Hurtigruten: The Ship, the Cruise

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A cruise with Hurtigruten down the "Long Coast" of Norway surely gives passengers a flash of insight. Cruise line success follows the adage, "location, location, location," and Norway has the location!

Photography by the authors

Marketing departments in cruise lines spend a lot of time and money trying to get an edge on the competition. They wonder, what might make one company preferred over another?

A cruise with Hurtigruten down the “Long Coast” of Norway surely gives passengers a flash of insight. Cruise line success follows the same old, same old that works for hotels, restaurants and businesses: location, location, location. And does Norway have the location!

And it has the Viking tradition which — though it ended a thousand years ago — clearly is one of the factors that have imbued Hurtigruten’s staff with confidence. Those are interesting ships; they are not “Love Boats,” but hard-working ships that go from port to port like the mail boats they were once before new ones were built to make life easier for passengers. The people onboard love them whether they are passengers enjoying Norway’s glorious scenery on a round-trip cruise or families having a brief hop north just to visit grandma.

The variations amongst passengers must make it difficult for the dining room and cabin staff to relate to guests in their work. The fact that tipping is not required and passengers don’t have to sit at the same table means there isn’t the same bonding formerly found between passengers and dining room staff.

On the other hand there seems to be significant camaraderie amongst passengers; they advise each other about what’s happening and give reminders on brief ports of call if the ship is sailing soon. Many wait staff members seem to be career employees the way waiters in long established Parisian cafés seem to have been there forever.

Our careful captain, for example has worked for his cruise line as a captain for 25 years. We label him “careful” because as soon as we come in to visit the bridge he immediately says, “Hello! Don’t push anything!”

Captain Arne-R. Gran Ernstsen started working as a deckhand in 1965. His most frightening moment as a captain? Before he can answer a passenger suggests, “Getting married?”

He probably hasn’t had a frightening moment; Norway builds ships and breeds sailors who can handle anything. Framed pictures indicate the respect the country has for its royalty and a visit to the bridge shows how well Norway is training its young officer class.

Navigation gets all the Norwegians who are visiting their families along the coast to the right place, but it’s probably the kitchen that keeps the passengers content.

Chef Roy Kristensen has a kitchen staff of 10 and has been a chef for 10 years. “Where did you get your culinary training?” a passenger asks him, “On the ship,” he replies with an open smile.

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We had read before the cruise that fish was always on the menu — to a fault. We did not find that so, though herring and kippers would not normally be one of our usual breakfast choices. We were impressed with the dining: the soups were the best we’ve found on cruise line and the desserts as good as on any ship we’ve sailed.

And in between those two courses? Very satisfactory; we always looked forward to meals on Hurtigruten.

If captains and chefs and pastry chefs make their impact on passengers, who else? Certainly the shore excursions manager, particularly on ships that also sail in winter. Isobell Hogseth, who has had this role for two-and-a-half happy years, has an additional task: officiating at the ceremony when passengers cross the Arctic Circle.

Shore excursions are especially complicated when the ship comes to a port in winter or in the middle of the night or when the time at the dock is going to be limited. Fortunately Hurtigruten has on display outside the ship’s library a free, glossy, color 135-page book that explains the fun of the coastal cruise and an even larger size, similar 100-page book that discusses the shore excursions. Picked up at the start of the cruise those books will help you to evaluate what you might do on the cruise and explain oddities to you such as Torghatten, the mountain with a dark rectangular hole in it in the bottom photograph. The hole is 80 feet wide by 80 feet high and 525 feet deep, and it’s big enough to pass a fully rigged fishing boat through it.

In some shore excursions you’ll be in a comfortable bus, in others you’ll be walking on ice or in snow, but in mid-winter it’s not likely Southern Californians would be in the Jacuzzi. We found a young woman there comfortably surveying the frozen coastline and shortly afterwards her husband lounging in his robe on the top deck.

“Wow! You Norwegians are tough!” we ventured.

“That’s true — but we are Swiss,” was his reply and he moved off before we could ask if he had any chocolate.

Hurtigruten had promoted the winter cruise in January through March 2012 as “Hunting the Light,” but with no promises. Many factors determine whether you will see the Aurora Borealis. NASA was optimistic that huge solar storms this winter would send the potential to Earth.

When we boarded our ship in Kirkenes after the passengers who had been on the run north came off with all their tripods, they were despondent: “The sky had been empty every night.”

We knew it was all in the lap of Mother Nature. We needed a solar storm in the previous time frame, clear skies, no snow in the heavens above — and no bright moon. All who brought tripods carried them on every night shore excursion. And had memorized the suggested protocol for photography. Filters were removed from wide angle lenses, infinity had been marked manually to be more accurate, speed had been set for 800 ISO initially and shutter speed to 15 seconds. The photographers were ready if God was willing.

Unfortunately no one had bargained on how the deck shakes when a ship hammers through the night in rough seas at 15 knots — or how the foreground rail and passengers would end up overexposed. But memories are printed on the brain as well as on digital film. Fortunately.

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The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called