Hurtigruten is a world leader in expedition cruising – ferrying freight and passengers up and down the Norwegian coast 365 days a year. One of the fleet’s 11 ships departs Bergen every day, sailing to Kirkenes and back in 12 days at an average speed of 15 knots.
I made my maiden winter voyage in 2012 aboard Hurtigruten’s Trollfjord, a 13-year old vessel with a maximum passenger capacity of 822. Decorated extensively with Norwegian wood and stone, the ship features panoramic lounges, roomy suites and original paintings by Lofoten artist Kaare Espolin Johnsen.
Food aboard the Trollfjord reflects Norwegian traditions and her coastal beauty – characterized by “cleanliness, individuality and variation,” according to Coastal Flavours brochure posted outside the ship’s dining room.
“Our idea was to create a menu that reflects historical events, unique places and everyday moments that have shaped our culture and culinary traditions,” said Trollfjord’s executive chef Roy Kristensen. “And because Hurtigruten ships bring new and exciting ingredients from distant places to our communities, the dishes are often a combination of the known and unknown, familiar with unfamiliar.”
One evening, our dinner featured clipfish – the name given to cod originally dried on a sailing clipper.
Another night, our first-course salad was crowned with delicate Selbu Bla, a Norwegian blue cheese made from cow’s milk. The tanginess of the cheese was balanced with a not-too-sweet syrup made from Scandinavian cloudberries.
Throughout the week, the real culinary highlight – at least in my estimation – was fresh seafood brought on board from ports along our route.
Interestingly, despite the abundance of delectable food, I lost two pounds during my Hurtigruten cruise. I guess it’s not hard to figure, considering that most excursions available on the winter voyages require a moderate amount of exercise. But I can hardly think of more fun ways to work off a few meals!
In Alesund, for instance, we ate Norwegian sandwiches at Fjellstua, a quaint restaurant on top of Mount Aksla. Afterwards, we walked down 418 steps to meander streets lined with a generous collection of Art Deco buildings.
In Trondheim, a city founded by a Viking king in 997, we buried our heads to walk against a wind so strong it blew snow parallel to the ground. Our reward was a visit to the historic Nidaros Cathedral, where Norwegian royalty is crowned and thousands of brides are married each year.
In Tromso, we bonded with strong huskies that eventually pulled our sleds across the Norwegian wilderness in a wild ride similar to the feel of a wooden roller coaster. I’m pretty sure my heart used up most of the calories on this adventure – which, by the way, I would do again in another heartbeat!
Midway through our voyage, we sailed above the Arctic Circle, where the sun hangs low on the horizon and casts a blue glow across the landscape. And even though I’m known among my friends as a cold-weather wimp, I soon felt my heart melting with love for a country that had previously existed only as a memory from my fourth-grade geography class.
Near Kirkenes, we bundled up for a daytime sledge ride across a frozen fjord to harvest king crab. Originally from the northern Pacific Ocean near Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, king crab was introduced to the Barents Sea in the 1960s. These crabs can weigh up to 22 pounds and span up to three feet, toe to toe.
Pounding the ices with hatchets, our guides hauled in monster-sized king crabs, which were quickly hoisted back onto the sledge for a quick trip to a pot of boiling salt water back at our wilderness camp. Eighteen minutes later, our hosts plated up succulent claws and served them with melted butter, hearty Norwegian bread and thick hot chocolate. Thank goodness for a hefty hike on snowshoes later that afternoon!
On a trip like this one, it’s hard to choose a favorite experience. But seeing the Northern Lights will forever remain one of my all-time most memorable events.
First of all, I almost didn’t do the excursion at all because I had never driven a snow mobile, much less at night! Secondly, because it was night, it was cold as blue blazes.
Some of my fears dissipated when I realized the snowmobile folks provide outdoor wear created to keep ordinary people like me warm in sub-freezing temperatures.
Another chunk of my fears evaporated when I found out I could be a rider on a two-seater snowmobile.
But every last vestige of fear faded in the light of Aurora Borealis, the spectacular nightlights of heaven. Our vision comprised a triple-braided cord of dancing green light which arched the sky from horizon to horizon.
Standing in a valley of freshly fallen show, where the only sound was the clicking of cameras and the breathing of a dozen people, I couldn’t help but weep with gratitude for the privilege of such a sight.
“It’s the dream we carry in secret – that something miraculous will happen, that must happen, that time will open, that the heart will open, that doors will open, that mountain will open, that springs will gush, that the dream will open, that one morning we will glide into some harbor we didn’t know was there,” said the Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge nearly a half-century ago.
For me, the dream is no longer secret. It happened. I was there. And I’ll go back, again and again.