This is not cruising the way most Americans think of it.
There is no giant video screen flashing images of oiled sunworshipers sprawled on lounge chairs on the top deck. There is no driving, thumping, music always in the background. There is no casino and no Vegas-style entertainment.
The bar is a sedate corner, surrounded by deep, comfortable chairs and wide windows. The restaurant serves three good meals a day and there are occasional surprises such as fresh local shrimp steamed and delivered to the ship by the fisherman and then served to guests by the chef. But, unlike the floating party palaces that come to mind when most Americans think of cruising, there is only one star attraction on Hurtigruten ships and that is the view of Norway. Any season, and in the deepest part of summer, any time of the day or night, everything revolves around the stunning landscape.
I boarded the Hurtigruten ship Midnatsol in Kirkenes and for the next week we moved south, along the breathtaking coast of Norway.
It was August but the sun was still hanging over the horizon far into the early hours of the morning. The sky was never completely dark. Even knowing I wouldn’t sleep as well as I would in a dark room, I still didn’t close the curtains in my cabin. Instead, I surrendered to the midnight sun. I hadn’t flown across the world to dream. I kept my camera near the bed and when I woke, usually when we made short stops at small ports along the way, I frequently picked it up to snap a photo of the window. Small towns, jagged peaks, brilliant skies striated by dramatic clouds, the view changed constantly but it was always beautiful.
For 120 years Hurtigruten Coastal Cruisers have been steaming up and down the Norwegian coast delivering people and goods to the cities and small towns that dot the coastline. And, as if the physical landscape is not breathtaking enough, the seasons add their own drama. In the winter snow covers the rocks and trees and the Northern Lights wash the dark night sky with colors that flicker and dance. In the summer the midnight sun takes over and one day becomes another without a sunset and the water is a smooth as glass.
Hurtigruten passengers are an interesting mix of travelers—mostly European and mostly German—and locals hopping from one port to another. Early one morning a young Norwegian woman and her newborn son boarded, saying goodbye to her husband as she traveled to introduce the new baby to her parents a few hundred kilometers away. We shared a quiet corner as she nursed the baby and I sipped my first cup of coffee of the day.
In the afternoon I stood on the bow, the wind on my face, chatting with two women from Chicago. They were on the trip of a lifetime, taking a voyage they’d dreamed about and saved for, and they told me it was everything they’d hoped it would be.
At night, my server told me she had family in Washington State (Interestingly, there are more Norwegian Americans than there are Norwegians) and she was hoping to visit them in Yakima and Spokane this summer. I gave her my card.
During the journey there were excursions to sights and attractions in the larger towns and cities. I traveled to the North Cape and watched Reindeer graze on the mossy rocks near the top of the world. I took a small boat to the Vega Islands and learned about the unique and complex industry of caring for the Eider Ducks and harvesting the down the females leave behind. I rode a gentle Icelandic Pony along the beaches of the Lofoten Islands, on the spot where Vikings launched their ships.
When we docked at Bergen at the end of the cruise, yet another UNESCO Heritage site, I was sorry to see the end of the line. That night, in a dark hotel room when I should have been able to sleep, my head was too full of images; dark mysterious fjords, small red cottages sitting on a rocky shoreline and fiery skies over a sun that never quite set.
My trip down the coast of Norway wasn’t a cruise the way most people I know think of cruising. It was something much harder to find. It was an authentic travel experience, making a journey the way people have been doing for more than 100 years. It was everything I hoped it would be.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at email@example.com