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Trip Report Trip Report: Northern Norway & Hurtigruten in January

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During my planning phase, many Fodorites were very helpful and encouraging, as always! So, I’ve provided this trip report to let everyone know how it turned out and hopefully help someone thinking about a similar trip. Be forewarned – it may be lengthy! I'll break this into 3 parts: (1) 4 days in Trondheim & Bergen before boarding the ship, (2) 7 days on the ship travelling north, (3) 1 day/night at Snow Hotel and 1 day in Oslo.

BACKGROUND: I’m a solo traveler and have been to Norway several times on summer cruises. I’ve been aware of the Hurtigruten voyages for several years and finally decided this was the year. Since I’ve been to Oslo 4 or 5 times, as well as Bergen & Stavanger, I decided to spend a few days in Trondheim before the ship left Bergen. No particular draw to Trondheim, just that it’s a large city, with university and far enough north that it should feel like winter (I like snow and cold weather.)

FRIDAY, JAN 17, sunny, windy and about -2 degrees
Arrive at Trondheim on KLM via Amsterdam. Small airport and I was amused that many of the Norwegians on board – mostly men – made a beeline for the duty-free shop and filled up their shopping baskets with bags of candy and liquor.

Took the Flybussen from the airport to my hotel on Sondre gate. Asked the Visitors desk in the airport where to pick up the bus, bought my ticket on board and counted the stops to my hotel. Took about 20 minutes and interesting that we went through several very long tunnels – the sign for one said it was 3,752m. I had researched hotels pretty intensively and knew I wanted to be located in the central area and since the price was right for the Thon Gildevangen, that’s where I stayed. It turned out to be a great choice. The location was perfect, the room was very nice and the breakfast was the best I had the entire trip. I made the reservation on their site and with a “stay two nights, get 20% discount”, I paid about $100 per night. Room 551 was compact, but the curved wall of big windows was great; double bed was comfortable; the slanted ceiling over the bed might be a problem for some folks but was fine for me; large bathroom (heated floor!); big flat screen TV with lots of English-language channels. Only negatives: there was no closet – just 3 hooks next to the door and the room lighting was a little dim so not great for reading. The complimentary breakfast was served in a large room on the 2nd floor with lots of windows and it was super. Various cold meats, cheeses, cereals, fruit, fish, yogurt, muesli, breads, rolls & coffee cake; hot items (eggs, bacon, beans); plus juices, coffee, etc. Everything was fresh and tasty.

It was about 2:00 and I always like going to second hand shops; my research showed 3 within a few minutes walk, so off I went. Found Tante Isabel’s Vintage shop, the Fretex (Salvation Army) and another large antique shop all on Fjordgate. Very interesting – didn’t buy anything but if I was decorating a house in country style, I could have brought home trunks full – brass kettles, cast iron things, wooden kitchenware, dishes, etc. Walked down various streets, including the main shopping street Nordegata and had a sandwich in a café. Stopped in the Tourist Center (on Nordegata) to confirm hours for the Nidaros Cathedral and the weekly Saturday walking tour. Walked over to Market Square, popped into H&M for makeup (I like their line, it’s inexpensive and not readily available in the US). It was 5:30 and dark, and now I was tired, so walked back to the hotel.

Weather note: I was warm enough with a down coat, long underwear tops & bottoms, fleece pullover, wind pants and thick socks with my Merrill jungle mocs but my head and ears were cold. My fleece hat wasn’t warm enough and it was super windy. On the way to the hotel, I passed Design Forum store (Sondregata) which I remembered from their Stavanger stores. Very appealing clothing – jewel tone colors, flowy and funky. Bought 2 wool hats that I thought were a real bargain at $10 each but were actually $23 each…so much for converting currency in my mind! They both turned out to be toasty warm and will be good souvenirs.

Back at the hotel, I took a hot shower and watched TV – very funny to see so many American shows – Two and Half Men, Bones, Big Bang Theory – with Norwegian subtitles. Room was HOT – this was a theme throughout the trip and something I remembered from other trips to Sweden, so I had to open the windows. Heavy duvet so was still hot. And, unfortunately with the windows open, the noise from people in the streets was loud. Woke up at midnight and watched TV – a documentary about Tom Petty which was interesting. Still street noise, so closed the windows and they kept out all the noise, but it was still hot…sigh.

SATURDAY, JAN 18, sunny, windy and about -2 degrees
Good breakfast at the Thon and made a ham & cheese sandwich on grainy brown bread for later. Today’s mission was to explore the Bryggen and Baakelandet areas, plus do a walking tour. Off to Bryggen which was a few blocks away; bitterly cold with the wind. Interesting to see large sheets of ice in the river and hear the sound of the ice crunching against each other. Not so much to see re: Bryggen – old warehouses that have been converted to offices, restaurants, etc. Crossed the river to Baakelandet neighborhood which I loved wandering around.

It’s residential, with small wooden houses built up and along the hill by the river. Various colors with gingerbread decoration along eaves, windows, doors, etc. Very atmospheric – smell of smoke from the fireplaces, thin winter sun and bare tree branches. Two guys delivering the daily paper with a trundling paper cart; postman in a mini-sized mail truck (Posten). The snow on the streets was packed down with gravelly grit for traction and it was bitterly cold and windy so went back to the hotel to add more layers…but my head was warm under my new wool hat!

Visited the Our Lady church in the center of town which is a local mission that serves meals to the homeless. In general, didn’t see many homeless folks; some Gypsy women and one guy sitting on street corners holding out a cup for donations, but not aggressive. The DK guidebook said there were Norse inscriptions carved into the wall of the church but neither the two volunteers nor I could find them (although they really tried and brought me into the kitchen to look under the cabinets, etc.)

Walking tour @ 1:00. I was the only person who showed up for the tour (the poor guide was probably hoping no-one would but there I was…) So, off we went in the wind and cold. As most walking tours are, this was very interesting and I appreciated all the little tidbits of information. We went into Nidaros Cathedral briefly, visited the public library to see the excavations of the monks skeletons, market square, the old bridge and other spots; ended up back at the Tourist Info office 2 hours later. I was cold and hungry so went into a café across the street (Nordegata) and had a great slice of apple cake which they offered to warm up. At first, it looked very crowded but people came and went. After I rested, I walked over to Ahlens department store (a mini-version in this downtown location for home goods) and bought a Christmas tea towel and red-striped down booties. Then back to the hotel where I ate my ham sandwich (from breakfast) and watched TV.

SUNDAY, JAN 19, sunny, windy and about -2 degrees
Good breakfast again (made another ham sandwich for later) and bundled up for a walk along Bryggen and river to the Nidaros Cathedral.

When I arrived at the Cathedral, the mens/boys choir was practicing so I settled down to listen. Amazing sound – high, pure voices like waves. People kept arriving, many in traditional folk dress and it turned out there were 4 baptisms and in honor of them, people wear traditional outfits. Saw one women in a snazzy Sami dress of thick boiled wool with huge, stiff belled flounce skirt, with embroidered ribbons of red & green. Moved to the back and explored other areas of the church, while listening to the choir and crying babies. 20th Century stained glass windows with very vivid colors and the sun shining through was very pretty. Old building but the exterior is mostly rebuilt using green soapstone so, combined with green copper roofs, the whole building has a distinct greenish look. The café/gift shop is in a separate building and is larger than expected; skipped the reindeer stew for apple cake and a soda.

Back at the Thon hotel, I caught the Flybussen to the airport for the one hour flight to Bergen (SAS for $110). Took another Flybussen to the Fish Market stop which was exactly across the street from my hotel, the Scandic Strand. I had gotten a “web discount” by booking on their site ($140) and asked at check-in if the room had a window view; they said yes, but they were small windows (since the room was on the top floor) so they moved me to a Superior room (#608) on the sixth floor. Had a huge window overlooking the fish market, harbor and hill/mountain on the other side. There were zillions of lights on the hill from cars, street lights, houses & the funicular – they looked like stars!

Walked around the harbor area checking for restaurants but didn’t find much, so back to the hotel where I ate my ham sandwich from breakfast and watched TV. Room was fine – high ceilings, big flat-screen TV, wide wing arm chair w/good lamp, spotless bathroom (with heated floor!) Hot again, so opened the window.

MONDAY, JAN 20, sunny, windy and about 40 degrees
Breakfast in hotel – OK, but not as good as the Thon in Trondheim (not as much variety and seemed to have been sitting there for a bit). Stopped in the Visitors Center across the street to find out what’s open on Mondays and the Fretex (Salvation Army) locations (I had brought 4 paperbacks with me and was annoyed at myself since I had them all before – must have mixed up my “read” and “donate” piles.) Since I didn’t want to rely on finding books in the ship’s library, I hoped I could find some English books at the Fretex. So, off to my favorite little church which was closed and then off through the central lake/park area to the Fretex near the train station. Very big with lots of furniture – some ‘50’s, some Deco – and tons of books including 4 shelves of English paperbacks so I bought 4 (at about $7 each – ouch!) Tried to find a public bathroom and, of course, they all charged 10NOK and I had no change. Traipsed from mall, to library, to train station and finally asked the station guard for change (very large and clean bathroom!) Bought a pastry and soda and sat in the station watching trains come & go.

Walked back to the harbor area and noticed a crowd of people around a church and investigated. It was a food pantry for the homeless and needy; well organized, they gave out admission tickets and everyone seemed to get in eventually for a bag or two of food. The church itself was open and was toasty warm – with metal radiator pipes under each pew – so I sat for a while watching all the church groups (ladies circle, older men, etc.) Plain but elegant with white walls, dark wood vaulted ceiling; carved light wood pews; and stained glass.

Walked all over and had a really, really good sandwich at God Brudt (provencal ham, parmesan cheese, cucumbers, olive paste on a sunflower seed roll) and watched the world walk by on the way uphill to the funicular entrance. Lots of baby carriages trundling past. Walked some more but tired – feed and mind. So, back to the hotel to read a book and kill time until the 4:00 bus to the Hurtigruten pier.

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    Part 2: Hurtigruten ship (Nordkapp)

    From the Scandic Strand Hotel in Bergen, took the 4:10 bus to the Hurtigruten pier. There was one other passenger on board and we stopped at another hotel where 2 ladies boarded and went directly to the pier. I hadn’t booked the transfer from the hotel to the pier in advance and expected to pay on board the bus, but there was no charge. Check-in at the pier was very quick but we had to wait in the embarkation lounge until the next showing of their safety video, which included a section on putting on a cold-water life suit. Once on board the Nordkapp (holds 522 passengers but there were only about 80 on our voyage), I stopped at the purser’s desk to ask about getting a cabin upgrade. I had booked an inside cabin on deck 3 which I do quite often and don’t mind, but since I knew the ship was fairly empty, I thought I could get a cabin with a window. They were very willing to move me but only to a cabin with obstructed view, which I took because after all, there was no charge and a little bit of sky would be good.

    Ship info: This is not the standard “cruise” ship; I’d call it “no frills”, which I knew and was fine with. All the cabins other than the suites are the same size (small) and layout – a fold down bed on one side and a fold out sofa on the other side. A tiny table between them; a small desk/makeup area with a mirror at the foot of one bed, with a closet next to that; at the foot of the other bed is the bathroom (shower) with heated floor. The window in my cabin (#623) was large but faced a lifeboat with a small bit of sky visible. The beds have a pillow and duvet, and again, it was too hot; even with moving the thermostat to the coldest position. I thought the bed was really uncomfortable (more like a pallet) and I should have tried the fold-out sofa bed to see if it was better, but I didn’t. The bathroom was fine – seemed to be the same size as on a lot mainstream cruise ships. The problem with this cabin was that its’ location seemed to be over an area with a lot of metal grinding and thumping – not sure if it was the outer door to the car deck that I heard opening & closing throughout the nighttime ports or something else, but it didn’t make for a great night’s sleep. I should have studied the deck plan more thoroughly and not been as quick to accept the cabin change – I always avoid being near a nightclub or showroom but missed this one!

    Facilities: Deck 7 was where I spent most my time if I wasn’t out on deck. The Svalbard lounge was very nice – floor to ceiling windows, comfy leather & wood chairs and sofas, and a bar, plus after dinner coffee area. Because there were so few passengers, it felt like a living room; it was a quiet place to absorb the scenery, read, work on a laptop or nod off. The bar opened at about 4:30 and they had an “entertainer” nightly at about 9:00. He was so bad and loud that I left when he showed up (an electric guitar combined with a background music track just overwhelmed the space); two afternoons, one of the passengers played the piano and she was great; people appreciated listening to her and it fit the ambience very well. I never used the other lounge because it was kept very dim (the lights were off) and although the chairs were nicely padded and looked very comfortable, I couldn’t read in there and knew I’d fall asleep in no time. (I assume it was kept dark so that people could see the lights and scenery in the dark outside as we passed?) It felt my personal living room – I had my favorite seat near the window, under a light, with a footrest. Best part of the trip was watching the hills, cliffs, hamlets, etc go by. There were probably 12-15 people in there any given time. The other end of Deck 7 was the open deck area.

    Deck 5 was the promenade deck which goes all the way around (instead of some ships where one end is blocked off so you can’t make a full loop). As compared to cruise ships, it’s a narrow deck made for working & walking, not sitting; the deck was covered with interlocked green rubber mats with a pebbled surface which gave good traction (Deck 7 outside area is covered with the same mats). At night, there’s not a lot of outside lighting and I enjoyed walking the deck in the dark (not pitch black, but definitely dark).

    Deck 4 was the spot for the restaurant, café, library, tour office, shop and conference rooms. The restaurant was pleasant; light woods, full height windows with buffet counters and serving area in the middle; lots of tables for 2, 4 and more. Breakfast and lunch were always buffet and open seating, and I nearly always found a seat right next to a window. Breakfast featured cold cuts (I particularly liked the ham & Jarlsberg cheese and usually made a sandwich for later); cereals; yogurt; fishes; fruit; various hot dishes (eggs, bacon, beans, etc.) and porridge. Lunch was cold cuts, fruit, fishes and two or three hot dishes (meat of some type and veggies) and desserts. Dinners were a set menu which was published in advance. I don’t like fish so on those 3 nights requested some other meat and got steak, lamb and turkey. The food was fine; not gourmet but perfectly fine and I didn’t leave the dining room hungry. Service in the dining room was not rushed (some might say slow) which was OK because there was nothing else to do! I was at a table for 5 – two Irish sisters and a British couple and we all got along fine. I didn’t need anything at the café, so can’t speak to that; bought a t-shirt in the shop; used the library to trade in my paperbacks for others (several shelves of English books). Johan was the tour director and was very available for question or suggestions. I didn’t do any ship excursions since I had made my own arrangements for dog sledding & snowshoeing at the Snow Hotel; I don’t like riding on a bus for 45 mins+ to get somewhere, etc. so explored the ports on my own. Johan provided maps for the larger ports; he was enthusiastic during the various “activities” on board ship and helpful.

    Passengers: There were about 80 passengers on the full 7 day northern voyage; the largest group was a French contigent, followed by British, various other nationalities and me as the only American. Age range seemed to be 40’s through late-70’s/early 80’s. Couples, sisters, friends, families and about 5 singles. In general, my overall impression was that they were quiet, as in, no loud raucous groups, no complainers at the purser’s or tour desk, no drunks in the bar… It seemed that everyone knew the type of ship in advance and their focus was absorbing the scenery. If I wasn’t walking around the deck, I was in the Svalbard lounge and there were usually 6-10 other people in the lounge too but they were reading or chatting quietly. Even the evenings in the Svalbard were low key. A number of folks liked to sit in the chairs next to the windows on Deck 4, near the café, restaurant and TV. In practically every port, it looked like at least half the passengers got off the ship to explore – even the ports where we only had 20 minutes, they got off to walk up and down the street, take photos of the ship, etc. When there were deck 7 activities (fishcakes, king crab demo, King Neptune’s visit, stockfish samples, etc.) about 30-40 people showed up.

    Clothing: hat hair, dry skin, drippy nose, chapped chin

    Ports:
    Day 2: Port of Torvik, for 15 minutes since we arrived a bit late. Got off ship, walked around the parking lot, looked at ship and got back on. Did laps around the deck – hugely strong wind around the front of the ship! In Alesund for about 3 hours and I’ve been there before so didn’t do the ship’s walking tour. For some reason, I got all turned around and couldn’t figure out where to go and didn’t feel energetic enough to climb all the hills, so back to the ship for lunch (lamb w/very tasty gravy). Sat in the lounge all afternoon, watched scenery – lots of snowy, jagged peaks lit by late afternoon sun – and read. A passenger played the piano softly which was very nice. Brief presentation in the conference room (Deck 4) about excursions and the Northern lights which was OK. 15 mins stop in Molde – walked around and then back to the lounge. Since there were so few passengers, there was only one dinner seating @ 7:00. Met my dinner table companions and we had plenty of time to get to know each other since service was leisurely. Dinner was: potato & leek soup, roast turkey w/veg, baked apple. After dinner, back to the lounge and then bed.

    Day 3: Had 6 hours in Trondheim so after breakfast walked into the town – we were moored about a 25 minute walk from downtown. Super windy – as it was several days before! Had read that the Hospitkallen area was a nice residential area to explore so found it – only a few blocks of small, cute wood houses. Walked more and then hurried back to the ship - huffed and puffed and got back with 15 mins to spare. Long afternoon of reading and watching the day become night. Dinner: salad w/grapes, almonds, walnuts & cloudberry syrup, roast pork and traditional pudding w/forest berries. Port of Rorvik for 30 minutes; another Hurtigruten ship “Richard With” was in port, so visited that ship to compare to Nordkapp (liked Nordkapp’s decor better).

    Day 4: Ship’s announcement about crossing the Arctic Circle @ 7:30 am via my cabin phone (I had selected the option to have ship’s announcements play in my cabin), I wasn’t going to get up since it was cold & dark outside and I was toasty warm, but then thought, what the heck, when are you going to do this again? So, bundled up and went to Deck 7. Dark, half moon low in the sky, gleaming on the water, brilliant stars. Since I was up, I walked around Deck 5 for an hour, watching the beginnings of dawn over the jagged mountains. I enjoyed that so much that I did the same thing each morning – a solitary walk around the deck, perfectly silent with just the noise of the ship slipping through the water, and the minute by minute changing view of the sun rising. The back deck was sheltered so a nice place to sit for a bit. Very calm. 10 minutes in port of Orenes and then back to deck 7 for a 10:00 activity “Arctic Circle Ceremony” where King Neptune made an appearance and christened the folks who crossed the circle for the first time with ice cubes down their back. I opted out but many folks did so it was fun and a good photo opp. Port of Bodo for 2+ hours: took the ship’s bus to town center. The whole town was destroyed by the Germans in WWII so was rebuilt with a lot of concrete and blocky styles. Town starts from the fjord edge and builds up to the hill top, with big sky and snowy peaks behind, the same as most of the towns we’ll encounter going forward. Found a few streets of wooden houses that were newly built but in the old style. Wherever I am, I like to wander around residential areas to get a sense of how the locals really live (shops are all the same and I don’t need anything, so I avoid them). A fair number of short-trip passengers boarded in Bodo and they’re relaxing in the lounge. Dinner: pork, mushrooms traditional pea bread; halibut so I had arranged for lamb instead; brownie w/ice cream. One hour in Svolvaer – what a great find! They had two attractions right next to the pier – an ice palace and a WWII museum (Lofoten Krigsminne-museum) which is where I went. Amazing collection of genuine articles found locally – uniforms (German, including SS & Gestapo, British, US, Norwegian and more); items used in daily military life (briefcases, typewriters, guns, etc); recreation of a Gestapo interrogation. Four rooms jam packed with items, each labeled (not everything had an English explanation but many did). I could have spent 2+ hours there and would go back again. Wish I knew the history of the museum itself – it looked like it was one man’s hobby/mission but would like to know more since it was so well done. Norway had so many roles during the war – occupied, collaborator, resistance, etc. – it’s very interesting to me. Back on ship, walked around the decks, spotted some feeble Northern Lights. At 11:00 pm, ship served fishcakes on Deck 7 before entering the Trollfjord; many of us were very confused by what was going on….the ship had maneuvered into a narrow part of the fjord and played the 3 huge spotlights over the cliffs in front of us; this took about 20 minutes and we weren’t sure if the ship was going to turn into the narrow channel or what. I was interested in seeing the way the crew maneuvered the spotlights and the upclose look at the cliff fronts. Turns out that folk lore has it that there are troll faces on these cliffs…

    Day 5: Walked the deck during sun rise. 30 minute port stop in Finnsnes – wow, was it cold!!! After lunch, more deck walking then port of Tromso for 4 hours. I’d been looking forward to this, especially visiting the Arctic Cathedral. Since there was lots of snow on the ground (different snow than we get in Connecticut – more crystalline, bigger flakes & glistening), I wore my new snow boots. Town was hilly and snowy with an interesting mix of old and new buildings but my feet hurt!! After an hour or so, I gave up and back to the ship muttering about the rotten boots. Sat in the lounge and looked at the cathedral. Dinner: cauliflower soup, turkey instead of fish, traditional pudding w/blueberry coulis. Back to lounge and then, Northern Lights galore! On the port side (they were always on the port side…). To the naked eye, they didn’t look super green but were easy to see and watch as they morphed and shifted shapes, location, and brightness. Sometimes wispy like cotton candy strewn across the sky, other times a band of light, other times swirls. I didn’t realize that over 15 minutes, they form, re-form, move and keep changing. My little digital point & shoot camera didn’t capture anything but the people around me with fancy cameras were getting great shots. Later, had another Deck 7 activity at about 9:30 pm – stockfish presentation which is dried fish, so saw the whole fish, learned about the process and sampled chips (like a super fishy potato chip).

    Day 6: Got the announcement at 2:45 am about Northern Lights so bundled up and went out to Deck 5 – what an amazing show of lights! Much better than the prior night. At one point, they extended like a rainbow across the arc of the full sky, darker green band at the bottom extending into beams of lights upward. Really impressive; watched for 40 minutes and then back to bed. Port of Havoysund for 30 minutes – blue sky, golden sun and crispy, crunchy snow. Put the snow boots back on (with different socks) and ventured out – my feet felt fine! Yippee! Walked up the road a bit and took photos; neat shot of the snowy road, curving around the fjord w/snowy mountains…looks like a road to the top of the world. Back on ship, walking the deck for an hour or so. Next port was Honningsvag which was the port for North Cape excursions (which I didn’t do). Neat little town, nestled around the water at the foot of steep hills (with avalanche fencing breaks on two of the hills). Tour director Johan was recommending that people do the excursion since “there’s really nothing in Honningsvag” and my two table mates got off the ship early and on return said “there’s not much there”. On the other hand, I loved it! Best port of the trip for me. Main drag of shopping and then walked to the right into the residential streets. Lots of colorful wooden houses – painted a certain shade of gold that I saw throughout Norway, red, white, etc. Walked out to the lighthouse on the point of the fjord’s cove and man alive, was that windy! The water was whipped into wavelets, there were dark clouds over the mountains but the houses looked cozy and smelled fireplace smoke. Saw folks walking their dogs by the harbor. Passed two other passengers who mentioned that a café on the main street was a great spot to have a hot chocolate and warm up, so I stopped in. All locals, big windows with water views; café also serves as a local culture center and they had a mini-stage w/footlights, drum set & curtain, plus posters of upcoming events. Had my hot chocolate and continued walking. Went up hill to the church (snowing now – crispy little pellets) – felt like a scene out of a Stephen King novel – white, rather New England appearing church w/steeple, grey sky, scudding clouds, snow covered graveyard and snowing. Another time that I felt like I was at the top of the world. Then a bus full of school kids pulled up and they went into the church, so not very eerie at all! Back to ship and resting in my lounge. At 4:30, sailed past a rock formation (Finnkirka) that the Sami regard as a cathedral; rather garishly lit (changing colors – red, green, purple) and the ship played Sami music. Then a speed boat pulled up and a local crab fisherman boarded for a Deck 7 activity. He brought 2 live king crabs and talked about them, took photos, etc. I talked to him briefly; he said that he was born in the little town & had lived there his whole life; about 10% of the people fished; I asked what the other 90% did and he said “they work in shops or businesses.” The town had been destroyed in WWII by the Germans; after the war, the Danes felt bad for the town so they built a new church for them.

    Day 7: Arrival in Kirkenes, the final port of the north bound voyage. Disembarkation was very easy – luggage was put on the quay, you claimed yours and hopped on one of the buses for transfers. I was off to the Snow Hotel now!

    Overall ship thoughts: I’ve been on 42 cruises from trans-oceanic, Caribbean, Med, Africa, Australia, Northern Europe on various lines (Cunard, HAL, Celebrity, Azamara, Crystal & Princess) so this was a very different experience but one that I was ready for and enjoyed very much. Aside from the amazing scenery and habitat, I really, really liked the ship’s vibe and my reaction to it. It was slow paced; peaceful with no announcements throughout the day, no push to buy spa/art/shop/wine stuff; seemed like the ship existed to conduct it’s business and the passengers were along for the ride; it’s hard to explain, I don’t mean that passengers weren’t welcomed or that service wasn’t good, it’s just that there wasn’t any fawning or all the fake hoopla that traditional cruise lines always include. In looking back, I felt very serene and peaceful on the ship; everything was low-key; there was no rush or push to do things; and it seemed like the other passengers shared that viewpoint. I would definitely do another winter voyage on Hurtigruten and might splurge on a suite (a full bed, TV and mini bar).

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    vickiebypass, thanks so much for posting your trip report. We are in the planning stages of a trip to Norway & Sweden and are seriously thinking of taking a trip to Northern Norway on a Hurtigruten ship. Your report makes us want to do the trip even more. Thank you.

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    Cali - glad my report was helpful! I had considered a Hurtigruten trip for several years and found past-passengers info extremely useful so wanted to return the favor. A lot of other reports focused on the excursions but I wanted to know about the day to day ship life, hence my lengthy report!

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    Part 3: Snow Hotel & Oslo

    Day 7 (continued): Seems I boarded the wrong bus for the Snow Hotel. Hurtigruten offers a Snow Hotel package (overnight and a dog sledding trip) but I had booked by arrangements directly with the Snow Hotel and they had sent a mini-van to the ship to meet me. Unfortunately, their instructions were to look for the bus that says “Snow Hotel” so I walked right past the little mini-van to the huge bus with SNOW HOTEL in big letters. Not a problem but I felt bad for the min-van driver, although I bet that happens fairly often.

    Prior to the trip, Anne at the Snow Hotel was very responsive and helpful with my multiple emails (I had questions about the timing of dog sledding & snowshoeing, whether I could do both of them, should I book a Northern Lights excursion, transfers to the airport, etc.)

    So, the Snow Hotel is about 10km from Kirkenes through countryside and beyond a little village. We arrived at about 10:00 and everyone else on the bus – who had booked their stay through Hurtigruten – was taken in hand by lots of staff for their dog sledding trips. My 2 hour dog sledding wasn’t until 1:00 so I went to reception (a small, rustic wooden building) to “check in”. After paying for the night’s stay and the excursions, the manager locked up the building and took me on a tour. The permanent buildings are all dark wood, rustic; the dog area is lots of wooden dog houses on legs, with flat tops since the dogs like to sit on top of their houses. Probably 2 feet of snow on the ground, the tree branches are all covered with about 2” of snow (one of the guides told me that it hadn’t been windy for a week or so, so all the snow had remained on the branches). Looked like a winter wonderland – pine trees w/snow coating, twiggy trees w/snowy branches, snowy hills, dropping down to an ice covered lake, surrounded by snowy hills.

    The actual hotel portion is made of snow and is shaped like a tunnel with round rooms extending off the sides. At the back of the snow hotel is a permanent building (this one was 3 stories) in dark wood that housed the bathrooms, showers, etc on the ground floor for the snow hotel; middle floor was a lounge area & bar; top floor was a relaxing area (big chairs & sofas covered with furry reindeer skins) and the dining room with huge floor to ceiling windows overlooking the lake and hills. Snow Hotel is entered through an arched doorway and the main hallway curves to the back, with the individual rooms off both sides of the hall. I think there were 20 rooms, plus a large round ice bar at the back of the main hall. Each room was about the same size and contained a carved ice bed frame, with a regular mattress inside the bed frame and fleece covered pillows. The walls of each room were snow and were carved with décor fitting a theme; some of the themes were Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe, snowmen, Charlie Chaplin, swans, Snow White, Mona Lisa, some cartoon characters (not sure who), Santa, penguins, sailors, and more. Each room had a lighting system (from below) focused on the carved walls. There were a couple of family-sized rooms with 4 twin beds. The snow hotel is kept at -4 degrees inside. The bath/shower room is just outside the snow hotel in the permanent building.

    After my tour, I returned to the Reception building where my suitcase was stored in their luggage room and transferred a few items into a small bag for the night and next morning. Then, walked around the grounds a bit and settled onto the sofa, under the reindeer skins, in the relaxation lounge to read until it was time for my dog sledding tour. The other folks from the ship returned from their sledding trip which was about 30 minutes; we chatted a bit and then I went off the dogs. Got geared up in the adult snowsuit, balaclava and reindeer mittens (they thought I was a medium – yeah, right!! – got zipped up into an x-large, over my down coat. Turns out that it was just me, so I was solo on the sled along with my guide/musher, Josephine. I’m not a “dog person” so took a few photos of my team but didn’t pet, fawn, etc. Off we went – bounding – and bouncing – along. For the first bit, the dog sleds use the same tracks as the snowmobiles so there are a lot of bumps and ruts; the sled was a plastic bottom with wood runners, so was flexible and I held onto the wood handles. Once we got further along, the ride was smoother. The dogs stopped and started and Josephine said they sometimes get distracted and you just wait them out. Went through woods, up & down little hills, around corners, over fields, onto a frozen fjord – 5km total. As the dogs built up speed, the wind whistling past chilled me, so I pulled a reindeer hide over my legs – felt very Nordic! We were out for about an hour before returning. Overall, it was fun but I wouldn’t do it again. I had about 30 minutes until my snowshoeing trek at 3:00 so went to the bathroom and added a layer of pants since I had been cold. After all the zipping, undressing, adding a layer, re-zipping, etc it was time to meet my guide. Oh yes, the electricity went out while I was getting changed so the staff were all wearing head lamps and gave me one too. So, it was dark outside but he (Mark or Bart from Holland) had a very powerful headlamp. I explained that I’d never snowshoed before and he said that he’s done 1,000KM on snow shoes and can teach anyone, so he buckled me into my show shoes and off we went.

    I got the idea of picking up your feet and stepping (not sliding or scuffing), so the first 40 feet were fine. He wanted to go off track into the woods which was fine too; he knew all about animal tracks and wanted to show me the different tracks, etc. The snow was soft and fluffy, so each step sank slightly. He showed me winter hare tracks and also fox, which tended to follow and cross the hare’s tracks. At some point I took a step and stepped in a hole or something since my right foot and leg went way down and I fell into the fluffy snow; I tried to push down w/my left hand to leverage myself up, but the snow was so deep that I went further down. For a moment, it felt like snow quicksand! He had to come in front of me and give me the full body heave-ho lift up, which was fine and off we trekked. He wanted to show me the view from up the mountain (maybe it was a hill, but it looked – and felt - like a mountain to me). I liked being off the trail and in the woods, pushing past bushes and tree branches with only our lights lighting the way. Crisp air, huge sky with brilliant stars.

    I was catching on as to how much work snowshoeing was and I was downright hot in all my layers. As we started going up the hill, he explained the technique of digging the front of the snowshoe into the hill and walking up on your toes – sure! Not only does that require extremely strong calves and feet, it’s also balance critical; at one point, I made good progress for about 6 steps up and then wavered back a bit and almost fell but he pushed me back up. Finally I told him that this was too much for me, so he suggested that we zig-zag up the hill which was much easier. Not easy, but easier; plus, I could stop and say “what kind of track is that” while I huffed and puffed and caught my breath. There were lots of little snow covered hillocks which he said were low-growing bushes that got covered in snow and that they looked like troll houses…which they did. I was sweating, nose dripping and was worried that if I was this bad going up, how would it be coming back down? Plus, I was making mistakes like stepping on my own snow shoes. We stopped to look at the view and I suggested that rather than go to the top, we stop here and return. First step down and I caught my snowshoe under a branch that was under the snow and down I went. He said try to sit back on your heels – well, we were on a hill and I was pointing down, so that didn’t work; then he said, it’s often easier to get up from your side, so roll onto your side (at this point, the track was about 6 feet away and I was thinking that maybe I could just roll onto the track – dignity and grace were long gone). But, I was so deep in the snow that I couldn’t roll so one more full body heave-ho lift and I was up. Going down was actually much easier than I thought, since you lean back into your heels and we were at the bottom of the hill sooner than I expected. Got back to the Snow Hotel after about 90 minutes. He was a good guide, very informative and helpful, didn’t make me feel bad at all about falling or anything.

    Since the lights were still out, about 5 of us from the ship gathered in the bar area of the permanent building where the staff provided lots of candles; we could get drinks from the bar (wine, beer or soda) and they provided pretzels. It was very relaxing and almost other-worldly, knowing it was snowing outside, etc. At about 6:15, they explained that dinner would be in the Gabba restaurant since that had a cooking fireplace. So, wearing our headlamps we trooped over to Gabba; what a sensation entering this round wooden building – coming from the crisp, cold (-12), starry night – into a warm, candle-lit room with a crackling fire in the middle of the room! The room is rustic – birch wood planking walls & ceiling (vaulted, so fire smoke goes up & out), trestle tables & benches covered in red cloths and stuffed animals on a shelf along the ceiling edge. I was chilled, so sat at the end of the table nearest the fire and put my gloves on the fire stones to dry out. Dinner was such fun, mostly because of the ambience and the great staff – the first course was reindeer sausage that we grilled ourselves over the fire. They gave us pointy sticks to put the sausages on and we stood around the fire grilling them – brought me back to my Girl Scout days! After they were done, we wrapped them in a traditional pita-type bread, smeared on some mustard, and ate – tasty, tasty. Second course was a local Norwegian cheese plate w/grapes, various dipping sauces and crackers. Also tasty – sort of cheddary. Third course was Arctic char which they cooked by nailing the filets to alder boards and propping them next to the fire, so that they smoked. I asked if they had any meat, didn’t matter what, and they cooked me reindeer steaks - 3 large pieces. To me, anything grilled over a fire tastes mighty good and the reindeer did too – different than beef, but not gamey. Fourth course was ice cream w/berry coulis. Then, they offered us a drink or shot on the house & I chose the Arctic Night – hot chocolate (which they melted over the fire) and a shot of Minttu, a peppermint liqueur; so good.

    During dinner, they told us twice that the Northern Lights were visible outside so the first time I bundled up and went outside but skipped the 2nd time. I had a chill (from leaving on my sweaty, damp clothes after snowshoeing) so they gave me a big blanket for my legs and another one to drape around my shoulders, with all that, plus the fire, I was toasty warm and by the end of dinner my clothes had dried too!

    Two entertaining things during dinner: the toilets use electricity to flush, so they melted snow in a big pot over the fire to fill a bucket which was left in the bathroom. They said it takes a long time to melt snow – longer than you would expect. And, one of the servers brought a complete set of sleeping gear over from the Snow Hotel to Gabba to demonstrate the whole sleeping process. Amusing to see him shimmy into the sleeping bag and demonstrate how to snake your arm out to zip it up.

    The electricity came back on and we walked through the Snow Hotel and selected our rooms. I picked #5, with two snowmen & a Christmas tree since I liked the carving but also because it wasn’t too far from the toilets building! Since it was only 9:30, we went to the lounge and chatted a bit more. Around midnight, made a final bathroom where I also picked up my sleeping bag, wool socks & balaclava and went to my room. These alpine style sleeping bags are very warm, so you’re supposed to wear your long-underwear, wool socks and the balaclava (which you can pull up over your nose, over your eyes, etc.) I stuffed my coat into the bottom of the bag so that it would be warm-ish for any bathroom trips and got into the bag. They’re relatively narrow so there wasn’t a lot of room inside to twist & turn; I got it zipped up and sort of cinched the top around my head. I made it through the whole night, but will say that it wasn’t particularly restful or comfortable. The temperature in the room was -6 but I wasn’t cold, it was more that I felt constricted – lying there on my back with my arms at my side or crossed in front – kind of like being in an MRI. I got up once for a bathroom trip – stuck my feet into cold snow boots – youch! But my coat was warm. Finally, I was seriously thinking about giving up and going into the lounge to sleep but it was 5:30 and what the heck, it was only another couple of hours so I decided to try to flip over onto my side. The mental picture of this was pretty funny but it worked and I slept soundly for a few hours. So, that’s my tip – don’t feel you have to lie flat on your back!

    Up at about 7:30, showered and had breakfast. It was snowing so walked around a bit, gave the reindeers some hay and got a Snow Hotel buff. The mini-van to the airport left at about 9:30 (minor drama – one couple hadn’t woken up and swore the wake up team missed them, so I tracked them down and they hurriedly threw themselves together). The folks who had booked through Hurtigruten were taken to one of the Kirkenes hotels where they then boarded a large bus for the airport but another couple & I stayed on the mini-van right to the airport. Very small but with a Narvesen convenience store that did a booming business. We were all on the same flight to Oslo that was delayed about 45 mins but uneventful (about 2.5 hrs).

    Regarding the Snow Hotel, in addition to the amazing landscape and the actual hotel itself, their staff were a huge part of the experience. Unfailingly, they were all friendly, helpful and interested in the guests; it was clear that they enjoyed their job and wanted us to enjoy our experience there. I don’t remember any of their names except Astrid who was one of the Gabba servers and we talked a fair bit about living in Norway and the city of Arhus where she had gone to school and her goals. Very matter of fact, intelligent and savvy and they were all like her.

    Since I didn’t have much time in Oslo, I stayed at the Comfort Central Station Hotel ($258) which is right at the train station, so it was an easy decision to take the express train from the airport directly to the Central Station. It took 19 mins and was 170NOK which for some reason I thought was about $10 but is actually closer to $30. Lots of ways to buy the ticket (kiosks, manned ticket booth or, swiping your card at the turnstile and just walking through).

    The train station is undergoing a major renovation so the entrance to the Comfort CS Hotel from the station itself is closed now but they had lots of huge, obvious signage so I went outside the station, around the corner, down some steps and there it was.

    Checked in and decided to wander around before a 5:00 pm walking tour of Akerhus area. I’ve been to Oslo several times so didn’t feel driven to see all the sights. The new opera house was near the station, so I admired that and walked along Karl Johan’s gate and down various side streets. As it got closer to 5:00, I recognized that I was tired and not in the mood for a walking tour, so bought a calzone at 7-11 and had a very nice evening in my room.

    Next morning it was snowing and my last day, so I walked around. Checked out the new opera house, the domkirke and watched the men removing snow from eaves. Just meandering and looking. Checked out and took the express train back to the airport; KLM to JFK via Amsterdam. If you have to kill time in an airport, then Amsterdam’s Schipol is the place to be; lots of shops, a small, free, branch of the Rijksmuseum, tons of great seating areas and a range of restaurants. I had a surprisingly good pizza at Pizza, Panini & Pasta which is on the upper level. Went through an extra security check and plane left on time. Practically empty so every passenger could have a row to themselves! I never sleep on the return flights to the US, so watched movies, listened to their jukebox and read. Uneventful flight and arrival.

    Overall thoughts: This trip was one of the best I’ve had and much better than I expected (wasn’t sure what to expect, esp with the bare-bones ship). I really liked the weather and the northern parts were the highlights due to the sense of isolation, being at the top end of the world, other-worldliness and the big landscape – just sky, mountains and water. The Snow Hotel was an amazing experience between the Gabba ambience (that dinner by firelight is something I’ll remember for a long, long time) & the physical landscape. Although the cabin and meals were no frills, I really liked travelling on the Hurtigruten at this time of year.

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    I knew I wanted to go in winter (not least of all because the single supplement is waived for a number of winter sailings). I thought I wanted to go when it's dark for most of the day but it turns out that the sun returns in mid-January which turned out to be a good thing. While it might have been atmospheric, it wouldn't be very practical since I wouldn't be able to see scenery from the ship (just lights in the dark/dusk) and sightseeing in the ports would be poor. So, without knowing any better, I inadvertently picked a particularly good time to go. I've also gone on about 4 Norway cruises in June & July on Cunard or Holland America and those were also amazing from the scenery perspective. So green, with waterfalls plunging down the cliffs. I think Norway is beautiful anytime of year, so you can't go wrong no matter which you choose!

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    I have been to Norway before on a land trip. I went all the way to the North Cape and I loved it. That if I remember right was in early Sept.
    I remember a great world war II museum in Tromso.
    I do have last years brochure for Hurtigruten so maybe I will give it another look.

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    This is such a great report- thank you! It has been difficult to find out some of this information and I am planning a trip this January [2015]. I was wondering, and I think you answered this, about how much time the boat stays in the ports such as Kirkenes (we are getting on in Tromso and then returning to Bodo). I get the sense that you can wander the towns without doing the excursions AND that they announce the northern lights when being seen -that sounds great. We will be on the boat about Jan. 19-23. Does that sound like a good time (or about when you were there?) any other advice? Loved all your commentary- thanks again.

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    You are correct about the museum in Svolvaer being the collection of one person- he was manning the desk when we were there.(Click on my name to see my old report).
    This morning I have received a mailshot form Hurtigruten with a Northern Lights promise- If the Lights don't show on the Classic Round Trip you have a 6 or 7 day Classic voyage trip free of charge! Someone may strike lucky on this!

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    Thanks for a great report. I was in Norway (just the Bergen area) in June and started reading just to see what it was like in winter. I'm not a big fan of winter but you made it sound like it might actually be fun. Do you have any photos posted anywhere?

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    Sorry for the delayed response (I was in Florida for a "toes in the sand" vacation!)

    Kdov: I was on the ship from Jan 20-26, so basically the same timeframe as you'll be there. My trip notes above contain most of my thoughts but i'll review myu files and may add some stray notes over the next few days.

    Isabel: I definitely vote for winter! I don't post photos but since I wasn't sure about what I was getting into either, before I actually booked the trip, I accessed Flickr web site and just entered Tromso in winter, Trondheim in winter, etc in the Search field and tons of photos appeared. They're from visitors, locals, amateur and pro photographers, but if you scroll through, they give a nice sense of the weather, countryside and towns - day and night. Serene and otherwordly - that's my two cents!

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    I was thinking about this trip again this morning and these are the memories that really stayed with me:

    Walking around the decks as the sun rose (about 9:00 AM) and watching the changes in light. The silence and sense of the ship slipping through dark water - just the sound of the water. Maybe a light from an isolated home on the shoreline.

    Huge skies with stars galore - arcing from side to side. Actually seeing the Milky Way in the crystal clear skies.

    Getting off the ship in daylight ports - blue sky, sun and crip cold air. Crunching on snow. Silence (one or two cars pass by).

    In one of the last ports, getting off the ship at night and walking around the curving harbor toward the town. Starry sky, black water, lights in a few houses, crunchy snow and silence. Beautiful but eerie - not scary - just a feeling of being at the top of the world.

    Honningsvag - as it was getting toward dusk, walking around the cemetery next to the church on the hill, snow falling, wind blowing. Another top of the world feeling.

    I'm not a "nature" person but this trip really did give me an appreciation of the majesty and implacable force of nature. Many moments of serenity.

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    Wow, not sure if you're a professional writer or not but, if not, you should be!! Wonderful trip report. I am currently visiting daughter and her family here in Bergen. They are living here for a year for her Husbands job. I'm just hanging out with the grand kids and not really planning trips this time (I'm just here for 10 days) but plan to return with hubby in May so enjoying your travels as we will be planning to do fjords trips. Thanks.

    One thing I like about Bergen is the beautiful city, nice people, and fact that Norwegians seem so egalitarian. But costs are so high for everything!!!! And restaurant food quality has a way to go. :) I take the g. Kids to Got Bread near the Flobannen which you've mentioned. And it's one of the best in town.

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