I have always been of the understanding that the enjoyment of cruising is a pastime reserved for the older crowd, and in that belief, I am quite sure that I am not alone. So when in 2016 Luke won the Wildlife category in the Travel Photographer of the Year competition, with his Lynx photograph, and his prize included a Hurtigruten cruise for two, I must admit I had my reservations.
April gone we were finally able to claim Luke’s prize and were signed up to ‘The Classic Round Trip’ – a 12-day Norwegian adventure across almost 2,500 nautical miles of spectacular coastal scenery. The route included Norway’s entire coastal route with 34 ports of call, sailing past more than 100 fjords and 1,000 mountains – I had to admit it all sounded pretty impressive!
Our vessel was to be the MS Nordkapp – named after the northernmost point on mainland Europe: North Cape (71ºN) and which had been christened by Norway´s Queen Sonja in 1996 on her maiden voyage to the Shetland Islands. On the 26th of April, a clear warm spring evening, we boarded our boat (by the skin of our teeth thanks to flight delays) in the handsome city of Bergen. Despite our late arrival the kitchen staff rustled up the most delicious dinner of Bacalao – salt cod stew – for us, and it was just the very beginning of a daily delivering of exquisite food – in fact, the meals ended up being a particular highlight as all of it was locally sourced and freshly picked up at each port that we called in at.
The coastline really was stunning but what made the cruise were the expeditions. On our first afternoon in Alesund we hiked to Sukkertoppen. It was a rather challenging route made tougher by the weather, but when the clouds finally broke the views were worth it. We were told by the guide that Alesund was regarded as the most beautiful city in Norway – however, that turned out to be a claim made by most of the cities we visited, and truth be told they were all so pretty it was hard to choose a winner! At the peak of Sukkertoppen Luke found grouse poo, but they must’ve been hiding from the damp weather we were experiencing which certainly wasn’t affecting the eider ducks we could see swimming around the fjord below.
The second hike we took was in Olavspranget in Trondheim. It was a beautiful route through a boreal rainforest and signs stated it was a good place to spot crested tit, nutcracker, redstart and black grouse, however, we weren’t so lucky with those sightings. We did hear goldcrests and siskin. On our way back to the boat we briefly stopped by the Nidaros Cathedral, Norway’s most important Gothic monument and the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world. It really was an impressive building but it was the fieldfares, flitting about on the grass outside, that caught our eye having just arrived from spending the winter in the UK and the rest of southern Europe.
On day 3, at 7.20am we crossed the arctic circle and this was where the real fun began! In Bodo we took a rib boat out to Saltstraumen, the strongest tidal current in the world. Up to 400,000,000 cubic metres of seawater forces its way through a 3-kilometre long and 150-metre wide strait every six hours, creating a a constantly-changing rush of whirlpools, boils and vortices. The boat captain manoeuvred the little rib in and out of the swirling water, its power utterly mesmerising! Sadly the exhilaration of speeding manically through white churning waters had to come to an end, but on the way back we did glimpse sea eagles grappling and lots of eider ducks.
The beauty of taking this cruise in spring is that you get to experience three seasons in one journey. You have all of the migratory birds returning, you sail from summer temperatures in Bergen to the Arctic, but you can also still participate in all of Hurtigruten’s winter excursions, including dog sledding! Which we had a go at with Tromso Villmarkssenter. The excursion started by meeting all of the dogs, where we were encouraged to cuddle and play with them as much as we liked – if you are a dog lover then it is literally what dreams are made of. Before hopping aboard our sleds, the dogs barking like mad ready to go, and off we went across the frozen landscape ride, the breathtaking mountains and the ocean our backdrop. The dogs were so happy and responsive to the musher and boy did they make a lot of noise to get started! We finished the trip drinking hot coffee and eating homemade chocolate cake by a roaring fire in a Sami lavvo (traditional tent).
The following day saw our best excursion of the trip – a bird safari at Honningsvag, Norway’s largest colony of seabirds, located just to the west of the North Cape. The birds are found on several small islands known as Stappen, close to the fishing village Gjesvaer. Warm and cold ocean currents meet, forming a nutrient-rich zone that is a magnet for sea life. Thousands of puffins rafted on the water – Finnmark’s largest flock. Loads of white-tailed eagles. A huge Kittiwake colony. Shags and great cormorants. Great black-backed and herring gull. Purple sandpipers, oystercatcher, black guillemot. Apparently, you can also catch a glimpse of Europe’s smallest seabird, the storm petrel, but we were not so lucky. However, on the way back to harbour we saw a minke whale. Which was not to be our last whale that day, later back on the boat we had five sperm whale off of port side. And we saw reindeer as we drove to and from the harbour. It was a wildlife extravaganza!
That evening we went snowmobiling from the fishing village of Kjollefjord, over the mountains to Mehamn. Our guide was Vidar the Viking, a passionate local man who greeted us with arms thrown wide to encompass the expanse of pure virgin snow that stretched out before us and a deep voice that declared “welcome to paradise!” He told us about the Sami culture and way of life, and how they had just arrived with their reindeer which we spotted along the way. They explained the geographic and climatic conditions, what life was like on the Finnmark coast, and how the local people worked with nature. What made the excursion all the more fun was that we were travelling between the two harbours and so the journey had purpose, racing across the island, through the snow-clad valleys and clean crisp air, an exhilarating crossing to ensure that we didn’t miss our boat.
Another unforgettable excursion was the king crab expedition. At Kirkenes we were picked up by the fisherman and taken to the harbour, where we dressed in warm overalls and life jackets, before being taken out into the fjord to collect the king crabs. We cruised along the fjord until we found the correct cage, where we anchored and then pulled up the cage teeming with Red King Crabs, giants from the Barents Sea. Each one can weigh up to 10 kilos and they have a leg span of 1.8metres. They only take 10% of females, if that, to ensure a good breeding stock. “King crab is our gold,” our guide Orjan told us. Each local can catch 10 crabs a year, and to catch them commercially you have to have proved yourself a responsible fisherman for a year before you can qualify for the license. Once we had chosen our lunch we returned to the harbour and were taken to a local restaurant where the crabs were steamed and served – it doesn’t get fresher than that! We were shown how to eat the freshly cooked crab traditionally, piled high on a slice of white bread and butter. “Put a lot of king crab on the bread, and I mean a lot – you won’t believe how much bread costs in Norway!” joked our guide. The meat was creamy and the texture of butter, it melted in my mouth, and I have now been so spoilt that I will refuse to eat crab any other way!
We passed the Hornoya bird cliff, the second biggest seabird colony in Norway, and were given fabulous views with our Noctivids. And in the city of Vardo were delighted to see the kittiwake nesting boxes that had been made by local school children, occupied by squabbling kittiwakes. We also spotted our first ever Steller’s eiders in the harbour. They spend the winter there and we’d expected them to have migrated to their breeding grounds but this small flock was clearly delayed!
On our return journey down the coast, we took the excursion into Norway’s spectacular Trollfjord, and transfered to a smaller boat for the Sea Eagle Safari. To begin with, it was just the Iceland and Herring gulls who followed, but they were rather magnificent in their own special way. And then the first sea eagle took an interest and soon a number of sea eagles glided above, swooping down for the fish that the guides threw out for them. Then the boat captain shouted, “here comes grabby,” and a sea eagle swooped brazenly down and neatly collected a fish from the outstretched hand of the guide, the fish disappearing into her massive yellow talons.
Our final excursion was along the Atlantic Road which zigzags and leaps across several small islands and over 8 low bridges that are built directly above and along the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. The 8.2km journey passes through the astonishing coastal landscape and it is not a surprise that The Guardian ranked it as one of the world´s best road trips. I even spotted my first willow ptarmigan!
I have decided that cruising being exclusively for retirees is all just a big conspiracy. They are keeping it quiet so that we don’t all find out the secret – which is that cruising is actually a lot of fun!