On 2 January 2013 my partner and I went on holiday to Norway on the ship Richard With of the Hurtigruten line on the north bound leg of their Northern Lights trip. It had been a short notice decision and we were looking forward to cold days, snow, beautiful scenery and hopefully sights of the Northern Lights. We were aware that the line was not a pure cruise liner but also filled the roll of ferry service up and down the Norwegian coast.
We flew from Heathrow to Copenhagen and onto Bergen with SAS airlines. The online check-in was easy and we did not have to pay for extra leg room seats. The first flight also gave us the transfer details for Copenhagen which made life easier on arrival there.
The transfer from Bergen airport to the ship is by a bus arranged by Hurtigruten for which we had to wait about 30 minutes but as further people joined the queue from later flights the reason for the wait became more understandable. Fortunately it was not too cold though dark at 4pm. The transfer bus was warm and comfortable and the trip took about 20 minutes.
At the terminal check in was straightforward and included and video safety film which was
comprehensive and clear. We then boarded ship and our bags were waiting outside our cabin. We were in a P2 cabin on the 5th floor. Space wise it was fine with two beds one that folds flat to the wall during the day and the other that folds into a sofa. Both were very comfortable and easy to fold away. The ensuite was compact, the shower was good and powerful and there was always hot water available. A hairdryer was in the ensuite. Towels were changed if you left them on the floor (hung up you kept them) and the cabin was cleaned daily. There was plenty of storage and two power points. The phone system doubled up as an intercom for announcements from the Tour leader and you could turn it on or off from inside the cabin. Our cabin was on the opposite side of the ship to the cargo doors and we were not disturbed by the noise of them opening and closing at every port of call. I am sure cabins in their vicinity would have been noisier.
It was too late to visit Bergen itself so we will have to return to do that. Dinner that night was a Buffet feast and set the tone for the high quality food we were to be served for the rest of the week. It also set the tone for the very slow service from the waiting staff who were pleasant but stretched. Drinks on board are very very expensive (40 Kr for a bottle of
Pepsi/Fanta, 19 Kr for filtered water, 60Kr for a bottle of beer) but tap water is free, though you have to ask for it specifically and it only comes one glass at a time. As we had had a very heavy Christmas and New Year we decided to treat the week as detox week and stick with the water. There is a wine deal but I don't know the details. We did join the coffee/tea deal. For 250 Kr you buy a thermos mug and you can then use this anytime for tea or coffee. Tea would be 27 Kr a cup and coffee 30 and it is available free at breakfast lunch and dinner but if you want more than that it may be worth your while. Unlike many
cruise liners you are also free to bring alcohol on board for drinking in your cabin (though I suspect some thermos mugs became used as hip flasks). Breakfast each day was a buffet with cereals, fruit, cheese, meats, yoghurts, eggs.....Lunch too was buffet. A different soup every day (we liked them all) salads, smoked and slated fishes, meats, cheese plus choice of three hot dishes, one fish and two meat, veg, potatoes and a hot pasta or risotto: plus a range of a dozen or so deserts. Over the week we had reindeer, roast beef, lamb and pork,
different types of stew and fish: all cooked and presented beautifully. The evening meal was a set three course meal, though with notification dishes could be altered to accommodate likes and dislikes while special dietary requirements were dealt with sensitively. My partner is coeliac and his dishes were adapted to accommodate this while gluten free bread was available and some gluten free dishes were indicated. Again the quality of food was excellent and we enjoyed every meal. The final night was seafood buffet and the range of food available was quite sumptuous. Fish soup, lobster, crab, mussels, prawns, crayfish, smoked fishes, soused fish, cooked dishes and another dozen delectable deserts. The
photos don't do it justice and we thoroughly enjoyed our repeated trips to the buffet bar. Enough about the food...
The ship was clean and smoothly run. The Tour leader (Laura) and her Trainee (Jo) looked after us well. One of them was nearly always available at the tour desk on deck 4. There was a daily bulletin published showing the ships schedule and detailing activities available to cruisers. There were only about 60 cruisers (mainly Brits, Australians, Germans and (Scandinavians) on this voyage plus the travellers who were using the ferry service also on offer so it was a very peaceful ship. Hurtigruten also provide a very comprehensive guide to the cruise with information about ports and points of interest along the route. They also provided a street map of every town we moored at for a length of time. Each day Laura or Jo hosted a session giving details of excursions, films about the northern lights or the local Sami people: all in English or German.
Excursions are expensive but (having checked) no more so than if you book them at a port through a tour agent -Norway is just expensive full stop. We would have liked to have gone dog sledging or snowmobiling and hang the expense (£250 plus for 3 hours each) but unseasonable weather has resulted in little snow this year so these excursions were cancelled. However the time in ports can easily be spent by walking into the town and visiting the local attractions.
Our first main port of call was Alesund. The Hurtigruten quay is in the town so a two minute walk takes you there. The architecture is worth seeing as the town was rebuilt in 1904 after a fire and the walk up the Alska Mountain at the back of town is easily doable: though it was incredibly windy at the top for us.
The stop in Trondheim was a whole morning so we walked into town to the Nidaros cathedral and Bishop's house then over the old bridge and back to the ship. It took us 2 ½ hours and was well worth it. There had been a little snow but then rain and frozen so it was very slippery underfoot.
We cross the Arctic circle at just after 7:30 in the morning and at 10:30 there was the ubiquitous crossing the circle ceremony with "Father Neptune" putting ice down people's backs and the winner of the crossing the arctic circle time contest being announced- first prize the flag that was flying when we crossed, second prize - a mug.
Bodo is a small town and good for an hour's stretch of the legs though it was still very treacherous underfoot.
Tromso has an amazing cathedral and is home to the Polar Museum, which we chose to visit. It was excellent and the two hours we spent there flew by. We went to walk over the bridge to see the cathedral but it was so slippery we gave up. Those who slid there way over said it was amazing.
Hammerfest was supposed to be a brief stop but due to a break down we were forced to stay the whole day while a new engine was flown in. This meant when the ferry ship Polarys needed to come into port we were in their berth their Captain had to do some masterful steering to moor his ship at right angles to the Richard With. We visited the Polar Bear Museum which is on the Hurtigruten quay in Hammerfest, was free and of good quality. Due to the time lost by our stay in Hammerfest we went directly from Hammerfest to Kirkenes and made up the lost time.
By the last evening we had given up hope of seeing the Northern lights. Weather conditions were not auspicious as it was warm and cloudy. But at 11:45 the announcement came over the PA system that there was some activity to be observed and for about 20 minutes were we treated to a somewhat subdued display, but a display none the less.
In-between ports we were able to watch the Norwegian coast slip by. The scenery was inspiring. Points of special interest were explained enroute by Jo or Laura and there was always space to sit in comfort in the Panorama lounge and watch the land slide by.
On the night of day 4 we visited the Straight of Raftsund and the captain lit up the entrance to the Trollfjord with the search lights to show the rock formations.
At Kirkenes we saw our first real heavy quantity of snow and those staying were able to join excursions including snow mobiles and dog sledging. Unfortunately for us it was a bus to Kirkenes airport, passing through a beautiful snow covered landscape with frozen lakes and twinkling trees in the early morning twilight.
Our flight to Oslo was full but from Oslo to Heathrow was only about ¼ so there was room to spread out. We didn't get the same information about our transfer at Oslo and though all signs are only in Norwegian we were able to translate and work our way round to the correct departure point, and it's not a huge airport.
It had been a lovely holiday. We weren't expecting a cruise as we knew the Hurtigruten line is a ferry service but it's not like any cross channel ferry I've been on. Would we go again? Yes we hope to- we still want to go dog sledging so next year maybe Feb/March when the snow has had chance to build up and the days will be slightly longer. Or maybe in the summer and go kayaking in a fjord or on a RIB to the Islands?