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“In Search of the Northern Lights” with Hurtigruten Review

Although I have booked a number of customers onto Hurtigruten ships, I had never been on one of their voyages myself. I had visited the MS Nordlys in Bergen a few years ago to look around the ship, and enjoyed a great meal onboard, but that still didn’t enable me to fully explain what a Hurtigruten voyage would be like. This is because as well as carrying holidaying passengers, they are also working ships, and carry locals up and down the Norwegian coast. Therefore with the special offers available for the short break ‘Arctic Highlights’, we decided that we would go on holiday ‘In Search of the Northern Lights’. Being a natural phenomenon, I knew that whether we saw the ‘Northern Lights’ or ‘Aurora Borealis’ was going to be down to luck and good old ‘Mother Nature’. My video is below and then my full review is below that.

While you can opt for the longer Classic Round Voyage, these short breaks operate on certain dates during the winter, incorporating charter flights from regional airports. Some have 3 nights on the ship and 1 night in a Tromso hotel, whereas others include 2 nights at the hotel. We opted for the shorter one, and flew from Manchester on 14th December 2014. My review will start with details of the itinerary, and then I will tell you a bit about the MS Richard With, and finally I will give you a summary of all that Hurtigruten has to offer. Please note that taking really good photos of the Northern Lights requires a decent camera, and a fair amount of skill in using it. Therefore the photos below of the Northern Lights are stock photos of previous sightings, which were provided to me by Hurtigruten, although the other photos and video are my own work. Call GoCruise with Ian on 01455821770 or 08002922850 to book your Hurtigruten voyage, or to get further information about the amazing choice of holiday opportunities. Click on the following link to look at my photos on Facebook.

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(These Northern Lights photos have been provided courtesy of Hurtigruten)

Arctic Highlights Itinerary

Day 1

Our flight was with Germania and we departed from Manchester at the reasonable time of 10.15am, on a special charter flight. We landed in Tromso at 2.30pm and it was immediately noticeable just how dark it was, due to the fact at this time of the year the sun never rises above the horizon.

We jumped on the coach and there was a journey of about 20 minutes to the ship. When we got there it was a matter of getting onboard with our cases and checking in. Our cabin wasn’t quite ready, so we had a wander around after checking in. We made sure to buy the ‘coffee deal’ when checking in, and I will give more details of that later.

Unless you book a suite, none of the cabins are particularly large, although they are functional. After all, whether you are sailing in the winter, or the summer for the magnificent scenery, you are only going to be in your cabin to get changed and sleep. The lounges are great to sit and relax and watch the world go by. The ship calls at lots of small ports along the way, but many are just for 10 minutes so there wasn’t time to get off at all of them.

On the first evening there were a number of occurrences of the Northern Lights, and we saw them twice with swathes of green in various parts of the sky. There were also a great number of shooting stars, which made it even more magical.

We were on a half board basis for this trip, and our dinner sitting was at 8.15pm, although whenever a ship has less passengers onboard they just have one dinner sitting. Tonight was a set 3 course and we started with cream of carrot soup, followed by Arctic Char (a member of the salmon family) with new potatoes, asparagus and hollandaise sauce. For dessert it was cloudberries and crème fresh, and all three courses were really enjoyable. Coffee and tea is included with meals, and for dinner it is served in the bar afterwards.

After seeing our second appearance of the Northern Lights we went to bed about midnight, after a long and tiring day.

Day 2

North Cape

After a large buffet breakfast we relaxed in the lounge until our arrival in Honningsvag. We then left the ship and walked along the icy dockside to our coach for the North Cape excursion. It was a drive of about 45 minutes and for the last 20 minutes or so we were in a small convoy behind a snow plough. There was a very small amount of light on the way, but by lunchtime it is as dark as night again. When we arrived there was plenty of time to look around and take photos of the North Cape. There was also a really good film on massive screens in the cinema, showing the North Cape through the 4 seasons. There was also a large shop, bar and café there.

Back onboard we set sail again, and we sat in the lounge where I started catching up on some emails. I had then arranged to go and view some other cabins to get pictures and video. Late afternoon, just before reaching another port, a local fisherman came onboard with his latest catch of Red King Crabs, and he was telling everyone about them out on deck.

Dinner tonight was a large self-service buffet as opposed to a set 3-course dinner, with a great selection of seafood including king crab, salmon and mussels. There was also a selection of meats, salads and cheeses, as well as some lovely desserts.

Buffet - seafood  Buffet - meats

Day 3

After breakfast we arrived in Kirkenes at around 9.00am and we spent over 3 hours there. As the snow was late this year, the Snow Hotel wasn’t ready yet so unfortunately the excursion to view it wasn’t operating, although these were due to start a few days later. There were however excursions to the Russian Border or you could go dog sledging, or walk the 10 minutes or so into the town.

During the afternoon we made a few short port calls, and at one of them there was the opportunity to take an organised trip to jump in the ice cold sea. Unbelievably 6 people took the opportunity and not only did they literally jump into the water, they actually paid for the privilege of doing so! It was very well organised and they jumped into a cage which had been lowered into the water. Most of the passengers just stood on the back of the ship and watched, including me.

We enjoyed another 3-course dinner tonight with Borscht (beetroot soup), baked reindeer and Pavlova being served. As we had done for most of the day, we spent the evening relaxing with a book, playing cards and catching up with emails. I was also keeping up to date with this review.

Day 4

This morning we had our disembarkation briefing, so that we knew exactly what was happening when we got to Tromso late tonight. During the morning we stopped at Hammerfest for just over an hour, and went for a nice stroll around the picturesque town.

Back onboard we decided to get on with the packing, and then in the afternoon had a short sleep as tomorrow was going to be a long day. We didn’t need to vacate our cabins until 8pm, at which time we just left our cases by the lift. Then it was off to the restaurant for our final dinner, which was 4 courses tonight – potato and garlic soup, poached salmon, vodka marinated entrecote and panna cotta, and it was all excellent.

After dinner we enjoyed watching a few more amazing appearances of the Northern lights, some of which were moving around quite a bit. We then arrived in Tromso and disembarked at 11.45pm for the 3 minute walk to the Radisson Blu hotel, while our cases were taken for us. The rooms were ready and waiting, so it was off to bed for some sleep. Some passengers had booked the excursion to the Midnight Concert at the Cathedral, so they were taken there and then dropped back at the hotel afterwards.

Day 5

We didn’t need to check-out of our rooms until midday, so after breakfast we went for a walk around the town centre. Being that bit further south, there was a small amount of daylight. Everywhere was looking ready for Christmas, with festive street lights, nicely decorated shops, snow on the ground and a real chill in the air.

Tromso Shops  Tromso Harbour

Back at the hotel we finished our packing, checked out, and went for a coffee until the coach arrived for the 15 minute drive to the airport, ready for our flight back to Manchester.

Summary

Having always wanted to see the Northern Lights, I am really glad that I have finally ticked it off the list. A Hurtigruten voyage in the Arctic Winter is a great experience anyway, even if Mother Nature hadn’t let us see the Northern Lights.

I must point out that a Hurtigruten voyage isn’t a ‘cruise’ in the normal sense of the word. There is no entertainment, no dress code, and no kids clubs. When choosing an ocean or river cruise, the ship is often as important as, or even more important than, the destination. However, the main reason for booking a Hurtigruten voyage is for the destination itself.

Useful Tips

  • When you first board the ship you might find the reception area very busy, as is the case with many hotels where a lot of people are trying to check in at the same time. If so, go and find somewhere quiet to sit for 30 minutes or so until the queue has gone down, as all the cabins might not even be ready straight away
  • If you like coffee or tea, then you should definitely consider buying the ‘Coffee Deal’. They sell an insulated mug which then entitles you to unlimited freshly brewed coffee (not latte or hot chocolate etc) and tea throughout your voyage. The normal price is 345 NOK (Norwegian Krone), but for this short voyage the price was 195 NOK. This worked out to be better value than paying for each cup. You do get tea and coffee with your meals anyway though.
  • When you are doing a winter voyage be sure to pack good shoes or boots, and take plenty of warm clothing to wear in layers. A warm hat and gloves are also very important.
  • If you are going on one of these short trips, and you are on a half board basis, then it is worth packing some of your favourite snacks to have during the day. This could be chocolate, cereal bars, biscuits, sweets or crisps

MS Richard With

The MS Richard With, which is named after the founder of Hurtigruten, was built in 1993. She is 11,205 gross tons and carries 623 passengers, with beds for 458 and a capacity to carry 20 cars. There is a range of accommodation on offer, from a basic inside cabin up to a suite, including 3 outside cabins which have been adapted for passengers with disabilities.

Facilities onboard include the panorama lounge, observation lounge, bar, restaurant, Café, fitness area, a shop, library, kid’s play room, and the sun deck. There is also a small area with 4 computers giving free internet connection, and there is free Wi-Fi in the public lounges. The internet speed can be slow and connection can be intermittent, and is generally best when in one of the ports.

Hurtigruten – General Information

Since 1893 Hurtigruten has operated ships along the Norwegian coast, carrying both freight and passengers. With a fleet of 11 ships on this coastal voyage, there is a daily departure from Bergen, calling at 34 ports as they make their way up the coast on a 6 night voyage to Kirkenes. Then they make their way south again, calling at the same ports, on a 5 night voyage back to Bergen.

Being working ships, there will be people who embark in one port and disembark a couple of hours later in the next port, or perhaps the next morning. This means that not everyone onboard is ‘on holiday’ and could be working, or perhaps just visiting relatives. There is therefore a café onboard so that anyone can get drinks and snacks as required. It is worth noting that some of the ports of call are only for 10 to 30 minutes, just enough time to drop off a couple of passengers, pick up the post, or perhaps take on fresh supplies. A number of ports are also called on during the night, but any visited during the night on the way north, are called at during the day on the way south, and vice versa.

The following options are available year round: –

  • 6 night Classic Voyage North
  • 5 night Classic Voyage South
  • 11 night Classic Round Voyage (often referred to as the world’s most beautiful voyage)

These can be booked ‘cruise only’ or flights and transfers can be included. You can also add hotel stays, perhaps in Bergen or Kirkenes.

At different times of the year other options are available, some of which are pre-packaged with flights from a selection of regional airports. These often include Manchester, Gatwick, East Midlands, Cardiff, Newcastle, Dublin and Glasgow. Examples of these less frequent departures include: –

  • Arctic Highlights – 3 nights onboard plus 1 or 2 nights in Tromso
  • Arctic Explorer – 5 nights onboard plus 2 nights in Svolvaer
  • Arctic Wonders – 6 nights onboard plus 1 night in a Snow Hotel in Kirkenes
  • A Taste of the Arctic – 4 nights onboard, or 4 nights onboard plus 1 night in Tromso
  • Astronomy Voyage – 11 nights onboard, with guest lecturers onboard
  • Norwegian Coast & Spitsbergen Adventure – either 4 nights onboard plus 1 night in Tromso and 3 nights in Longyearbyen, or 3 nights in Longyearbyen plus 4 nights onboard

Hurtigruten offer a number of shore excursions, but they aren’t necessarily available all year round, and might only be offered at some ports of call. I have listed some examples below, and if you click on the highlighted titles you can watch short videos. If you particularly want to do any of them it is advisable to book them beforehand, as many are subject to maximum numbers.

  • The North Cape – 3½ hour trip from Honningsvag to cross the 71st parallel
  • Kirkenes Snow Hotel – 2½ hour trip to look around the hotel and visit the Gabba Reindeer Park
  • Dog Sledding at the Wilderness Centre – 3½ hour trip from Tromso
  • Snowmobile Safari – 7 hour trip from Tromso, including 2 – 3 hours on a snowmobile
  • Whale Safari – 5 to 6 hours from Tromso, looking for Humpback, Minke and Orca whales
  • King Crab Safari – 4 hour trip from Kirkenes, including eating the crabs at the fisherman’s house
  • Aurora Adventure – 2 hour trip from Kirkenes into the Pasvik Valley in search of the Northern Lights
  • Sea Eagle Safari – 2 hours from Svolvaer into the Trollfjord, in search of the mighty sea eagles
  • Midnight Concert in the Arctic Cathedral – 1¼ hours trip to see this popular destination
  • RIB Safari to Saltstraumen – 2 hour trip, and experience the river with the world’s strongest tidal current

Hurti Dog Sledding Tromso  D
Dog Sledding excursion from Tromso & Sea Eagle Safari in Trollfjord (both photos are courtesy of Hurtigruten)

If there is a particular excursion you want to do, including any not listed above, give me a call on 08002922850 and I will establish which voyages would be suitable for you.

When you travel during the year depends on what you would like to see. For instance, if you want to visit the snow hotel you would need to go between mid-December and April, and for the Northern Lights it could be from as early as late October through to as late as early April. Bear in mind that from mid-November to February the sun won’t rise above the horizon north of the Arctic Circle, so you will have twilight for much of the day.

If you do not like the cold, and aren’t interested in the Northern Lights, then why not consider travelling in the spring to see greenery re-appearing everywhere. Alternatively go in the summer with the waterfalls in full flow, and experience the Land of the Midnight Sun, when the sun stays above the horizon 24 hours a day; or in the autumn and see all wonderful shades of gold.

Due to the smaller size of the ships, and the vast experience all of their captains have, the ships of the Hurtigruten fleet can travel closer to the Norwegian coastline than any traditional cruise ship. This means that you will get to see all that the region has to offer ‘up close and personal’, so remember to take your camera and binoculars with you.

Another important thing to say is that the cost of living, especially food and drink, is very high in Norway compared to the UK. This is reflected in the prices charged in the bars, cafes and restaurants both in the ports, and onboard the ships. Many of the packages available are on a half board or full board basis, and it makes sense to have at least half board. The prices onboard are in line with those ashore and, in ports where the ship stays for a while; the locals will often go onboard for a coffee or a meal.

The food onboard is very good, but there isn’t the choice which would be associated with traditional cruising. Breakfast and lunch are generally buffets, and dinner is a 3 course set dinner served to your reserved table. On embarkation day in Bergen, then dinner would be a buffet, and there might be another day where you have a seafood buffet at night and a set meal at lunchtime.

There are a total of 13 grades of accommodation to choose from across the 11 ships. These include inside, outside, mini suites and suites. On MS Lofoten there are some cabins without ensuite facilities, but the other ships all have ensuite cabins. On some of the older ships there are cabins which have an upper and lower berth, so it is important to discuss your requirements with me. The ships in the coastal fleet are MS Midnatsol, MS Trollfjord, MS Finnmarken, MS Nordnorge, MS Nordkapp, MS Polarlys, MS Nordlys, MS Richard With, MS Kong Harald, MS Vesteralen and MS Lofoten.

Antarctica, Greenland, Spitsbergen and Europe

Hurtigruten also own the MS Fram, which was built in 2007, and offers Explorer Cruises, taking you further afield, and the choice of itineraries include: –

  • The Land of Fire and Ice – 10 nights round trip from Reykjavik
  • Glaciers and Ice – 12 nights trip from Copenhagen to Reykjavik
  • National Park Expedition – 15 nights Longyearbyen to Reykjavik, or 14 nights in reverse direction
  • In the Realm of the Polar Bear – 8 nights round trip from Longyearbyen
  • In the Realm of the Great Explorers – 18 nights round trip from Buenos Aires
  • The Land of the Penguins – 12 nights round trip voyage from Buenos Aires
  • Treasures of the Atlantic Ocean – 18 nights from Buenos Aires to Las Palmas or vice versa
  • British Isles in the Spring – 11 nights from Bergen to Hamburg

For 2015 the MS Nordstjernen will be chartered by Hurtigruten, and will offer a selection of Spitsbergen voyages

Contact me on 08002922850 for more details about what is included on the MS Fram and MS Nordstjernen voyages, and also for dates and prices.

Read more of my reviews