The Hurtigruten website modestly describes its cruise up the Norwegian coast as “the world’s most beautiful voyage.” Would the decks of the ship be littered with tourists smitten by the sublime?
We were about to find out. I was standing on the top deck of the nine-deck MS Trollfjord with my wife, Katie, and 6-month-old son, Holt. With a long blast from the ship’s horn, we pulled out into the fjord and headed north. I watched as the steeple of Trondheim’s cathedral slipped from view, replaced by layered mountains of pine that swept down to the water’s edge.
Hurtigruten literally means “the express route,” and while there is nothing “express” about it these days, back when it was founded in 1893, the ferry line was nothing short of transforming, delivering mail, cargo and passengers to northern communities that were otherwise completely isolated from the rest of the world. By combining navigational prowess, humble practicality and stunning natural beauty, the Hurtigruten has become one of Norway’s treasured national symbols.
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Yet the Hurtigruten of 2014 bears little resemblance to the Hurtigruten of old. Over time, the original service mission of the coastal express became largely redundant as mail, cargo and passengers turned increasingly to the convenience of air transport, forcing the company to look toward tourism for its primary source of revenue. Its transition from a utilitarian coastal ferry to an all-out cruise line has caused more than a few growing pains.
Built in 2002, our ship, the 445-foot MS Trollfjord, was representative of this new Hurtigruten. What quickly became apparent was that we were witnessing a company in the midst of a mild identity crisis. Our hosts were trying to simultaneously indulge the desires of the increasingly discerning modern cruise passenger while also maintaining the understated modesty of Norwegian culture. Thus, the MS Trollfjord featured two small Jacuzzis on Deck 9, complete with multicolored party lights, but these closed promptly at 11 p.m. There was no swimming pool, water slide or mini-golf course. Deck 8 featured an abandoned dance floor.
Part of the issue here was the crowd. The passengers were 80 to 90 percent German retirees, a high percentage of whom sported fanny packs and matching Jack Wolfskin parkas. Needless to say, these people had not come to Norway to dance.
Much of our fellow passengers’ focus was concentrated on the various off-boat excursions offered each day. This was clearly an attempt to placate the demands of the modern cruise tourist. On any given day you could go dog sledding, hang out with sea eagles or eat a meal with a man dressed as a Viking.
Aboard ship, the views were fantastic. If you have never been to Norway, you must understand it is blessed with an overabundance of staggering landscapes. Glaciers tend to leave dramatic geology in their wake, and Norway is no exception: Soaring granite mountains drop straight down into the sea; waterfalls plunge 300 feet through scree fields and terraced alpine meadows; everywhere you look there are clusters of rocky islands and impossibly cute red farmhouses poised on the crook of some bluff.
Despite being only 150,000 square miles (about the size of Montana), the country boasts one of the most undulatory coastlines in the world, measuring an astonishing 64,000 miles long. (By comparison, the entire U.S. coast is 95,471, according to the National Ocean Service.) Unsurprisingly, the Norwegian coastline is essential to the country’s identity — and not just because of the country’s primary industries of fishing and offshore drilling. A line of skerries — essentially small, uninhabited rocky reefs — creates a naturally protected coastal passage all the way to the North Cape and gives rise to the country’s name: Nor-way means “the way north” in Old Norse.
But what’s fascinating is that the view from the Hurtigruten’s panorama lounges is also very slow. As in: very, very slow. Despite once upon a time being billed as the “coastal express,” the Hurtigruten actually travels at a maximum speed of around 15 knots, which is about the speed of a brisk bicycle ride. So you really have time to linger on every view.
This protracted (and mediated) narrative pace mirrors a baffling trend taking place in Norwegian television called Slow TV. In 2009, the public television station NRK broadcast a six-hour, 22-minute uninterrupted train trip from Bergen to Oslo by mounting a camera on the front of the locomotive. NRK had modest expectations for viewership, but the show became an overnight sensation — approximately 20 percent of all Norwegians tuned in to the train ride at some point.
NRK followed this up two years later with an even slower program, “Hurtigruten Minute for Minute,” in which the entire 134-hour coastal journey was broadcast live. After a relatively subdued departure from Bergen, by the third or fourth day, entire towns were coming out to greet the ship (and camera). People dressed up in ridiculous Norwegian costumes; marching bands serenaded the boat’s arrival and departures. On the last day of the trip, the queen of Norway even waved to the ship from her royal yacht. Half the country watched the voyage at some point.
We disembarked and bid adieu to the MS Trollfjord at the village of Stamsund, on the southern coast of the Lofoten Archipelago. Lofoten is famous for its scenery, and in a country blessed with a bounty of scenery, this is really saying something. The island chain features a wall of soaring, granite peaks running down its spine. In the summer, the rock faces of these mountains are brushed with a soft palette of green scrub and lichen; from a distance, the islands appear to be floating above the surface of the sea.
Even though it lies 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Lofoten, like the rest of Norway, remains relatively temperate due primarily to the Gulf Stream flowing up from Florida. Every Norwegian should write an annual love letter to the Gulf Stream. The warm currents keep harbors from freezing in the winter, provide bountiful fishing grounds and moderate sea and land temperatures all year round.