but the setting feels otherworldly, and I find myself in a smug, almost meditative state, my mind swimming in the stained blue glass of the modern, A-frame structure.
It’s fitting that a cruise line that prides itself on not really being a cruise line would offer excursions beyond the norm. Hurtigruten’s dual-purpose helps explain its off-kilter and endearing approach to cruising. Though the company now boasts four expedition ships, its bread and butter is the 11-night round-trip Coastal Express service, which has been running daily since 1936. The coastal voyages are increasingly popular with tourists from all over the world who want to drink in Norway’s famously beautiful landscapes, but Hurtigruten’s original raison d’etre was to act as a lifeline for coastal communities the length of Norway. Established in the late 1800s, the passenger and freight shipping service still transports almost everything between the country’s ports, from fruit to fish, to cars, and even the odd prisoner (in a custom-built jail of course).
Hurtigruten’s foundations also help to explain its back-to-basics approach onboard. “It’s about creating unique experiences,” explains Daniel Skjeldam, the company’s chief executive. “For us the ship is not a destination but a safe and comfortable base.” Boarding the Richard With ship, built in 1993 and one of the company’s oldest operating vessels, I can see what he means. There are no frills in my small cabin – the table is Formica; the bed is a pull-down; and there are no toiletries provided, bar a pump filled with lurid pink liquid. At times the ship feels like a floating museum, with its teal, leather-upholstered egg chairs and vintage-looking motifs emblazoned on door handles. There’s even a board game from 1981 in one of the lounges. But it actually all feels a bit charming. A trip for lovers of modern luxury this is not, but for those who balk at the “jazz hands” approach of so many mainstream cruise liners today (myself included), it is a soothing antivenom. And with local staff, local guests, local beers and local food it also feels like an incredibly authentic way to see the country.
One of the benefits of a Hurtigruten cruise is that all ports great and small feature on the itinerary. Many only get a short look in, but the savvy excursions coordinator has outmanoeuvred the schedule, with passengers dropped at one of the next scheduled ports after their city tour or activity. From the small town of Stokmarkenes we embark on a rib boat safari tour of the awe-inspiring Trollfjord – a sneak peak of an excursion that is due to launch to the general public next year. Aside from bald eagle spotting, we take in the impossible scale of Mother Nature’s work, marvelling at the sheerness of the great slabs of granite, the waterfalls trickling over the lush slopes and the snow-dusted mountains standing sentinel in the distance.
On the Atlantic Road we gape at the crazy feats of human engineering. The five-mile route connects an archipelago to the mainland with eight bridges, the asphalt corkscrewing across great stretches of open water. And on the island of Averoy, where three fjords meet, we stand in silence, dumbstruck at the beauty of the Kvernes Stave Church. An unassuming red clapboard structure from the outside, inside it is anything but. Built in the 14th century, almost every surface is painted with the faded, intricate swirls of the acanthus flowers’ petals, the grain of the wood slowly seeping through.
Though it can’t count half as many years of history as Kvernes, Hurtigruten is an equally important part of the seafaring nation’s story.
A notion that tour manager Harald helps put into words when we’re back onboard. “To think of Norway without Hurtigruten? I wouldn’t want to do it. It would be the same as Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”
Book it: The classic 11-night round-trip (Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen) onboard Hurtigruten’s Richard With leads in from £1,845pp (excluding flights) for two sharing one Polar Inside cabin, on a full-board basis. Price valid for July 18, 2017 departure.
Hurtigruten’s first new ship in a decade, the Spitsbergen, came into operation in May and was christened in the Norwegian port town of Svolvaer in July. It is more sleek, Scandi-chic and design-led than many of the cruise line’s other ships, featuring a muted palette of navy, white and pale wood, and contemporary paintings and photography by home-grown artists line the walls.
It features a spacious reception area; a bar with a fireplace, lounge chairs and LCD screens; two outdoor Jacuzzis; a wrap-around balcony on the ship’s bow; and the bistro restaurant, which offers free tea and coffee all day. The eight-deck ship can accommodate a total of 335 guests among its 243 berths, with a selection of Expedition suites, Polar Outside cabins and Arctic Superior cabins available, some with up to four beds for families.
After spending its first season in Norway, Spitsbergen will alternate between the Norwegian coast and polar expeditions. From 2017, guests can sail with her to Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe and Shetland Islands, and Arctic Canada.