Hurtigruten – The Voyage Under the Midnight Sun

For nearly 130 years, Hurtigruten’s vessels have connected the coastal communities of Norway’s western shores. The Swedish Press sailed from Bergen, in the south, to Kirkenes, in the far north, along the 780-mile coastline known as the world’s most beautiful voyage.

It is past midnight, and the sun shines brightly through a glacier-blue sky. It doesn’t produce much heat, but the enchanted light casts a supernatural glow upon the silent, simple, vastness that is the Norwegian far north. We crossed the Arctic circle two days ago, and now find ourselves on the open-air top deck of the MS Trollfjord mesmerized by the magic of the midnight sun. To the starboard, lies a treeless land of stone, smoothened by glaciers, blanketed in a light moss, and rendered almost golden by this light. This rock represents the northernmost tip of continental Europe. To the port side, a gently shimmering sea borrows the orange glow from the sky as it stretches out before our eyes. Somewhere around the horizon, it blends in with the color-matched clouds, making it impossible to discern where ocean ends and sky begins… out there, some two thousand landless miles further north, is the North Pole. 

From Bergen to Kirkenes, Hurtigruten stops in 34 coastal communities, most of which are located above the Arctic Circle.

For over 10,000 years, this coast of Norway has been plied by all manner of vessels, but travel was notoriously unreliable and infrequent, making the journey between the northern and southern reaches long, arduous, and unpredictable. In the 1890s, authorities invited shipping companies to submit tenders for operating a year-round express route to, and from, the far north. Despite the hazards, Captain Richard With and his steamer DS Vesteraalen accepted the challenge and established the first regular sea link between the major villages dotting the coast of Norway. The service offered weekly departures, at first from Trondheim to Hammerfest and later from Bergen to Kirkenes. The journey took only seven days and became known as “hurtigruten,” – “the fast route”, which eventually became the name of the company.

Today, Hurtigruten continues to operate regularly scheduled “ferry cruises” between Bergen and Kirkenes. The round-trip journey takes 12 days, but one can choose to sail just the northbound route from Bergen to Kirkenes, or vice versa, as well as any subset of the journey. 

The Seven Sisters Waterfall in the Geirangerfjord. Photo: Erik Norman

We boarded Hurtigruten’s MS Trollfjord in Bergen a few days after midsummer. 443 feet long and capable of carrying 883 passengers in her 335 staterooms, the Trollfjord is a capable ship with an understated charm. A few well-appointed bars, a café, shop, weight room, saunas, games room, and explorer center offer plenty of distractions, but the highlight of the ship’s design is the stunning two-story observation room at the front of ship, replete with floor-to-ceiling windows. For us, however, the spiritual center of the ship was the upper deck. Partly covered and furnished with couches, chairs, alcoves, and hot tubs, it offers an immersive experience in the fjords and islands, the ports and open seas. As we left Bergen and headed north, out here in the freshest of air, thousand-foot cliffs passed by so close we could nearly touch them. Waterfalls cascaded. Birds soared. Whales arced. Remote villages of red-painted houses rolled past as if painted onto the verdant green backdrop. And all the while we bathed, literally and figuratively, under the ever-present sun.

The itinerary would take us into 34 ports of call, some of which were less than 30-minute stops – enough to let locals on or off. Others were as much as five hours long, enough to disembark and do some serious sightseeing. Our first highlight was the stunning Geirangerfjord. Steep cliffs rose up from the sea all around us, waterfalls pouring down their stoic faces like strings of lace. The most famous are the Seven Sisters – seven delicate cascades, side by side, dropping the entire height of the precipice. On the opposite side, one wide, powerful fall calls out to them. Locals named him “The Suitor”.

View of Ålesund, known for its Art Nouveau architecture. Photo: Erik Norman

After our first full day at sea, we arrived in Ålesund, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants, best known for its stunning Art Nouveau architecture. In the summertime, the ship only calls here in the evening and the stop is just long enough for fast walkers like us to climb nearby Mount Aksla, which offers an impressive bird´s-eye-view of the town. Viking aficionados will appreciate the statue of Rolf the Ganger, better known as Rollo, in the city park below. The famous 10th-century founder of the dynasty of the dukes of Normandy, allegedly hailed from Giske just north-west of Ålesund. The descendants of Rollo became known as the Normans and Rollo is the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England.

View of Ålesund, known for its Art Nouveau architecture. Photo: Erik Norman

The following day, we sailed through the Trøndelag region of Norway, marked by crumpled hills, low-laying coastal settlements, and fields dotted with farmsteads. The ship stops for half a day in Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city with some 200,000 inhabitants, founded by Viking king Olav Tryggvason in 997.  A short walk from the harbor sits the imposing Nidaros Cathedral, also known as “Norway’s Notre Dame,” as it is the only church in Norway built in the Gothic architectural style. Considered the most sacred building in the country, it is the destination of several pilgrim trails. The church tower offers impressive views of the city and its famous university. Beneath it flows the Nid River and across it stretches the old city bridge Gamle Bybro, marking the entrance to the old Hanseatic district of Bakklandet. This trendy neighborhood is characterized by its colourful wooden wharves propped up on stilts by the river’s edge. Up the hill from Bakklandet, Kristiansten Fort offers beautiful views of the city and fjord.

On the fourth day, we arrived in Bodø, the 2024 cultural capital of Europe, and the first city above the Arctic circle to be awarded that honor. Bodø, home to some 50,000 inhabitants, offers both stunning surroundings and unexpected luxuries such as a Norway’s northernmost Pâtisserie & Champagneria. It also houses the library with arguably the best views in the world as the multi-story, floor-to-ceiling windows provide an inspiring vista of the treeless harbor and the magnificent low, smooth, mossy stone promontories that protect this Arctic bay.

The view from Bodø Library. Photo: Matthew Wenger

From Bodø we sailed northwest to the Lofoten archipelago where the imposing 1,000 metre high Lofoten Wall dominates the horizon from a far. Our first stop was Stamsund, a village of a mere 1,000 inhabitants, but home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the islands. It is busiest in winter when the Arctic cod, known locally as skrei, migrate from the

Barents Sea in the north down to Vestfjord to spawn. The area is full of traditional wooden racks called hjell, where locals hang their cod to dry the way people elsewhere might hang their laundry.

The journey continued to Svolvær where we arrived late in the evening. With a population of about 5,000, Svolvær is the center of the Lofoten Islands. Rows of red, traditional fisherman’s huts on stilts, known as rorbuer, line the quaint harbor. 

Solvær in the Lofoten archipelago. Photo: Erik Norman

From here we sailed to Trollfjord where the entrance is so narrow that ships can only enter when conditions are perfectly calm. The stunning 2-kilometre (1.2 mi) long fjord, after which our ship was named, has a very narrow entrance between the steep-sided mountains that surround it. The mouth of the fjord is only 100 meters (330 ft) wide and the mountains surrounding it are up to 1,100 meters (3,600 ft) tall so when the ship slowly enters the fjord, the steep cliff walls on either side of the boat are so close one can almost reach out and touch them.

The next day, we docked in Tromsø, the largest city in Northern Norway with a population just below 80,00. After passing through the quaint city center along Storgatan, we crossed the Tromsø Bridge which connects the islands of Tromsøya and Kvaløya to the mainland. Constructed in 1960, Tromsø Bridge was the first cantilever bridge built in Norway, and, at the time of its construction, it was also the longest in Europe. On the mainland side of the bridge sits the imposing Arctic Cathedral. Made of aluminum-coated concrete panels, the church is sometimes likened to  an iceberg. Not far from the cathedral, one can hike or take the Fjellheisen cable car up to the mountain ledge of Storsteinen, 1,525 feet above sea level. From here, one is rewarded with incredible views of the snowcapped mountains, fjords, and nearby islands that band together to encircle the town. On June 30, the day of our visit, there was still enough snow on the ground to enjoy a snowball fight. 

Tromsø seen from Storsteinen.

Back in town, we headed for the marina for our first ocean dip north of the Arctic Circle. Unsurprisingly, the water was stunningly cold but in the heart of the marina there is a floating sauna, designed to mimic a traditional fish-drying rack, where those who dare take the plunge can heat up afterwards.

As we left Tromsø, the landscape around us begun to change noticeably. From the dense forests and high angular cliffs of the south, the land softens. In the European Arctic, Betula pubescens – downy birch – dominates the landscape. Often found together with pines and spruce at lower latitudes and altitudes, above a certain point, only the birch remain. North Americans are often surprised at just how far north the trees go here. While wind and ocean currents make for milder winters in Western Europe than at North American destinations situated at similar latitudes, global warming is also playing a part. The Arctic tree line is currently moving north at a rate of 40 to 50 meters a year, gobbling up the tundra in its way. While more trees might sound like a good thing, the greening of the tundra is further accelerating the warming process as the trees warm the soil, melting the permafrost and releasing methane – a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Early the following morning, the ship reached Hammerfest, the northernmost town in the world with more than 10,000 inhabitants. Hammerfest is situated on the barren island of Kvaløya, which in the summertime hosts thousands of migrating reindeer. By mid-morning, we arrived in Honningsvåg, which is considered a city despite having fewer than 2,500 inhabitants. It is best known as the portal to the North Cape. We caught a local bus north, driving through the heartlands of the indigenous Sámi people, past the 71st parallel. At 71.2° N, we arrived at Nordkapp center – a well-appointed visitor’s center with a monument marking the northernmost point on the European mainland. The end-of-the-earth greeted us fittingly with winds so strong, one could lean into them at 30° and not fall over, and raw temperatures of a mere 7°C, before the windchill.

On our seventh day at sea, we approached our destination, the small town of Kirkenes (population 3,500). Now it was suddenly 30°C, and we were glad we had packed for all types of weather. Birdwatching enthusiasts gathered on deck. The area around Vadsø is one of the most popular birdwatching spots in the Arctic, situated directly under the migration path of birds flying from east to west. Hooded crows and sea eagles are usually spotted here. 

When we entered Kirkenes harbor, just a few miles from the Russian border, the sun was still shining. It would not set for another three weeks. In winter, complete darkness descends on Kirkenes, punctuated by frequent visits from the Northern lights to provide relief. Their dance across the sky is another supernatural phenomenon that attracts visitors from across the world. But that is a whole other story…

The sun never sets…