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Norway Bergen and The Norwegian Coastal Voyage – the world’s most beautiful cruise

caromitch

10+ Posts
By Caro from Scotland, Summer 2004
31st May 2004 - 19th June 2004, 6 days in Bergen followed by the Norwegian Coastal Voyage

This trip report was originally published on SlowTrav.com.

Bergen​

A slow, slow travellers trip up the coast of Norway from Bergen through the Arctic Circle to the land of the Midnight Sun and the Russian border (and back again).

My grandfather was a merchant sea captain during the Second World War and afterwards until his retirement, and he had always said that it was the most wonderful cruise he had ever experienced, regardless of torpedoes. I think he was probably right.

We live in the Highlands of Scotland so the flight across to Bergen from Aberdeen is only 1 hour 25 minutes, that suits Graham, my husband, and me just fine and the plane is also quite small and cosy with only 42 passengers on a scheduled flight, so thanks to wide seats and seatbelt extensions my large husband managed to fit in. We travelled at the beginning of June this year so eagerly anticipated seeing the midnight sun, which never falls below the horizon north of the Arctic Circle at this time of year. Conversely, in winter the north experiences up to 3 months of twilight with no real daytime at all.

£1 was approx 12 Norwegian Kroner (NOK) at the time of our trip.

Bergen

We spent 6 days in Bergen ‘the town between the 7 mountains,’ staying at the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel which is tucked tastefully behind Bryggen on the harbour. An excellent booklet called the ‘Bergen Guide’ is available in hotels free and has everything in there, including attractions, maps, restaurants etc. (Take a look at Visit Bergen - under Resources).

The climate in Norway is much like Scotland (i.e. rather unreliable, so be prepared for scorching heat, wind, rain and sleet, there are patches of snow down to sea level as you go north). Take a hat, gloves and layers that can be added/shed as the day goes on. Do NOT forget a jacket, preferably Gore-Tex.

Everyone in Norway speaks perfect English as they learn at school from an early age, most Brits are embarrassingly bad at other languages.

The hotel was great, with a small pool and huge buffet breakfasts, our first introduction to the legendary Norwegian meals. Coffee was automatically put on the table (tea and hot choc also available) and you could eat as much as you liked from the following:

Cereals, fresh fruit, stewed fruit, cheese, fish, cold meat, bacon, sausage, potatoes, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs and wonderful fresh breads.

A very dolled-up American lady visited frequently with her shopping bag which gradually got filled up and bulging with each visit until she could barely carry it up to her room. Either it was going to feed them for the rest of the week or she had 10 extra secret guests up there.

There was another gentleman who we reckoned might be Amish (Graham had just read about their huge calorie intake due to all the physical work they do all day long) but maybe not, as he was Asian with a very petite build and he quite upset G by managing to out-eat him at breakfast – Graham is 23 stone and 6ft tall so quite big. We found this fascination with people and their buffet extravaganzas lasted throughout the trip.

Bryggen is a super old warehouse area on the harbour side with rickety old houses at weird angles due to subsidence caused by a German munitions ship exploding during the war. In fact, Norway was occupied in the Second World War and many small towns up the coast were completely obliterated by the retreating German Army, (see Honnigsvag later on).

The harbour area is surrounded by open-air bars and restaurants, in good weather the place is heaving as everyone rushes out to make the most of the long days and sunshine. Tiny seaplane taxis buzz in overhead like benevolent bees as they land out in the bay and you can get a sightseeing ride around the area.

In Bergen we visited the aquarium (baby penguins expected any day), went up the funicular and being the only people without the free map of the top of the mountain managed to get totally lost and had to walk halfway down whilst looking for the funicular for the return trip. The next day we went up the cable car (in which Graham soaked everybody by opening a warm bottle of fizzy water, it was just a small bottle and he managed to soak 12 people and all the windows and have quite a lot left) to a different mountain top, luckily both days were hot and sunny so the views were great.

We limited our museum going to Old Bergen which is an area of old, preserved houses which have been moved to a heritage site just a short bus ride away and to 2 others just close to the harbour. Haakon’s Hall, a 13th century royal residence and the Rosenkrantz Tower, built close by in the 1560’s. The Tower is about 6 stories high and we had to laboriously follow a group of schoolchildren all the way up. They were allowed, 2 at a time, to view the King’s private toilet, a tiny room off his bedroom, which has a deep stone hole covered by a wooden lid (not the present King, by the way). The kids were absolutely fascinated by this and much giggling ensued.

On our return 12 days later we found David Bowie doing a gig right there (Graham insisting it must be a tribute band until we checked it out and went round a corner to find thousands of people crammed into a tiny park so we just lurked about outside to listen for a while). One of our favourite things was an evening walk to the end of the harbour to watch the coming and going of dozens of small and large boats (even a huge masted schooner from the Tall Ships race).

There is always something going on in Bergen through the summer and we were also treated to an AHA concert held on a floating stage and surrounded by dozens of little boats in the harbour, then the next day fancy dress parades and Dragon boat races.

The fish market is open every day with stalls selling wonderful varieties of seafood and fish. Street food is open prawn/smoked salmon/smoked whale rolls, punnets of strawberries and a kiosk sells the best fried fish and chips (about 80NOK) we have ever tasted. Local knitwear in amazing patterns, furs and reindeer skins and arrays of fruit are on sale, with many woolly hats, scarves etc. and a stall selling reindeer salamis and dried meat.

Food and drink in Bergen

We took our full duty free allowance, having heard that booze is hugely expensive in Norway as a deterrent to youngsters (and everyone else) but that means more people brew or distil their own illegally! What is quite interesting is that while you can buy beer and cider at supermarkets, wine and spirit sales are rigidly controlled and only sold in Vinmonopolet stores run by the government, though these are in most towns and even on the quayside as you get further north (cue droves of passengers and crew staggering back on board with clanking carrier bags and wine boxes!)

As a comparison price-wise, a bottle of wine we would pay £5-£6 at home in a supermarket is about 120 NOK and a 3 litre wine box of a not unreasonable Australian Shiraz in the Vinmonopolet was approx 300 NOK, the selection being pretty extensive, especially in larger places.

Food is expensive but good, a big Peppe’s pizza and 2 large beers were delicious but cost about £40. We also went to the Louisiana Creole £90 including 2 beers (not sure how authentic as we have never had the real thing) and the China Palace £70 including beers where a whole steamed lobster was about £20 (not bad comparatively). Finally, we ended up at McDonalds one night for burgers and salads, which are very popular over there.

We didn’t buy wine at any restaurants as the prices were ridiculous and the local beer was good, especially Hansa and the cold draught Guinness at Scruffy Murphy’s Irish Pub (they seem to be everywhere, we found one in Bruges on our last trip back from Tuscany). We found a super indoor gourmet market right near the harbour which had stalls selling groceries, bread and pastries, meat, fish, cheese, butter cut from a huge chunk, cooked meats and barbecue and pickles, olives etc. We made up a lovely picnic one day when it was raining and camped out in our room, managing to watch 3 movies (we had only just found out after 4 days that the pay-movies were free in our room).

Hotdogs are extremely popular, with every newsagent shop and mini-mart selling them as well as dedicated stalls.

Now to the serious part.
 

caromitch

10+ Posts

The Cruise​

A Bit of Background to the Voyage

More detail and stuff about different cruises and prices etc. can be found on the website Norwegian Coastal Voyage.

The Norwegian Coastal Express, or Hurtigruten which began in 1893 starts in Bergen, with the ships designated "highway 1" as one out of 11 ship leaves every day, for an 11-day round-trip stopping at 35 different ports along the way. Some of the stops are in the middle of the night and some are for just 15 minutes, enough time to tie up and drop off or pick up cargo enroute. At one distant port early morning we just did a ‘drive-by’ pulling into the harbour which was deserted and we obviously had nothing to drop off so zipped in and out without stopping completely. The longest stop is obviously in Bergen, from 2.30pm to 8pm when the passengers disembark and the whole ship is frantically cleaned.

The trip reaches its turning point in Kirkenes, just short of the Russian border and the ships, which are working boats really, not just for cruising, provide a lifeline to the tiny scattered communities along the coast of Norway. The ships sail in the Gulf Stream which means that ports on the same latitude as north Alaska and Siberia are ice-free all year round and places called at during the night on the way north are usually visited during the day on the way back, so you get to see them all.

About The Ship

We sailed on the M/S Trollfjord which is a new ship and we were able to get a grand suite which was a huge cabin with super marble bathroom and a big bay window. This really suited us as we are terribly anti-social on holiday - we are both community pharmacists which means we spend all day every day with lots of different people so we like to keep ourselves to ourselves on holiday - in contrast to my Mum who phoned us regularly and asked how many new friends we had made! We both agreed that the excellent cabin was the one thing that really made the holiday special for us, though many people were happy with smaller, inside cabins and the social life on board. We wanted a good rest and we certainly got it!

There were quite a few single passengers, though being outside school holiday time the average age overall was about 65 (we are just over 50 ourselves) with many passengers being elderly and quite a few wheelchairs! Younger folk used the ship as a ferry for shorter trips between ports and on some days the bar was pretty lively.

Excursions

Many excursions are available, which usually, unfortunately, involve a coach trip (my least favourite mode of transport as I get very carsick) and meeting the ship further along as it has to leave on time. These include visits to glaciers, sightseeing around larger towns like Tromso and Trondheim, dog-sled adventures in the winter and fast river boat trips to the Russian border etc. It is possible to pre-book these but most were available on board. The cruise director is a great fun-loving lady with blond dreadlocks who laughs all the time and is so enthusiastic she makes you feel exhausted by just standing next to her. She produces a newsletter for each day, which is available at 8pm the day before.

Food and Drink on Board

As soon as you board, it is advisable to hotfoot it to the restaurant to get your table allocated for the voyage, so you can opt to sit alone or with groups of people, especially if you are a lone traveller. Meal sittings are early (lunch 11.30, dinner 6.30) or late - our choice (lunch 1.30, dinner 8.30) needing a breather after all that breakfast (7.00 – 10.00). You can also purchase a ‘water package’ for 300NOK which gives you unlimited ship’s water (like mineral water, fizzy, or still) which you could take to your cabin to drink as well as with meals and if you want, a wine package for 2886 NOK which gives you a bottle of wine (listed at about 290NOK each) every day and the water for free. We opted just for the water as we had a cabin full of duty free Scotch and port and the infamous wine boxes and needed to recover at mealtimes. A glass of wine (from a wine box) in the ship’s bar is 62NOK, a gin and tonic about the same.

3 meals a day are included, a buffet breakfast, buffet lunch (with hot dishes) and a set meal with no choice at dinner. One day we had a brunch, which started with breakfast food at 7am and slowly evolved into a lunch by the time it ended at 1.30pm and you could go in as many times as you liked, the staff must have been knackered but they are very well paid and tips are not expected.

Breakfast is the usual buffet but, unusually for us anyway, also included meatballs or fried fish pudding (I thought it was French toast and took a bit but hastily put it back when I got a scent of it, I decided something was wrong when I couldn’t find any syrup), lovely freshly baked bread is served every day. Tea, coffee and juice are unlimited at meal times but between you have to buy it from a bar or the snack bar. Larger cabins have tea/coffee making facilities of their own.

The buffet lunch (allocated tables and 2 sittings) was bigger with an array of fresh seafood (usually one of prawns, crab, lobster, mussels, crayfish) various pickled herring, smoked fishes – salmon, halibut, mackerel and more, cold meats, salamis and salads. Then a hot spread usually about 3 choices with potatoes, pasta and vegetables. 5 or 6 cold puddings/cakes/trifles etc., cheeses, fruit, bread, biscuits and crispbreads. The idea is you start with the fish, then taking a fresh plate each time, work through the cold meats and salads, hot food then the puddings and cheese. After a few days we decided we had to cut down as all our clothes had shrunk and we fell asleep most of the time.

Dinner (allocated tables and 2 sittings also) is 3 set courses, with no choice, though special diets are catered for to some extent. A starter of soup or terrine or similar, followed by meat or fish with vegetables and then a pudding, excellent quality and could compete with most shore restaurants any day. The menus are put up the evening before so you can look forward to it.

The Cruise

Leaving Bergen at 8pm on a beautiful summer evening we sailed north, cameras frantically clicking. A super Hurtigruten booklet is provided giving daily maps, historical detail and descriptions of exactly where you are each day and what you can see. I was happy to sit in our bay window with a glass of wine, clutching this book and a pair of binoculars – these are essential and you need a camera at the ready all day. The scenery along the whole route is totally stunning, changing all the time and there are only a couple of short open sea bits where the land is more distant. Regular ‘bing-bongs’ herald the cruise directors announcements which are in Norwegian, English and German and are relayed to the cabins via speaker-phone though strangely not into the restaurant. We are instructed to rush and look at something fantastic on whatever side of the ship it happens to be.

I won’t list all the stops but the first full day’s highlight is a cruise down Geirangerfjord which is 100Km long from Alesund to Geiranger, highlights being the sensational views all the way, including Seven Sisters, Friaren and Bride’s Veil waterfalls.

Every day the ship hoots loudly as we pass a southbound coastal express ship.

Trondheim is a long stop (8.15 – 12.00) on day 3, so we all get off to walk about, committed excursion-goers off to the Ringve Music Museum. We go to see the Stiftsgarden palace, Scandinavia’s second largest wooden building and most impressive, being right in the centre of town.

As we head north we pass through narrow seaways in several places, in fact we have to wait while other ships or smaller boats have passed through before we can proceed. The Captain is a jolly nice bloke and his officers great fun, they all get on well and as the ship is not too large, seem to be friendly with all the crew. We get a bridge visit which is fascinating as nobody seems to be driving the ship.

Arctic Circle

Day 4 we cross the Arctic Circle at 66o 33’ north early in the morning. There is a competition the night before to guess the exact time somewhere between 06.30 and 08.00 winner to be announced tomorrow! There is a magical feel to the whole thing now, as if the invisible crossing had taken us into a mystical land of mountains, islands and fjords and you may see a troll any time!

Today takes us past a permanent glacier at Svartisen and at Bodo some intrepid travellers (including one brave lady on crutches) don protective clothing for a fast inflatable sea-eagle safari and visit to Saltstraumen tidal current which has an average speed of 29km/hour. Everyone anxiously awaits their safe return and they just make it with 5 minutes to spare.

A 3 hour trip across the open sea of Vestfjorden takes us to the outstandingly beautiful Lofoten Islands, where you can break the trip on the way south to spend 3 days in tiny fisherman’s cottages before joining another ship back to Bergen. Racks of drying fish surround the towns.

11.30 in the evening we enter the tiny Trollfjord, our ship’s namesake, this is 2Km long and only 100 m wide at its mouth, everyone rushes up to the top deck for a special drink - Trollkarsk and to marvel at the skill of the crew as they manoeuvre the ship in, turn it around in its own length and make our stately way out, the sheer rock cliffs so close you can see them underwater and almost touch them. This was one of my favourite days.

King Neptune

The next morning, we all congregate to see King Neptune arrive on the top deck waving his trident (couldn’t work out which one of the crew was under all that hair and weird mask but he was great fun). He is ominously accompanied by a barrel of water full of ice cubes and a stack of towels. The winner of the competition is a British lady who gamefully submits to a ladle full of ice cubes down the back of her neck. The crowd rushes forward to be iced too and receive their shots of brandy (though quite a few of us go and hide behind the funnel as the day is not warm at all). However we are all given certificates to say we crossed the Arctic Circle.

Graham’s Gardening Addiction

Tromso is a beautiful city with a bridge spanning the sound between the mainland and the original settlement. It is a lovely, buzzy kind of place, called ‘the Paris of the North’ We have 4 hours here and Graham (who has been fretting about his baby tomato plants left behind at home in someone else’s care) has discovered there is a botanical garden so we leap into a taxi which drives us for about 10 minutes to the university campus. Where are the gardens? The driver directs us onto a rocky path through the woods which heads ominously downwards (we think about the way back uphill).

The gardens are lovely, well-laid rocky paths meander through a sloping hillside area where all the plants are labelled and you can get close to them all. The only one not labelled is a glorious red spiky triffid-like plant and we get a digging student to go and find out what it is ‘It looks like rhubarb’ says G. ‘its some kind of rhubarb’ says the student, ‘nobody knows its name’. G takes a photo in the hopes we can find out when we get home, he was hoping to find some hardy, arctic plants that would survive at home as we live with the sea just over the garden wall and in high tides it comes right over.

The walk back up to the bus stop nearly kills us and we vow to stop eating so much as, purple faced and clutching our chests, we are passed by an old lady on a mountain bike who asks if she can park it at the bottom.

On the way back in a few days time there is a visit to a midnight concert in the Arctic Cathedral.

North Cape

From Honningsvag a trip departs to the North Cape, Europe’s most northern point 2080 Km from the North Pole. We see Sami ladies in bright costumes opening up their gift shop on the harbour side. They are Norwegians who traditionally keep reindeer, living a nomadic lifestyle, moving with their herds and living in tents, though only about 10% of them still do this. They have their own parliament. Graham gets chatted up by some Russian sailors desperate to go and work in the UK.

We visit the North Cape Museum after feeling sorry for a polar bear whose skin is for sale in the gift shop. We are stunned by an old photograph showing the town after the Germans left at the end of the war, only the church left standing and which became the home and bakery of the people left there-the baker became Mayor. We sign a petition the locals have against wind farms proposed in the area, we have the same problem at home where planners want to plonk the things down in the most tourist-friendly places – it might help if they painted them green instead of blinding white. The cruise director has to go and drag people out of the gift shop as the captain revs his engines wanting to leave on time.

Near the Russian Border

Kirkenes is the nearest port to Russia and an excursion leaves for a riverboat trip to the border. We go for a walk, needing to stock up on soft drinks and chocolate. The harbour is a quite desolate, rubble-strewn area with a Rema 1000 supermarket plonked in the middle of it. I find foreign supermarkets fascinating and go and rummage through the cold cabinets to see what they have. Many Russian fishing boats are moored in a secure area and G takes dozens of photos while I sit not too patiently on an old cable reel, expecting him to be arrested any minute. This is our turning point so it’s all ‘way back’ from now on.

At Hammerfest, you can join the Polar Bear Club at the same latitude as Point Barrow in Alaska, northern Siberia and the centre of Greenland and in fact Britain’s mainland blockade against Napoleon stretched this far north. There are great hopes that the oil and gas from offshore installations will make the area thrive. We proceed to Skjervoy which I think is probably the most picturesque port. A deep inlet leads to the pretty town, with multicoloured wooden houses set among trees and with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop.

Day 9 takes us further south through two narrow channels – Risoyrenna, a man-made dredged channel 3 miles long and Raftsundet a 20Km long strait between rocky cliffs. Back into Trollfjord then to the ports of Lofoten again. We next have a stretch of open sea which is ROUGH.

We had not really fancied the menu for dinner so had got a huge pizza onshore and G regrets it. To say he feels seasick is an understatement and I don’t feel too comfortable myself. The next morning he doesn’t make breakfast and is the subject of polite enquiries by a very nice elderly gentleman and his wife who sit at the next table during meals. They are German, which I don’t speak at all and their English is minimal. We manage through sign language to communicate and I refrain from miming vomiting. Their concern is touching and we all agree that G would benefit from a large, medicinal plate of bread and cheese to hasten his recovery.

Day 10 takes us back across the Arctic Circle and we almost manage to miss Torghatten-the mountain with the hole right through it. We only see it because the deputy cruise director just remembers to tell us to look back to see daylight clear through it

Day 11, more excursions, repeats of the northbound and 200 or so passengers get off in Trondheim for further travel, the waitresses breath a sigh of relief as the ship has been packed on the southbound trip. The newsletter ominously mentions transfers in Bergen so we are nearly back.

Day 12, bags packed and ready by the lifts. Sadness fills the ship. We had a wonderful time. Everyone goes up to the top deck to prolong the experience and we see the hundreds of tiny islands with houses dotted among the trees gradually becoming more numerous as we approach Bergen in the sunshine. Many people live or have weekend homes outside and travel in by little boats to just socialise or do their shopping. We dock at 2.30pm having just about managed to fit in 2 meals and are on the bus to the hotel by 3, looking like two Michelin men and finding it hard to bend in the middle. The whole trip has run extremely efficiently. We meet our German friends on the coach and the man rather unbalances Graham by clutching his hand and saying ‘you are a good man, I can see this’. G has tears in his eyes; we hardly know them so why does he say this? Perhaps they share the same love of food.

Another familiar young Italian couple is on the bus. We haven’t spoken to them but their cabin is almost next to ours and bears a ‘do not disturb’ sign all day every day. They are always late for meals and rush in looking crumpled.

We have one more night in Bergen, the hotel buffet experience then off to the airport where we meet a couple from Dundee who are on our flight (they were on a different ship) and the man manages to smash one of his duty-free bottles of Scotch. His wife says ‘It’ll be my fault, it always is,’ although it obviously was nothing to do with her as she was at least three feet away when it happened. Surrounded by whiskey fumes we board the flight home.

We have a final night in Aberdeen, dinner at the famed Silver Darlings restaurant overlooking the harbour and the last rock/pop concert of our tour – Elton John belting out old favourites at Pittodrie stadium, echoing over the beach esplanade so we stop to listen for a while. He sings ‘Rocket Man’ – well, we’ll take the ship! What fun!

Resources​


Visit Bergen - www.visitbergen.com
 

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