01 of 17
What is the world's most beautiful voyage? This is a dinner table topic on many cruise ships when travelers discuss their favorite ports of call and itineraries. A few years ago, the Public Broadcasting Company did a 134-hour live broadcast from a 1,100-mile voyage along the western coast of Norway on a Hurtigruten coastal liner. The title of the documentary was A Norway Passage: The Most Beautiful Voyage, and millions of viewers have watched and been mesmerized by the trip since the original airing. Although the "most beautiful" anything (or anybody) is a personal opinion, a cruise along this gorgeous coastline with Hurtigruten is certainly memorable and among the most beautiful.
I sailed the southbound leg of this voyage on the Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol from Kirkenes to Bergen in August and loved the ship, ports of call, shore-side activities, and long summer days. The routes and Hurtigruten ports of call vary somewhat on the northbound and southbound Norwegian coastal voyages. However, since the Gulf Stream flows along the west coast of Norway, the ships can sail year-round, so the itineraries do not change with the dramatically changing weather. Each season brings new vistas, but all are spectacular. Each season also brings different activities since the long days of summer include 1 am daylight shore excursions, and the long nights of winter include dog sledding and snowmobiling.
This detailed, 17-page cruise log documents our Hurtigruten southbound voyage. Be sure to check out the 86 pictures in our coastal Norway photo gallery from our cruise.Continue to 2 of 17 below.
02 of 17
Two Days in Oslo Before Cruise
Most travelers who book a Hurtigruten Norwegian coastal voyage start their vacation in Norway with a few days in Oslo since this capital city has a large international airport. Visitors arriving in Oslo can easily take the fast train into the city by just swiping their credit card at the turnstile to pay for a ticket. One of the easiest transfers I've ever done.
There are many things to do and see in Oslo. The spectacular Opera House seen in the photo above dominates the Oslo harbor. The architects wanted it to resemble a large ice berg, so they used white Italian marble in the design. Strolling on the roof has quickly become a popular activity for those visiting Oslo. In addition, many have enjoyed sitting on the roof for outdoor summer concerts. It's only one of several fascinating buildings and sculptures in the city. Visitors staying downtown can easily walk to many of the museums, the Royal Palace, and the City Hall. Public transportation facilitates visits to the museums and exhibits on the Bygdøy Peninsula, the Munch Museum, and the fantastic Vigeland sculptures in Frogner Park. Those looking for hiking (or cross-country skiing) opportunities should check out the miles of trails near the Holmenkollen ski jump.
We stayed at the Thon Hotel Oslo Panorama, which was only about a half dozen blocks from the train station and easy walking distance on the flat, paved sidewalks. We checked into our very Scandinavian-decored rooms and got settled in before going out to explore the city. This hotel was quite nice and was very family-friendly. It also had an excellent breakfast included in the price.
With two days in Oslo, I had time to see some of the new sites in the city as well as revisit some of those I had seen the two previous times I was there. Here's some thoughts on the places I saw on this trip.
Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art
Our first stop was the new Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, a contemporary museum that opened in the fall of 2012. It is in a great setting--at the end of the Aker Brygge, a large shopping, dining, and bar area. The museum is at the edge of the Oslo fjord and was designed by Renzo Piano. It took six years to build the spectacular building, which is a privately owned museum.
The contemporary art inside the Astrup Fearnley museum was interesting to say the least, although I find it hard to consider most of it art. According to the small guide provided at the entrance, "the focus is on acquiring major pieces of contemporary art that push the boundaries of the artistic canon." If that's the goal, then the museum is certainly meeting it. The museum is on both sides of a small canal, with a traveling exhibition in one building, and the permanent Astrup Fearnley Collection in the second. The artist featured in the traveling exhibition in building one was Cindy Sherman (who was born in 1954 and is still working). This exhibition was titled, "Cindy Sherman - Untitled Horrors", and I can see where they got the name. Ms. Sherman takes photographs and uses other media with them. The resulting works relate to things like catastrophes, pornography, war, surrealism, and fairy tales.
The second building was even more challenging to my senses. I would have never thought that artist Jeff Koons could put three carpet vacuum cleaners, two shop vacuums, and a bunch of fluorescent light bulbs, all housed in a glass box and call it art. Another piece was a real cow that had been cut in half by artist Damien Hirst, with the left side in one glass box separated by the right side in another glass box by about 18 inches. A placard listed the media used as cow and formaldehyde, which is how we knew it was a real cow. All of the pieces in this museum are certainly provocative, but most of it wasn't something pleasing to to look at or have in your home.
We strolled around the city taking photos and ended up at the National Gallery to see the "Munch 150" anniversary exhibition of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's 150th birthday. This was more traditional art, and Munch used many different styles through the years. His painting "The Scream" is probably the best known, and he did four of these with the same theme, two of which were in the museum.
Dinner at the Ekeberg Restaurant
It was getting to be late afternoon, and I was dragging by the time we got back to the hotel at 5:30--just in time to take a shower and be ready to go to dinner with the whole group at 7:00 pm. Dinner was at the Ekeberg Restaurant that is high up in the hills overlooking Oslo and the Oslo fjord. Beautiful views and a great three-course dinner. Started with an appetizer of a smoked salmon rolled up with cheese inside and a grilled scallop. The main course was a delicious baked cod with some fresh vegetables, followed by a tasty dessert.
Our second day in Oslo, we had a tour bus in the morning to take us to sites that were not within easy walking distance of the hotel.
Vigeland Park is one of Oslo's most popular (and free) tourist attractions. Artist Gustav Vigeland made an agreement with the city--he would donate his life's work to the city in exchange for a place to live and a stipend from the city. This 80-acre park is the world's largest sculpture park, and the 200 pieces (with over 600 figures) are unique and fascinating. Each is nude. Vigeland didn't want the dress of the people to date them, so they look as modern today as when they were created between 1924 and 1943.
The statues are of bronze, forged iron, and granite. Some are joyous, others are sad or thought-provoking. But they are all fascinating and fun to discuss. None of the statues are named, and Vigeland didn't explain any of them, preferring to let the viewer invent his own story. The angry baby, a small boy who is obviously throwing a temper tantrum, is the most famous. He is demanding attention, and he gets it. Nearby is a sweet little shy girl who is just as precious, but almost overlooked. It's definitely a must-see destination for those visiting Oslo.
It was raining while we were at the park, but we just sloshed around in the rain, enjoying all the statues and providing our own interpretations of the different groupings.
Viking Ship Museum
Next, the bus took us out to the Byggdøy peninsula to visit one of the half dozen good museums/sites to visit on this area across the Oslo fjord from downtown. Most people arrive at Byggdøy via boat, but since we had the bus for the day, we rode the long way around, arriving at the Viking Ship Museum in mid-morning. This museum amazed me the first time I saw it in 2001, and it was the same feeling again. The ship has three old wooden Viking ships, dating back to the 9th century. Like the Egyptians, the Vikings believed in the afterlife and thought people should take necessities along with them in their burial plot. For many Vikings, a good boat was one of these necessities. They were buried in the blue mud of the region that preserved the wood.
One boat (Oseberg, 820 AD) is intricately carved and probably belonged to royalty. Thirty-two men would man the ship, and the bodies of a royal woman and her maid were found in the boat. Other artifacts were stored in the Oseberg for use after death including three elaborate sledges, a wagon, five carved animal heads, five beds and the skeletons of 12 horses. The wagon, sledges, and four of the animal heads are also displayed at the museum.
The second is the Gokstad, a seafaring vessel, with deeper sides and keel. Ships like this one (about 890 A.D.) sailed from Scandinavia to France and North America. It was used to bury a chieftain, but the grave was robbed so only a few artifacts were found when the ship was discovered, including 12 horses, 6 dogs, and a peacock, which must have also been a pet since I don't think it would be tasty.
The third ship was actually the first one discovered. It is called the Tune, and dates back to 900 A.D. It also was an ocean-going ship and the body of a middle-aged man was in the boat, along with some weapons, a suit of chain mail, and a horse's skeleton.
The outdoor artwork and atrium murals in Oslo's City Hall make this building worth a quick visit. Its two brick towers and clock give it a utilitarian look from afar, but it's very different when you get close or go inside. The impressive central atrium is where the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony is held. The non-descript brick building also has many wood and ceramic panels in the outdoor courtyard, which are not visible from the street.
The 7-11 stores (yes, the same ones we have in the USA) distribute tickets for the free tour of the Royal Palace. However, when we checked at one, all tickets for the current day were sold out. However, we knew that they held back a few at the gate, so we decided to see the changing of the guard and then see if there were no-shows for the English language tour, so we sloshed over to the palace in the rain and arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard at 1:30. We felt so sorry for the poor young boys (most Norwegians must do a year of military or public service at age 18) when it started raining hard during the ceremony. We found shelter under a nearby tree where we could watch without getting any wetter, but the soldiers had to march around with the water dripping off their pom-pomed hats. After the ceremony, we checked back with the 2:00 English tour, but there were already about 15 people standing in line for any no-shows, so we decided to pass. I'll remember next time to book advance tickets.
Since artist Edvard Munch's is from Norway, it is appropriate to visit the Munch Museum located on the east side of the city. It was only a short subway train ride from the station near the Royal Palace. The exhibits there complemented those at the National Gallery. The museum was interesting and had works from his later life, which seemed to be much darker than his earlier pieces (or maybe the dark day and jet lag was setting in). We had seen two of the "Screams" (he did four) at the National Gallery the day before, and this museum had a third. All were similar and express a feeling we have all shared at one time or another.
Nobel Peace Center
The Nobel Peace Center is in downtown Oslo near the City Hall. They have some guided tours in English, which helps visitors understand more about each of the Peace Prize winners. The museum has electronic stands with iPad-like devices, one for each winner. They only have a short paragraph as to their accomplishments, so there's no information provided on justification as to why someone was selected. If you are visiting this museum, I think the guided tour in English is worth waiting for or scheduling the timing of your visit to the museum.
After a busy day touring, dinner at the Louise Restaurant in the Aker Brygge district was a welcome chance to sit down and enjoy a delicious meal. Appetizers were a sampler of two types of trout--one smoked like salmon and the other a kind of salt fish--a taste of reindeer, lamb, and ham, an aquavit salsa with lingonberries in a chocolate shell, and sauces for the meats--one of wild garlic mayonnaise and a delicious sour cream sauce that added extra fat. The main course was baked cod on a bed of celery root and apple puree, snow peas, and elder flower sauce. Dessert was a cloudberry concoction along with brown cheese ice cream.
Walking back to the hotel, it had stopped raining, and many people were dancing to live music on the pier. Nice ending to a nice day, despite the rainy weather. Our two days in Oslo were over, and we flew north to the town of Kirkenes early the next morning, where we would stay overnight before boarding the Hurtigruten Midnatsol the next afternoon.Continue to 3 of 17 below.
03 of 17
A Lesson on Life in the North (and on the Russian Border) in Kirkenes
The flight to Kirkenes the next morning was almost two hours north, and I was excited to set foot above the Arctic Circle for the first time. The weather was fantastic--sunny and in the mid-50's, which is a perfect summer day for this latitude (almost 70 degrees north and Arctic Circle is 66.33 degrees N).
Kirkenes is a town of about 3500-4000 people in the Sor-Varanger municipality (like a state) of Norway. Sor-Varanger only has about 10,000 residents of 68 different nationalities, so this part of Norway is very lightly populated, but diverse. The municipality has over 10,000 lakes, so no one has to share a freshwater fishing hole (according to our guide). Riding in from the airport, we passed by three lakes with simple names--first, second, and third lake. These three lakes used to have very complex Sami (indigenous Laplanders) names, but no one could pronounce or spell them, so they just changed them. I think it reflects the simple, hearty lifestyle of those who live in northern climates. No one lives in Kirkenes (or anywhere up here) for very long if they don't love dark, cold winters.
Kirkenes is the most easterly port of call for the coastal liners like the Hurtigruten ship the Midnatsol we would be sailing on the next day. Hurtigruten runs several liners between Bergen in the south and Kirkenes in the north, and the one-way journey south takes five nights. Many people do the round trip voyage, because either some of the ports of call, amount of time spent in a port northbound vs southbound, or time of day/night arrival/departure are different. Many of the small towns have a different Hurtigruten liner arrive each day, night, or both--one headed northbound and the other southbound. It's a popular and important means of transportation since the harbors stay ice free in the winter due to the nearby Gulf Stream.
Kirkenes is less than 5 miles from Russia, and only about 25 miles from Finland. It's really tucked into the corner. Sor-Varanger forms a geological, botanical, and zoological frontier between Europe and Asia. It was really surprised to learn that it is as far east as Cairo, Egypt. Because of its proximity to Russia, all street signs are in both languages. Thanks to an agreement between Norway and Russia, those who live less than 30 km from the border (18.6 miles) do not need a visa to cross the border and get a special pass. Over 250,000 Russians come to Kirkenes to shop. We all wondered why since most goods are so high-priced in Norway. However some clothing and shoes are less expensive and more available in Norway. The number one product--baby diapers (like Pampers). These shoppers, dubbed the Russian diaper mafia by locals, come to Kirkenes, stock up on diapers, and resale them in Russia. Kirkenes residents go to Russia to primarily buy gasoline, which is 1/3 the cost of what it is in Norway.
One of Europe's most famous roads the E6 starts in Kirkenes. Drivers can go all the way to Rome from there--5,102 km. Our guide Michael said residents hoped the Pope would drive his Popemobile north one day. They also have the world's second most northern train track (first is in Russia). This train is used to haul iron ore from the mine to the ships waiting to haul it away.
Kirkenes has a ship building repair facility, but is mainly famous for its excellent iron ore mine with very high quality iron. The mine was open in 1906 and about 8,000 people moved to Kirkenes to work in it. The mine closed in 1996 when ore prices dropped, but reopened in 2009 when prices rose again. In the first 90 years the mine was opened, they moved over 400 billion tons of ore. They now have about 500-600 people working at very high priced jobs in the mine. It's not hard physical work since they mostly drive big machinery or use dynamite to open up areas to dig with the machines. Starting salary is about $10,000 per month, and workers are on for 12 hour shifts for 14 days straight, followed by 2 weeks off to spend their money. Today the mine also sells the "garbage granite rock" from the mine to Russia as a base for pipelines and to Arab countries like Saudi Arabia/Dubai to build artificial islands.
The unemployment rate is only 1.2% in Kirkenes, and many people work 3 or 4 jobs due to the demand for workers. If people want to work (and most who live in this demanding climate do), they can find a job.
King Crab Safari and Cook Out
We got checked into the excellent Thon Hotel Kirkenes about noon and left again at 1 pm to do a King crab safari. The nine of us and our guide Michael donned those waterproof suits and life jackets, boarded a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) and went out in the Bokfjord to check the traps Michael had baited that morning. He used a winch to pull the traps out of up to 60 meter-deep water. It only took two traps to get enough crabs to feed our hungry group. We rode around the fjord a little, and Michael pointed out some of the bunkers built by the Nazi Germans who occupied Norway during World War II.
Over 100,000 troops occupied this tiny town from 1940 to 1944, and it was the third-most-bombed town during the war (Dresden #1 and Valletta, Malta #2). Why Kirkenes? Hitler saw it as a quick way to capture Russia. He badly wanted to invade the Russian port Murmansk, which is less than 50 miles from Kirkenes. Since this port is open year round (Gulf stream keeps the ice away), the Allies shipped goods (mostly from the Lend/Lease program) to Murmansk to distribute to the Russian armies. The Nazis sunk many Allied ships full of goods, but some got through. They also destroyed many airplanes. Hitler thought he could take Murmansk in about three weeks, but his troops never did. If Hitler had secured Murmansk, Russia was his since the country badly needed the goods from the USA and other Allies.
After securing enough king crabs, we rode the RIB to his company's small restaurant on the opposite side of the fjord from Kirkenes. Michael said the largest king crabs have a 7 foot spread between the tips of their legs and can produce about 30 pounds of meat. We didn't have any nearly that large. He showed us how to clean the crabs by stabbing them in the heads, pulling the knife through and then cutting out the gills. He was nice and did all the work for us. Usually they just use sea water to steam them, but since we were eating in a "restaurant", he used a fist full of salt along with drinking water and then steamed them outdoors over a propane gas cooker in the boiling salty water for about 15-17 minutes. We sat at a long table in the restaurant shack with great views of the fjord and ate the crabs until we were all almost sick. He had butter and lemon, but they were SO good we all just ate them plain, cracking and pulling the tender, juicy meat out of the shell with our fingers. One of the best meals I've ever had, and all we had to go along with it was bread. The restaurant (really a charming shack) had a nice pit toilet in a separate building. It was a lovely day to sit outside, chat, and watch the water come to a boil.
River Boat Safari to the Russian Border
Michael returned us to the hotel about 5:30, and we soon left for our next excursion--the "river boat safari to the Russian border". This tour was in an open wooden boat, and we had to wear yet another jumpsuit to ride up the Pasvik River almost to a dam on the Russian border at Boris Gleb. Our guide/boat driver Jenny told us how the Norway king and Russia tsar had set the border in 1826, swapping parcels of land on both sides of the river. Today there are clear markers dividing the two countries, with a yellow pole marking the Norway boundary and a red/green one for Russia. Only about three feet divides the poles, and each country has troops monitoring the border with binoculars. Norway made the border more secure by using technology in 2005 and built cabins for its 150 soldiers to live in who are responsible for monitoring the 196 km border. Russia doesn't have the sophisticated technology, so it uses manpower--about 1500 troops to patrol the same 196 km. Crossing the border incurs very stiff fines (about $1000) for just stepping over the line. Norway enforces the fine very closely in order to encourage Russia to do the same. Norway has more to worry about since Murmansk has many old rusty nuclear submarines sitting there. Plus, Russia has a big drug problem. Norway doesn't want the nuclear material or drugs into their country. Our guide said a British woman stepped over the line having her photo made and was fined the $1000 by the Norwegian government as an example. We all had our photos made, but gave the border a wide berth since we knew we were being watched.
On the Norwegian side of the border, Jenny's company had a small house where we ate dinner. None of us was hungry, but we ate some of the salmon and two in our group ate more crab. Two Norwegian women not with our group were also on this tour, and both of them went through a whole bottle of squeeze mayonnaise, loading it up on white bread with their king crab.
After dinner, we got back in the boat and rode to the hotel. A few of us were still awake, so walked to a nearby local bar, where we had a glass of aquavit (Scandinavian brandy) and a large beer. Slept like a rock.
The next morning, we had a huge buffet breakfast at the Thon Kirkenes Hotel. Like the hotel in Oslo, this one was typically Scandinavian in style--like something out of Ikea. The room was much more like one in a traditional hotel in the USA--not two small rooms as in Oslo, and I had a nice sized bath (with a heated floor, which seems to be the norm in Norway), a closet, which was missing in my room in Oslo, and a desk with a regular chair rather than a stool.
We were delighted to see that Michael, our guide from the day before, was driving us around the Kirkenes area. He is quite entertaining and very informative. First, we rode in the van to the Russian border, where we had our photos made again standing next to the sign. This is the border crossing most people use since it is accessible via road (rather than the river one we were at the day before on the river).
The Four Seasons Above the Arctic Circle
Next, we drove along one of the beautiful fjords while Michael described the seasons in Kirkenes. The average summer temperature is about 55-60 degrees F, but residents start sweating when it reaches 50. Temperatures above 70 are rare, but about once or twice a year it will get above 80 if the wind is from the SE up the Pasvik River. Temperatures can change more than 40 degrees in just 5 minutes, so residents know they have to always carry warm weather clothes when in the outdoors, along with a knife to cut trees for a fire. The midnight sun (when it never sets) occurs between May 17 and July 23 in Kirkenes. After that, each day gets shorter by about 12 minutes and by the end of November, there is only 3 hours of daylight (like dawn or dusk) and no sun at all for two months. Michael said it's not as dark as you might think since the reflection off the white snow provides some light.
Fall lasts about 5 or 6 DAYS in late September. The trees turn from green to yellow to red and fall off in less than a week. Nature does everything quicker above the Arctic Circle. Winter starts in October, with the first snow of about 1-3 feet. In November, the residents start to get out the winter stuff and temperatures drop. Ice forms on the lakes, and when it gets to more than 15 centimeters thick (they use a drill to check), they bring out the dog sleds and snow mobiles. The fishing does not stop when the ice is thick. They use a chain saw to cut a hole in the ice and then a manual drill to make the hole bigger so they can get the big king crab cages/traps through the ice. Michael has a winter cabin at the end of a fjord that is only accessible via snow mobile. People using cars have spikes or studs on their tires in the winter.
Mid-January to mid-March is the coldest weather (5 to 15 degrees F for the high). It's so cold that if you take a cup of hot coffee outside and throw it up into the air, it will freeze before it hits the ground. Those who live and work outdoors year round in the far north have 2 hard rules--(1) the air is very dry, so people have to work to stay hydrated, drinking 3 liters (almost a gallon) of water each day over and above any coffee or other liquids they drink; and (2) they eat much more since they need the energy, often eating 6 to 8 big meals per day. There's a special light from about 9:30 am to 12:30 pm when there are ice crystals in the air and you can see the Arctic blue reflecting off the ice. They also have the northern lights in the winter. Although they occur all the time, they can only be seen when it is dark. Residents (and visitors) never tire of seeing this phenomenon. Best time to see the northern lights is end of January until end of April. The sky must be clear (no clouds) and perfectly dark, so you have to go out into a field away from town.
Many outdoor enthusiasts visit Kirkenes in the winter, and some stay over at the SnowHotel. While visiting Kirkenes in the winter, unique activities like a snow mobile safari, husky dog sled safari, and king crab lunch are also available as part of a winter adventure package that includes a chance to stay overnight at the SnowHotel.
In mid-April, the snow starts to melt, but it takes about 3 to 6 weeks to melt the 3 to 20 feet of snow. Like fall, spring lasts about 5 to 6 days. Then, the fishing, hiking, and hunting can start. The area has about 300 moose and 6,000 reindeer (we saw 3 reindeer when in the RIB). They also have red fox (but no polar fox), lynx, wolverines, and about 45-55 of the European brown bear, which is not the same sub-species of bear as the Alaskan brown bear. This one is more like our black bear--very shy and not aggressive. Many travelers come to Kirkenes to watch birds since there are over 230 kinds in the area.
Mining Town of Bjørnevatn
Leaving the fjord, we went to the mining town of Bjørnevatn. This was the first Norwegian city liberated in the area on October 22, 1944. The Nazis had stupidly destroyed the iron ore and nickel mines, when they could have used the raw materials themselves. The Russians had heavily bombed Kirkenes and Bjørnevatn since there were 100,000 Nazi soldiers and all their warfare but only 3000 residents. Most of the bombing was at night. The Kirkenes residents hid in a bunker in town, and the Bjørnevatn residents fled to a tunnel inside the mine. Amazingly, only 8 Norwegians died during the war, but about 3,500 people lived in the Bjørnevatn tunnel for over 2 months in the early winter while since their homes were destroyed--long enough to establish a hospital and kitchen. Ten babies were even born in that tunnel.
The Russian soldiers arrived in Bjørnevatn about 3 am. They weren't sure who was in the tunnel until a Norwegian man showed them a flag he had smuggled down there. Ever since this liberation, the town of Bjorevatn and Russia have had a special relationship. Russia even gave the town an onion dome to put on the town pavilion. In order to avoid paying taxes, they placed it on the border, and left it there. The Bjørnevatn citizens came and took it away, so they didn't have to pay taxes either. There were also a couple of monuments to the Russian liberators.
We saw several other monuments, including one to the Swedish engineers who built the railroad track between the mine and the pier. These Rallaren engineers were specialists in using dynamite. We also saw an outdoor bus shelter made from the bucket/shovel of one of the pieces of huge equipment used at the mine. Before they turned this bucket into a shelter, vandals kept tearing the shuttle down or defacing it. When the government installed the new bucket bus shelter, they offered a prize to anyone who destroyed it by hand. No one has bothered it.
Next, we moved onto the Borderland Museum on the outskirts of Kirkenes. This museum has a large permanent display of pictures and objects related to the war in the border country. It also has exhibitions about life in the border country and the 100 years of mining history in the area, but we didn't have time to explore those sections--we had a ship to catch!
We did take time to stop at Andersgrotta in a residential area of Kirkenes. This is the World War II underground bomb shelter used by the Kirkenes residents. A short film describes the 320 bombing attacks on the town and over 1000 bombs dropped by the Russians between 1941 and 1944. A man named Anders came up with the idea for the tunnel when it was apparent that the German soldiers were going to build bunkers for themselves to stay in when the air raid sirens blew, but not for the residents of Kirkenes. They gave him permission to build the tunnels as long as they citizens did all the work themselves. It looked much like a mine tunnel, and only had one air vent. Must have gotten really close down there with about 1500 people inside.
On the way to board the Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol (northern lights in Norwegian), we rode to the top of Prestfjellet Mountain, the area they call "little Beverly Hills", the most exclusive residential area of Kirkenes. It sits on a high hill overlooking the fjord, and houses cost about 4 to 5 times more than the same house on lower land in the rest of Norway (5 million kroner or over $800,000) Everything is expensive in Norway.
We could see the Midnatsol at the dock, so we re-boarded the van and rode down to the fjord. Time to start our voyage south!Continue to 4 of 17 below.
04 of 17
Witchcraft Memorial and Fortress at Vardø
Setting Sail on the Midnatsol
We boarded the Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol about 12:45 pm, right before she sailed. Didn't even have to show a passport or go through security screening. Some of the passengers had been on for 7 days, having sailed northbound from Bergen. We would be going south to Bergen, but stopping at some different ports and some of the same ports but for different lengths of time or at a different time of day. This coastal voyage has been ongoing since 1893, and many of the passengers are locals just on for a day. The ship also carries cars, so it's a dual purpose ferry and cruise ship. The cruise passengers have a dedicated dining room (you have to show your key card to enter unless they recognize you) and key cards to access the cabins and to charge things just like on a ship. Those without cabins have a small cafe with a la carte pricing and can sometimes be seen sleeping in the public areas, although this is discouraged. Very unusual, but interesting. Cabins can be booked for overnight or up to the 12-night roundtrip voyage--Bergen to Kirkenes to Bergen.
We ate lunch in the one dining room and then unpacked in our cabins. My cabin had a large porthole picture window. The ship only has a very few balconied cabins and suites. Mine was quite adequate, and I had a heated floor in the bath room, a small refrigerator and TV. I also had a desk, two small chairs and a small table. The window was wonderful to look at the constantly marvelous fjord and coastal scenery.
The ship has 319 cabins and suites, but can carry 1000 passengers (including the day trippers). There's about 300 crew. Most of the cabins were full, so the ship had two seatings for lunch and dinner--11:30 & 1:30 and 6:00 & 8:30. If excursions interfere with the set lunches/dinners, they include another seating. I went around the ship and made photos. The ship was built in 2003, but it was much nicer than I expected--more like a cruise ship than a ferry. There's no pool, but the ship had two hot tubs on the top deck, along with quite a bit of outdoor seating. The ship has WiFi all over the ship, but many in our group had problems accessing it in our cabins.
The English speaking guests had a safety briefing at 3 pm, but we didn't have to don life jackets or even go to our muster stations.
Things to See with an Hour in Vardø
At 4 pm we arrived at our first port of call, Vardø. Like many of the stops on the coastal liner, we were only in the town for 1 hour. (Some ports have only a 15-minute stop.) We managed to see the main two sites in the city, both interesting--the Steilneset Witches Memorial and the old fortress. The Witches Memorial is relatively new and is very modern looking. It sits on the coast in a huge overgrown field and looks like a drying rack or something. Inside is a 400-foot long narrow corridor with the names of the Vardø witches burned in the late 17th century, plus a description of their transgression on a plaque. It's only printed in Norwegian, but we got a Norwegian-speaker to translate a few of the plaques for us. Really creepy. Vardø was a kind of capital city of the area (therefore, it had the fortress, too) in the 1600's, so the witch trials (and burnings) were held there. When you exited the long corridor with the information on those 131 tried and 91 convicted (only one was a man) and went outside, you came upon a small black glass building. Inside this small glass building was only one thing---a straight-backed wooden-looking chair with a flame coming up through the seat. Very moving, but also macabre.
The nearby fortress was a little boring compared to the Witches Memorial--much like other fortresses I've seen with a moat surrounding a thick rock wall and sod-roofed buildings. Those who only have time to see one thing in Vardø should focus on the Witches Memorial, unless they are real lovers of old fortresses.
All too soon the hour was over, and we headed back to the Hurtigruten ship. Dinner was not until 8:30, so several of the group skipped since we had a midnight-ish wake up call for our 1 am reindeer watching expedition. I showered and got cleaned up and met the three others in our group who were dining. We had a nice meal--shrimp salad on bruschetta for an appetizer, pork tenderloin and potatoes, and a lime mousse with cookie for dessert. Very good, but unusual that the ship has a fixed menu every night.
Was in bed by 10:30, but I set alarm for 12:15 am since we had to meet in reception at 12:45 for our 1 am reindeer watching excursion. Was gonna be a very long 48 hours the next two days, with five shore excursions planned.Continue to 5 of 17 below.
05 of 17
Reindeer Watching at Mehamn
Due to the timing of the Midnatsol coastal liner schedule, our first ship's shore excursion started very early--1 am. The ship docked in Mehamn (latitude 71 degrees, 02', 6") at 1 am and we were immediately off the ship, since the Midnatsol was only stopping for 15 minutes before sailing on. Our small group was joined by one Norwegian woman from the ship. This is a new tour, and I don't think many people knew about it. Plus, with many on the ship being from Norway, maybe they've seen enough reindeer. One in our group didn't go since we had seen three reindeer in Kirkenes, which was enough for her.
Our South African guide Ruan and his Swiss wife Tina had moved to Mehamn 3 years ago. They were seeking a simpler, more quiet life away from the city, and they love the cold weather. They picked Mehamn almost randomly and hiked/backpacked from the little town all the way to Bulgaria right before they moved here. Very interesting young couple.
We rode in a van across a peninsula between two fjords, meeting the Midnatsol at its next port of call Kjøllefjord at 3 am. Having 24 hours of light really makes people stay out at all hours.
Our guide Ruan talked about his home and work as we rode into the countryside. Mehamn is a fishing village in the Finnmark municipality, with 800 residents and 4 fish processing plants. Over 21 nationalities live in the town, including one South African and one Swiss (our hosts). They own a company called Expedition Earth, an outdoor and adventure company. They also have a small bed and breakfast called Red Tree B&B that can accommodate up to 8 people in its 2 bedrooms. (pretty cozy, eh?) As we quickly moved into the country, we were surprised to see many cabins. Raun said even those who live in the tiny town of Mehamn like to get away from the not-really-urban life to their quiet cottages in the countryside. The town even has an airport that reportedly handles 14,000 people per year.
We soon spotted our first reindeer along the road (and later sometimes in the road). There's only one road in the area, and it connects Mehamn and the slightly larger town of Kjøllefjord on the opposite side of the peninsula and on a different fjord. Both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summertime, but females keep theirs through the winter and use them to dig through the frozen tundra to reach mossy food for their calves. Males have antlers during rut (mating) season, but lose them after rutting. Therefore, according to urban legends, Rudolph and all the other of Santa's reindeer must be female.
Nine Sami families have summer cottages on the peninsula. They herd about 5000 reindeer 200 km (120 miles) from their winter homes in the south near the Finland border to this peninsula. (Other Sami do the same thing in other parts of northern Norway). The Sami are the indigenous people of Scandinavia. We used to call them Laplanders, but they now prefer to be called Sami. The Sami were once a semi-nomadic tribe. About 40,000 Sami live in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden, 10,000 in Finland, and 3,000 in Russia, according to our guide. We learned later that claiming to be "Sami" is now advantageous, whereas they once hid their heritage if possible due to discrimination. Only Sami families are allowed to have reindeer herds in Norway, but less than 10 percent (2800) actually do. These 2800 people have about 200K reindeer in total, most in the Finmark municipality.
Like the Inuits, the Sami have their own oral language, with over 300 words for snow and over 300 for reindeer! They can be very descriptive and didn't need a written word to describe the most important things in their lives. The reindeer slaughter is in late August and they move south in October. Nowadays they herd the reindeer with snow mobiles or helicopters.
Riding across the peninsula in the very early morning was magical. We had a clear sky, so it was light enough to see even though the sun didn't come up until 2:30 am. Sunset is about 11 pm since we are past the "midnight sun" official time frame end of July 23, but it never gets completely dark--it's like dusk for a few hours each evening. We got great photos of the reindeer and the surrounding tundra countryside. We ended our tour with a stop at Raun and Tina's lean-to hut with a roaring campfire. Tina served us homemade bread and a lingonberry and cream spread, and we roasted chunks of reindeer meat on skewers over the fire. Before roasting, the reindeer meat had been soaked in salty water for about 12 hours and then smoked in a lavvu (teepee). We were on a hilltop overlooking Kjøllefjord, so we had great views of our ship the Midnatsol as it sailed into the fjord. Walking across the tiny trees (about 3 inches high) growing on the tundra was a delicious sensation--soft and spongy. I thought it was thick moss, but the guide said it was a type of tree that doesn't grow much because of the location. Whatever, we all loved the way it felt under our shoes.
Back onboard the ship at 3:15 am, we had almost 3 hours until our second excursion of the day at 6:00 am. I actually managed to sleep an hour or so before the alarm rudely woke me. Of course, by 6 am the sun has been up for about 3 hours, so it looks like about 9 am. We arrived in Honningsvåg at 5:45 and were off and on the bus by 6 am, ready to see the North Cape.Continue to 6 of 17 below.
06 of 17
A Drive to the North Cape (Nordkapp)
Driving to the North Cape is one of Hurtigruten's most popular shore excursions, so three bus loads of passengers debarked the ship in Honningsvåg at 6:00 am for the ride north. Our bus was the English and French speakers, so we had to listen to everything twice (not that I could understand the French so sometimes dozed off). This excursion was taking us to Nordkapp (the North Cape), which is the northernmost point on continental Europe at 71 degrees, 10'21". Barrow, Alaska is a smidgen further north at 71 degrees, 17'26". There's a tiny village (Skarsvag) near the North Cape with 43 residents that is Norway's northernmost settlement. Whatever, it's not much difference! Interestingly, the Sami who considered the North Cape to be a sacred place and other visitors who considered it the northernmost point were a little dismayed to find (when measurement became more precise) that a small headland nearby called Knivskjellodden is 71 degrees, 11'8"--further north than the North Cape.
The North Cape isn't a town like Barrow; it's a tall mesa on a peninsula that rises 1000 feet above the sea. Tourists have been visiting the North Cape for well over 100 years, but the road to the North Cape was built in 1956. Before then, tourists arrived in ships and had to climb the 1,008 steps to the top. We arrived on a bus on a road coming up the peninsula, so didn't have to climb at all. We saw many more reindeer on the drive to the North Cape. The ride was lovely, with tundra all around. We spent almost 2 hours at the North Cape with plenty of time to see a short movie about the region with great shots of all four seasons (want to come back in winter), have buffet breakfast (included on our tour), and walk to the end of the butte and have our photo made by the symbolic Globe, which was erected in 1977.
The Sami reindeer herds on the North Cape arrive there each spring via ship. The Norwegian Army uses a landing craft to transport about 3800 reindeer over the Mageroy Strait to their summer grazing grounds. In the fall, the reindeer and their calves swim the 1800 meters (over a mile) across the strait on the return trip south since the exercise makes the meat better. The guide said the Sami are always worried about this swim since it's their livelihood headed across the channel.
Leaving North Cape at 8:15 am, we had a long ride through the countryside to catch up with the Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol in Hammerfest. We stopped at a Sami village for about 10 minutes--long enough to take a photo of the lavvu (teepee) and one with an old Sami man and a reindeer.
Our talkative guide went into a lot of details about the Sami, who came from Mongolia about 10,000 years ago and are cousins of the Inuits. The Finnmark state has the most Sami, but less than 20 percent are still semi-nomadic. Most have assimilated into the Norwegian culture as fishermen or in other industries. As noted before, many Samis who did not have the Mongoloid features denied their heritage until the 1980's/1990's when it became financially attractive to be a Sami. Nowadays, those who claim to be at least 1/8 Sami can register and vote in the Sami parliament election and get some of the government benefits dedicated to the native peoples. Oil and gas are a huge issue right now and are more complicated than the land issue. Many Norwegians could understand giving the Samis land (Finmark Act of 2006) or allowing them to graze their reindeer. Whether or not to give them a cut of the huge oil and gas profits is up in the air. Finmark has the lowest population density in Norway, so giving away land is an easier decision. Our guide (not Sami) noted that although these native peoples seemed to have more rights than others in Finmark, they weren't operating casinos yet like in the USA.
We arrived at Hammerfest not long before the ship sailed (they have the timing down pat) at 12:45. The ship had arrived in Hammerfest at 11:15, so those not going to the North Cape had 1.5 hours in town. Hammerfest advertises itself as the northernmost town in Europe, but other Norwegian communities on the mainland and islands are further north. Norway settlements need to have 5,000 residents to qualify as a "town", so it's really semantics. Our guide seemed to talk nonstop in one language or another. He lived in Honningsvåg, which is further north than Hammerfest, but doesn't have quite enough residents.
As we sailed southwest from Hammerfest, we didn't have any significant stops until Tromsø. We ate a late lunch at 2 pm (all breakfasts and lunches are buffet, but have a nice selection of salads, a soup of the day, fish, vegetables, chicken or some other kind of meat like lasagna, cheeses, and desserts. The ship stopped at Oksfjord for about 5 minutes, but that was the only town before 8:30 dinner. I took a short nap and never knew we stopped. Dinner was reindeer carpaccio on a pine nut salad with cranberry syrup, Arctic char with Hollandaise sauce, asparagus, beetroot (they eat a lot of beets) puree and potatoes, and a brownie with hazelnuts and sorbet for dessert. Very good. During dinner we stopped at Skjervøy for 30 minutes.
Note: Those who love the North Cape might want to add a Hurtigruten cruise to Cape Horn, which is the "end of the world" in South America.Continue to 7 of 17 below.
07 of 17
Fresh Shrimp and Sunset from the Deck of the Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol
Leaving Skjervøy after dinner, the Midnatsol sailed through a beautiful area of fjords and mountains in the late evening. The sun on the Lyngen Alps was magical. A boat pulled up alongside the Midnatsol and gave the ship a batch of fresh wild shrimp. We gathered out on the deck about 10 pm to eat the shrimp. They were very fresh--caught by a local fisherman, cooked in sea water, and delivered to the ship. We had to pull the heads and legs off, but they were very tasty--even without cocktail sauce. It was a marvelous ending to the long day, and an activity unlike I've had on any other large ship. The daylight was gone, but we still had one more thing to do before bedtime--a midnight concert in Tromsø.Continue to 8 of 17 below.
08 of 17
Midnight Concert in Tromsø
Although we had been up since a little after midnight when our day started with the reindeer spotting adventure in Mehamn, I couldn't go to bed right after dinner. Many of us on the Hurtigruten MS Midnatsol had signed up for a midnight concert at the famous Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø.
The buses left at midnight (soon as the ship docked) for the short drive across the bridge to the cathedral. We were entertained by a baritone, male pianist, and a fluglehorn/trumpet player. They performed for almost an hour, with a selection of Norwegian music.
The Arctic Cathedral had great acoustics. We were back on the Midnatsol and in the cabin by 1:30 am. What a long day, but great fun! No rest for the weary. Our next day would start with an excursion from Harstad at 8:15 am.Continue to 9 of 17 below.
09 of 17
Harstad and the Vesterålen Islands
It was another busy day on the Hurtigruten Midnatsol, with the first excursion from Harstad being a bus and ferry ride down to Sortland. Harstad is located on Hinnøya, Norway's largest island. Our bus tour began with a ride to a lookout over the prosperous town, and we could see our ship docked. This time we were on the Norwegian/English bus, so we got to hear yet another language in addition to our own. This town was one of the largest we've seen since we left Oslo, with 23,000 inhabitants. It was once a big herring town, but oil is king now.
Just outside town, we stopped at the Trondenes Church, which dates back to 1250 and the Middle Ages. This small quaint church was very nice, but I was surprised to learn that we had to sit through an "ecumenical" church service for about 5-10 minutes. The service wasn't really ecumenical, it was non-denominational, but definitely Christian. This service was fine with 99 percent of us on the bus, but the guide should have been more accurate in her description. The priest probably thought that if people were going to see the inside of his famous church, then he should grab the opportunity to recite the 23rd Psalm, say the Lord's Prayer, and sing a little music. One non-Christian woman on our bus was offended and more than a little mad. She might not have been so upset if the guide had presented the program as an example of a traditional Christian one in Norway rather than ecumenical. That way, those who were non-Christian could have stayed outside or observed a short Christian service as a curiosity.
Next, we walked to the nearby Trondenes Historical Center, which was a nice museum for such a small town. It had many archaeological findings, along with artifacts from World War II, when 800 captured Soviet soldiers died in the prisoner of war camps near Trondenes. The prisoners were treated as slaves by the Nazis, and the largest camp had over 1200 prisoners. The archaeological findings relate to the Vikings who lived on Hinnøya Island and nearby Bjarkøy island. Trondenes was important during the Christianization of northern Norway since the local Viking chieftains had to be pacified in order to unify the country.
We rode along Kvae Island, which was geologically interesting since there was a very clear line demarcating where the land was suppressed 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. We had moved further south from a few days earlier, and this area was the first agricultural one we had seen. Most of the Vesterålen islands seemed to be agricultural.
Our bus soon rode onto a ferry for the short ride (40 minutes) across the Gullesfjord, where we enjoyed some hot tea or coffee and some freshly baked Norwegian sweets called lefse, which are a potato pancake folded over with sugar and cinnamon inside. Delicious!
Leaving the ferry, we headed on towards Sortland, arriving just in time to cross a high bridge and have the Midnatsol pass underneath us. Got some great photos of the Hurtigruten ship.
These shore excursion leaders know how to time our arrival back at the pier, because we were back on the Midnatsol just in time to sail and for lunch. After lunch, we had a stopover in Stokmarknes for an hour (2:15 pm till 3:15 pm). Just enough time to see the Hurtigruten Museum just off the pier. This cruise line was set up in 1893 to sail coastal Norway, so has been in business for over 100 years. It was a fascinating museum with lots of maritime photos and memorabilia from the Norwegian coastal express. Anyone who enjoys maritime history will appreciate this nice exhibition.
We sailed during the early afternoon as we approached the Lofoten islands. But first, it was time to go looking for sea eagles in the scenic Raftsundet.Continue to 10 of 17 below.
10 of 17
Scenic Cruising through the Raftsundet
At promptly 4:25 pm, the guests on the Midnatsol who were on the "sea eagle safari" just stepped from our slowly-moving ship to a small sightseeing boat near the Trollfjord. We spend two hours mostly feeding sea gulls, although we did see three sea eagles. When a sea eagle was spotted, one of the crew injected air into a dead fish to make it float and then threw it overboard. The sea eagles swooped down and retrieved the fish, but never got close enough to get good photos. However, it was a beautiful day, and we all enjoyed the excursion boat experience in the spectacular Raftsundet, a 12-mile long strait that links the Vesterålen and Lofoten islands. We never lost sight of the Midnatsol, so those who stayed onboard got the same scenic vistas in the narrow passage.
This section of the voyage, along with the Trollfjord, which connects to the Raftsundet, were as gorgeous as promised by the brochures.
On my second trip to the Raftsundet and Trollfjorden with Hurtigruten, I did a different shore excursion, which was also excellent--a RIB Lofoten adventure.Continue to 11 of 17 below.
11 of 17
Magnificent Troll Fjord
The scenery in the Raftsundet and the Troll Fjord was some of the most dramatic on this voyage. Those of us on the sea eagle safari went up into the Troll fjord on our small excursion boat and waited on the Midnatsol to come in and turn around in the narrow passage. Got some great photos of the Hurtigruten Midnatsol, even though it was a little foggy and overcast. The steep sides of the Troll Fjord are as dramatic as those at Geirangerfjord, but the fjord is much smaller, which made the ship's pirouette even more impressive. Enjoyed a cup of hot tea and a biscuit (cookie) on the tour boat while enjoying the views of the Troll Fjord and the surrounding Raftsundet.Continue to 12 of 17 below.
12 of 17
Svolvær and the Picturesque Lofoten Islands
The sea eagle safari/Troll Fjord excursion boat took us to the town of Svolvær, and we arrived just before the Midnatsol pulled in. My third shore excursion of this long day took us on an hour's drive to a horse farm near a golf course on Lofoten Island. The farmer has a links course, plus 25 Icelandic horses to ride. This island is wild and magnificent, and we all loved it. Our group, which included one child of about 10, donned helmets and were assigned a horse--mine was named Mimir (Icelandic name). These horses are known for their excellent demeanor and gentle gait. We had an hour's ride across the moor, past some ancient Viking remnants, along a sandy beach, and up to the top of Storhaugen Hill. Fun ride! We all loved bonding with our Icelandic horse and seeing some of the island on the back of these gentle animals.
While we were riding, the Hurtigruten ship moved to Stamsund, which was further sound on Lofoten. We met the ship there a little after 10 pm, boarded, and soon sailed since the ship was only staying for 30 minutes. Like most Hurtigruten ports of call, people were on the gangplank with luggage, either boarding or disembarking. There was another late afternoon bus tour that was a sightseeing tour of Lofoten Island, so that tour group and ours had a special late-night dinner at 10:30 pm. Needless to say, it was another long day, but fun and one I'll always remember.Continue to 13 of 17 below.
13 of 17
Crossing the Arctic Circle
After being ashore for much of the three days we had been on the Midnatsol, the next morning at sea was a welcome one. The highlight of the morning was crossing the Arctic Circle at about 9:30 am. Everyone leaned over the railings outdoors in the sun and carefully looked for the golden globe marking the 66.33 degree north latitude of the Arctic Circle. We also had a good look at Horseman Mountain and other unusually-shaped islands. One even looked like a volcano from an old sci-fi movie since its summit was covered with clouds. It was a great day to be outside, and the ship passed through some more spectacular Norwegian scenery.
After crossing the Arctic Circle, the passengers and crew gathered on the pool deck to celebrate. Those who have crossed the equator on a ship know about the pollywogs, shellbacks, and King Neptune ceremony held by military, merchant marine, and cruise ships to mark that occasion. Hurtigruten celebrates its own traditions for crossing the Arctic Circle. On southbound voyages, one of the ship's officers served us a spoonful of cod liver oil, while a second officer offered up a spoonful of cloudberry liqueur. Cod is one of Norway's most important foods, and cloudberries are a favorite summertime fruit. The cod liver oil wasn't as bad as I expected, and the sweet cloudberry liqueur was tasty. Each of us even got to keep the souvenir spoon, and later in our cabin found a "Certificate of the Arctic Circle" signed by the Captain. The northbound crossing tradition doesn't sound nearly as fun since guests get ice dropped down their backs to mark their passage into the Arctic!
The ship sold postcards and special "Arctic Circle" stamps for the guests to send to friends, family, or themselves. These were postmarked on the ship and mailed for us. They also had "I crossed the Arctic Circle with Hurtigruten" t-shirts, which were big sellers on our cruise.
Soon it was time for lunch and arrival in Sandnessjøen, where we would board a small boat to visit the Vega archipelago, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.Continue to 14 of 17 below.
14 of 17
Vega Archipelago and Eider Ducks
The Midnatsol arrived in Sandnessjøen about 12:30 on day four of our southbound Hurtigruten Midnatsol cruise of the western coast of Norway. We quickly disembarked for our small boat excursion to Vega, the largest island in the Vega archipelago of over 6,500 islands. We sailed the narrow inland waterway to Vega, passing by the famous Seven Sisters, a row of Helgeland mountains with a great folklore saga that concludes with seven dancing sisters being turned to stone. The saga also includes islands shaped like a horseman, lion, and even one with a hole in it. There's even stone monuments the resemble a pastry board and rolling pin in this convoluted story!
The hour-long boat ride to Vega allowed plenty of time for sightseeing and learning about the island group. The Vega archipelago was granted UNESCO World Heritage cultural status in 2004 for the residents' long time process of tending eider ducks and harvesting their down. At first, it might sound like caring for a bunch of ducks might not be an interesting activity to explore, but the E-House (eider duck museum and documentation center) at the small village of Nes on Vega was fascinating to all of us who visited.
Eider Ducks and Vega
The eider ducks return to the Vega islands each spring, and the duck tenders provide shelter for them in exchange for harvesting the down at the end of the season. The shelters keep the eider duck down dry, and the archipelago has about 1,500 birds who arrive as couples each May. About eight islands have duck houses, and 20 families (100-200 people) are in the eider duck tending business. The largest eider duck house island is home to 800 birds and five human families. The ducks are very skittish , so children quickly learn to be quiet at a young age during the eider duck tending season.
The females usually lay three eggs, and she pulls the eider down off her chest to keep the eggs warm. It takes 28 days for the eggs to hatch, and the hens are tame during this time. They always nest near humans to get protection from predators like crows and ravens who eat the eggs or gulls who kill the ducklings. The other 11 months the duck hens are wild. The males stay wild year-round. After the baby ducks hatch and leave the nests, the tenders collect the dry down. Only about 10 percent of the baby ducks live to adulthood, with mink being the primary predator of adults. Mink were introduced to Norway in the 1930s and are now considered a pest. They are great swimmers and kill birds just for the fun of it. The government pays 400 kroner (about $67)for anyone who brings in all four feet of a dead mink. Otters and sea eagles are also eider duck predators, but they are protected.
Anyone who has priced an eider down duvet or other bedding or garment made with the down knows how expensive they can be. The duck tenders can make a lot of money by collecting, cleaning, and selling the down. However, this work is very labor-intensive, so the hourly pay is low. The tenders must collect the down from 60-70 nests (16-18 grams/nest) to fill a duvet. Cleaning the down takes the longest since it cannot be gotten wet. The tenders use an instrument called a down harp to comb and sieve out any dirt from the down. It takes about four months to make a duvet, and most tenders can make about 20 per year. The cheapest Vega duvets (twin bed size) run about 24,000 Kr ($4000), but will last 100 years. Eider down is particularly good for duvet blankets because it has a different structure than most feathers--no stems, but with barbs that hold the down together, creating great warmth.
Vega has about 1,700 residents on its 6,500 islands, and most are involved in fishing, farming, or working with the ducks. The islands are also very popular with tourists, especially bird watchers and others who enjoy outdoor activities like kayakers and bikers. All of us on the tour fell in love with the look of the islands and the contrasting landscape, which included white beaches surrounding quiet green islands dotted with small villages. The people were also very warm and welcoming. I wasn't the only person on our tour who thought of returning for a longer stay.
Following time strolling around Nes, we took a public bus across the island, boarded another small excursion boat and rejoined the Midnatsol at Brønnøysund.
We enjoyed more scenic cruising on the way to Trondheim and were thrilled to get such good views of the hole through Torghatten Mountain. This hole is 480 feet thick, 115 feet high, and 50 feet wide. Quite impressive, and I could see why many old Norse tales used this structure as part of the story.Continue to 15 of 17 below.
15 of 17
Waffles and a City Walk through Trondheim
Our last full day on the Hurtigruten Midnatsol started with 3.5 hours in Trondheim, Norway's third largest city (after Oslo and Bergen). Its population is 180,000, and it was a little odd to see so many people in one place after several days visiting tiny villages and small towns. We had a walking tour of the 1,000-year old city that ended at the huge Nidaros Cathedral, where a bus returned us to the ship.
Viking king Olav Tryggason founded the city in 997, and it was first known as Nidaros. Trondheim has been a historical capital of Norway, the seat of the Archbishop, and a major commercial, educational, and government center. Its most famous structure is the Nidaros Cathedral, and Norwegian kings were traditionally crowned there. Many medieval pilgrims walked the Pilgrim Way, a journey of 643 km (290+ miles) from Oslo to Nidaros, a journey which took about a month. During the Middle Ages, it was Christianity's third most popular pilgrimage after Rome and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Some pilgrims continue this ancient tradition, many planning to arrive in Trondheim for the St. Olav's Festival, an annual church and cultural festival which starts on July 29 each year.
Cruise passengers get a good view of the Monks' Island (Munkholmen), which was settled in 1103. Although it was also used as a prison and execution ground, Monks built one of Norway's first two monasteries on the small island in the Trondheim fjord. Ferries run out to the island from the pier.
Our walking tour from the ship took us to the Bakklandet area of Trondheim, which is filled with old wooden homes and buildings, all painted in different colors. Bakklandet is near the city center and started as an industrial section of the city. It was once very run down, but restoration started in the 1970's and has continued. The oldest facades date back to the late 1700's. Bakklandet is filled with boutiques, galleries, cafes, second-hand shops, and a famous bicycle lift. Since "Bakklandet" means "land by the hills" in Norwegian, it's not surprising that the area is hilly. This bike lift makes going up one of the largest hills easier. Bikers straddle their bike, put their right foot on a footrest of the lift, and glide up the hill slowly. The footrest pushes the bicyclist along and the bike rolls uphill with the rider.
While in Bakklandet, we stopped for waffles and a hot drink at the Bakklandet Skysstation, a cute cafe that's often been recognized by guidebooks as one of Scandinavia's most charming. This cafe was a hotel from 1791 to 1860 and a bread and milk shop from 1860 to 1944. The building once had 52 rooms, and was near the old toll station for the bridge over the Nidelva River. To avoid paying a higher toll, people would leave their horses at the hotel before crossing the river into the city center. The shop was closed in 1944 and was vacant from 1975 to 1995, when it reopened as a cafe. The current owner is delightful, and her waffles and hot chocolate delicious. The cafe is quiet, with low music and only homemade food. Cell phones are not allowed. The waffles were accompanied by jam, sour cream, and brown cheese. I think we all could have lingered longer, but we wanted to see the famous Nidaros Cathedral.
The Nidaros Cathedral dates back to the 1300's, and sits on the original gravesite of King Olaf II, the second Viking King. He was one of the first Christian Vikings, was killed in battle in 1030, and was the first Norwegian saint. Many cathedrals have stood on this site since the 14th century, with the current restoration ending in 1997. It's the world's most northernmost cathedral and the largest church in Norway. The cathedral is not Catholic; it is Lutheran since Norway embraced Protestantism during the Reformation. The Cathedral is spectacular on the outside and quite lovely on the inside. It employs 10 full-time stone carvers who primarily work in soapstone quarried in Norway. The sanctuary features a huge (8 meter-diameter) rose window that changes color somewhat throughout the day and two large organs. The cathedral charges tourists an entry fee, which is used for maintenance.Continue to 16 of 17 below.
16 of 17
A Drive on the Atlantic Road from Kristiansund
The Hurtigruten Midnatsol arrived in Kristiansund about 4:30 in the afternoon. I had signed up for an interesting 4.5-hour tour that included a bus ride from Kristiansund to Averøy, followed by a visit to the old Kvernes Stave Church and then a Bacalao dinner at Bjartmars Favorittkro tavern. Our bus then left the restaurant and drove along the Atlantic Road and then continued along to Molde, where we met the Midnatsol at 9:00 pm.
Kristiansund was a lovely town, very neat and with colorful buildings. The town of 23,000 is famous for its clip fish, which is preserved by drying after salting. At one time, most clip fish was cod, so was called salt cod, but since other fish are now processed the same way, the term clip fish is now more correctly used. Leaving Kristiansund, we drove through a 250-foot deep tunnel with a 10 percent grade. This 3-mile long Atlantic Ocean Tunnel was completed in 2009 and links the town with Averøya island. The tunnel is considered an extension of the Atlantic Road. Its steep grade is very unusual, and our guide said that if Norway had been a part of the European Union, a grade of more than 5 percent would not have been permitted. However, if a lesser grade had been used, the tunnel would have been much longer, adding other construction issues.
Driving towards the Kvernes Stave Church, we passed through the lovely Norwegian countryside, noting many instances of fish drying on racks. Our guide told us that 50 truckloads of fish pass through Kristiansund to elsewhere in Europe each day. The fish are either clip fish or stock fish. Stock fish have been dried, but not salted. Stock fish is dried for 14 days at temperatures ranging from 32-39 degrees Fahrenheit. After properly dried, the stock fish can be stored for years.
Most stock fish are usually dried in northern Norway, whereas the fish processed near Kristiansund are clip fish. The fish do not come in close to the shore in the Kristiansund area until about March, so the fishing season starts then. At that time, the outdoor temperatures might rise above 39 degrees, spoiling the stock fish. So, fish are usually salted and dried (rather than just dried), making them clip fish. Salted fish must be soaked in water to remove the salt, which adds another step.
Religious relics uncovered in the area prove that Kvernes has long been a religious center of the region. Norway has preserved several of its wooden churches, some of which date back almost 1000 years. The Kvernes Stave Church was built in the 14th century, renovated many times, and overlooks a beautiful fjord. The wooden church has a long nave and the walls are decorated with ornate Biblical scenes. We enjoyed a guided tour of the church and had time to explore the grounds.
Soon it was time to leave Kvernes and ride to the restaurant for dinner. Bacalao stew made from clip fish, potatoes, onions, and tomatoes, is a specialty of the Bjartmars Favorittkro tavern. Although very popular in Norway, Bacalao originated in Spain and Portugal, and the dish is often featured in Latin restaurants. I thought the dried, salted fish was a little chewy. It's probably an acquired taste.
After enjoying a caramel pudding that reminded me of a flan, we re-boarded the bus and started driving over the Atlantic Road towards Molde. The Atlantic Road is found on Norwegian County Road 64 and is only 8.2 km long (about 5 miles), but features eight amazing bridges. It's one of Norway's most popular drives and is often used in automobile commercials. Since the road sits very near the open ocean, weather greatly affected construction. After several years of planing and six years of construction, the Atlantic Road was opened in 1989 and the government planned to pay for the incurred debt by collecting tolls for 15 years. However, the road was so popular that it was paid off in ten years. It's a gorgeous ride, and the bus stopped and let us off for about 10 minutes so that we could take bridge photos better. Architects and civil engineers really earned their pay building this one.
The bus continued on towards Molde, passing through more lush farmland and hills. It was a marvelous evening for a ride, and we all enjoyed the passing scenery. We arrived at the ship docked in Molde about 9 pm, not long before sail away.Continue to 17 of 17 below.
17 of 17
Two Days in Bergen after Hurtigruten Cruise
All too soon our five-night cruise on the Hurtigruten Midnatsol was over. The ship did not arrive in Bergen until about 2:30 pm, so we had both breakfast and lunch on the ship before disembarking. We did vacate our cabins at 10 am, placing our checked bags in the hall near the elevator. Fortunately the ship had plenty of lounges to sit in and discuss the fun we had on the voyage. Disembarking was extremely easy. We picked out our luggage and boarded a bus to transfer to the Comfort Hotel Holberg. This hotel was in a great location, within easy walking distance of the harbor, fish market, Bergen Tourist Information Center, and downtown area.
After checking into the hotel, we had a two-hour walking tour of downtown starting at 4 pm. It was a beautiful day in Bergen, perfect for exploring. We walked with a guide, enjoying this lovely city, which is Norway's second largest. Many of the fascinating sites in Bergen are shown in this Bergen photo gallery and Bergen travel guide. I especially enjoyed returning to the Bryggen district, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Following the tour, we enjoyed a free outdoor concert in downtown Bergen of Peer Gynt that featured highlights of Henrik Ibsen's play and Edvard Grieg's music.
Soon it was time for dinner, and it was a terrific multi-course wine pairing meal at Jacob's Bar & Kitchen. We enjoyed dishes such as a raw milk sour cream topped with wild salmon roe, sourdough bread, steamed shrimp, cucumber soup with salmon, beets with Norwegian cherries, slow cooked chicken, and frozen gooseberries and strawberries. The wines were diverse and well matched with the foods. I'm not sure I've ever tasted a wine that claims to "love beets", but it worked.
Our good luck with the weather ran out the next morning. It was very rainy, and fog hung over Mount Fløyen. No one would get good views of Bergen like I had experienced on a previous trip to the city. Since Bergen has many interesting museums, it was a good day to be inside, and there were several choices including the Bergen Art Museums, Bryggens Museum, Maritime Museum, Hanseatic Museum, and the Leprosy Museum. Anyone in Bergen during a rainy spell might want to invest in a Bergen Card, which provides free or discounted entry to many museums and city attractions. The card can be purchased at the Tourist Information Center near the Fish Market in Bergen.
Those interested in composer Edvard Grieg might want to take a tour of his home on the outskirts of Bergen. In the summer, a ticket includes a round trip bus transport from the Tourist Information Center to his home (Troldhaugen), followed by a tour and a 1/2 hour piano concert of his music at 1:00 pm. Learning about Grieg and his life while at his home was a good way to spend part of a day.
Our last dinner in Norway was at the Floien Folkerestaurant at the top of Mount Fløyen. We rode the Fløibanen funicular to the top of the mountain, and enjoyed a nice fish dinner. While we dined, the clouds lifted for a few minutes, providing great evening views of the city. It was a perfect ending to a marvelous cruise tour of Norway with Hurtigruten.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary cruise accommodation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.