Taking the Norwegian Hurtigruten cruise

Inspires writer Simon Heptinstall documents his experience on the Hurtigruten; a Norwegian ship that serves as a ferry, cruise and cargo ship to locals and visitors.

You won’t find multiple swimming pools, glossy shopping malls or tinkling casinos – but on a Hurtigruten cruise, you’ll become a part of Norwegian coastal life. The company claim they offer the world’s most beautiful voyage… so I went on board to find out for Inspires by Avis.

I soon found out this was no ordinary cruise. Early the next morning I rose in the dark chilly dawn and climbed into a heavy duty Arctic survival suit. I was soon clinging on to grab handles on a high-speed inflatable boat bouncing across an icy black sea.

All images: Simon Heptinstall

My optional excursion was heading to watch a memorable sunrise at the northernmost point of Europe, the forbidding cliffs of Norway’s North Cape.

Just as the sky turned beautifully orange, a pair of giant sea eagles, Europe’s largest birds of prey, swooped down to take a closer look at us. It was clear that they felt they belonged here, not us.

It was a sensational start to any day, but for me the experiences were just beginning. Shortly after, I was being taken on a spectacular hike further along the shore. We reached an easy pinnacle above a harbour for a stupendous view across fjords and islands, high in the Arctic Circle.

Then back on board the Hurtigruten ship I enjoyed a fabulous dinner of fresh seafood, caught that day and collected at a fishing village on our route. The day ended with another breath-taking sight: the mesmerising multi-coloured swirls of the Northern Lights.

My trip on one of these small ferries pottering along Norway’s northern coast was unique and unlike any other cruise in the world. For the last 120 years Hurtigruten has operated like an Arctic bus service. Eleven ships transport trucks, cars, freight and passengers on a daily schedule between 34 ports north of Bergen right up to Kirkenes at the border with Russia.

Depending on the size of each port, ships stop for hours – or as little as five minutes. Passengers can get off anywhere and stay, then board the next passing ship. There’s one at the same time every day. Norwegian authorities subsidise the service because it links outposts that would otherwise take all day to reach by road. I met someone catching the ship for a hospital appointment in the next town. Sometimes you see prisoners being escorted to jail or youngsters going to college.

This Norwegian institution has recently recognised the tourism potential of sailing through some of the world’s finest seascapes. That’s why my ship, the recently modernised Nordkapp, still acts as a vital link for remote communities – but is now also a mini-cruise ship for 600 passengers. It’s a luxurious working vessel.

Cabins are a little smaller than a normal cruise ship but still offer sumptuous beds, neat ensuites and big satellite TVs. Public decks feature homely touches like rocking chairs and blankets. The onboard shop sells thick Norwegian sweaters. Unlike big ships forced to order six months’ food at a time, Hurtigruten collects fresh produce and catches from each port daily.

By day you can gaze at the scenery, enjoy the open-air hot-tubs at the stern or leave the ship for an unforgettable Arctic adventure. There are more than 100 excursions available along the journey, including husky sledding, snowmobiling, kayaking or trips to catch giant king crabs. You can take as little or a much of the 12-day round trip north from Bergen. It would be easy to do the one-way trip up to Kirkenes, then hire a car to drive back to your start point.

However you organise your trip you’ll sample a real slice of Norwegian life and some of the best landscapes you’ve ever seen. This time the brochures aren’t exaggerating. This really could be the world’s most beautiful voyage.