Luxury has many dimensions now, due to the emerging BRIC and Millennial High and Ultra High Net Worth populations; and one dimension emerging and strengthening is luxury adventure travel. Many luxury cruises go to distant areas, stop, and move on, but Hurtigruten is a different adventure experience, even though it shares the great cuisine and service dimensions of luxury cruises.
For many, the name Hurtigruten is not well known in high-end sailing circles. It is not a luxury cruise line; it is a Norwegian steamship line.
But for those who have a sense of history, adventure, and deep curiosity, Hurtigruten is a substantial option.
Hurtigruten has a fascinating Norwegian history. It was founded in 1893 as a company originally called the Norwegian Coastal Voyage. The ships sailed from Tromso to Hammerfest, two ports in northern Norway, carrying mail, cargo and passengers. Today Hurtigruten has eleven ships, and travels the Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. Within the past few years, it has become enormously popular, due to its exceptional cuisine, and historic ports of call. Depending on time of year, Hurtigruten stops at 34 ports, all having great histories, all being part of the unique Norway cultural mosaic.
It was Hurtigruten that took us, in cold February, sailing 215 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where we hoped to see the Northern Lights. It was a time of year they were most visible, though, we were told, they were also capricious. No one knew then they would come and when they would disappear. We sailed from Bergen, to Kirkenes, Norway, the latter town being three miles away from the Russian border.
Here are just a few of our stops, out of the 34: Hammerfest, the most northerly city in the world, is a UNESCO Heritage site. It has the Meridian Monument, one that is dedicated to the first exact measurement of the earth. There is Tromso with its Arctic Cathedral, where we heard a midnight concert combining ancient Norwegian and Sami folk songs with classical Grieg and Mendelssohn; then Trondheim, the location of the Nidaros Cathedral, begun in the 1000’s, and where St. Olaf, the Patron Saint of Norway, is buried.
Finally, we arrived at Kirkenes our last stop, before we sailed south a few days later. We stayed at the Kirkenes Snow Hotel, one of the few ice hotels in the world. The SnowHotel is built of ice and salt. It melts in the spring and is rebuilt when it snows again.
At the Kirkenes Snow Hotel, each suite has different ice paintings on the walls and some on the ceiling. The corridors flow into a larger sitting area – yes the benches are of ice or rough-hewn wood — where you can eat or talk at ice tables, with ice sculptures nearby. A few paces from the hotel in its own building is Gabba, their restaurant: warm, with an open fire to cook food, eat warm bread, drink vegetable broth and roast reindeer sausage. Daily away from hotel activities include a King Crab Safari and dog sledding.
We do both. After donning our winter gear, we ride on sleighs deep into the frozen fjord landscape. It was about 3:30PM, but there is no sun, and the fjord, snow, and sky all reflected various shades of deep gray blue. Nothing looked alive, but yet we soon discovered that vast blue fjord was teeming with life below the surface. We leave our sleigh, and watch the men open a round gash in the ice, put their nets inside the fjord water for just a few minutes, and what emerged in the nets were more King Crabs than could be counted.
Soon we rode back to a warm cabin, lit by candles and an open fireplace, where we were offered freshly boiled King crab legs and claws. The taste was exceptional: fresh, sweet, firm. The experience was ancestral, primordial, and cordial experience: we ate what we caught. As we sat around the wood plank table, our varied lives, deadlines, families, livelihoods seemed irrelevant and indeed otherworldly: we lived in this winter moment, far from our madding identities.
The next day we went dog sledding, and the landscape of shades of silver, white, light blue, all moved quickly, too quickly, as the sled dogs raced on. No howling or yelping, just panting and tearing up the soft snow, much of it striking us. As with all aspects of the winter outdoors, the flying snow kept us aware of being profoundly alive.
We left Kirkenes, and our Hurtigruten Midnatsol ship crossed the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees 33 minutes, and 44 seconds north latitude, the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere. The only way an observer can determine this crossing is by seeing a large globe placed on Vikingen Island. We passed this sole sentinel in the morning: yet the sky remained an overcast, gunmetal blue.
On the last evening on the Midnatsol, the clouds cleared, and in the evening, we did see the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, the great Winter Dessert. Above us, we joyfully observed the star-spangled sky turn to rippling waves of greenish/bluish silk, along with comet-like rays of shooting vermilion electricity.
Walt Whitman, the great American poet, wrote I Sing The Body Electric. But that night, on Hurtigruten, we saw the Sky Electric, as we watched the heavens dance in dazzling waves and tatters. We felt blessed, as we saw what the ancients saw as the Aurora merged their past with our present. It was beyond memorable, beyond dazzling, beyond words.