Thursday 14 December 2017

Norway: In search of the Northern Lights on Hurtigruten's hottest cruise

Fjord escort

Trollfjord Raftsundet
Trollfjord Raftsundet
Bergen, Norway
A cable-car overlooks Bergen harbour
Dog sledding

Yvonne Gordon

Yvonne Gordon joins a coastal cruise for a spectacular journey from Harstad to Bergen and the Arctic Circle...

The giant bird of prey swooped down.

All it took was a single, smooth movement. It targeted the fish from a height, combining the immense power of its wings with perfect precision. Before we knew it, a fish had been plucked from the water.

Beforehand, we'd been motoring through the fjord in a small boat, feeding screeching gulls in the hope of arousing the curiosity of sea eagles perched high in the steep mountains to either side.

When the majestic bird finally dived for the fish, even the gulls seemed giddy. This was the moment we'd been waiting for.

We were in the Trollfjorden in northern Norway, a long narrow inlet named after the troll figures from Norse mythology. In fact, the black, strangely-shaped mountains here - up to 1,084m high - are said to be sleeping trolls. Certainly, on the day we visited, the swirls of mist and cloud on the dark pointy peaks gave them a mysterious air.

Ours was a sea eagle safari - a trip to see the king of birds close up in its natural habitat on Hurtigruten line ship the Kong Harald, which was travelling south along the Norwegian coast. I'd joined the ship that morning in the town of Harstad in northern Norway, leaving a northbound ship which I had spent a few days on to travel back southwards to Bergen.

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Bergen, Norway

Bergen, Norway

Hurtigruten, the Norwegian coastal express, is a working passenger and freight shipping service that runs almost the entire length of Norway, between Kirkenes in the north and Bergen in the south. Started in 1893, the service is a vital communications route, bringing people, post and supplies between ports along the jagged and mountainous coast. Ships call daily at 34 ports along the way.

Because the voyage passes some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world, including fjords such as Geirangerfjord, glaciers and islands like the Lofoten Islands, joining the ship for a few days - or the full 12-day round trip - is hugely popular with holidaymakers.

It's also a sustainable way to see coastal Norway - the company emphasises environmental protection. Another bonus of seeing the coast and fjords with Hurtigruten rather than an international cruise company is the fact that the food, crew and experience are Norwegian… and so local traditions are preserved.

Our guide Kristian Louis was passionate about helping people to understand nature, for instance, in turn encouraging them to preserve it, through excursions like the sea eagle safari.

"This is about bringing people's awareness to the beauty of nature and after that, the desire to conserve it will come," he said.

As well as the fjords, glaciers are highlights along the route. I joined a small boat trip to see the Svartisen Glacier, but nothing prepared me for the sight of the vast chunk of bluey-white ice that seemed to be advancing its way down the mountain.

The glacier, which is just 2,500 years old (a mere pup in glacier terms), is Norway's second largest, measuring 142 square miles, although it has receded in recent years. It takes its startling blue colour from the compression of the ice.

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Hurtigruten coastal ferry in Geirangerfjord, Geiranger, Norway

A Hurtigruten ship in Geirangerfjord

Life on board the Hurtigruten ship itself moves at a relaxed pace. The Kong Harald takes just 622 passengers, which means no tacky shows or cabarets - the entertainment is nature, and a daily bulletin told us what ports the ship would call at, and what specific scenic highlights to look out for during the day.

Some of the port stops were short (15 minutes) - enough for a quick dash on to the shore. Others such as Trondheim or Tromso last around four hours, allowing plenty of time for sightseeing.

On board was fun too - a few of us kept bumping into each other as we took photographs from the bow, and so we got to know each other over the few days.

During a night venture into the Trollfjord, we laughed as we supped 'troll soup' on deck to keep us warm. One of my most memorable moments was crossing into the Arctic Circle at 66° 33' N between Nesna and Ornes. As we made the crossing, passengers were called on deck for a blessing by Njord, the ruler of the seven seas. Each of us got a spoonful of cod liver oil - even the captain.

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A cable-car overlooks Bergen harbour

A funicular overlooking Bergen harbour

It was exciting arriving into Bergen on the final day. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Norway, the beautiful wooden buildings in the Bryggen district and harbour here are a highlight. There are seven mountains around the town too - you can take a funicular or cable car for a summit view (bottom left).

Beautiful and all as Bergen was, however, it was also strange to step back on to land and leave the magical world of the Norwegian coast and its fjords, glaciers, eagles and trolls behind.

PS: Hurtigruten organises short excursions for passengers, including the Sea Eagle Safari near the Trollfjord (€124pp) and a trip to the Svartisen Glacier (Norway's second largest glacier €206pp), which includes a guided tour of the islets and wildlife along the way, before rejoining the main ship again at Bodo. See hurtigruten.com for more.

Read more: Iceland: A winter adventure

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The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) seen over a mountain camp north of the Arctic Circle, near the village of Mestervik. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Northern Lights, inside the Arctic Circle

The Cruise

Hurtigruten's 12-day Classic round-trip from Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen starts from €1,452 per person. A six-day voyage south from Kirkenes to Bergen on a full-board basis costs €933. Prices are based on two people sharing an inside cabin and exclude flights. To book, visit hurtigruten.com or contact your travel agent.

Northern Lights

A special six-day Arctic Highlights package departing March 18 includes a charter flight from Dublin to Tromsø, a Tromsø-Kirkenes-Tromsø voyage and two nights in Tromsø. Optional excursions include snowmobiling and husky rides (above). From €1,092 per person, including flights. See hurtigruten.com.

What to Pack

The dress code on the ship is informal. Bring comfy shoes and a water/windproof jacket, hat, gloves and a swimsuit - as some ships have an on-board Jacuzzi. UV protective sunglasses are handy even in winter, to protect against snow/ice reflections, as are small binoculars to view wildlife.

Irish Independent

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