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Crossing the Arctic Circle, Hurtigruten-style
This morning was something of an important milestone here onboard Hurtigruten’s Midnatsol, as we officially crossed over the Arctic Circle at 66° 33’ N just after 7:35am local time. Not only is this an important geographic accomplishment (we’re now further north than the vast majority of Canada and Greenland), but if the skies clear up, our chances of seeing the fabled Northern Lights will improve dramatically.
The celebrations started at 7am out on Deck 9 where champagne was brought out to toast this momentous occasion. Sadly, I decided to “sleep in” to the late hour of 7:30 this morning, rising just in time to be out on deck to see Hurtigruten’s Nordlys pass us on her journey south.
The real fun began at 10:30am outside on Deck 9 just aft of the Polar Bar. Here, the ship’s crew performed the traditional Arctic Crossing ritual, christening those who dared approach Njord, Norse God of the Sea (or Midnatsol’s friendly Captain and Hotel Director) by dumping a ladle filled with frozen ice water down the back of their shirts, followed by a chaser of Aquavit to drink.
The first to go was the passenger who correctly guessed our Arctic Circle crossing time. She had 7:35, I’d written down 7:27 on my form – not far off. For winning, she received the ship’s company flag signed by Midnatsol’s officers, along with the priviledge of being the first to be christened by ice water.
Now, I’m just getting over a bad cold, and it was hat-and-scarf weather outside. But after a few guests did it, I handed my camera to another guest and stepped up to the ship’s Captain for my very own trial-by-ice. The Hotel Manager held the back of my coat up and the Captain ladled a generous helping of icewater down my back!
Unfortunately, the camera didn’t take my photo when it should have. So we had to do it again, resulting in a double-christening for yours truly.
Of the two hundred or so guests who had assembled out on deck, I’d guess probably half participated in the Arctic Circle christening. It was great fun, with everyone shaking their coats to get the ice out of their shirts and then proceeding to kick the ice cubes around the deck. After all, how often can you say you’ve done that – particularly in winter?!
Everyone thinks of the Caribbean as being the quintessential cruise, but it’s surprising just how much more rewarding this journey has been.
Many readers have asked about the food here onboard Midnatsol, and I’m happy to say that it has been very good. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style and feature a wide-range of Norwegian and Scandinavian specialties. If you’re expecting an American-style breakfast, you won’t find it here. Instead of pancakes and French toast, you’ll find plenty of potatoes, assorted meats and fish, fruit, and breads.
For lunch, soup is offered along with one or two different types of meat and fish, accompanied by a huge selection of salads, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. I was also impressed to see a vegetarian alternative offered each day, along with Gluten-free bread and crackers.
Dinner is a set three-course meal consisting of an appetizer, a main course, and dessert. Now, if you’re used to having six or seven different main course choices alone (as is the case on many “cruise” cruises), you may think that’s limiting and for particular eaters, it could be. However, if you have specific dietary requirements, simply let Hurtigruten know in advance and they will prepare something special for you.
For example, I cannot have nuts of any kind due to an allergy. I let the line know on my Passenger Information Form, and voila! No nuts on any of my dishes, and special desserts and breads have been prepared where removing the nuts was not possible. Personally, I really appreciate how seriously they take my allergies.
Although I’m craving pasta (we always want what we can’t have!), I have to say the food onboard has been wonderful, and exactly what I want when I come to a country like Norway. I don’t want to have what I have at home; I want to try different local specialties. Having said that, I think the food onboard is Scandinavian in general, incorporating tastes and dishes you might find in Norway, Sweden or Denmark.
In the morning, the beautiful Midnatsol stopped for a few minutes in the port of Ornes, a pretty little hamlet of just 1,700 inhabitants. I had just enough time to run off the ship and take a few photographs, which I have been trying to do in every single port we stop in during the daylight hours just to say, “I was there.” There’s nothing to really speak of in Ornes, but I would have loved to have had an hour just to walk around.
Once again, our departure was suitably scenic, with enormous cliff faces giving way to lonely little huts situated near the water. Some of these are old abandoned trading posts, while a glimmer of light escapes from the windows of others. These are the kinds of places that the word “isolation” was created for. And yet, there’s something oddly appealing about these little specks of life that sit as they have for hundreds of years, surrounded only by the beauty of the Norwegian coast.
Before Hurtigruten was founded by Captain Richard With in 1893, the northern part of Norway we’re sailing through now was so foreboding that it was thought to be unnavigable during the dangerous winter months. Yet Richard With thought that service here on a year-round basis was possible, and he and his pilots had begun making detailed notes regarding sailing durations and arrival times that would form the backbone of the Hurtigruten service.
Before the creation of the line, just sending a letter from Trondheim south to Bergen during the winter months took so long, it didn’t arrive until spring. Once the first Vesteralen began sailing 120 years ago, that time was reduced to a matter of days. Today, Midnatsol makes the journey in a level of comfort that would have been alien to guests travelling in the latter half of the 19th century.
Just after noon, we arrived in Bodo, Norway. Established in 1816, the town is very modern due to the razing of most of the original structures by invading Nazi forces in 1940. Thus, most of the structures here are the low, squat, almost featureless buildings characteristic of the post-war era.
Saturdays are quiet on Bodo, with only the city’s shopping centre and a handful of cafes and businesses remaining open. Coupled with a period of fierce sleet rain in the afternoon, my journey only lasted a few hours. Still, it gave me an excellent sense of this modern Norwegian city.
A few images of the MS Midnatsol today:
I popped off the ship quickly in Stamsund to take a photograph of the imposing mountains that tower over this little village. After dinner, one of my dinner companions – a fantastic German gentleman named Wolf – recommended we pop off the ship for 30 minutes in Svolvaer. He’s done this trip aboard various Hurtigruten ships numerous times, and one of his favorite museums is situated deceptively close to the pier.
The Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum is located in a rather nondescript building; if it wasn’t for the gigantic, unexploded mine outside, you’d probably mistake it for a convenience shop or second-hand store. Instead, the museum focuses entirely on Norway’s years between 1940 and 1945 when Nazi German forces occupied the country.
Inside are uniforms, artillery casings, weapons, switches, devices, notebooks, postcards, and even Christmas ornaments that were produced during the war years. There’s even a separate room that focuses on the raid on Lofoten on March 4, 1941.
Admission is a very reasonable 80 NOK, and you could easily spend the entire duration of your Hurtigruten ship’s call here learning about Norway during the Second World War.
If Bodo was a bust, Svolvaer was the diamond in the rough.
Tonight at 11pm (or 23:00, as is common time parlance in Europe), Norwegian fish cakes were served up on Deck 9, in the chill of the arctic night. Plenty of guests were up and about, braving the cold to participate in another Hurtigruten tradition.
Because of our overcast skies, the Northern Lights have failed to make an appearance. But what seemed like the main reason for coming on this cruise is now beginning to take a back-seat to the natural beauty and wonder of this Coastal Express voyage.
As Day 4 draws to a close here onboard the comfortable Midnatsol, I’m beginning to think people come initially for the Northern Lights.
They return for another go at the World’s Most Beautiful Voyage with Hurtigruten.
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