The Norwegian fjords are the best tourist destination in the world, according to no less an authority than National Geographic. Which is why so many cruises to the region feature in the brochures of the major cruise lines each year.
The scenery all year round, the fascination of experiencing the midnight sun during the summer and an opportunity to witness the spectacle of the northern lights in winter are all irresistible.
But there’s another way to tour the fjords, getting even closer to the Norwegian people and the local wildlife. That’s by travelling with Hurtigruten, the coastal express, which runs a fleet of ships on a regular schedule throughout the year between Bergen and the northern outpost of Kirkenes, visiting a total of 34 ports en route.
What better time to travel than on Nasjonaldagen, Norway’s national day, when the entire nation parties like crazy to celebrate the date in 1814 when its constitution was signed, declaring independence from Sweden?
I flew north of the Arctic Circle to Tromsø, home of one of the world’s northernmost universities – and breweries – to spend a few days on the MV Midnatsol. Boarding the ship appropriately enough just after 12 o’clock, and still in broad daylight, I was surrounded by happy Norwegians eager to begin the celebrations.
We were all up early next morning – I can’t say at first light because it never got dark – and the keen ones are marching around the deck, many dressed in national costume. Most grasp a glass of sparkling wine in one hand and a flag in the other. In the absence of a proper band, a member of crew parades with a ghetto blaster playing suitably martial music.
At the breakfast table in Midnatsol’s dining room every place setting is adorned with a rosette in the national colours, although many have brought their own.
The arrival of a Hurtigruten ship is a twice-daily event at the regular ports of call, some of which are tiny – the maritime equivalent of railway halts – and depend on the coastal express service for their livelihood. On Nasjonaldagen there was an extra-special welcome, with crowds assembling at quaysides and even recitations of patriotic poetry relayed over loudspeakers.
Best of all, as we reached Sortland, where the ship was stopping for an hour, we went ashore for a welcome speech from the local mayor and then marched through the streets ourselves, led by the band and cheered on by local residents whose children had all been treated to the biggest ice creams imaginable.
At Stokmarknes, where Hurtigruten has a museum dedicated to its 119-year history, another lively band welcomed passengers who had just finished feasting on an extensive buffet of the freshest seafood.
Later that afternoon, while some passengers carried on celebrating at the ship’s bars, or took in the views from the comfort of the panorama lounge, I joined an excursion taking a small boat on a Sea Eagle Safari.
With a crate of herring on board, ready to attract these magnificent creatures from the cliffs, we must have been the local equivalent of Meals on Wheels – and it didn’t take long for the first customers to arrive for their dinner.
The birds – with wings as big as a door – made a splendid sight as they swooped and circled overhead before reaching down to snatch the fish from the water in their powerful talons. And there were plenty of them, with a spotter at the top of the boat sending the skipper in the right direction, and seeming to summon the birds in our direction with a powerful whistle through his fingers.
It was so impressive that we hardly felt the late afternoon chill or the approaching drizzle as our boat made its way from Trollfjord to a rendezvous with Midnatsol in the Lofoten Island fishing port of Svolvær, with its distinctive racks filled with sides of cod which dry naturally in the northern sun.
Like the few cruise ships which visit this remote archipelago, much of the cod finds its way to Spain and Portugal. The Hurtigruten ships, however, keep coming back week in, week out, regular as clockwork.
MIDNATSOL (above), built in 2003, carries up to 1,000 passengers, with sleeping accommodation for 644. Like all the Hurtigruten fleet, the ship also delivers freight to the remote towns on its journey, and it has room for up to 45 cars. Most cabins are fairly basic but there’s a handful of luxury suites with big picture windows.
Hardy types can take advantage of two Jacuzzis out on the open deck and there’s a small fitness room on board. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style in the main dining room; there’s waiter service for dinner. The ship also has a cafe serving snacks, pizzas and coffee. Evening entertainment includes an enthusiastic trio – the Norwegians will dance to anything – but most people are here for the scenery and bar prices, on a par with the cripplingly high costs ashore, do not encourage boozy nights
The round-trip journey from Bergen takes 11 days and excursions are available from a number of ports. Passengers on the northbound journey reach Tromsø during the day and can go kayaking or visit a wilderness centre which accommodates almost 300 huskies. On the southbound journey, passengers are whisked off to a midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral.
The Sea Eagle Safari is one of 12 excursions offered during Hurtigruten’s southbound passage from Kirkenes to Bergen (there are a further 30 excursions listed for the northbound journey). Cost per head is £75, but next year’s schedule lists it at £81.
A Hurtigruten 6-day Classic Voyage South from Kirkenes to Bergen starts at £1,289 pp, based on two sharing, and departing between April 15-May 31. Flights extra and can be booked through Hurtigruten from £635 pp. www.hurtigruten.co.uk 0844 448 7601