Hurtigruten Cruise: Northern Lights In Norway
To see the Northern Lights, the weather has to be with you. Two hours out of Kirkenes, high on Norway’s Arctic coast, an announcement crackled into the cabins of the MS Finnmarken: “Ladies and gentlemen, to give you a heads up, when we leave Vardo, our next port of call, we will be sailing into the nose of a Storm Force 11. If you do not have motion sickness pills, you can buy them in the cafeteria on Deck Four – at double the price.”
The last bit was a joke (I think), but the storm was real. For the next couple of hours, I lay abunk clutching my reisesykepose (sickbag) and feeling my chance of witnessing a celestial light show slipping away.
But beyond some stomach-lurching tips and tumbles, the watery apocalypse never happened. The Finnmarken, a big, unflappable ship (well appointed, with pleasing Art Deco flourishes) was plying sheltered coastal waters.
The rough passage out of Vardo set me thinking of those seafarers who ventured before us to this Arctic wilderness – in particular a Bristolian called Richard Chancellor who in 1553 set sail from Deptford, south London, in the Edward Bonaventure – at 60 tonnes, 260 times lighter than the 15,700-tonne Finnmarken – in search of a north-east sea passage to China.
He got no further than Russia but on the way he found, mapped and named the northernmost point of mainland Europe: North Cape (Nordkapp).
Sailing For One Moment
Jutting into the blank Barents Sea, and with a visitor centre attached, the North Cape headland is one of the excursions offered to passengers on the Hurtigruten fleet. These are the supply and passenger ships that have been the lifeblood of Norway’s remote coastal communities since 1893. Nowadays, thousands of passengers from all over the world come aboard for the ride.
In this of all winters, when experts have predicted a peak in the solar activity upon which the frequency and quality of the Northern Lights depend, most come for one thing. How many manage to see the aurora borealis is a moot point – the crew are coy about percentages – but passengers I spoke to seemed sanguine.
Graham Savage, from Warrington, was chuffed to have seen the aurora earlier in the voyage. “I snuck out around 9.30pm while everyone else was watching a film on the observation deck,” he said. “Five minutes later and the swirling, dancing light had gone back in its box – but it was enough.”
John and Monica from Wilmslow had not witnessed a show but were clearly “happy Hurtis” as they were already planning a return trip. “It’s not like being at sea for days on end,” said John. “There’s always something to look at.”
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To appreciate the scale of the Hurtigruten operation, a grasp of the geography is essential. Unfeasibly long and thin, Norway is like a Scandinavian Chile.
On a map, the coastline appears as finely fretted as a doily. In reality it is a maze of channels, inlets, islets and headlands, providing shelter for the ship and endless visual stimulus for deckbound passengers – provided there is enough light to see by.
Come mid-November, when I sailed, the sun rises at about 8am and starts setting around 12.30pm. By 2.30pm, a ghostly gloom prevails, enhanced by the snow dusting the shorelines and the roofs of the ports of call. From November, the sun will not rise at all for two months.
But there is a point in sailing. Storm Force 11s notwithstanding, there is a decent chance of seeing the aurora borealis.
Each night I checked the “aurora forecast” on Channel eight of the in-cabin television. A band of green-yellow light just touched the northernmost point of Finnmark – the Norwegian county that includes North Cape – indicating plenty of potential activity, but the cloud cover was such that on a scale of zero to nine the likelihood of actually seeing the Northern Lights was put at one.
Optical Illusions Turn The Ordinary Into Spectacular
Most passengers I spoke to had opted for the full north-south route, embarking at Bergen and getting off seven days later at Kirkenes, while stalwarts had gone for what you might call the Full Knut, Bergen back to Bergen, which takes 12 days.
I hopped on for a three-night taster, from Tromso to Kirkenes and back, along the extreme northern perimeter that made such an impression on Chancellor.
It could have been a bit of a lonely ride – Finnmarken has more than 600 berths but only 50 passengers were booked for the northward haul from Tromso.
In the event, numbers were swelled by passengers from two other ships, the Richard With and the Nordlys, which were unable to sail due to “technical difficulties”.
Some passengers saw the Northern Lights. Most didn’t. But at this dark and diminishing time of year there was light that was just as beautiful if not so spectacular. The morning light, for example. By about 10am the sun was as high as it would get – barely its own diameter above the horizon.
But from this lowly position it can play many tricks, turning slanting banks of cloud into tangerine-coloured quilts, backlighting snow-dusted hillsides with peach-blush skies. At one memorable moment a single sun ray spotlit a patch of cliff as if it were about to take a bow.
Then there were the ports of call – 11 between Tromso and Kirkenes, each visited twice – a reminder of the raison d’etre of this maritime lifeline.
From Honningsvag we took a bus to North Cape, getting a feel for the treeless, snowbound wilderness that is Finnmark. But we didn’t have to get off to appreciate being in port.
Viewed from the top deck, the ritual at each stop (some no more than 15 minutes) was oddly mesmerising: a forklift truck would work like an ant on the quayside, unloading vital supplies from Finnmarken’s hold and ferrying them to a warehouse in its steel mandibles.
Behind were the houses of this or that port – insulated boxes in colours of kelp-red, or ochre, or the shade of blue the sea turns at dusk.
No Northern Lights then, but plenty of memories to treasure. As one local remarked of the so-called Polar Night, when the sun does not rise for the months of December and January, “It is not all dark. It is many shades of blue.”
Like late-night jazz – a good description of the whole moody experience.
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This article was written by Nigel Richardson from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.