Norway Winter 2015
After our summer 2014 visit to Norway ,when we travelled as far north as Tromsø, we still had the feeling that there was unfinished business. We had travelled along the entire route of the Hurtigruten coastal ferries from Bergen to Tromsø but there was still the little matter of the Tromsø to Kirkenes section at the north end of Norway.
We thought about doing this one summer but the cost involved with a flight to Tromsø from the UK as well as the fare on the ships seemed exorbitant. However, Hurtigruten kept sending us brochures and emails and finally we noticed a package with a charter flight from Manchester to Tromsø for less than £900 each. This would give us three nights on the ship and a day and a half in Tromsø at the end. The fare included breakfast and evening meal on the ship and breakfast at the Raddison Bleu hotel in Tromsø.
The real attraction though was that it was in December when we would experience 24 hours without sunlight, just 3 or 4 hours of twilight and a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights. We were convinced and booked the holiday.
Now being in the winter meant we would need to dress accordingly but really wanted to avoid travelling with hold baggage. So we both bought small 25 litre rucksacks which we hoped would be acceptable as cabin baggage. All we carried were lots of layers of clothing and toiletries and our trusty Yaktrak grips. For footwear we used our normal hiking boots.
As it turned out this was a good idea as Manchester Airport managed to lose half a dozen suitcases from some of the group. They had to manage with what they had with them for the whole voyage.......
The charter flight from Manchester was by Germania and was uneventful on the way out. A strange experience was that as we headed further north along the Norwegian coast the light steadily dimmed and arrival in Tromsø was of course in the dark. With only cabin baggage we were the first on the two coaches from the airport to the ship. The journey was interesting as the main road into the city goes through road tunnels that used to be nuclear fallout shelters, but have now been converted and have several roundabouts at road junctions in the middle of the tunnel
Our ship the 'Nordlys' was already at the quayside, having arrived from the south about 14:30 with departure north at 18:30. Once again we were the first in the queue for check in!
The ship's details are as below
Year built 1994
Ship yard Volkswerft in Stralsund (Germany)
Passenger capacity 623
Car capacity 35
Gross tonnage 11204
Length 121.8 m
Beam 19.2 m
Speed 15 knots
What Hurtigruten don't mention in their brochures is that in September 2011 the ship was nearly lost and two crew members were killed in a fire at Ålesund in the engine room. When the ship was brought alongside the quay the stabilising fins were still out and these were then forced into the hull and water flooded into the lower deck causing the ship almost to capsize - it reached a list of over 21 degrees. The ship was repaired and returned to service in 2012.
The photos below give a good idea of what the ship is like inside.
Cabin 630 in night mode
Cabin 630 daytime mode
Shower and toilet on the right, wardrobe to the left out of sight
deckplan for deck 6
Cruise card used to pay for food and drinks onboard. Our meals in the evening were all at 20:30 which at first we felt were too late but in the end this was a good way to fill in the long evenings.
One of the lounge areas on deck 7
The sheltered sundecks on either side of the ship on deck 7
Further photos of the interior of the ship can be found on this website
9th December 2015
Click on the map of the route from Tromsø to see it larger.
The quayside at Tromsø before departure
The view from the ship at 16:15. This is looking across the fjord between the island on which Tromsø is situated and the mainland, with the lights of the road bridge high above the water.
The ship sailed a few minutes late and here the 'Nordlys' has just passed under the road bridge .
The evening's entertainment was provided out on the ship's sundeck by the ship's captain talking about that well known north Norwegian specialty of dried (stock) fish. He proceeded to attack a large dried cod with a hammer. The man in red is the tour leader who is responsible for organising the various excursions. After tasting a piece of dried fish it was a relief to know that it is normally soaked for several hours to re-hydrate it before cooking.
The first port of call was at Skjervøy between 22:30 and 22:45.
Obviously, with near twenty-four hour darkness many of the photographs on this web-page are going to be similar, but it was my intention to photograph all of them during our normal waking hours. Click on the photo to see a larger panorama of this small town.
The rather delightful wooden church and Christmas tree was floodlit.
One of the features of the winter Hurtigruten ships is that you can receive a message in your cabin to tell you that the Northern Lights are visible. We did this on our first night and were duly woken about half past twelve. Like many other passengers we got dressed in our full winter clothing and headed up to the open deck to see......nothing except dark sky and stars. Either we didn't know what to look for or the lights had disappeared.
During the night the ship called at Øksfjord and Hammerfest, ports that we'd see on our return journey.
10th December 2015
It's nearly half past nine in the morning and the ship is running about half an hour late - this is something that appears to happen throughout the next few days. The photos shows the lights along the southern shore of the fjord leading to the next port of Havøysund. This small town is on the island of Havøya and is linked to the mainland by a bridge.
The ship has just pulled away from the quayside at Havøysund. Click on the image above to see a large view. The high bridge over the fjord can be seen in the distance. By now it is nearly ten o'clock and the light is improving.
The ship is sailing through the strait between the island of Magerøya and the mainland. It is the Magerøysundt and is, according to the captain, a major shipping route around the coast of northern Norway and Russia. This is looking towards the mainland. The time is now just after eleven o'cclock.
Looking back from the stern (the sun deck!) with the island of Magerøya on the right. This is the island with the Nord Kapp (North Cape) on it. The Nord Kapp is the most northerly point in Europe to which you can drive.
This definitely looks Arctic!!
Looking south from the ship.
There were several large ships to be seen as we headed through the straits.
In the distance the lights of Honningsvåg can be seen. The town is linked to the mainland by the 6870 metres long Nordkapp Tunnel
The approach to Honningsvåg.
The 'Nordlys' arrived about 35 minutes late. As can be seen the town lies underneath the steep hillside and is protected by avalanche fences.
This was to be our first visit ashore so we donned full multi-layer winter clothing and our Yaktrak grips. That quayside looks very icy.
The large Hurtigruten ships all have drop down gangways which allow easy disembarkation at any state of the tides.
Cargo and cars are load through a similar ramp on the side of the ship. At every port fork lift trucks load and unload cargo. We didn't see any cars being loaded but the ship can carry 35.
The car deck is to the left with a lift up to the garage on deck two. Cargo is carried on deck one and mainly seems to be carried on pallets.
It's 12:30 and the majority of the passengers have gone on the bus trip to the Nordkapp. We opted for a gentle stroll around the town which has about 2500 inhabitants.
'Nordlys' is lit up for Christmas and is surrounded by fishing boats.
The main street of Honningsvåg
A walk round the town didn't take long ...
....but we found this curious group of timber houses with balconies by the harbour.
By one o'clock darkness is returning quickly. The ship looks more than welcoming.
However, first we try to find the North Cape Museum. Sadly it's being relocated to a new building and is closed but we walk along the quays as it starts to snow and see this coastal cargo ship tied up.
On leaving Honnigsvåg we passed on the opportunity to have hot chocolate and apple pie as we'd just bought lunch (a sandwich from the shops in the town) but we did go to the short film about the Sami people of northern Norway.. The previous evening the ship had rolled about quite a bit whilst were in bed but as we were now heading out into the Barents Sea it started to roll and heave again, much to the discomfort of some of the audience who had to leave in a hurry. I even had to steady a older woman walking in front of me as she lurched to one side!
A couple of hours after sailing an announcement was made that we would shortly be passing the Finnkirka rock formations. In winter these are floodlit when ships pass. The colours change as they rocks are passed. The sequence of photos shows what they are like in summer and the changing floodlit colours.
There had been some doubt about whether the next event would take place as the sea was still a little rough but some of the passengers assembled on the top deck to see a fishermen board the ship by rope ladder carrying some live king crabs. We got a lecture in perfect English from the fisherman about the problems these creatures are causing to fishermen along the Norwegian coast and how the bureaucrats in Oslo don't understand the seriousness of the situation.
Taking photos of the Northern Lights with a basic digital camera, with no time setting or tripod is difficult. However, at just before six o'clcok they appeared again as we approached Kjøllerfjord. This image has been colour adjusted to make the aurora stand out better and reveals its greenish tint. In reality most of the time we saw it it the aurora appeared to be a whitish grey.
Yet another quayside - Kjøllerfjord. A refrigerated lorry is waiting with cargo to be dispatched or received.
Later in the evening, at a quarter past eight, the cargo doors are going down at Mehamn as the fork lift truck gets ready for duty.
The old quay at Mehamn with a timber warehouse.
During the night we called at three ports - Berlevåg, Vardø and Vadsø. We'd call at Berlevåg and Vardø on the return journey but Vadsø is only visited on the northbound sailings.
11th December 2015
By quarter past nine the ship is heading up the fjord towards the Hurtigruten's northern destination at Kirkenes. This is looking back to the open sea.
Looking over to the north this is almost the end of Norway with just a few kilometres before the Russian border. The sky to the east is quite bright but the sun doesn't appear over the horizon for two months this far north.
Ahead are the lights of Kirkenes.
Looking to north east.
As the ship arrived at Kirkenes there was ice floating on the water. The outside temperature was -14 Celsius.
The Hurtigruten terminal is away from the main harbour and town at Kirkenes...
.....with large warehouses.
Beyond the terminal buildings the fjord stretches towards the Russian border.
The map shows how close the border is to Kirkenes.
The fishing harbour and the cranes of the iron ore terminal. And yes, there is a railway line here from the mine to the port.
A very snowy quayside with the orange pre-dawn sky to the east.
Fran in full winter gear - coat/ scarf/ buff /jumper/ shirt/ vest etc.
Outside the terminal the sign to Murmansk is in Russian as well as Norwegian. Murmansk (of the WW2 convoys fame) is the only ice free Russian port.
The arm of the fjord beyond the terminal is covered in ice. The hills in the far distance are across the Russian border which is only about 7 miles away.
The main shopping centre near the terminal has signs in Russian.
We followed the main road towards the town centre but then followed this sign .....
.....and ended up in a residential area.
We saw several people using this shopping bag sledges. In the end we decided to return the ship after asking a woman the way to the town centre and were told there isn't really one. She was wrong of course, but having seen photos of what might be a main shopping street I can understand what she means.
Anyway we found a store selling all sorts of outdoor gear and were able to buy some new laces for my hiking boots which were nearly disintegrating.
Back at the quayside the 'Nordlys' awaits departure as the "Southbound Hurtigruten"
We pull away about twenty minutes late, waiting for a passenger who'd missed the bus from the town centre.
A curious phenomena was seen of water vapour above the fjord's water. I think it may have been caused by condensation from the ship's exhaust.
Heading out to sea we pass a fishing boat as it gets dark at about one o'clock.
Later that afternoon we are invited on deck to see the chef preparing some reindeer meat for the evening's dinner. One of the officers goes around handing out reindeer salami which is rather pleasant.
One of the specialties of Hurtigruten is the set menu at many of the ports. For the evening meal after leaving Kirkenes it's always reindeer meat as the main course.
By four o'clock it's totally dark and the northern Lights put in another and long lasting appearance. I try to get some more images of which this is the best.
As we approach Vardø the ship's searchlight is turned one to illuminate one of the beacons and by a coincidence the Northern Lights can just be seen above it.
Fran gets some more spectacular images on her mobile phone..
.....including this one.
The lights of Vardø appear and the cruise leader comes over the loudspeakers to explain that one of the activities here is ice-dipping in the Barents Sea. Alternatively you could walk up to the fort that was built in 1737. We decide to stay on board as it's too much trouble to put all our gear back on again, but one of the waiters and some passengers go into the ice-dipping enclosure!
The ship is running three quarters of an hour late and after a shortened stay the ship's hooter is blasted several times to hurry passengers back on board.
One of the good things about the 'Nordlys' is that there is a passenger walk way all the way round the ship including one under the bridge. In this view the crew are starting the process of loosening the mooring ropes.
The ship heads out of the harbour between the two marker lights and into total darkness.
At 19:50 we arrive in Batsfjord which is Norway's largest fishing village with an average of 7000 vessels a year calling.
At Batsfjord there's yet another cold quayside with more pallets to load on board and a few foot passengers appear from the mini bus.
Later that evening we pass the Northbound Hurtigruten, the MS Midnattsol outisde Berlevåg
During the night we call at Mehamn, Kjøllefjord, Honnigsvåg and Havøysund.
It's 08:43 and the announcement that we are passing the Northbound Hurtigruten the MS Finnmarken sees me up on deck to see it sail past lit up like a Christmas tree.
This morning it's snowing gently and is still totally dark at ten o'clock.
On the approach to Hammerfest is the enormous Snøhvit project on the island of Melkoya. This produces liquified natural gas for export, including to Britain by pipeline.
It's eleven o'clock and this is the view looking back north.
The ship enters the natural harbour at Hammerfest.
On the right is the modern church which we will visit later.
Hammerfest was totally destroyed in WW2 and calls itself "the northernmost town in the world".
Pulling alongside the quay.
There is no doubt we are in Hammerfest. There is a two hour break here with several things to do.
A visit to the Polar Bear Society museum on the quayside gives an interesting introduction to this part of Norway and its history.
Replica of the frames used for drying fish
A wander along the quayside produces a couple of local ferries, one a catamaran and the other....
....much more traditional.
The town looks very prosperous and feels more like a real town than many Norwegian towns that we've visited along the coast.
The pavements have been cleared which isn't something you want when wearing Yaktraks, so we keep crossing the street to find snow and ice to walk on!
There are some traditional wooden buildings away from the main street.
The Hammerfest Kirke was built in 1961 and...
.....has a warm and cosy feeling inside.
Outside is the cemetery but look at those snow fences on the hillside.
Having arrived late the ship has to wait for the return of those on the various excursions so we leave about three quarters of an hour late.
The next port is Øksfjord and I brave the cold to...
...see the ship berth and take one more cargo.
Later we both put on all our winter clothing and go and stand at the front of the ship. In the distance the sky is a yellowy orange - a shifting mass seen low down on the horizon or behind islands - so we presume this is one of the manifestations of the Northern Lights. It's a strange sensation to be out in the dark and wind in such a bleak environment.
We're back at Skjervøy and now running only a few minutes late.
Back at Tromsø the triangles of the Arctic Cathedral are lit up whilst the light on the mountain is at the top of the cable car.
We've booked on the excursion to the midnight concert at the Arctic Cathedral and board one of the buses that head across the bridge.
On our last visit we hadn't been able to visit the interior as there was a funeral but this time we were treated to an hour of music from a soprano, a cellist and a pianist - absolutely magical.
It did mean that we didn't get to bed in the Raddison Bleu hotel until 02:30 .
Our full day in Tromsø was a Sunday so most of the shops were, of course, shut which was something that seem to bother some people in the British group.
We had other plans including visiting the Polaria Museum and an art gallery.
The photo above is the cathedral in the city centre.
All the streets were decorated with what appeared top be red hearts.
Tromsø from our room.
In the Pollaria museum we visited the seal pool where the staff were feeding seals to the amusement of the children and adults....
There are glass tunnels under the pool which allow you to see the seals swimming.
By chance this Sunday was the day of the Santa Lucia procession in towns and cities all over Scandinavia. Here Saint Lucy is about to start her donkey ride through the town. Now this is not Britain, so the procession shared the streets with cars and buses with not a policeman or road closure in sight. The children carried lit torches and as far as we could see nobody was incinerated.
The procession ends with everybody throwing the flaming torches into a bonfire.
The final photo was of the northbound Hurtiguten with MS Vesteralen.
On our final day we visited the Polar Museum (see the account in our summer 2014 journey).
The flight home to Manchester was more dramatic than the outward one as just before we were due to leave a blizzard hit Tromsø and the runway was closed for a short time. Then the de-icing machines were called out to clear the plane of snow and ice before we left about 45 minutes late. Shortly after take off we had a final sighting of the Northern Lights out of the cabin windows.