For a couple of nights they teased us – a little glimmer here, a little greenish glimmer there, almost, but not quite, as we stood on the deck of MS Nordnorge, one of the Hurtigruten ships sailing the Norwegian coastline bringing vital supplies and deliveries to small communities, towns and cities along the route.
Then, as we docked briefly in Stamsund on our third day at sea, conditions were perfect – a clear sky with the stars shining brightly, the aurora borealis waiting in the wings high above, before suddenly breaking through.
From the left came large sweeping beams of light pointing upwards like Second World War searchlights, then bursts of green light appeared over the mountains, then swirls of pink, blue and gold further across the sky, then dancing colours formed an arc darting back to where it all started.
It is difficult to remember how long these Northern Lights lasted but it is enough to know that it is really quite humbling to be treated to such a spectacular show of nature, especially something so elusive.
Meanwhile, below deck, in the bar and cafe some fellow passengers with “Northern Lights” apps were discussing the percentage chance of seeing the aurora, but this time they missed them. So, if you want the real thing nothing beats actually wrapping up warm and waiting and watching on deck when conditions are good.
For many people seeing the Northern Lights is a lifetime ambition. But what I soon learned was that photos taken with camera equipment or mobile phones which mysteriously “reveal” the aurora borealis and produce fantastic photos – when none seem to appear in the sky at all – may be technically accurate, but can be mostly invisible to the naked eye.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
The next morning the spectacular Northern Lights of the night before were followed by an amazing ceremony marking the crossing of the Arctic Circle at the nautical location of 66°33’N on our Classic Voyage south from Kirkenes, three miles from the Russian border high above the Arctic Circle, towards our destination of Bergen. Crew and passengers gathered on deck for the ceremony which started with the poignant and atmospheric Maze by Sami musician Mari Boine as we sailed past tiny Viking Island complete with a metal globe of the world anchored on its rocks.
As we crossed the Arctic Circle passengers queued up for the traditional celebration of a spoonful of cod liver oil and a flute of champagne to mark the occasion.
A pair of sea eagles swooped along following in the ship’s wake for a couple of minutes, among around a dozen spotted along the coast.
Our journey began two days earlier towards the end of October when we stepped out of Kirkenes airport into snow a foot deep and were greeted by a cheery bus driver who told us “It’s a tiny town, there’s only one bus.”
After a night in the cosy Thon Kirkenes hotel we boarded MS Nordnorge, our home for the next week on our 1,250-mile southbound journey.
Hurtigruten – literally the “swift route”, and known as “the world’s most beautiful sea voyage” – ships have been sailing the return route daily, year round between Bergen and Kirkenes stopping at 34 ports, since 1893.
As MS Nordnorge made her way down the coast, passengers disembarked and explored, one particularly enjoyable stop being Vardø. In deep, deep snow and total darkness the 45-minute stop ashore was a quick skirmish but this made it all the more exciting, as did seeing the huge icicles hanging from the buildings.
Hammerfest and the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society
The next morning we reached Hammerfest where there was a two-hour stop-off.
One of the first things to be seen, just a few yards from where MS Nordnorge docked, was the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society – a small museum with exhibits telling the story of Hammerfest’s links to Arctic exploration, hunting and fishing.
The society has more than 270,000 members worldwide and all are invited to its annual meeting held on the third Sunday of January every year.
Polar explorer Adolf H Lindstrøm (1866-1939), born in the town, is commemorated both in the museum and by a statue overlooking the fjord. At longer stop-offs passengers can pre-book and pay for a range of 90 excursions, from nighttime snowmobile trips, a midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral in Tromsø to a mountain hike to Torghatten or visiting Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.
Another highlight was sailing by the jagged and otherworldly Lofoten Islands and being at the bow of the ship as the captain skilfully navigated in and then out of Trollfjord, which is only 100 metres wide at its mouth, in the evening darkness.
As the ship’s searchlights shone beams of light up on to the high mountains, the fjord grew narrower and narrower, the mountains so close it almost seem possible to reach out and touch them.
Aboard MS Nordnorge
Life on board MS Nordnorge was very comfortable with two hot tubs on deck, a gym, sauna, lecture rooms and gift shop selling everything from postcards and stamps to a range of outdoorwear, craft souvenirs, reindeer meat, honey and jewellery and clothes from Norwegian designers such as Oleana, Røros Tweed and Dale of Norway. But rather than being a standard cruise ship, it is a freight ship, passenger liner and mail boat in one.
Think hill-walking gear, binoculars, cameras and a love of nature and coastal waters rather than cabaret and dinner jackets.
There are three Coastal Kitchens restaurants, including a fine dining option, and an ice-cream cafe selling snacks, coffee and cakes. Breakfast and lunch are self-service while dinner is table service. The carefully curated dinner menu features fresh, organic produce matching the local area the ship is passing through. For the day we crossed the Arctic Circle, this included cod with fried kale, beetroot-Byggotto (barley risotto) and beurre noisette vierge.
Menu notes state “cod is king” and the species can reach up to 50 kilos in weight and two metres in length – the rich fishery in the Lofoten region has existed for centuries and Vikings took dried cod with them on their long journeys.
The notes for the soup of green peas with sourdough bread with well-preserved Jarlsberg informed us that “The Norwegian Moss Seafarer Society, established in 1873, clearly states pea soup is the crown jewel of the maritime galley”.
During the final hours of the journey to Bergen, as we sailed past a myriad of skerries with their tiny wooden lighthouses, Norwegian classical music including Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King was played in the observation lounge, creating a peaceful and bonding mood.
Known as the “Beautiful Voyage” this Hurtigruten trip really is that, and some.
Hurtigruten Classic Voyage South, 6-days, Kirkenes to Bergen. Also available, 6-day Classic Voyage North – Bergen to Kirkenes.
Prices start from £799 (not including flights or excursion costs)
Classic Round Voyage, 12 days, Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen, flying from Glasgow, starting from £1,549.