Coasting Along Norway

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

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Gathering by the door, we spring ashore as soon as the gangway goes down, since we only have 30 minutes to explore this small Norwegian town. Fanning out in all directions, we walk for exactly 15 minutes before turning around, confidently re-boarding moments before the gangway is lifted and the ship sails for the next port, four hours up the coast. We are used to the routine: Since Norwegian Coastal Voyages' itinerary covers 64 ports in 12 days, we have had plenty of practice.

Known to Norwegians as the Hurtigruten, the coastal voyage remains one of the most unique sea trips around, blending cruise ship comforts with cargo ship purpose and aura. With departures each day from Bergen, proceeding along the western coast of Norway, above the North Cape and all the way to the Russian border and back, the Hurtigruten has been a vital part of life along the coast for more than 100 years.

Today, the service is still used by the locals like a bus, as it hops between remote villages and transports an astonishing variety of essential cargo. Persons who take the full trip will share the ship with day passengers--maybe a family traveling with their dog, a school group out for an afternoon excursion, or a bridal party in full wedding regalia celebrating en masse on their way to the next town. By sailing on the Hurtigruten, you aren't just taking a cruise: You are being integrated into a culture and seeing one of the last routes where sea travel is a part of daily life.

On my mid-September sailing, the trip lived up to its reputation as "The World's Most Beautiful Voyage." We sailed miles inland through the spectacular Geirangerfjord on a warm, sunny day, with lush mountains towering thousands of feet overhead and waterfalls dripping down on either side. We navigated through narrow channels and constantly skirted rocky outcroppings in the middle of the night, and witnessed the jagged peaks of the Lofoten Islands rising from the ocean.

Further north, the green hills and quaint farming communities gave way to a harsh Arctic climate (more than half your trip is spent above the Arctic Circle), as mountains became blanketed with snow near the North Cape. At night, groups of us huddled out on deck to watch for the Northern Lights; sightings every other night included some pulsating shapes and colors that left us in awe.

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If you stay on for the entire 12-day roundtrip voyage, you will visit 32 different ports but stop 64 times, as the same ports are visited northbound and southbound. However, if you only go one way, you'll see only half the story, because the ports you visit during the day northbound are visited at night southbound. The six-day one-way is a wonderful trip, but the full flavor of the coast and the true bonding with the ship and passengers really occurs on the full roundtrip.

Because the ship is used for transportation, port calls are often limited to 30 minutes; only a few major ports offer longer stays of four to six hours. But that's part of the fun. All of these small villages can be explored on foot in that time, and everyone relishes their quick jaunts into each town. They become so much fun that most passengers flock ashore for a walk even when the ship docks at 11 p.m.

Passengers come from the U.S., the U.K. and Germany, but are all like-minded: They appreciate the lack of organized entertainment and are content simply to lie on deck reading, stand at the rail watching the passing landscape, or chat in one of the ship's attractive lounges. On my trip, the only entertainment was a traveling local band that played folk music before lunch one day, and a guitarist at night. Consequently, an old-fashioned bond develops among the passengers from the time spent clustered on deck or racing ashore, as everyone delights in the joys of the Hurtigruten.

Another important distinction between the Hurtigruten and conventional cruises is in the food. On the coastal voyage, you won't find a tremendous variety and abundance of food. Breakfast and lunch are buffets with a good variety, but a strong focus on Norwegian food (i.e. an astounding variety of seafood and fish). Dinner consists of a fixed menu with appetizer, main course and dessert. The menu is posted during the day, so if the entree (which is usually fish every other day) is not appealing, you can ask for something different beforehand. The food is hearty and good, but not gourmet. During the peak season, lunch and dinner are at assigned tables with two seatings.

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There are now four different types of ships operating on the Hurtigruten, each with a different style. The 650-berth "Millennium Class" ships are new in 2002 and feature balconies, swimming pools and saunas. They are very similar to smaller, modern cruise ships. The six "new" ships, all built in the 1990s, accommodate approximately 460 passengers in a slightly more intimate but still very modern and attractive ship. Three "mid generation" ships, however, left me cold-they lacked the amenities and beauty of the newer ships, and also the charm of the "traditional" ships. If possible, avoid sailing on these ships.

Two "traditional" ships, built in the 1960s, still sail on the Hurtigruten during the off-season and are the most authentic way to experience Norway. Adorned in rich wood paneling and accommodating a maximum of 150 passengers, these ships have a log-cabin coziness. Cabins are tiny (some even lack private bathrooms), but the charm and atmosphere (including a significantly smaller percentage of Americans) more than make up for it. If you can do without elevators and balconies, sail these well-maintained, historic ships before they are retired within a year or two.

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The summer season is the most popular (and crowded), as passengers come to see the Land of the Midnight Sun and enjoy the relatively warm weather. A full program of worthwhile shore excursions is offered then, ranging from inland visits to glaciers to trips to the North Cape and a Sami reindeer farm. The winter season provides an amazing chance to experience dramatic Arctic landscapes, but most shore-side attractions will be closed, and weather can be rough. Possibly the best time to sail is the shoulder season in September and April: The attractions are still open, but the crowds are gone. (The North Cape typically gets 6,000 visitors a day during the summer; when I went in mid-September, we 35 passengers were the only ones there.) The weather in the south is still warm, you get the chance to see some of the winter landscape up north, and you have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

No matter when you go, however, you'll be among the fortunate few to experience this most memorable voyage and see Norway the way it was meant to be seen.

Prices range from $122 per person, per day for the lowest cabins to $163 for junior suites, with the top suites going for up to $500 per person per day. Significant savings exist, however, for seniors, AARP members, and for all passengers during the shoulder and winter seasons. One-way trips are available, and Norwegian Coastal now offers a series of pre- and post-cruise land excursions to round out your stay in Northern Europe.

For more information, contact Norwegian Coastal Voyages at (800) 666-2374 for brochures, (800) 323-7436 for general information, or visit www.coastalvoyage.com.

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