IT’S a wonderful thing, nature, but unpredictable. Capricious, even, and prone to wrecking man’s best laid plans.
So it was a relief when, a few hours after the MS Richard With headed north from Tromso, it was announced over the PA that one of nature’s most spectacular but unreliable phenomena, the Northern Lights, could be seen at the front of the ship. Zipping up my duvet jacket and pulling my beanie hat tightly on to my head, I stepped out into the Arctic night and made my along the gangway running around the ship's superstructure to join the throng of passengers leaning on the rail and peering at a faint pink glow on the horizon.
It was not the rippling green sheets of light seen in the brochures, but it was more than adequate for the woman standing next to me, “I asked for them on the 18th and they've come," she said, her voice trembling with emotion. “They've come."
Jean and her husband had planned the trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. But he'd died before they could make the journey, so here she was, five years after being widowed, making the trip with a friend to celebrate her 70th birthday.
“Is it your birthday today, then?" I asked. “Is that why you wanted the lights to come today?"
“No, love," she said, more composed now but still with a tear in her eye. “My birthday's in April. But you can't see the lights in April, so I decided to have an extra birthday. You know, like the Queen."
Norway’s Hurtigruten – literally “fast route” – ships are part cruise liner, part ferry and part cargo vessel, serving ports from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the north, just six miles from the Russian border.
You'd be making a big mistake, though, to think that a voyage on a Hurtigruten ship is all about the Aurora Borealis. There's so much more on offer.
Do you like seafood? You’ll love the ship's seafood buffet. Go back for more: it's OK to be shellfish once in a while... And there’re the optional excursions, which vary from good to “Wow!”
My tour group's first trip started from Tromso, before we'd even boarded the Richard With (named after the line’s founder, who mapped the route along the Norwegian coast and in 1893 brought his steamer, DS Vesteraalen, into regular service along the route). After a night in the ultra-modern Clarion Hotel The Edge (the view from the rooftop bar across the water to Tromso Cathedral is magnificent) we set sail on a catamaran in search of whales. Soon our captain spotted a humpback in the grey northern light, then another. Before long, four had come alongside, spouting and swimming under the boat.
On board the Richard With, after our first sighting of the Aurora, the ride was getting rough – it’s not all plain sailing in the Norwegian Sea – and it was a relief to disembark the next morning at Honingsveg for a bus trip to the North Cape. This is not, as is often thought, the most northerly point of mainland Europe (in fact, it's on an island) but it's magnificent in its bleakness – trees don't grow this far north, it's just snow – and a magnet for the 250,000 tourists who visit the Cape annually, brought in by the 100-plus cruise ships visiting Honingsveg every year and the twice-daily Hurtigruten service. There's a visitor centre, mostly built underground, which includes an incongruous room dedicated to a visit by King Chulalongkorn of Thailand in 1907.
Back at Honingsveg we jumped on snow mobiles for a fun ten-mile cross-country ride to the next port, where we would again board the Richard With. In the mid-afternoon dark, with snow all around, there's a real feeling of being in the Arctic wilderness.
Our final port of call was Kirkenes, home to the Kirkenes SnowHotel. We had sailed “over the top" of Norway through the night, east and then south, and the sun – absent for much of our journey – coloured the early morning sky a magnificent red, though it still couldn't be seen.
Here we took part in fishing for king crab on a frozen fjord. In truth most of the work was already done: our group was transported in a wooden sled towed by a snow mobile to where a hole had been cut in the two-foot-thick ice and a crab-trap lowered on to the sea bed. But we helped pull up the trap, and after a quick lesson from our guide I dispatched one of the crabs with a quick knife thrust to the head. Soon we were back in the sled and as we sped along the smooth surface of the frozen fjord, the sun finally rose above the horizon – the first time in two months it had done so – and bathed the snow-covered forest on the sides of the fjord in a wonderful orange light. At a fisherman's hut the crab was cooked and served. I doubt I'll taste anything that fresh or delicious again.
Arriving at the SnowHotel, a few miles outside Kirkenes, we had another trip, this time on sleds pulled by huskies. For many people it's a must-do experience, though be warned, it's a bumpy ride. And who knew that huskies poo as they run? You learn something every day.
Our “rooms" for the night were snow chambers, decorated with superb snow carvings, all attached to a central ice corridor. The temperature in the rooms is -4C (that's about the same as your freezer) but you're given a very warm sleeping bag. At one end of the corridor is the Ice-bar, also made of snow, where spirits are served (beer would freeze), and at the other end is a conventional building with showers, a sauna and a warm lounge that guests can retreat to at any time if the cold gets too much. I slept well enough in my sleeping bag (just the one set of long johns and a balaclava on) but then again, I'd been up late. Supping a vodka in the Ice-bar – slogan: the coolest bar in town – another member of our group shouted that the Northern Lights were again making an appearance. And this time we got the real deal: two hours of green sheets of light, coming and going, constantly changing shape and intensity, well worth enduring the outside temperature of -11C. Cool indeed. n