Neptune, god of the sea, is a lot younger than I'd imagined. He's draped in a fishing net that's covered with seaweed, plastic crabs, and toy fish. Beneath his fake gray beard I see soft, unwrinkled skin, which is surprising, what with his living in saltwater for all those years. Our cruise ship, heading north along the Norwegian coast, has just crossed into the Arctic Circle, and to mark the occasion Neptune is ladling ice water down the backs of eager volunteers.
It's tradition, we're told, and even though it's 10 in the morning and cold enough to see your breath, tourists from Germany, England, and the U.S. line up in front of the sea god (a crew member playing dress-up, in case you hadn't figured it out). After dousing each person, Neptune hands over a shot of warm red wine. "Skål!" everyone says, Norwegian for "Cheers!"
We're just past midway on our weeklong journey called the Norwegian Coastal Voyage, known locally as Hurtigruten (pronounce it like Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show would). Our vessel, the 674-passenger Midnatsol (meaning "midnight sun"), is one of the biggest and, at a little over a year old, newest of the 13 ships making up the Hurtigruten fleet. It's not a cushy cruise laden with amenities and amusements, but it's not exactly a no-frills freighter. The ship is outfitted with a dining room, a small gym, a sauna, Internet stations, and sleek, angular furnishings, but no rock-climbing wall, miniature golf, casino, or other luxuries associated with Caribbean cruise ships. There isn't much onboard in terms of activities either, which may explain why Neptune's Arctic Circle ceremony is such a hit.
The Hurtigruten has been transporting cargo along Norway's spectacular coastline since 1893, and it's no wonder that paying passengers have always gone along for the ride. The 1,250-mile cruise sails through magnificent fjords and passes within view of waterfalls, glaciers, mountain peaks, and barren islands. It also serves as the lifeblood of 35 ports along the way, dropping off forklifts full of food and supplies. Some of Norway's isolated ports would probably wither into ghost towns if the Hurtigruten ever stopped sailing.
Each autumn, a drop in Hurtigruten prices parallels the drop in temperature (see "What the Cruise Costs," below), but my cousin Jeff and I haven't come to the Arctic Circle because of cheap rates. Fall through early spring is when the northern lights appear. It's a natural phenomenon created by electrically charged solar particles that make the northerly night skies glimmer in dull to brilliant shades of green, red, and yellow. We set sail at the end of September--the beginning of aurora borealis season--but so far, no luck with the lights.
The quest began a few days earlier in Bergen, home base of the Hurtigruten. A city that dates back at least to the Viking era, Bergen became a major trading post in the Middle Ages for Germany's Hanseatic League of merchants. The salty old town is on UNESCO's World Heritage List, and dozens of ramshackle warehouses look much as they did three or four centuries ago. Only now, the old trading warehouses, polished up and painted in Crayola-bright colors, are home to restaurants, pubs, bakeries, and sweater shops.
We spent most of our time in Bergen zigzagging the cobblestone alleys. It was drizzly a lot of the time--typical of Bergen's Seattle-like climate--but blue skies peeked out now and again. In late afternoon, the sun shone directly on the main wharf district, making it easy to see why its glowing row of red, orange, and white A-frames is featured on half the postcards in town. Just as impressive were the people, uniformly tall, trim, fair-skinned, and blond. The kids were especially cute, with big sea-blue eyes and shocks of straight white hair.
Crowds gathered daily underneath fluorescent orange tents at the Bergen fish market, where scruffy men in waterproof overalls offered free samples of salmon or whale meat to curious tourists. Live lobsters with rubber-banded claws swam lazily around in tanks. Fish in various states of dismemberment were laid out on ice next to giant crab legs. A vendor shoveled a couple dozen shrimp into a brown paper bag, which Jeff and I ate raw with fresh bread and crabmeat for dinner one night. The meal was delicious, filling, and cost roughly $17 for both of us.
It was a Friday, and since our cruise didn't depart until Saturday at 8 p.m., the night was wide open. Several people tipped us off to Rick's, a club with three floors of lounges, pubs, and discos. On the top floor, a DJ spinning Eminem and European power ballads looked up occasionally and nodded at the packed blond blur on the dance floor. After-hours, Jeff and I followed local protocol and headed to the nearest convenience store for hot dogs. Norway is nuts for hot dogs. Everywhere we went there were stores selling them. My favorite had a slice of bacon twirled around it. Topped with mustard and a little onion, it's the perfect ending to a night of too many stouts.
The next morning (OK, early afternoon), we headed to an organic bakery called Godt Brød ("good bread") for another local specialty: skillingsboller, soft rolls lined with cinnamon and covered in crunchy brown sugar. That and some coffee amped us up for the final few hours in Bergen. I headed to the Hanseatic Museum to learn about life during Bergen's prime trading period. The dank 16th-century warehouse, one of the city's best preserved timber buildings, still smells of salt and fish. I took my time looking over the simple, authentic exhibits--rusted fishing and measuring tools, coins and maps from the early 1700s, and cramped quarters where dockworkers used to sleep.
As the sun set, we grabbed a $10 taxi for the ride across town to meet up with the ship. Our cabin was small--about 8 feet by 16 feet--with a remarkably efficient system of closets and foldaway couch-beds. There was no TV or fridge, but we did have a small porthole. (In the ship's array of rooms, from suites with decks to cheap inside cabins, ours was the mid-price option.) All cabins came with a perk that's especially welcome in a Norwegian winter: heated bathroom floors.
Upstairs, small cliques of white-haired passengers were sipping cocktails and cappuccinos. Across the room, a man with shaggy hair and a mustache played polka-esque renditions of "My Way" and "I Saw Her Standing There" on a keyboard. Two elderly German women bopped around the tiny dance floor, their hands clasped tightly together. Jeff shot me a look that said, "We're not in Rick's anymore, Toto."
It was too cloudy for the northern lights that night--a trend that was to continue for days--so I retreated to the cabin and looked over the ship's itinerary. I had wondered how the Hurtigruten could hit more than 30 ports in a week, and now it made sense. By 8 the next morning, the ship would have already stopped in three ports, 15 minutes apiece. Throughout the cruise, we'd typically be in and out of a port in less than an hour, often after all the shops had closed for the night. We had time to get out and explore only a few of the towns, but the frequent stopping made for a slow pace. Hurtigruten means "fast route," but it's fast only in the same sense that the pony express was once considered "express."
Breakfast was buffet-style and quite good. There was usually bacon, eggs, and skillingsbollers along with the meats, fresh bread, jam, yogurt, coffee, tea, and juices one expects from a continental breakfast in Europe. Lunch and dinner featured plenty of seafood--trout, crab, cod, salmon--but chicken, pasta, or beef was also generally available. The food was decent if a little repetitive (enough with the boiled potatoes), but what irked many people were the beverage prices. The ship charged for everything except water: Beer was $7, Cokes were $4 each, bottles of wine started around $30, even a glass of milk cost $2. It didn't matter that the prices were typical throughout Norway.
While the Hurtigruten didn't have much happening onboard, it did offer one or two excursions each day. We wanted to see Norway at its prettiest and most rugged, and the two trips we signed up for certainly delivered. The first was a visit to the Geirangerfjord ($70). Because the fjord is so narrow, we had to board a smaller boat to navigate between the steep green walls rising out of the water. All those glorious brochures of Norway came to life, with waterfalls streaming down craggy slopes and weathered farmhouses snuggled into the mountainsides. We got off the boat at the small village of Geiranger to board a bus that wound its way over a mountain pass with spectacular views of the fjord below. Eventually we met up with the Midnatsol at another port.
The other excursion we went for was the Svartisen Glacier ($115). Again, we had to board a smaller boat, which looped its way among rocky fishing outposts and snowcapped peaks. The mammoth glacier with RV-size chunks of blue ice eventually emerged. Our boat docked, and we snapped photos at the edge of a clear oval lake fed by glacial runoff. The skies grew gray after awhile, so we sat inside a lakeside lodge, drinking hot chocolate and gazing up at the age-old wall of ice and snow.
There were also a few opportunities to get off at the ports and poke around on our own. We had four hours to check out Trondheim, Norway's third-largest city, founded in 997. Other passengers wandered around the west side of the Nidelva River, home to most of the city's hotels and stores. Going against the grain, we strolled over the bridge and discovered Trondheim's old town, where students rode bicycles down cobblestone lanes and understated markets and coffee shops inhabited small wooden buildings.
Jeff and I reveled in our chances to get off the ship, while other passengers were content to spend hour after hour chatting or reading as dark mountains and endless sea drifted on by. Several people told me that they liked the Hurtigruten specifically because it was so quiet--no disco, no forced social events, no rowdy people to spoil their relaxation. A wide-eyed British woman whose father was in the Royal Navy was having a particularly good time. She would stop us in the hallway to talk about the ship's latest navigational marvel. "Did you see that steering maneuver through the fjord last night? Just extraordinary. Brilliant, really. These Norwegians know how to sail."
A few Americans we ran into weren't quite as happy. A Californian named Holly, who told me she had been on several luxury cruises in the past, was particularly upset because the waiters wouldn't bring her aged mother tea at dinner. "This was not what I expected," she said one night. "My travel agent is going to get an earful when I get home."
Jeff and I played cards much of the time, like a couple of kids at a beach house when it rains. But eventually I embraced the slow tempo. I enjoyed sitting in the upper lounge with a book, listening to the soft mutterings of a half-dozen languages in the room, and glancing up to see yet another bright-red home perched improbably on a mountain incline, like a magnet on a refrigerator door.
After Neptune leaves and we head further north, the scenery turns bleak. Trees and villages pop up less frequently, and in their stead are brown hills and rocky islands. With the exception of Tromsø--an attractive town with open squares, hip shops, and a backdrop of snow-covered mountains--the remaining ports lack charm. It seems like we're reaching the end of the earth, and we are. Toward the conclusion of the cruise, the only land between us and the North Pole is Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago that's home to about as many polar bears as people.
On our final night, we sit to a dinner of traditional Norwegian food: salmon, cod, and tasty reindeer meat, as well as some items I'm not brave enough to try (particularly a black sausage we're told is whale).
Jeff and I throw on coats and wool hats and go up to the deck at around 10 p.m., full of hope after nearly a week of striking out with the northern lights. A few passengers are already there, craning their necks. I stare straight up and see nothing but darkness. Jeff whacks my shoulder and points off to the west. Just above the horizon is a soft, spooky green hue. I turn around and discover more green mist. It isn't the luminous red or yellow that I've seen on posters, but it is magical nonetheless. And, after a week of relentless tranquillity, I'm relaxed enough to stand for the better part of an hour, staring at the Arctic sky and enjoying the show.
Transportation, food and attractions