Hurtigruten (formerly called Norwegian Coastal Voyage or Coastal Express) has been operating a fleet of coastal liners since 1893. The Norwegian government recognized the need to link the Arctic northern part of the country with the more populated south, and Captain Richard With got the first contract to operate a weekly Trondheim to Hammerfest schedule, carrying mail, cargo, and passengers. This weekly ferry schedule has grown to a daily schedule, and the route has expanded north to Kirkenes and south to Bergen.
"Hurtigruten" means "the fast route" in Norwegian, and sailing along the rugged western coast of Norway is significantly faster than by car or train, even in winter. The Gulf Stream runs all the way from the Caribbean to Norway, and its warm waters keep the harbors from freezing, even when the air temperatures are well below freezing.
Before Hurtigruten, it took five months for mail to go from central Norway to Hammerfest in the winter. After Hurtigruten was launched, it took seven days. The Norwegian Coastal Express was born, and western Norway was changed forever.
What's a Hurtigruten Coastal Voyage?
Today, Hurtigruten's ships sailing the coastal route are primarily protected by the numerous islands dotting the western coastline, with little time spent in the open sea. Much of the time, the calm waterways are very similar to the Inside Passage of Alaska or the Intercoastal Waterway of the eastern coast of the USA.
Northbound voyages embark in Bergen and disembark in Kirkenes seven days later. Southbound voyages embark in Kirkenes and disembark in Bergen five days later. Many cruise passengers book the entire 12-day voyage since some of the ports of call are different, and for repeated ports, the times and length of the visit are usually different. For example, on the northbound coastal route, ships stop at Tromsø at 2:30 in the afternoon and depart four hours later at 6:30 pm. On the southbound coastal route, ships stop at Tromsø at 11:45 pm and depart at 1:30 am, just 1.5 hours later.
This southbound stop allows passengers just enough time to attend the midnight concert at the famous Arctic Cathedral, but that's all.
Since 11 of Hurtigruten's ships sail the coastal route, every port on the route has a visit from a Hurtigruten ship at least once a day, 365 days a year. Those on both the northbound and southbound routes see two ships a day. Many of the residents in the remote small towns view the ships as their link with the rest of Norway and the world.
Each of the Hurtigruten ships is very different in size and age. The company's oldest ship, the ms Lofoten, was built in 1964, and its newest ship, the ms Spitsbergen was built in 2009 and significantly refurbished in 2016 when it was acquired. Most of the ships were built in the 1990's and 2000's.
Differences Between Hurtigruten Coastal Liners and Traditional Cruise Ships
Although many visitors to Norway view the Hurtigruten coastal liners as traditional cruise ships, there are differences. First, travelers are getting on and off the ship at every port. Many ferry passengers do not book a cabin, but stow their luggage in a secure area near reception and then stay in one of the public lounges or the cafe until they reach their debarkation port. People napping in the lounges or outside in the deck chairs is a little disconcerting at first, but most of the day trippers are not on the ship for long.
On some ships, ferry passengers bring along their cars or bicycles.
The second big difference between a Hurtigruten coastal liner and a cruise ship is the dining. Since the ships may have a few hundred cruise passengers plus a few hundred day-trippers, cruise passengers must scan their key card when entering the dining room. Day guests are not allowed in the dining room since their fare is for passage only. Cruise passengers have three meals a day in the dining room included in their fare. The ships also have an a la carte cafe that sells snacks and meals to both the day travelers and those cruise guests looking for a snack or drink in-between meals.
The cruise passengers can use their cabin key card to pay for onboard purchases, and the day-trippers use a credit card.
The third difference relates to drinks like coffee and tea. Cruise ships always have tea and coffee included in the fare. It is not included on the Hurtigruten ships, and anyone who gets the self-serve coffee in the cafe must pay. Cruise passengers do get coffee and tea included with their fare, but only during mealtimes in the dining room. The ships sell coffee mugs that can be refilled without having to pay extra, so coffee lovers often invest in one of those and keep it filled.
The last main difference is the length of time in each port and organization of the shore excursions. With over 30 ports in 5 (or 7) days, the ships don't spend much time at the dock. The Hurtigruten ships only stay in some ports less than 30 minutes--just long enough to offload and load cargo and passengers. Even the ports with longer stays of a few hours are not in port long enough to wait on passengers who have gone off on half- or full-day excursions. So, those on a bus or small boat excursions disembark in one port, take their tour, and then re-board the ship at another port.
With 11 different ships on the north/south coastal route, the tour operators do these tours every day and have the timing down pat. On one tour, we even got to watch the ship sail underneath us as we crossed a bridge on our bus! This type of bus tour gives participants the chance to see much more of the countryside than they would when returning to the same port. Of course, those on the excursions miss some of the coastal sights, but you can't do everything (although some of us try).
Those who love the comforts of a cruise ship will be happy to know that even though the Hurtigruten ships carry cars and cargo, they resemble regular cruise ships more than they do freighters. Each of the Hurtigruten ships is different, so on some of the newer ships, the cabins and suites are much like those seen on cruise ships, but on older ships, the accommodations are more basic. They do have heated floors in the bathroom, which is much appreciated year-round in Norway. The lounges and outdoor decks are comfortable and feature some of the best views you will find anywhere.
The food in the dining room is good, with nice buffets. Some ships have buffets at all three meals while others offer a menu at dinner. Some of the ships have an a la carte "Norway's Coastal Kitchen" dining experience, which is delicious and memorable
Hurtigruten Expedition Ships
Although Hurtigruten bases 11 of its classic coastal liners on the route between Bergen and Kirkenes year-round, the company also does expedition cruises of the polar regions--the Arctic and Antarctic. In April 2016, Hurtigruten management signed a letter of intent with the Norwegian shipyard Kleven to purchase up to four new explorer ships for delivery in 2018 and 2019. This is great news for those who love explorer and expedition cruising.
A new expedition ship, the ms Spitsbergen, sails the Arctic region beginning in May 2017, along with the ms Fram. The ms Fram sails to Antarctica in the winter and the ms Midnatsol joins the Fram in Antarctica. These expedition ships repositioning to South America and Antarctica have long sea voyages as they move between continents.