Special Note: As only three of the 12 ships in the Hurtigruten daily service coastal fleet fall below our limit of 300 cabin passengers, a brief addendum at the end will describe the remaining ships that handle from 451 to 640 berthed passengers. Also, the expedition ship FRAM (256 passengers) will then follow with a full review.
Snapshot: Norwegian ships traveling north from Bergen, the country’s principal west coast port, have tied the south with the north beyond the North Cape since 1893 carrying passengers, all manner of cargo and until relatively recently, the mail. This venerable service has gradually evolved from serving as a much needed transport link to one that increasingly thrives on overseas visitors who come to ogle and partake in the delights of one beautiful country. During the course of a 12-day, 2,500-mile round-trip voyage, the ships put in at 35 different ports each way, and as the northbound schedule varies from the southbound, many served at night on the way north will become daylight stops in the other direction. Tip: If limited in time, the northbound routing calls at the more interesting ports during convenient daytime hours.
Ships, Years Delivered & Passengers: LOFOTEN (built 1964 & 153 beds), VESTERALEN (b. 1983 and enlarged 1989 & 294 beds), SPITSBERGEN (b. 2009 & 200 beds). Deck passengers are not counted.
Passenger Profiles: International passengers (from principal countries: Norway, Germany, Britain, US), mostly over age 40 occupy the cabins, plus Norwegians and European backpackers of all ages traveling locally (a few stops) in cabins and on deck.
Passenger Decks: LOFOTEN (5) no elevator; VESTERALEN (7) elevator between all decks. SPITSBERGEN has an elevator between 5 of 6 decks, but not highest Sun Deck.
Price: $ – $$ Moderate to Expensive
Itineraries: As Hurtigruten operates a daily scheduled passenger and freight service, the itinerary remains fixed throughout the year, with the sole exception of a diversion into the gorgeous Geirangerfjord that begins in the spring and lasts into the fall. N.B. In May 2016, the newly acquired SPITSBERGEN joined the fleet operating on the same dates as LOFOTEN but more as an expedition ship including a staff to give talks and lead trips ashore. However, the former will call only at daytime ports (as listed in the regular schedules), therefore, dwelling longer and skipping ports presently listed with nighttime arrivals and departures. Five detours into fjords are also included.
Included Features: Tips are not expected though many passengers do give to the wait staff.
Why Go? The number one reason people think of booking a cruise to Norway is for the fjord, coastal and island scenery. Another is Hurtigruten’s variety of port calls, from tiny towns where the ships provide an essential service, to the country’s most beautiful mid-size cities of Bergen, Alesund, Trondheim and Tromso. Cargo handling is another attraction with something being loaded or off-loaded at every port, and lastly to meet Norwegians who are traveling in their own country for a whole host of reasons. Should you choose the Lofoten, you will be sailing on a much loved time machine, a passenger and cargo-carrying vessel from more than a half-century ago, a type that has all but disappeared from the seas.
When to Go? That’s a complex question as Norway’s maritime weather is fickle in almost any season. Spring and fall will show off the change of seasons as you travel over 1,000 miles from south to north or vice versa. Long daylight hours are part of late spring through midsummer sailings. School holidays will see the most passengers aboard, including backpackers making short coastal trips and heading out to the well offshore Lofoten Islands. Winter brings on vibrant displays of the Northern Lights, with the downside being long hours of darkness. My preference, after a half-dozen coastal voyages, is from April through the end of May when there are fewer tourists, lots of light and a noticeable change of seasons during the course of the voyage.
Cabins: LOFOTEN’s tiny cabin accommodations will be the biggest hurdle to face as the best cabins sell out early. Very few cabins have twin lower beds, and most are designed like an enlarged railway sleeping compartment with upper and lower berths. On the deck plans, categories N (3 cabins), J (3), A (20) and I (7) have private shower and toilet. The Ds have showers and toilets along the passageways. Total cabin berths number 154. VESTERALEN’s cabins come with private shower and toilet, and range from two beds, with one converting from a sofa, to others with upper and lowers; the majority are outside, plus insides and a block of cabins having restricted views. SPITSBERGEN’s cabins all have private facilities with a mixture of configurations. With two berth cabins, one converts to a sofa, and some will have an extra upper berth. All cabins have private facilities, with some having limited or no outside views. Upper grades have TVs.
Dining: Tables are assigned for dinner which is a set, served meal, though special dietary requests are accommodated with advance notice. The cooking is straight forward continental fare that appeals to a wide mostly European market. Breakfast and lunch are buffet, and the choices should satisfy most tastes. If you like marinated herring served a half-dozen ways, as I do, you will be in heaven. Interport passengers who are on just for a day or two have to pay for meals so most head to the LOFOTEN’S and VESTERALEN’s cafeterias located behind the main restaurant. SPITSBERGEN has an aft dining room and a Bistro for light meals and refreshments.
Public Rooms: LOFOTEN is one-of-a-kind and exudes the retro atmosphere of a small country hotel, comfy, beautifully wood-paneled and largely unchanged from the 1960s. Two lounges look forward, the top one affording the best views, while the lower lounge is quieter and better suited to reading and playing board games but with the view forward along the cargo deck. A third lounge, located aft and an extension of the cafeteria, is used for conversation and/or having a drink. VESTERALEN is plainer inside and boasts a 360-degree top deck, glass-topped lounge for viewing the scenery, a second forward facing lounge, restaurant in the forward section of the deck below, café aft of that, small playroom, two conference rooms and a secluded lounge at the stern. SPITSBERGEN has two forward lounges, one with 270-degree views.
Activities & Entertainment: Shore excursions abound from the active such as kayaking, snowmobiling and dog sledding (in season) to bird watching, sightseeing a town’s historic past, visiting a Sami camp in Lapland and a drive to the North Cape. The Northern Lights are at their brightest in winter. Nearly every call allows at least a quick look ashore before the ship’s whistle beckons you back, while Trondheim, a cathedral city, and Alesund, an Art Nouveau treasure, encourage several hours of exploring. On some summertime voyages, musicians will be aboard. SPITSBERGEN will have an expedition-style shore program.
Special Notes: Tax on alcohol is sky high in Norway, so beer and wine prices are amongst the most expensive in the world. Some bring aboard what they like to drink and enjoy it in their cabin before dinner – while private supplies are taboo in the public rooms.
Addendum: A description of the nine other ships follows including years delivered and berth capacities. Deck passengers are additional.
Kong Harald 1993 and 474 pass; Richard With 1993 and 464 pass; Nordlys 1994 and 469 pass; Polarlys 1996 and 473 pass; Nordkapp 1996 and 458 pass; Nordnorge 1997 and 451 pass; Finnmarken 2002 and 628 pass; Trollfjord 2002 and 640 pass; Midnatsol 2003 and 638 pass. Newly added, Spitsbergen 2009, rebuilt 2015 and 320 passengers, will replace Midnastol on the coastal route in winter 2016/2017 when the latter goes off to Antarctica.
These 6- and 7-deck ships offer high up forward-facing panoramic lounges, additional public rooms and bars, conference rooms, children’s playroom, large restaurant aft with wraparound windows and cafeteria. At dinner, passengers will choose between the regular set 3-course meal and a 2- to 5-course a la carte menu with a supplemental charge starting at $19. Most cabins are outside with two beds, one a folding sofa bed, and private bathroom facilities with showers. Suites additionally come with TVs, sitting areas, minibar and some private balconies. All ships feature attractive Norwegian paintings, murals and sculptures. Cargo and vehicles roll-on, roll-off.
These larger ships have started a new thrust where an expedition team provides an enrichment program aboard and leads passengers ashore on hikes to look for wildlife and unusual geographical points of interest. Other new offerings on selected trips bring personnel aboard to provide a cultural emphasis with Norwegian art, music, history, music, legends & myths; voyages dedicated to astronomy during winter period when the Aurora Borealis is a dazzling sight; Norway’s conflicts through history from the Vikings to WWII and German occupation; and the all-important fishing industry. These are in addition to the classic style with 45 traditional shore excursions, some seasonal, offered over the course of a year.
FRAM: Expedition Ship
Snapshot: Hurtigruten began operating summer cruises to Spitsbergen (Svalbard), located north of Norway many years ago, and then in 2007, the firm built a dedicated expedition ship at Italy’s Fincantieri yard, to offer a year-round program of expedition cruises to a new wide range of itineraries, not just the Polar Regions only. The ship’s name refers to the original Fram, an early 20th-century exploratory vessel that made pioneering voyages above the Arctic Circle on surveys and carried Roald Amundsen to Antarctica to become the first person to reach the South Pole. Additional expedition ships have been ordered to expand the variety of itineraries in North Europe, the Arctic, Antarctica and South America but they exceed our 300-passenger limit.
Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers: FRAM (built 2007 & 256 passengers)
Passengers: An older international passenger list is drawn from Europe, North America and Australia with the main languages aboard being Norwegian and English.
Passenger Decks: 7 decks, and two elevators serve every level except top Observation Deck.
Price: $$$ Very Pricey
Included features: Many itineraries include local flights (not from the U.S.) and perhaps an overnight hotel stay; all shore activities with an English-speaking expedition team; water-resistant winter jackets; tea and coffee. Suite passengers receive complimentary drinks with meals.
- Iceland’s diverse landscapes, glaciers, volcanoes, hot and cold springs, birdlife, and historic settlements; Greenland’s glaciers, icebergs, fjords, Viking settlements and hiking and partial transits of the Northwest Passage; Spitsbergen (Svalbard)’s wildlife such as musk oxen, Arctic fox and wolf, and polar bear and whaling stations; and northern Norway and its islands and fjords.
- En route to and from South America and Antarctica, voyages call in a small Canadian maritime ports and cruise along the U.S, East Coast from New England to Florida.
- Central America (mostly the Gulf of Mexico side); varied Caribbean islands and south to the Panama Canal and a transit.
- Some voyages head south from the Panama Canal along South America’s west coast calling in Ecuador, Peru (incas), Chile’s fjords and the southerly Patagonia region with its spectacular scenery.
- Antarctic expeditions leave mostly from from Ushuaia, Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula while longer trips include the Falklands and South Georgia to see polar landscapes, icebergs of varying colors, glaciers, wildlife and birdlife, and a former whaling station on South Georgia. Activities are via Polarcirkel boat and, kayaks, and on foot.
- Why Go? The FRAM is a highly professional operation, organized by Norwegians who have had a lot of experience operating expeditions that began in the early 20th century. The ship is purpose-built and not a conversion from some other use nor operated on standard cruises. As one of the larger such ships, she handles rough seas about as well as any of her ilk.
When to Go? Itineraries are arranged to operate in the warmer seasons for both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
Cabins: 127 compact outside and inside cabins, with six cabins having shared balconies facing aft; one suite and standard cabins with one bed and one fold-up sofa bed or two sofa beds. Cabins are similar to the newer Hurtigruten coastal ships. Amenities are showers, TVs and mini-fridges. No dedicated singles.
Public Rooms: The décor reflects the culture of Norway and Greenland. Layout is also much like the newer Hurtigruten coastal ships with a large Deck 6 observation lounge, lobby lounge and arcade, two lecture rooms, fitness room, two Jacuzzis, and two saunas. There’s an open promenade deck, open Sun Deck and Observation Deck, plus an Internet Café and shop for clothing and souvenirs.
Dining: Restaurant is aft with both buffet breakfasts and lunches and served dinners. Local dishes will include fish and bison. Food is average to good. A Bistro serves food informally at an extra charge. Because of high taxes, alcohol is very expensive.
Activities & Entertainment: Landings are via Polarcirkel landing craft equipped with “step-bow and grab railings” for easier and safer disembarkations on land. Organized special interest talks take place during the days at sea and in the evenings.
Special Notes: Smoking is allowed out on deck only.
*NORDSTJERNEN : Expedition Ship – while not currently in Hurtigruten’s program the entry will remain for the time being until she settles into a new routine.
New for 2016 are Spitsbergen expedition cruises operated by the 1956-built NORDSTJERNEN that formerly plied the coastal route. She is a gem of the classic mailship design that even predated the much-loved LOFOTEN. Within her classic lines are a forward observation lounge, bar, restaurant and small cabins, with and without private facilities, totaling 150 berths. Her cruises last six days and leave from Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen to look for wildlife – polar bears, walrus and varieties of birds, and with calls in a Barentsberg, a Russian mining community, Ny-Alesund, a former coal mining town and now a High Arctic Research Facility, and Magdalenfjord for the remains of a whaling community.
Along the Same Lines: The classic coastal ships are unique, while the expedition ships are equivalent to other high-end expedition lines.
Contact: Hurtigruten (Norwegian Coastal Voyages), 320 129th Ave. NE, Suite 199, Bellevue, WA 98005; www.hurtigruten.com.us; 800-323-7436.