My husband Lowell and I rushed to the observation deck, pulling on coats as we hurried.
We were about to pass over the imaginary line that marks the Arctic Circle. A globe sculpture, sitting on a small, rocky island, marks the exact spot. We wanted to be there to see it. From now on, our voyage would be above the Arctic Circle.
It was early morning of Day 4 of our fascinating seven-day and six-night adventure on Norway's Hurtigruten Coastal Express ferry. Now, Days 4, 5, 6 and 7 would be farther north than we had ever been.
To add to the thrill, my husband and I had chosen to be above the Arctic Circle on the longest days of the year, June 18-21. Twenty-four hours of sunshine! It was a great way to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
The Hurtigruten is the ''fast route," a voyage up the western coast of Norway into tranquil fjords, through thousands of islands, past isolated farms and fishing villages, to many ports along the way. It is Norway's working ferry, transporting people, supplies, and cars up and down the coast. We had booked a comfortable cabin with private bath and full breakfast, lunch and dinner on the ferry.
As we began our voyage from Bergen at 8 p.m. June 15, the evening had a warm, peaceful glow. We sailed through numerous islands, while the city, tucked against its seven mountains, receded from our view.
Dinner that evening was a buffet; the other evenings we had delicious three-course, sit-down dinners. Breakfasts and lunches were always expansive buffets with many hot and cold items. Throughout the voyage, we were served tasty fresh and local foods, such as Arctic char, cod and trout; cured leg of lamb from near Geiranger Fjord; roast reindeer from Finnmark in northern Norway; smoked salmon; and various types of caviar.
Our second day dawned warm and balmy as we sailed into and out of the Geiranger Fjord, "the pearl of the West Country fjords." The fjord, carved by glaciers and draped with waterfalls, kept getting narrower and narrower and steeper and steeper as we traveled the 60 miles in. Farms are nestled high on the fjord walls. "How do they get up there?" we wondered.
At the end of the fjord is the charming town of Geiranger. Some passengers disembarked for an excursion around Geiranger. New passengers joined our ship. (A Coastal Express option is to disembark at one port, explore the area, and join another ship a day or two later.) Together we cruised back to the town of Alesund, the gateway town for the fjord.
The ship stops here in the morning and the afternoon. In 1904, most of the town burned to the ground. It was rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style, and is well-known for its beautiful architecture — well worth exploring.
A highlight on the third day was Norway's first capital city, Trondheim, with its colorful wharf, Old Town Bridge, royal residence, and its soaring, graceful Nidaros Gothic Cathedral. One of my husband's long-term clients has a personal connection to the cathedral; his great-grandfather from Norway worked for many years on the restoration of the cathedral after a fire.
All of Day 4 was one highlight after another, starting with crossing the Arctic Circle. A suggestion: Because about half of the voyage is in the Arctic, bring warm clothes and a hooded rain jacket. This is the Arctic Ocean, weather is variable, and the moving ship is breezy. Include an ear band and/or knit hat, scarf and gloves. If you don't need them, enjoy.
Later in the morning, the ship's personnel held a "baptism" ceremony (it includes ice cubes) for anyone new to crossing the Arctic Circle. They also announced the winners of a contest held to see who could guess the exact time of crossing. A woman from Minnesota was one of two winners on our ship.
On our way up the coast, we slipped between numerous islands and skerries (rock outcroppings) on our way to Bodo, the first major city above the Arctic Circle. We visited the Nordland Museum with its displays of Sami culture and an exhibit about the city's destruction during World War II.
North of Bodo, we encountered "the Lofoten Wall," a 60-mile-long chain of islands and sharp, snow-capped peaks rising out of the ocean. The east side of "the Wall" provides shelter from January to April for the many cod fishermen. In June, we saw racks of cod drying in the salt air.
Strait and narrow
But the best part of our fourth day was still awaiting us. After "the Wall" and the charming Lofoten Islands, we sailed through narrow Raftsund Strait. The islands ahead looked impenetrable. "Where is the way through?" an English friend asked.
And then we made a turn into the small, placid Troll Fjord, 1.25 miles long and 110 yards wide at its mouth. Our entry started at 11:15 p.m., but it was still light enough to easily take photos of the quiet fjord with its lush, green walls. The steep sides held no buildings. Under the midnight sun, all was calm and serene — a magical moment.
And then, our ship had to turn around. As we turned, we were certain the bow would scrape the walls of the fjord. Slowly, slowly we turned. As we turned, we all enjoyed some "troll grog" on the aft deck and the camaraderie of a shared experience. That night my husband and I did not go to bed until after 1:30 a.m. It was all too exciting — and still daylight.
As we traveled north, we sailed under the graceful Gisund Bridge leading to Norway's second largest island, Senja; sailed through the fastest tidal current on our trip; and into Tromso, the Arctic capital of Norway. Roald Amundsen, the polar explorer, gathered his crew and supplies here. We learned more about many polar expeditions that left from the city at the Polar Museum in "Old Tromso." North of Tromso we encountered the Lyngen Alps, snow-capped, glaciered peaks sweeping out of the sea.
Taste of Lapland
By Day 6, we had two excursions remaining. Although the Hurtigruten Coastal Express is not a cruise ship, we had many excursion choices: a drive around the Geiranger Fjord; a tour of Trondheim's Gothic Cathedral, built over the burial place of St. Olav; a visit to the Ringve Museum of Musical History; birding, whale watching, kayaking, and glacier expeditions; a rib-boat safari, and many more. (See www.huftigruten.usor book through the Excursion Director on board.)
The first of the day's adventures was to North Cape. Our bus took us through the tundra, past reindeer herds, to the land mass farthest north in Europe. We stood on a rugged 1,000-foot cliff at 71 degrees 11 minutes 21 seconds north of the equator, looking to the "end of the world." This was the most popular outing on our ship.
Our other excursion was "A Taste of Lapland," an introduction to indigenous Sami culture in the heart of the Sami's summer reindeer grazing area. A Sami couple welcomed us to their traditional lavvu (tent-like structure), let us taste reindeer broth, sang for us (joiking), and showed us traditional tools, kitchen equipment, and clothing. They were careful to explain that these were traditional things, and not the way most of the Sami live today.
And then we sailed on to Kirkenes, our last port on our last day. When we disembarked, we parted with many interesting acquaintances we had made from Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Australia, England, The Hebrides, France, Quebec, USA, and, of course, Norway. Some were remaining onboard for the return trip to Bergen.
We stayed one night in Kirkenes; there are several hotel choices. We rented a car, drove 10 miles to the Russian border (you can also take a ship excursion), went into northern Finland (think northern Minnesota with reindeer herds), and drove along quiet, northern fjords. Since we were 250 miles above the Arctic Circle on June 21, we were still experiencing the 24-hour midnight sun. We could explore well into the evening.
Leaving captivating North Norway and the Arctic the next day, we flew to Bergen and stayed at the well-located Scandic Strand Hotel across from the Brygge. We visited the old, colorful, wooden buildings of the Brygge (the Wharf), the famous fish market, and took the funicular (Floibanen) to overlook beautiful Bergen and its islands. (For other attractions, see www.visitbergen.com. Bergen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
On St. Hans' Day, June 23, we took a bus to Laksevag, an area of Bergen, to attend a traditional midsummer festival of games, a clown, food, and a great band. The highlight was a huge, fiery, 22-barrel-high bonfire. We enjoyed being two among locals.
On our last full day we rented a car and drove around Hardanger Fjord. As Norway is expensive, we bought local bread, cheese and fruit for our lunch and ate overlooking the lovely fjord.
This is where I should advise you to do as I say, not as we did. I advise you to get to Bergen at least one day before your ship departs. If there are any missed flights, etc., you still have time to get on board. We did not allow a day, had a delayed flight because of a lightning storm, and missed our lcelandair connection in Reykjavik. We made it to our ship, but our luggage did not.
lcelandair and SAS handled it all smoothly. They said our luggage would be at Alesund the next day at 6 p.m., and it was. But we put ourselves through unnecessary anxiety. Be wise, arrive in Bergen the day before. Look around, enjoy the Brygge, relax.
Our voyage on the Hurtigruten Coastal Express gave me a list of places I wanted to explore further — Trondheim, Tromso, Bodo, and the Lofoten Islands. But our time in Norway had ended; we headed home. As my husband said, this truly was "an experience and an adventure, not just a vacation."