Overall impressions

It is only fair to say that we enjoyed ourselves on this trip, and that its (considerable) deficiencies were beyond the control of Hurtigruten or their staff. The principal shortcoming was the weather: we encountered two hurricanes and several unseasonably warm days. Most days were cloudy so we did not get a good sighting of the Northern lights. That is just the luck of the draw, but it was disappointing not to experience very low temperatures, nor to see good aurora, nor to ride a snowmobile. We also saw very little wildlife; again this is nobody’s fault but we saw no unusual birds, no seals, no walrus, no polar bears, no arctic fox, no lynx and no whales.

Hurtigruten staff did their very best to alleviate these problems, but we probably felt that for two and a half days to three days we were essentially cooped up on a boat with little to do. This is where the weak internet connection made itself felt. It was difficult to download another book, or even to look up a disputed fact on wikipedia. I failed to download the Guardian on ten of the eleven days, so had no crossword to attack. Although we were sailing through inhospitable waters, we were never far from land (and certainly not out of satellite range) so I do lay some blame at Hurtigruten’s door for this deficiency.

Finally to those things which could have been done better: our cabins were brilliantly designed in most respects, and dried our towels and clothes well, but the absence (in the main cabin) or inadequacy (in the bathroom) of hooks made it very difficult to hang things up to dry before putting them away. And the hair dryer is not very good (not that I noticed). Because the internet access was so poor it was not easy to run Google maps regularly, so we often did not know exactly where we were. This would be easily solved by placing a few screens around the boat indicating “you are here” on a map. They do this in every aircraft, so why not on a boat?

I was going to comment on the lengthy closure of the bow section of deck 5. This is the only deck where you can walk completely round the ship, including the open bow area. It has been roped off for several days, I had assumed because of ice underfoot. However it is open this afternoon and I have just walked round: now I understand why it was roped off. I had to cling on quite tightly to get round the bow because it was so windy. It would be perfectly possible to be blown off the deck (and the ship) in a strong wind (currently about force 7 or 8 I guess)

Food on board was ample (at breakfast and lunch) and satisfactory (at dinner). It was all pretty tasty, if not exceptional. There was a lot of fish, as expected, and a plentiful range of vegetables, salads and meat. We also had reindeer. The breakfast porridge was unusual but pleasant enough. The thing we really missed was nibbles before dinner. By day 11 we were craving a bowl of olives or some crisps and hummus. It is a cliche that the drinks were expensive, but in the context of the whole trip this was not truly a problem. We had a beer or glass of wine with every dinner and most lunches, which cost us about £350 over the whole trip – not a lot in comparison with the trip itself and the excursions. The weakest provision was coffee. We were entitled to it at meals and we bought the coffee package which allowed us to fill our mugs with tea or coffee at any time in between meals. We probably just about got value out of this (versus buying it each time) but we never had what I would call a cup of good strong tasty coffee. No Jaunty Goat here.

Entertainment on the ship was rather limited: the only films we saw related to local places and phenomena. They were fine, but could have been supplemented by other films of wider interest. There was a similarly limited range of games (chess and Norwegian scrabble, as far as I could see). The ship had a performance area (piano, dance floor etc) but the only live music we encountered was a lone, low key, accordianist who appeared briefly one night. The lecture programme was a good idea, but the lectures, although clearly delivered by an experienced lecturer, were rather unfocused and anecdotal. It was often hard to relate their title to the content.

A further interesting possibility, which was not offered, would have been a tour of the working parts of the ship. I would have liked to see the engine room, bridge, cargo deck and staff quarters.

As a note to ourselves if we were to do the trip again, we would bring a travel kettle (for morning tea), less whisky (we did not finish it) and a few more message-bearing T-shirts (to keep the other passengers intrigued/enraged/scornful).

Tri-lingual announcements have probably improved our German, but not our Norwegian. Occasionally they were also given in French, whenever there was a party from France on board.

Another thought about any cruise: you always lose a day to boredom at the end, so perhaps a longer cruise is better than a shorter because this end effect is proportionately smaller. Is there a way to liven it up? Keep your best book for last? Bring a piece of work to start on (but difficult with poor internet access). And everyone around you kills time in irritating and distracting conversation about trivia

.PJGwithbeard_wlGoodbye! (Beard now gone)GwenInFurryHat_wl


Fifty shades of grey

The last day is hard to settle into. We have left our cabin by 10am, as instructed, but we don’t disembark until 14.30, and the flight is about 18.00. In all that time we can’t get off for a walk, nor retire to our cabin for a snooze, nor read up on the next excursion. We can read or chat (never my strong point) and the weather is still a bit windy so we are rolling and pitching a bit. Roll on Manchester, I say.

Full marks to our on-board tour leader Aud: Gwen had asked about an artist whose work we saw and liked in Solvaer, but whose name we could not remember. Aud got on the phone and discovered that her name is Gunn Vottestad, so we now have a web site address.

The view from the window prompts the 50 shades title for today’s blog.

Arctic, what Arctic?

I eventually succeeded in walking 10,000 steps today, but it took a lot of exploration of deck 3 and the apparent dead-end fjords of the bow sections of decks 5 and 6.

There were more force 10 gales (allegedly more than force 12, at 41m/s, but the internet is so slow that I can’t bear to look it up) overnight, but forewarned we had already stuffed the fridge and removed everything from open shelves. We both lay awake as the ship heaved in all directions, but we must have fallen asleep because we had docked in Trondheim by the time we woke up on Day 11. Miraculously there was neither rain nor wind in the city (only grey grit and a few dirty piles of old snow) so we had a brisk, confident, walk to confirm that Trondheim is still our favourite town of the trip. And today I have achieved 11,000 steps before (actually instead of) breakfast. Today has very much the feel of a last day, and now I have to go to a briefing on how we disembark tomorrow.

It will be good to get back to places where one can both buy a Guardian and download it in less than a day! And post to a blog in less than an hour.

Finished my sixth book, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. This enjoyable book is also by a Norwegian and is a little dark, but otherwise a nice bildungsroman (a word whose meaning I have only just learned).

Stir crazy

Day 10 has perhaps been the most anti-climactic of the trip. Outside it has been grey, with either rain or wind-blown spume, and all three minor stops were cancelled because of high winds. We feel rather sorry for the folk (unknown in number) who boarded earlier intending to alight in Nesna, Sandnessjoen or Bronnoysund. There have been tannoy calls for them to come to reception to sort out travel arrangements to their intended destinations, which could involve quite lengthy car or bus journeys (or a long swim).

So tedious has on-board life been today that they put on a spontaneous showing of “The history of the Hurtigruten ships”. Life is desperate when that is the highlight of the day! People having been queueing for vials of hemlock (at inflated Norwegian prices).

Rainy day musings

Day 9 was the day of the rain. The temperature was ridiculously high at 5C for most of the day so walking was difficult with water over remnant ice. In Solvaer I actually fell over and dented the ice with my head, despite wearing my spikes. According to official sources (Gwen) no common sense has been knocked in. I am getting insufficient exercise since it is too difficult during port stops, and the bow section of deck 5 (with a continuous route around the ship) has been roped off as too dangerous underfoot. Today I will do my 10,000 steps even if I have to wear out the carpet in the internal corridors!

On the other hand I have been reading more. In the last nine days I have completed Hunger by Norwegian Nobel prize winner Knut Hamsun, Northfield Hall (Jane Eyre tale) by Jane Stubbs, The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (another Norwegian), How to be Both by Ali Smith and H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (recent Costa prize winner). This is about the same rate as my reading at home, which is an indication of how much there has been to see and do, on and off the ship.

As I write this, we have crossed the Arctic circle again, between mountains washed free of snow by the warm rain!

It is interesting to see how the focus of the trip has changed over the eleven days. On days 1 and 2 everyone was passionate about the aurora, but this gradually faded as we went further north and encountered greyer and greyer skies. We then began to focus on the excursions and the places at which we stopped. The third phase was about survival as the hurricane (“Ola”) crashed around us until finally we entered the calm fourth phase with no further excursions, just a gentle return home on a now-familiar ship.

Return to Tromso

There was a “light alert” during the evening, but although one sector of the sky was slightly lighter than the others I’m not sure this will count as a full Aurora sighting.

Last night was another highlight. We docked in Tromso at about midnight and were taken by coach to the Arctic Cathedral where a trio of mezzo-soprano, cello and organ/piano gave us an excellent concert. The musicians were very good, as were the acoustics in this very modern cathedral. It was worth staying up til about 2am for such an enjoyable experience.

We then had to rise early to take our last excursion of the trip, into the countryside of Vesteralen. We left the boat at Harstad, visited a church, a museum, a ferry (with coffee and cake) and then rejoined the ship at Sortland. As with all aspects of this voyage, the Hurtigruten organisation was minute-perfect. As we drove over the bridge to Sortland, the ship passed underneath and they hooted each other. By the time our coach reached the quay, the ship was just docking.

Of the four side-excursions we took, it is hard to pick a favourite, each was so different: perhaps husky sledge, midnight concert, north cape and Vesteralen might be the order.

Still three more stops today, and a demonstration of fish filleting. I will probably give the latter a miss, but will get off and stretch my legs at one or two of the stops.

The first stop, at Stockmarken, was rather frustrating. The ship pulled up to the quay but the wind was so strong (offshore) that it took 15 minutes to bring the boat up to the quay and it then needed two ropes and the stern thruster operating flat out to keep the stern in to the jetty. The captain would not let us off the ship, although he did lower the gangplank and allow new passengers on (and disembarking passengers off). His reason was that if the wind rose by one more point he would have to depart immediately, risking leaving 200 of us stranded in the town. We had to content ourselves with taking a few pictures from the deck and we missed the Hurtigruten museum, which would probably have been fascinating. That’s life at sea for you.

After the storm

At our stop in Vardo (I think, all those towns are beginning to look the same) the sea bathing did actually take place. 15 or so near-naked misguided individuals (both crew and passengers) queued down a ramp to jump into a wooden container floating in the sea. They got out again pretty quickly, although our friend (he alleges) went in twice. It was only about -2 (air temperature) and +2 (water temp) so “almost spring-like” as the tour leaders phrase it.

The promised storm waited until after dinner and then upgraded itself at about 8pm to a force 10 gale. There is a lot of stiff upper lip on display, but also quite an amount of smashed crockery and a pair of loudspeakers went over with a very loud crash. We made it to our cabin where we lay on our bunks for about 5 hours while everything else in the cabin flew around us. The loudest noise was the two bottles in the fridge sliding up and down. In desperation we stuffed the fridge with sweaters.

We both eventually slept for a few hours and woke when the ship docked in Hammerfest. Our arrival is several hours ahead of schedule because we missed out a couple of small ports (and had a tail wind, or rather tail gale). Unfortunately it is Sunday so most of Hammerfest is closed. We will probably just walk to get some exercise. At breakfast (very necessary to replace last night’s dinner – which did not survive the night) we were told that the winds last night had reached Force12 (hurricane) at times. So we have experienced a hurricane at sea – another first, although it was not on our 70 list.

We tried to get some exercise in Hammerfest but the weather is not helpful. It is probably described as snow showers. It is -6C and it alternates between horizontal sleet directed at your face (when you get togged up and go out) and clear with patches of blue sky (as soon as you come on board and take your outerwear off). Since dressing to go out (and undressing on return) take several minutes each (especially bending down to fasten cleats on our boots) we never seem to be able to be outside at the right time.