Chasing the Midnight Sun in Norway

2018-08-06 13:30 - Natalia Rosa
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The MS Polarys at sea

The sun didn’t set. It looked like it wanted to. The colours in the sky turned from flaming sunset orange to delicate sunrise pink within minutes. But, for the duration of my five-day visit to the Arctic Circle, it never sank beneath the horizon.

They don’t tell you, that as magical as the Midnight Sun is to witness, it certainly plays havoc with your sleeping patterns. Not one for day napping, I was awake at 1am, 3am, even 5am, trying not to feel guilty for not ‘making hay while the sun shines’.

Turns out I needn’t have been. Norway’s epic fjordscapes are as magnificent during the day as they are at ‘night’. Slipping on another layer – four in total – I made my way up on the deck of Hurtigruten’s MS Polarys to see towering snow-capped cliffs plunge into inky black Arctic waters and colourful Norwegian fishing villages dwarfed by the ethereal landscapes that line the world’s most beautiful sea voyage.

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 Fishing villages are dwarfed by the fjordscapes. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

I shared my journey with nature lovers from all corners of the world, and more importantly local Norwegians, who use this Coastal Express to travel up and down the northern Norwegian coast, much in the same manner they’d catch a taxi for a trip up the road.

For 125 years, Hurtigruten has connected the coastal communities of the north with the rest of Norway, and indeed the world. Before a time of GPS and detailed marine charts, their steamships braved the “dark and stormy” winters to create a lifeline for isolated communities, who to this day regard the cruise line as more reliable than the sunset in summer.

 The MS Polarys at sea. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

The presence of commuting Norwegians lends a certain authenticity to your cruise through the Norwegian fjords. The staff are predominantly Norwegian. Norway’s Coastal Kitchen inspires the food onboard. Even the beer and Aquavit are local, as is the codfish ice-cream… Clearly, there’s no accounting for taste.

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 Hurtigruten’s Norway Coastal Kitchen concept features cuisine from along the coastline. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

 Norway’s Coastal Kitchen onboard features local cuisine, including reindeer and salmon. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

 Codfish ice-cream on the MS Polarys (Photo: Hurtigruten)

In characteristic Norwegian fashion, Hurtigruten’s expedition ships double as working ships, transporting cargo and even cars between the 34 ports that line their 12-day roundtrip voyage from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the north.

Some of the stops are longer, a few hours. Others, no longer than five minutes – every arrival and departure signalled with a merry toot toot of the MS Polarys’ horn. I guess there’s no point in stopping in Hamnes, population 20, when they’re all out in the tiny harbour enthusiastically waving flags to say hello despite the icy weather outside.

 The village of Hamnes, with locals greeting passengers. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

Cleverly, Hurtigruten offers land excursions while it continues its voyage between ports, for travellers who wish to get to grips with the culture, history and natural beauty of Norway on land. You disembark in one port, go on your excursion, and then meet the ship in the next port, thus satisfying the need to stretch your sea legs.

These are not included in the voyage price, but your accommodation and all meals (excluding drinks) are. And, much as I’d like to advise you against visiting the onboard shop, I have to admit that the trinkets, treats and attire on sale will give new meaning to retail therapy. There’s even a post office on board.

 The onboard store on MS Polarys. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

 There’s even a post office onboard the MS Polarys. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

Five stops along the way

Kirkenes

It was almost 9pm when we arrived in Kirkenes, and way past my bedtime after a full day of travel. It was either the chill outside or the prospect of King Crab fishing that soon woke me up and we went down to the water to board our RIB Boat to the middle of Bøkfjord.

 A King Crab Safari on Bøkfjord. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

The King Crab expedition sees you whizzing to the middle of the fjord, pulling up the net filled with King Crab; each can weigh up to 10kgs and span 1.8 metres.

 A King Crab Safari on Bøkfjord. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

Our Norwegian host, Geir Hansen, made his selection and took us to his ‘cabin’ on the shore, where he showed us how to clean the crab, steam the legs and elegantly retrieve the crab meat to make a traditional crab sandwich with lemon and mayonnaise. Eating the open sandwich – Norwegian style – was not quite as elegant.

 Geir Hansen preparing the King Crab. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

Take note: You’ll be provided with a survival suit to keep the cold at bay during your RIB Safari as the boat speed can be 70km per hour, and it gets quite chilly out on the water.

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Hammerfest

As the world’s most northerly town, I’m pretty sure Hammerfest has never been the life and soul of the party. On Sundays, even less so, which just so happens to be the day we disembarked to stroll through its quiet streets.

Little-known Hammerfest was a base for the German fleet during World War II’s North Atlantic campaign and today is home to the World Heritage-listed Meridian Column, which commemorates the first official measurement of the size and shape of the Earth.

Hurtigruten excursions take you to the top of Mount Salen, where you’ll see the column and across the Melkøya and Snøvit LNG fields, as well as the peculiar local church, designed to mimic the local fish drying racks of the region.

 Hammerfest, the world’s most northerly town. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

Take note: If you decline the Hurtigruten excursion to the Meridian Column, consider a visit to the Polar Bear Club, where you can see historical collections of exhibits from the town’s Arctic and trapping past.

Tromsø

The capital of the Arctic, Tromsø is one of the biggest cities you’ll encounter on your voyage along the rugged Norwegian coastline. Another late arrival saw us disembark the ship just before midnight and cross the Tromsø sound, bound for the Arctic Cathedral.

 The Polarys at sea (Photo: Hurtigruten)

One of Hurtigruten’s most popular, and certainly most poignant excursions is a Midnight Concert in the ice-berg shaped cathedral.

The Midnight Concert in Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

Local musicians will show-off the extraordinary natural acoustics of the church, singing beautiful Norwegian folk songs, against the backdrop of one of Europe’s largest glass mosaics on the eastern wall portraying “the Return of Christ”.

 The Midnight Concert in Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

Take note: The duration of the concert is 45 minutes, and you’ll want to capture much of it through video so make sure your cell phone is fully charged.

Stokmarknes

It was only fitting that we visited the town in which Hurtigruten was first founded as Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab in 1881. Here, visitors can explore the Museum of Coastal Express, which features the journey of the shipping company over its 125-year-long history.

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Somewhat creepy, but a definite must-visit is the MS Finnmarken decommissioned ship across the road, showcasing what a journey on the coastal express was like in the 1950s and 1960s.

Stokmarknes is also the embarkation point for a RIB Safari through the beautiful Lofoten Peninsula. Buckle up for a wild ride past fishing villages, codfish farms and into Trollfjord, keeping a keen eye out for White-tailed Eagles, of which 600 pairs are said to find sanctuary here, according to our Dutch guide, Rafael Huigmink, whose ship blew here 10 years ago. It’s no wonder he never left.

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 MS Polarys sailing into Trollfjord. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

 A RIB Safari in Trollfjord in the Lofoten Peninsula. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

Take note: While you’ll be given a survival suit, you would be more comfortable wearing quite a few layers beneath the suit. The RIB boat journey is much longer than that in Kirkenes and even if the sun’s shining, you’ll get cold.

Svolvær

The Fiskarkona (Fisherman’s Wife) stands on a rocky outcrop at the entrance of Svolvær willing her husband’s safe return. For us, she’s the welcoming committee to this local fishing town, renowned for its codfish, which hangs from drying racks everywhere you look.

 The fisherman’s wife in Svolvær willing her husband’s return. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

Who needs a back garden with a trampoline when you can have a giant rack next to your front door? You get used to the fishy smell, but not the beautiful setting, with the colourful façades of wooden fishing cottages and sailing boats floating in what looks like one large mirror. The Lofoten fishing village of Svolvær. (Photo: Natalia Rosa)

Against the backdrop of the Svolværgeita (Goat Mountain), we visit the local ice-cream factory responsible for creating, among others, the codfish ice-cream I’ve previously mentioned. Luckily cloudberry is on the menu today, and I accept a small sample to save space for the beer tasting at Lofotpils which was to follow.

Hurtigruten guests can visit Lofotpils, the craft brewery whose delicious brews you’ll find onboard, and meet the Gunnarson men who claim it’s the Lofoten waters that make their beverages so fresh – it’s the taste of raw nature, or so Thor Gunnarson, formerly from Iceland, claims. Yet another foreigner who never left.

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 Visit the Lofotpils Brewery in Svolvær. (Photo: Hurtigruten)

Take note: Enjoy local codfish at Børsen Spiseri, with their Tørrfisk Royal an interesting take on Eggs Benedict, but without the eggs of course. It also wouldn’t be Norway without kicking off with a Bakt laks (Balked salmon) starter.

Fast facts

How to get there: Hurtigruten’s coastal service begins in Bergen for the full 12-day cruise, or in Kirkenes if you’re taking the southbound journey only. You can fly to Bergen via Amsterdam, Zurich and Frankfurt most easily.

Currency: Norway uses the Krøne, with R1 the equivalent of NKR1.6. It should be stressed that Norway is expensive for South Africans, although not more so than other northern European destinations. Alcohol, however, is extremely expensive.

Visa: South Africans need a Schengen visa to visit Norway.

Weather: Milder than other parts of the world at the same latitude because of the Gulf Stream, Norway’s weather varies a lot from south to north. The coastal areas have relatively mild winters, but the further north you go, the colder.

What to buy: Trolls of course! No visit to Norway would be complete without buying one of these little legends, whether it be a fridge magnet or soft, not-so-cuddly toy. Norway is also renowned for its woollen goods. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, don’t come home without a stash of Kvikk Lunsj ("Quick Lunch"), reminiscent of our own Kit-Kat, and a few packets of Smash, a sweet, salty corn snack in the shape of a horn and covered in creamy chocolate.

Hurtigruten is represented in South Africa by cruise specialists, Development Promotions.

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