North of Norway: Dark of Night Part Two

Hurtigruten Port of Call

While we’re stuck at home it seems like travel is a fantasy we once lived, and one wonders what will travel be feasible ever again for us older folks, who may be at risk just getting into an airplane, particularly for the long haul.  Given that the ability to move around now seems to be a precious right, what will you do when you can go again? Do you want to see the hallmark places: European capitals, Peruvian ruins, the Nile? Or to some extent do you just want to relax in a little village some place quaint, unknown, and forgotten? Whatever it is, you should savory it, every minute as if it is your last.

I’m going to recount the second phase of our Arctic Circle adventure. Maybe it will give you some ideas about what you may want to do when you are finally released from prison. Until then look around your locality, and remind yourself of all the things that were so neat about it that caused you to settle there. Get out and see them again. And meanwhile, I’m hoping for the early release of the vaccine being developed by Oxford University that blocks the keys that the little bastard virus uses to get into our cells. Someday, if enough of us are vaccinated, that little shit will disappear from the face of the planet and we will mix freely again.

As I stated in the previous article about Inari, we did not rent a car at the Ivalo Airport, Finland, because Kirkenes, Norway was the end of the land leg of our trip. The cost of renting a car in one countryand depositing it in another country is usually a fee of $1200 or more.  So we hired a professional shuttle from Ivano to Inari, about an hour drive over ice and snow, and then after our stay there, we hired another service to take us to Kirkenes, a several hours drive, and definitely expensive, but all and all not as much as the $1200 adder, and even less than renting a car even without the adder, plus we all could enjoy the scenery as we were driven to our destination. Furthermore, we didn’t get lost, nor did we slide off the icy, often very empty roads, into a snow bank without anyone knowing we were there. You may think that you know how to drive in icy conditions, and I think I do after living in Colorado for 8 years and driving up to ski areas twice a week, but if you do know snow and ice, then you also know that things can go wrong. Always have warm clothes, enough that you could walk outside reasonably comfortably, a warm sleeping bag, water, some food, a bag of sand and a shovel in the trunk, and most of all, use studded snow tires in the winter.

Instead we hired a driver,357 euros for 3 people (LINK)

The drive was through endless forest of stunted pine trees. We passed very few cars. About half way, the driver pointed to a nondescript sign and said, “We’re in Norway now.”  Not too much further, we stopped for gas, toilet, drinks and snacks at a shopping hub with a gas station and a grocery. There weren’t that many cars, but once we entered the grocery it was crowded. And no wonder, it’s meat section had some of the best cuts of reindeer in the world, with one giant hunch that filled one of the display counters.  Somewhere along the way we passed a 4 x 4 piece of plywood that had “Sauna” and an arrow that pointed down a dirt road, spray painted on it. I wondered if people would wander down into the woods to use a stranger’s sauna; we didn’t.

Roald Amundsen carved into the Snow Hotel interior.

After a three hour or so ride, we came to our hotel in Kirkenes, the famed Snow Hotel (LINK). We stayed one night, which was expensive ($600 US per person), but not crazy so, partly because we did not stay in the snow hotel part of the Snow Hotel, but rather we stayed in the huts the run along beside it, which are very nice-and warm. As part of our stay we were allowed to walk around at will within the snow hotel. The interior was stunningly beautiful with ice sculptures and reliefs throughout. Each guest room has a unique theme, often related to fairytale and storybook characters. It was worth the stay just to visit the structure, plus we had great rooms and meals and could go pet as many of the 100 sled dogs as we wanted to. There are many activities at the hotel, some free and some at added cost. You could experience all the things we did in Inari plus several ocean related things, such as crabbing for the giant king crabs. Hurtigruten brings their passengers there daily to catch a tour, either dog sledding, skiing, or snowshoeing, and if this is the beginning or end of your Hurtigruten cruise you could spend as many days as you like here before moving on.

We arrived at the Snow Hotel in the late morning; the people from the Hurtigruten ship were also just arriving to engage in the activities that they had signed up for, many were dog sledding from what we could tell. The Snow Hotel dog compound is huge. We never asked but guess that there were about 100 dogs there, maybe more. We took lots of pictures, tried to pet a few, but when you pet some, others at the next doghouse get up and start wagging their tails expectantly. It was difficult to refuse, and we went on for quite a while. But then there was the inside of the snow hotel, and we wanted to see it before the occupants began to move in. We took a lot of pictures, but because of the low lighting, most of the photos just didn’t do the sculptures justice. Around sunset, we went to our bungalows to shower and get ready for dinner, which is held in group into the main hotel building, once a barn.

Snow Hotel Video

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Everything was top notch, including the dinner with wine, all part of the price, and breakfast the next morning. Considering everything that you get, the price was not terrible. Cross country skis and snowshoes are available all day for free. In the morning we went on a walk with a staff member who was socializing two young pups. The dogs and scenery were great and the conversation was informative.

Just before noon, we and most of the other overnighters were picked up by bus and hauled down to the dock to board the Hurtigruten ship, which would be our home for the next four and a half days, while we moved north, west, then south along the Norwegian coast, making more than 20 stops along the way. We were hoping that at some point during the cruise we would again see the Northern Lights.

A sunny winter day on the North Coast of Norway

I knew in advance that it was possible to deboard the ship at any town and board another Hurtigruten ship as many days later as you wish, but as much as I would like to winter a few days in a bleak little fishing village, we all were pushing against our need to get home and attend to whatever it is that we often think that we need to attend to, so I didn’t attempt to break the “cruise” up by lingering in a village for a few days. In summer, I would suggest a couple of stopovers would be absolutely necessary.  There are several places that warrant a few days. You can research the Norwegian coast yourself, or call the Hurtigruten agent and have her suggest some ideas. I’m sure hikes and horse riding along the beaches or into the mountains are wonderous in summer, but not so good in winter, nor so available either.

I signed us up for all of the land excursions one could take during the cruise. The thought being that we would all have cabin fever and would want to do something away from the ship. Sadly, I can’t recommend most of these excursions. They are mostly a kind of bam slam thank you mam sort of affair. You hustle onto a bus, you get to your destination, you are hustled back to the boat and then away you go to the next town along the coast. I think a much better bet is finding a few villages that seem interesting and staying there a few days like I suggested above.

Our second excursion, although short was quit exciting. At Hammerfest, I had chosen the Footsteps of Arctic Explorers. Indeed, there was the slam bam stuff, but at our destination we took about an hour long hike up a hill in a blinding gale, a real arctic storm experience.

Hurtigruten Norwegian Winter Cruise Video

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Alas, we were continuously under the clouds for most of the cruise, because well, most of our cruise was through an arctic storm, which created additional adventure that I had not planned on.

Let’s talk about the Hurtigruten line (LINK).  Their ships which cruise the Norwegian Coast (LINK) are all about the same size, and they are contracted with the Norwegian government to stop at over 20 ports every day of the year-yes, every day. You can imagine. These are not the biggest ships on the Arctic sea, in fact the Viking Sky, which was on the water at the same time we were, was about 4 times as large as our ship.  We know because after it’s disaster, with helicopter evacuations and the towing of the ship to port, we docked next to it to pick up passengers, cargo, etc., then we left. They didn’t.

In the 1800’s most of these fishing villages along the Norwegian coast had no communication with the rest of the world. Hurtigruten made a deal with the government to provide that connection. The Hurtigruten line became the ferry service, the mail service, grocery delivery, fish to market boat-transport, and  you name it; if it had to be done, they were the boat for it. Today there are highways to most of these towns, so the Hurtigruten fleet is no longer to only way to get between them, but it still provides many of those services. To do so, there are six ships moving north every day of the year, and six ships moving south. You pass one of your sister ships every day on your journey along the coast.

When we asked our crew why our little ship braved the storm better than the bigger Viking Sky, the reply was we make 4380 some odd trips on the Norwegian coast every year, come gale force arctic storm or not. Still, we landlubbers thought think several times that we were doomed for sure, because when your cruise boat, which extents seven stories above the waterline gets lifted by a wave and the bottom of the hull slams down into the trough, sending a vibration like a tuning fork the length of the ship and lasting several minutes; it’s kind of scary.  Or when a wave breaks over the bow, and also over the 7th floor observation deck, that’s scary too-but, having survived it, it was great. At one point, we were headed into winds so heavy that when I went outside, I had to hug the wall of the ship to keep from being blown over. At that time, I saw that we were being shadowed by a Norwegian naval cruiser several hundred meters behind us. Eventually, the captain had to turn around and at midnight we returned to the port we had left that morning. We completely lost that day, still we made it into Bergen only an hour or two behind schedule. The captain however had to miss several of the required ports of call, and for that, Hurtigruten was fined.

Anyway, it was something I always wanted to do and it was exciting. I would do it again- in the summer, making some of those stops. By the way, we took the Norwegian Coast South Cruise. Some people we met were doing the round trip. That would be a bit much for me. You won’t find a way to break the cruise into segments on line, so if you want to stay over at one or more places, call one of the Hurtigruten numbers. They have offices within the US, so you don’t have to stay up until 1:00 AM to reach someone to talk to. I think three days on the Lofoten Islands (LINK) would be fun. There are other interesting places as well.

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