Hurtigruten voyage in the Arctic – but no Northern Lights

Just back from the far, far north. Saw many things, including Europe’s most northerly shoe shop, but not the Northern Lights. We were not too disappointed, because the trip was so interesting.
    We flew to Tromso, which is already way above the Arctic Circle, to board the Hurtigruten MS Richard With (or, as the boat tannoy lady called it: ‘CostalStrimmerReyaaaVeet’). The Hurtigruten boats chug up and down the coast of Norway, calling at the little ports up the fjords, carrying passengers and delivering essential supplies. The boats are like large cross-channel ferries, with cars and cargo on the bottom, cabins in the middle, and bars, lounges etc on the top.
     Our boat was very clean and well-kept. Shipshape, I guess.  The decor was a bit alarmingly 80s retro though.

Richard With, moored at Honningsveg

A sighting of one of our sister ships….
Wonderful clouds
Retro decor….

      We got an excellent cabin in the upper middle of the boat, where there is less noise and movement, and on the promenade deck, where you have a window instead of a port hole. It was snug, with two bunks that folded down from the walls, and a tiny bathroom with a miniscule shower – no obese persons on this voyage……

       We were right by a door out to the deck.  You could walk all the way round the boat, but outside our door was a narrow passage between lifeboat davits and other bulky nautical equipment.

The Promenade deck!

       Outside, at night, we looked (fruitlessly) for the Northern Lights. It was either romantic and beautiful, spooky and  atmospheric or wet, disagreeable and a bit scary, depending on the weather.   Unfortunately, although we had some sunny days, it always seemed to cloud up at night, so the Lights did not show themselves. We had brought every thermal garment imaginable but it was not too cold as long as one avoided the knife-like wind that froze any uncovered skin.

Romantic night view

       For me, a big turn-off about living in the far north would be all the dressing and undressing. It reminded me of that faffing around getting ready to go out when you have a small child and have to force it into its all-in-one-suit, pushchair etc. 
       Interiors are heated to volcanic levels, and before venturing outside you have to layer on fleeces, coats, gloves, hats, face protection, thick trousers, heavy socks, boots (with ice spikes for going ashore), and then take it all off again as soon as you come in.
       Our fellow passengers were mostly English and German, plus Norwegian people travelling from port to port. I wondered if the locals resented the tourist passengers. There you’d be, in some hamlet miles from anywhere, waiting eagerly on the quay for your Amazon package, only to see the boat barrel past without stopping, because it was running late and a load of Brits had to catch the Gatwick flight.
       We had heard that Norway is fiendishly expensive, and the prices on the boat even more fiendish, and indeed it was the case – a bottle of wine was £50, and a glass £8!  Two small beers and a packet of crisps – £15. We were very frugal and were on half board, so had an enormous breakfast and an enormous dinner each day.
        Dinner was a set menu. No choice. Very authentically Norwegian – excellent soup, lots of fish, reindeer stew, root vegetables, pickled cabbage, cloud berries, snow berries and so on. One night we had a buffet with piles of huge spiky crustaceans (king crabs?) roughly hacked into chunks. Tasty but very hard to extract.  Philosopher and I have been to boarding school. We happily hoovered everything up, but I don’t know what more picky souls made of it.
         Throughout the trip, Hurtigruten could not be faulted on their
organisation, from when we checked in at Gatwick to when we checked back
in at Tromso airport, but I did sense a desire to extract as much money from us as possible.

         Our friends from Birmingham, the Lutz’s, had just returned from a Hurtigruten trip and told us to avoid the excursions, too expensive. We had already decided this. Dog sledding? £150  – per person, and apparently you only got around 20 minutes on the sledge, after coffee, talk, prolonged husky petting etc.  We met some huskies out walking in Kirkenes, and I petted them for free. They were very big, friendly and bouncy, with amazingly thick coats. Very unlike the deracinated and neurotic-looking specimens you see here as pets of people who should know better than to keep such creatures in confined environments.
         On the first night, we had a safety session, and it occurred to me for the first time that we were sailing the Arctic seas in a smallish boat, very close to rocky reefs. A volunteer passenger was laboriously stuffed into an unwieldy survival suit, and a man asked how long we could survive in the water. The crew member carefully avoided that question, but said the suit would give ‘an extra few minutes’. I suppose all it would do is stop you dying of shock the moment you hit the water, but death would certainly come quite quickly…. 
         The crew were efficient and pleasant, spoke excellent English, but largely kept themselves to themselves. Some of the blokes were absolutely enormous – real stereotypical Nordic giants. The captain was called Oddleif Engvik.

Giant crew person…..
And another….

        The voyage was full of interest, particularly for the likes of Philosopher and me who have read too many books and seen too many movies. We started out from Tromso in Scandi-Noir drama  mode. The little ports we visited were just made for it – modern square painted houses, a warehouse shed at the dock with the door open, light streaming out, muffled-up blokes casting long shadows across the snow. Cars, idling with their headlights on. A solitary woman lighting a cigarette etc etc.


         When we rounded the North Cape (the very top of Europe) and docked at Kirkenes, we switched to Cold War Spy Thriller. Kirkenes is only a few miles from the Russian border, and has a real frontier town feel. It was bleak, snowing heavily. The signs are in Norwegian and Russian. We saw a clutch of rusty Russian trawlers, lashed together, moored in an inlet surrounded by beat-up vans and barbed wire. We saw bullet-headed men with their huskies, bad-tempered babushkas with little push-along sledges (and that was only Battleaxe who’d trodden in a snow-drift while trying to push one of the things).

Russian trawlers

         Rounding the Cape again to return, we were into WW2 Action Movie. The Battle of the North Cape in 1943, involving British, German and Norwegian ships, was the last battle (probably ever) between giant fighting ships, resulting in the sinking of the German Scharnhorst, with the loss of nearly 2,000 men. Next, the last days of the Tirpitz. We passed Alta Fjord, where the huge battleship hid before being attacked by derring-do Brits in mini-submarines (think Donald Sinden, Above Us the Waves). We followed the route of the Tirpitz as, damaged and under attack from Lancaster bombers, it limped down to Tromso, before finally being sunk with the loss of another 1,000 lives.
        We did wonder why there were no old buildings in the towns and villages north of Tromso. Turns out that everything was destroyed by the retreating Germans in a ‘scorched-earth’ initiative. All the modern buildings made the towns look a bit samey.
         Our boat stopped long enough for us to have a good break ashore at Honningsvag, Europe’s most northerly town. I found a website with the northernmost cash-point, Burger King, cathedral, university, hospital, brewery, supermarket etc etc with which to bore Philosopher – many of the things were in Honningsvag, Hammerfest, where we also stopped, or Tromso.

Northernmost shoe shop? Selling only boots, in Honningsvag



     The ship broke down at Kirkenes, and we moored in the quiet fjord for four hours while they repaired it. The water was grey and totally still, the sky was grey, the hills hidden in the mist, and the snow fell gently. We were all snoozing peacefully in the top-deck viewing lounge when a woman shouts ‘WHALE’.
     ‘It’s like shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre’, sniffed Philosopher as we all rushed to look. Of course there was no whale, just a floating chunk of ice.

Greyer – with floating ice
A ghostly ship

         As we had lost time, that night the boat missed several ports and forged down the open Barents Sea while we were safely in our bunks. I woke to find the cabin lurching up and down.
         Shore visits apart, we spent much time in the top lounge, looking out over the bows, feet on the window ledge, watching the passing scenery. The light changed constantly, and there were amazing cloud patterns in the sky. The sea was calm, and the boat glided along quietly, almost silently. Then the hooter would blare, and we’d judder in, sideways on, to a quay in some obscure village. Many of the stops were only ten minutes. I  thought the stops would wake me in the night, but not so.


      We returned to Tromso, and spent our last night in Norway in a hotel – just fine. It is quite a pleasant city, with a wooden Cathedral and a good range of shops.

Tromso Cathedral
Tromso shops
Memorials to Jewish people from WW2, let into Tromso pavements.

     Were we disappointed not to see the Northern Lights? Only moderately. There was so much else to see. Would we go to the far north again? Probably not.
     There is not that much in the towns, and once you have feasted your eyes on snowy fjords, they all run into one. Would we recommend the holiday to others? Yes.

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