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2022: To Norway for the Northern Lights

1. From Dover to the North Cape

Don't open the window


1. Preparations

When we cruised the coast of Norway in 1999 it had been mid-summer, so with 24-hour daylight there had been no opportunity to see the Northern Lights. Since then we had talked many times about repeating the voyage in winter to see the lights when there was 24-hour darkness. Finally with the gradual relaxation lifting of travel restrictions after the pandemic, we saw that Hurtigruten were running "expedition cruises"  from Dover to the North Cape on the MS Maud (recently renamed from "Midnatsol"); what better way could there be to celebrate Debbie's birthday in February?

With 5 days to go, we were all ready. All the paperwork had been completed, our Covid tests had been booked for 48 hours before departure, and a car had been booked to give us a stress-free departure by taking us to Dover. Then suddenly it all changed! A change of rules meant that the results of our own Covid tests would not be accepted, all passengers would instead have to be tested on the dockside in Dover and wait for the results before boarding the ship. This meant that a much earlier arrival would be needed, and also if we failed the test we would be stuck in Dover while our car returned to Milton Keynes. Reluctantly we re-arranged everything so that we would drive to Dover the night before and stay in a hotel there before parking the car for 2 weeks with the Harbour authorities.

In addition there was a mountain of new paperwork to complete, both English and Norwegian, including several mandatory on-line forms which could not be completed because they had not yet been updated. As an example, for one form the Government helpline said not to worry as we could complete it 48 hours before our return to Dover, just as long as we had access to the internet and could receive a text message - Oh yes, in the middle of the North Sea!

Finally we made it to Dover. The Best Western hotel there was excellent (even if they did accidentally charge us 3 times over) and we were intrigued by their warning on the sash windows, see the picture above; apparently they hadn't been able to find any stickers warning about seagulls.

The next morning we arrived promptly for our tests, and were told that we would need to wait 75 minutes for the results; however the results were not delivered in the order that the tests were taken, so we sat there in the same room as 150 (potentially infectious) other people waiting 4 highly-stressed hours for our results. We were almost the last passenger to board the ship, which was delayed by over an hour as a result of this.

2. Dover to Norway

We were delighted with our cabin. The view from the windows was partially obstructed by the bottoms of the lifeboats hanging outside, but as compensation the cabin was almost twice as big as its neighbours with 2 windows, a comfy sofa, and an almost suite-like bedding area. The ship seemed quite empty, with only 170 passengers (and nearly the same number of crew), which allowed them to impose strict separation rules; in fact their Covid precautions were excellent, with compulsory mask-wearing as well as thrice-daily temperature tests and repeated lateral-flow tests for both passengers and crew. We were particularly glad that we had a comfortable cabin, because at least we could spend our free time relaxing in the cabin without having to wear masks! The crew looked after us fabulously well the food, drink, and service in the restaurant and bar were particularly wonderful. We were pleased to have pre-purchased the Premium dinks package, which gave us free (and unlimited) access to some excellent wines in the restaurants and to a wide selection of other drinks in the bars; I was pleased to discover that they had some excellent single-malt whiskies for example, and Debbie could even have her favourite 'bent screwdriver' cocktail (which consists of vodka and orange with the addition of a banana liqueur).


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Our extremely comfortable cabin
The cabin steward made Debbie a towelling cake for her birthday
The bar-tender folded her a flower from a napkin
A towelling dog waited for us to return to him in the cabin

The crossing of the North Sea was rather rough, with the wind gusting to a Strong Gale Force 9,  but fortunately we enjoy a bit of motion on the ship. As well as its two regular restaurants the ship had a small superior-quality restaurant, and we were keen to book our dinner there for Debbie's birthday; we were initially told that there were unlikely to be vacancies as passengers from the Suites have priority there. In this case the rough weather helped us, as most of the Suite passengers cancelled their bookings.

We took the opportunity to learn more about the various on-shore expeditions which were available, and to sign up for the ones which sounded most interesting. There were a wealth of hiking and kayaking activities available, as well as some oddities such as an underwater drone and several days of beach litter-picking; none of these particularly attracted us, but the daily guided walks around the towns and the trip to the North Cape definitely beckoned to us as did, most importantly of all, the dog-sledding trip. In preparation for walking around the towns, which would be extremely icy, we were each loaned a set of pull-on "town spikes" and were told how to use them: simply stretch them over your shows when you leave the ship, stamp your feet while you walk so that the spikes grip the ice, and always take them off before entering any building or the ship.

3. Northbound to the Cape

So, after 2 days at sea, we arrived  on the Norwegian coast at Stavanger. We had booked the simple guided tour here, and were very pleased that it quickly gave us a good flavour of Norwegian heritage. The houses in Stavanger, like those in most other small Norwegian towns, are made almost exclusively of wood; however unlike most other such towns Stavanger has escaped repeated destruction by fire. This has been helped by strict fire-precautions which have been imposed for hundreds of years, including a 24-hour fire-watch from a tower at  the town's highest point accompanied by a strict law that every household must always keep a large bucket of water by their front door, or preferably one per adult living there, and then all immediately rush with it to the site of any reported fire.


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Pull-on spikes for use when walking around town.
The beautiful old harbour at Stavanger
Old wooden houses in Stavanger
Part of the town has recently been painted in bright colours

We enjoyed our wander around Stavanger, but by the end of the tour it had started to snow so we decided not to visit their petroleum museum but instead to return straight to the ship to warm up with delicious mugs of hot chocolate. One noticeable feature that was very different from 1999, was that our every exit and return to the ship was carefully monitored by a swipe-card that we had been given on arrival (and which also served as an on-board credit card, etc); the ship made certain that everyone was back on board before departing each time, unlike on our previous Hurtigruten trips (both Norway and even the Antarctic) when they had not bothered to check this and would simply leave you behind if you were not back on board in time.

The ship followed a twisting route through the islands - which sheltered us from the rough seas - until the next day we reached Ålesund. In 1999 we had only had time for a quick walk around this small town, but this time we had the whole day available to us. We decided to take the shuttle bus to the aquarium, which is a couple of miles outside the town, and Debbie was delighted to discover not only that they had a colony of Humboldt penguins but also that we were just in time to watch them being fed. The little birds were charming and friendly, so we felt that they fully deserved the fish that were being thrown to them, and their keeper was happy to stop and chat to us about them afterwards.


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Debbie met a King Crab as we walked through the aquarium
Feeding time for the penguins

Soon after the penguins had been fed, and we had said hello to the sea-otters that were swimming nearby, it was the seals' turn to be fed. They were remarkable well behaved, politely taking their fish like restaurant diners, and we loved the expressions on their faces which reminded us of our labrador Jessop back home.


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A couple of seals waited patiently for their dinner
They took their food very politely from the keeper's hand
This little penguin jumped into Debbie's bag as we left the gift shop
The mid-point of the Norwegian coast

Te next day we visited Brønnøysund - translated roughly as the "fresh-water well on an island in the sea" which explains the reason for its existence - that is exactly half-way between the southern tip of Norway and the North Cape and has a signpost to prove it. The pavements were unbelievably slippery, with a thin layer of meltwater over thick sheets of ice, so with that and oncoming bad weather the walking tour was replaced by a coach trip which ended with a concert in the delightful little church.

Back on the ship they held a workshop about photographing the Northern Lights, which sold out very quickly and had to be repeated (and I only just made it on the booking for the repeat). I was keen to attend this workshop as I had been given a new camera as my birthday/Christmas present; I knew that my old camera would not be able to take good pictures so was anxious to learn how to get the best results from my new one. This was just in time, for the "Merry Dancers" made a brief appearance for us that evening; they were not very bright but my new camera managed to capture them despite my fumbling in the dark with its complicated controls with freezing fingers (it was -15 degrees on deck).


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The Northern Lights made a brief but beautiful appearance

Next morning we moored in the beautiful Lofoten Islands, at the little town of Reine. About a foot of snow had fallen overnight, which made the scenery look delightful. It was still snowing so we decided to relax on board rather than take the tour to the fishing village of Å (oh, weren't they determined to be the first-named village in the gazetteer!); this gave us the opportunity to watch as first one, and then another, of the tour buses got stuck in the snow. They were eventually rescued by two tractors and a snow-plough and were able to continue with their shortened expedition; it transpired that the snow-plough driver that morning had cut the corner too enthusiastically so that in following the ploughed track the coaches had left the road.


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One of the 2 ship's photographers takes professional photos while the other shows a passenger how to use her mobile phone
The Troll's hat, which has a hole where the gods shot an arrow through it (I took a better photo in 1999)
Beautiful snowy scenery in the Lofoten Islands. This is the fishing village of Reine
Njord, the Norse God of the Sea, baptises  Debbie by pouring ice down her back as we cross the Arctic Circle

That afternoon we crossed the Arctic Circle, so the god Njord paid us a visit to perform the ceremonial baptism of ice on the top deck for every passenger. I tried to claim immunity by showing my certificate from 1999, but I was told that it had expired so I had to undergo the ceremony again. In case you are wondering, yes it was very cold!

We had walked around Svolvær in 1999, so this time we limited our shore activity to visiting the Ice Gallery. This was filled with the most wonderful ice sculptures, accentuated by an ever-changing light show. It was quite magical to wander around the exhibition, clutching an ice-glass full of a deliciously warming drink.


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After leaving Svolvær we had the most wonderful dinner on board, followed by an hour on deck in the moonlight. No, not to see the Northern Lights tonight, but instead to sip mulled wine and enjoy the magnificent scenery as the ship circled opposite the famous Trollfjord to illuminate it with the spotlight. Apparently it is too dangerous to navigate this narrow fjord in winter, because of the risk of avalanches, so were glad that it had been summertime on our previous visit.

Early the next morning we arrived at Tromsø. There was a varied choice of activities here, and we were particularly excited because our day was to be spent dog-sledding. The weather was perfect, and there would be about 4 hours of daylight so the dogs would not need to wear headlights! The coach left Tromsø through an amazing system of tunnels and headed up the coast for a few miles before turning up a small track to the sledding centre. Leaving the coach we walked into a huge field where we were greeted by over 200 Norwegian huskies. The dogs were simply wonderful, beautiful and friendly, and clearly very keen to be part of the team pulling our sled. We were surprised at the variety of dogs, and were told that many of them are crossed between husky and other breeds for different characteristics, such as collies for intelligence (or even greyhounds for racing).


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We didn't visit the troll museum
Making friends with the huskies
This one really liked Debbie
A beautiful collie-husky crossbred puppy (7 months old)
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Getting the dogs together in teams of 10 per sled
Almost ready to set off ...
 ... there's just enough time for a quick roll in the snow first
We're ready now, are you ready too?
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We sit in the sled, one in front of the other
And we're off, bumping across the snow - PLAY VIDEO
The scenery was stunningly beautiful
The sun was setting as we left the centre

It was a wonderful day, every bit as much fun as we had dreamed it would be, and the fabulous memory will stay in my mind forever. The professional driver had taken us at high speed through the most wonderful snowy landscape, the dogs had been amazing, and we had been warmed afterwards by a hot drink and a steaming casserole in the hospitality tent. Finally, as the sun was setting, we boarded the coach for the trip back along the coast and through the tunnels to Tromsø where the ship was waiting for us.


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We do have road tunnels like this in England ...
... but not entire systems with junctions and  roundabouts
The snow-plough cleared a path to the North Cape for us
The sun was shining as we reached North Cape, but this approaching storm looked menacing

We were again very lucky with the weather at the northernmost part of our journey. The storms which the previous day had made the North Cape completely inaccessible, had departed to obliterate Tromsø where we had yesterday enjoyed bright (but cold) sunshine for our dog-sledding. So the snow-plough was able to clear the road and lead a convoy of 6 coaches for 20 miles across the mountains from Honningsvåg to the North Cape. As we left he coach we could see another snowstorm approaching slowly from the north, so we hurriedly took some photos and ran for shelter in their exhibition centre. After a couple of very enjoyable hours wandering around their exhibition centre, which included a wonderful video and also their marvellous new 'son-et-lumière' Cave of Lights display, we rejoined the coach to follow in the snow-plough's tracks back to Honningsvåg. Luckily this snow-plough driver followed the road properly, for the mountain passes were quite spectacular in the snow and you really would not want to miss the corners!

We had reached the northernmost tip of Europe, so now it was time for us to turn around and head southwards again ...


At the North Cape

At the North Cape



FlickR album of these photos   Part 2: From North Cape back to Dover  
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