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Havila Voyage South - Enjoying Norway in the Winter

Havila Voyage South - Enjoying Norway in the Winter

Old Mar 26th, 2023, 08:19 AM
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Havila Voyage South - Enjoying Norway in the Winter

I have always been intrigued by the trip reports written by people who have taken the Hurtigruten ferry along the coast of Norway in the winter. The consensus seems to be that the experience is both relaxing and memorable, with stunning snow-covered scenery slipping by as the ferry travels the rugged coastline. Because it is a working ferry, stopping day and night at some 34 ports, it is very different from a regular cruise and has none of the accompanying cruise-type entertainments, like nightly shows and gambling, that have never appealed to us. Plus, the added bonus of possibly seeing the Northern Lights definitely put this trip on our wish list. Then, while researching it, I learned about the introduction of new ferry line in Norway, the Havila Voyages, which now follow the same route as the older Hurtigruten line. The new Havila ferries, with their sustainable design and lovely decor, appealed to me right away, so this past November I booked a trip from Kirkenes to Bergen for early February on Havila. I would have preferred the south to north sailing but because this is the most popular option most of the desirable cabins were already booked at this point. We ended up reserving a Panoramic Superior cabin on the Havila Polaris for the 5 night trip in the opposite direction. With that reservation made, I began booking flights to Oslo and Kirkenes, and reserving accommodations for our winter-time trip to Norway.

Finally, all our plans were made, and we looked forward to our journey departing February 12 to Oslo and then on to the frozen north of Norway, many miles above the Arctic Circle. But then, "Oh No!". Checking our emails on the morning of January 25, we received a surprise notice from Havila. Our sailing on the Polaris was cancelled. It seems delivery of the brand new Polaris to Norway was delayed from some reason. No boat, obviously no sailing. Now what! It was stunning news a few weeks before we were due to leave for Norway and we almost took Havila's offer to cancel for a full refund. When the initial shock wore off, however, we decided to rebook. There was a similar cabin available for a sailing on the Havila Castor a few weeks later and we decided to go for it. But now it was necessary to cancel and rebook everything else, a giant undertaking. Thankfully, our flights to and from Oslo could be changed without penalty, and our flight to Kirkenes could also be changed to a later date. We had reservations at 6 different hotels plus a Norway in a Nutshell tour to reschedule. I worked through it all and everything went well until the final snag. Obviously, we needed a hotel room in Kirkenes the night before our ferry's departure on Sunday morning, February 26. We booked the Thon Hotel for Friday night but the Thon had no vacancy for Saturday night. Neither the Scandic Hotel or the Snow Hotel had vacancies. The only hotel left in Kirkenes for Saturday night had a one star review on Tripadvisor with multiple reviewers advising "Avoid this place!" Yikes! We had no choice but to book it, although the thought of staying there was making me rethink the wisdom of the whole trip. But then things started going right for us. A week later a room opened up at the Thon and we were saved from spending a night in an unpleasant dirty hotel. So, finally, after lots of ups and downs, we were off to Norway and our voyage on the Havila Castor.

"Ups and downs" are the key words here, as our second day on board we experienced what the Captain referred to as hurricane force winds of 83+miles per hour. The waves looked huge as we watched them coming at us. Maybe a cabin in the bow was not the best idea in rough seas. Even though our cabin was on deck 7, the giant waves would occasionally hit our windows. Scary, but rather thrilling, and thanks to a dose of bonine, we didn't get seasick. Unfortunately, due to the weather conditions, the ferry couldn't dock at three of the scheduled landings, and it wasn't until later in the evening, after the captain maneuvered us into a sheltered place behind some islands, that our delayed dinner could be served. I was so thankful for calm waters at that point, but I have to say we will never forget our 'hurricane" experience on the Barents Sea.

So, we survived a hurricane at sea and we never did see the Northern Lights, but we really enjoyed our Havila Voyage. Our Panoramic Superior cabin with its two big windows was at the front of the ship and was furnished with a comfortable double bed, plus two reclining chairs with matching footrests positioned on either side of a little table. This seating arrangement was the perfect place to relax and take in the view. The ferry itself, with its many windows, spacious dining room, convenient little cafe, plush bar and relaxing lounge spaces, had easily accessible promenade decks, covered outside spaces, and even a laundry room. We didn't take advantage of the fitness rooms, but they looked to have everything anyone might require. The excellent food was special, designed to highlight the different areas of Norway we were passing through, and we loved the opportunity to sample small portions of the varied offerings at each meal. We won't soon forget the wonderful "Flavors of the Arctic" poached halibut dinner or the "Flavors of the Islands" seared scallops at lunch, which I paired with a different delicious soup each day. Everything was so fresh, so well prepared, and just so good! And finally, the staff was friendly, accommodating, and fun to talk to, as were several of our fellow passengers. There are only a few other Americans on board besides us, but we met Norwegians, Germans, and Australians who were all thoroughly enjoying their journey.

Without hesitation, we would definitely recommend Havila voyages to anyone who is looking for a way to experience the beautiful Norwegian coastline without taking a traditional cruise. We loved viewing the ever changing scenery, visiting even briefly the various ports, passing under soaring bridges, glimpsing little red cabins tucked up against pristine white cliffs, and watching intrepid fishing boats brave the frigid sea. We were amazed at how the five nights and six days flew by as we fell into the rhythm of our life on board the ferry. When we got home, we started talking immediately about going back someday to do the trip in the other direction, from south to north.

Some other high points of our two weeks in Norway in the winter helped make this a great trip. The sun shone for us in Bergen, which we understand is not always the case, as Bergen is one of the rainiest cities anywhere. When we took the funicular to the top of Bergen's Mt. Floyen, the view of the bay and the city below simply sparkled in the sunlight. From Bergen, we had planned to take the Norway in a Nutshell tour, and again what seemed like a major disappointment in the form of a last minute email turned out positively in the end. A few days before our NIN tour was to begin, we were informed that the boat ride portion of the tour had to cancelled due to ice in the fjord. Given the option to cancel the whole tour, we almost did so, but ultimately decided at the last minute to just go ahead with the abbreviated version. Great decision, because the boat ride was reinstated at the last minute utilizing an alternative route, and on another gorgeous sunny day the scenery was breathtaking. Plus, we had the added advantage of enjoying this tour with far fewer people competing for the best views and photo opportunities. We practically had the tour boat, the little town of Flam, and the Flam Railway all to ourselves. We stayed at the Flamsbrygga Hotel in Flam for one night in a room with a balcony and a lovely view of the fjord, and we ate dinner at the affiliated brew pub next door, where we had another of many delicious meals in Norway. Just a side note on Norwegian food: we had read that Norway's culinary offerings rank pretty low internationally, but we have to say we thought most of the food we experienced on this trip was excellent. Maybe we were just lucky, or ate in the right places, but we were impressed with how good, fresh and well prepared most of our meals were in Norway.

We only had two nights in Oslo after our Norway in a Nutshell tour but the weather was still really pleasant. We took advantage of the nice day to visit Vigelandsparken, the sculpture park that is the creation of Gustav Vigeland. This was my top priority for sightseeing in Oslo and it lived up to my expectations. Amazing, unique, and thought-provoking, this park is unlike any we have seen before. It must be beautiful in the summer when the flowers are blooming, but with a dusting of snow and few people, it was truly wonderful.

Finally, we need to add a few words about our hotel accommodations. After our long flights from home to Oslo, we spent our first night in the Amerikalinjen Hotel near the central train station. It was a beautiful hotel that glowed with subtle lighting and soft colors on a snowy night, but our stay there was too short to really justify the expense. It was my error, as I had booked it before our whole itinerary changed, and our two night stay shortened to a late arrival and early departure back to the airport to catch the flight to Kirkenes. Another victim of our itinerary change was the famous Snow Hotel in Kirkenes. I had originally booked one of the Gamme Cabins, which was a real splurge but just looked so appealing. The actual Snow Hotel where the rooms are sculpted out of ice and the bathrooms are down the hall had no appeal to us. However, when we had to reschedule, neither Snow Hotel accommodation was available. We did visit the Snow Hotel on a dinner tour from Kirkenes, but after touring the facility and calculating the money we saved, our cancelled reservation didn't seem like such a disappointment after all. Last but not least, we are now big fans of the Thon Hotels and have even joined their loyalty program. We stayed in three Thon Hotels for two nights each. The first was in Kirkenes, where we had a room with a large window overlooking the fjord. The second was the Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz in Bergen where again we had a pretty view. The third was the Thon Hotel Rosenkrantz in Oslo, where there was no view but lots of comfortable space with even a small sofa. Cozy rooms with beds outfitted with dreamy comforters and pillows, friendly staff who always had answers to our questions, and amazing, over-the-top buffet breakfasts, these hotels had it all. Perhaps at first, the very colorful decor with its emphasis on chartreuse fabric and bold graphic wallpapers seemed a bit much, but eventually I got the point. Why not brighten things up during those long winter nights and then again take advantage of the midnight sun with glowing brilliant color. Certainly a unique decorating approach and I came to like it.

I need to confess that I was anxious about this trip to Norway in the winter. Why travel above the Arctic Circle in February when it is just as easy to visit someplace warm, especially since we live in upstate New York where we experience plenty of snow and cold for almost five months of the year? Sometimes the idea of this trip for two seniors in their mid seventies seemed downright crazy. But we both loved it and, as I said above, we are already planning to go back, do the trip in reverse, and see more of Norway while we are at it.
Candace is offline  
Old Mar 26th, 2023, 11:11 AM
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Thanks for the report - glad you managed to overcome the obstacles!

I took Hurtigruten in the other direction in summer, and loved it, although I am emphatically not a cruise person. Did you notice a significant price difference?
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Old Mar 26th, 2023, 01:54 PM
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Right now, thursdaysd, it seems like Hurtigruten is definitely more expensive
than Havila. Maybe, when Havila becomes more well established, it will increase its prices, but we are glad to take advantage of the difference in cost for our next voyage on Havila. Plus, looking at the online pictures of Hurtigruten’s cabins, I have to say the Havila cabins appear to be nicer. We certainly loved our Panorama Superior cabin.
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