Hurtigruten’s time machine to the north of Norway

Every evening at the Hurtigruten (Fast Route) pier in Bergen, Norway a ship slips her lines to begin a six-night coastal voyage, making 34 cargo and passenger calls at all hours of the day and night, en route to Kirkenes, the turnaround port beyond the North Cape close to the Russian border. The ships pause there three hours before returning southbound, arriving back in Bergen on the afternoon of the 12th day. That same evening, she’s off again.

To maintain the service, 11 ships are required, with ten of them roll-on, roll-off passenger-cargo vessels that provide point-to-point travel between some of Norway’s most remote cities, towns and islands, places that are awkward to reach any other way.

The facilities aboard the ten ships are similar to those found on a cruise ship, with spacious public rooms, big-window restaurants, attractively furnished bars and panoramic lounges for viewing the mountain and fjord scenery, and comfortable two-bedded outside cabins with en-suite facilities. These ships also offer children’s playrooms, fitness centres, conference rooms, video arcades, hot tubs and cabins with private balconies. To some it may not seem to matter which ship they travel on, so the choice largely becomes that of the most convenient date on which to sail. But for Hurtigruten aficionados, it is not any one of the ten that will do, but the 11th that they come for, the classic passenger-cargo ship Lofoten — equal to, or even more of a draw than, the glorious coastal scenery.

Built in 1964 at Akers M/V Oslo, Lofoten measures all of 2,621gt compared to 11,204gt to 16,151gt for nine of the ten others and 6,261gt for the oldest of the ro-ros. No roll-on or off for the diminutive Lofoten, just 40 per cent the size of the next one up, Vesteralen (1983 and enlarged 1988), and only 16 per cent of the largest, Midnatsol (2003).

I am one of the group of Lofoten lovers, having first been hooked by this type of ship in May 1964 when sailing with the now long-departed 2,125gt Erling Jarl (1949). This introductory journey began with a rail connection from London Kings Cross to Newcastle’s Tyne Commission Quay and a North Sea crossing aboard Bergen Line’s splendid packet Leda (1953/6,670gt). I then joined the Norwegian mail boat later that same day. Subsequent coastal voyages have continued right up to April this year and, to compare, I did not turn a blind eye to the ro-ro ships. I sailed aboard two, though I probably won’t again until Lofoten is no more.

But how long does Lofoten have? According to Captain Svein Erik Jacobsen and Chief Engineer Kristian Arnesen, the outstanding maintenance should see her continuing for many more years, the only threat being a new replacement.

Declared a Norwegian national historic monument in May 2001, she will not be scrapped. The previous classic ship, withdrawn from regular service on 22 March 2012, Nordstjernen (1956), also a national historical monument, continues to sail on special cruises, though her long-term future as an operating ship is not assured.

Aboard Lofoten, freight is shifted the old-fashioned way, using the ship’s crane to pluck cargo stacked on pallets, shifted into place by fork-lift trucks, and then lowered into the forward hold. Watching the activity is a popular pastime regardless of whether the port call lasts 15 minutes or a couple of hours. While vehicles used to be placed on the hatch cover and the adjacent open deck, they now wait a day for a ro-ro to be carried within and protected from any salt spray.

A regular service

The daily regularity of northbound and southbound calls means that shippers can count on the timely transfer of goods. Likewise for passengers, though recent major improvements in the coastal highway network and new high-speed ferries have reduced the demand for short-voyage port-to-port passengers. Passages that remain especially popular are between the mainland town of Bodo and the Lofoten Islands, and between ports in the extreme north. The Norwegian Post is no longer carried, so the letterbox that once hung at the end of the gangway and was taken aboard at the last minute is no more.

The coastal voyage, to keep the central government subsidies in check, has gradually evolved into more of a leisure cruise, whether one-way between Bergen and Kirkenes, the complete 12-day round voyage, or, as some do, board in Bergen and disembark at Bodo or Trondheim southbound to connect to the rail network. Hence, more amenities have been added to attract the cruise passenger and the domestic meetings market, with nine of the 11 ships having conference rooms in addition to overnight accommodation and full meal service.

On 15 April I was on hand when Lofoten arrived from Kirkenes bang on time at 1430. She exhibited a sleek and balanced profile with, apart from the navigating bridge, just three decks rising above the black hull, two masts and a squat aft funnel embossed with a stylised red ‘H’ for Hurtigruten. She represents one of a trio completed in 1964 of similar dimensions and layouts, the others being Kong Olav and Nordnorge, which were also constructed locally, at Bergen and Oslo respectively. The profile variations saw the latter two having traditionally-sited funnels and an aft exhaust mast where Lofoten’s funnel is located.

At first they operated for three different companies, with as many as six companies participating in a pooled service. After sell-offs and mergers, the final two firms, themselves formed by mergers, were the Ofoten + Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab (OVDS) and Troms Fylkes Dampskibsselskab (TFDS). Finally, in 2006, they merged into Hurtigruten ASA, while receiving the gradually decreasing annual subsidy needed to provide daily service year-round.

Traditional ships

The trio of traditional ships represented the final break bulk passenger-cargo ships built prior to the first ro-ros arriving in 1982 and 1983, an ungainly-looking trio that had to be enlarged six years later. In my opinion, they represented an awkward transition between the handsome classic vessels and the now more attractive-looking new generation introduced in the early 1990s up to 2003.

With a mid-April departure, Lofoten’s load was relatively light, with 70 cabin passengers embarking, including, as I would discover, a fair number who have repeatedly made this trip, mostly aboard the three classics that survived into the 21st century: Harald Jarl (1960) in service to 2001, Nordstjernen (1956) until 2012 and Lofoten. The passenger list was a nice balance among British, Germans, Norwegians and a smattering of French, Swiss, Americans and Australians. Having specifically chosen the ship, the passengers develop a friendly rapport with the staff.

Occasionally, according to the tour leader Svein Kjenner, some come aboard having chosen the date, and when they are confronted with the tiny upper and lower berth cabins, they may ask to get off and wait for the next ship.

Apart from seven cabins with two lower beds, most have the upper folded back against the bulkhead and the lower berth converted to a settee during the day. Category A (24) has a small porthole and en suite facilities, while a Category D cabin includes both outsides and insides with wash basin only. Think slightly larger than a railway sleeping compartment with perhaps an L-shape configuration that allows a corner for a desk and tiny stool.

The attractive public spaces evoke those of a small country hotel, with wood panelling, arm-chairs and settees. Both forward lounges span the width of the ship, and the upper Panorama Lounge affords unobstructed views over the bow and down to the cargo handling. The foyers have polished wooden floors with brass railings fitted to the staircases between decks. A large collection of original paintings depicts the many coastal ships that came before.

The main restaurant also extends to the full width, with a single sitting at most times, apart from at the height of the summer season. Breakfast is a buffet beginning at 0730, and lunch, perhaps the best meal of the day with numerous choices, starts at 1230. Dinner, usually at 1930 is a set meal. Short voyage passengers pay separately for their meals, and most take advantage of the adjacent cafe with table seating down the port side.

The most popular outdoor spaces for sightseeing are the open bridge wings and the sheltered area aft on the Sun Deck just one level below. An approaching Hurtigruten ship, an occurrence that takes place twice a day, is announced (except late at night) about ten minutes before the passing, accompanied by a whistle exchange. The celebratory event brings many out on deck. With no thrusters, creative dockings using spring lines are another spectacle when in port.

The 15 April departure was the first of the season to sail deep into the Geirangerfjord, for a spectacular four-hour passage inland from Alesund. Passengers may opt to disembark for an excursion to the village and then travel back through the countryside to rejoin the ship at Alesund, a lovely city rebuilt in a Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style after a disastrous fire in 1904.

The morning call at Trondheim , the largest city north of Bergen, allows for nearly four hours ashore (six hours in the off-season) to walk into the cathedral town’s centre and visit the southbound ship. Simply appear at the gangway, pick up a pass and walk aboard. The sharp contrast between the dear little Lofoten and one of the new generations becomes abundantly clear.

Year-round schedule

Upon leaving Trondheim, the ship is back on her year-round schedule. While much of the voyage follows coastal channels, there are stretches exposed to the open sea, and, as Lofoten does not have stabilisers, she can take on a considerable roll. At night it is advisable to remove all items from the shelves. Crossing the Arctic Circle, King Neptune appears to initiate the first timers with a ladle or two of iced water poured down one’s back and a reward of a restorative shot of cloudberry wine.

A dramatic run on Day Four leaves from Bodo out to the forbidding Lofoten Wall, created by the lofty Lofoten Islands, with calls at Stamsund and Svolvaer. Tromso, another attractive town, is marked by a row of traditional wooden store fronts and an A-frame style Arctic Cathedral rising on the far shore. The coastline then becomes far more rugged, and the late April period sees freshly fallen snow blanketing the land right down to the water-line. During the call at Honningsvag, the road to the North Cape is open, and from the high bluff the view is straight ahead to the pole.

The final passage along Norway’s north coast can be rough and is noted for sightings of kittiwakes and terns nesting in the cliffs. On Day Seven, after an early morning call at Vadso, the ship crosses the Varangerfjord and arrives at the mining town of Kirkenes, the turnaround port located just 15 minutes by road from the Russian border. In three hours Lofoten is ready to begin the southbound voyage, and I stay on to watch her sail through the ice carried into the fjord on the incoming tide.

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