The Fast Route Along Norway

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Sailing Norway's long coast is a glance at the real Norwegian soul.

Photography by the authors

Norway is a country that doesn’t trumpet its treasures; It is enough that enthralled visitors notice them. It’s a land of four completely different seasons with all their special fascinations from the midnight sun in summer to the Northern Lights in winter. It’s a country where English is widely spoken and whose tourism infrastructure may well be the best in Europe — offering visitors a service honed by enthusiastic locals who love their gorgeous country so much they pull on boots and travel within it at the proverbial drop of the hat.

This is a vigorous population. It has the world’s only monarch who was an Olympic medalist. King Olav V, who lived 1903 to 1991, the father of the present king, won the Gold in the 1928 Olympics — in sailing. No surprise: Norway has apparently more than 400,000 boats longer than 15 feet. We tell that Royal story a lot; we think it typifies this country we love: Norway.

Norway is a young and passionate nation fiercely proud of the century of independence it now enjoys from the two kingdoms that once had it in thrall — Denmark and later Sweden. And it has an exciting, legendary Viking story that lasted more than two hundred years and goes back a millennium. And finally, an easy introduction to it all, a cruise line called Hurtigruten.

In the 19th century, mail from southern Norway took a long time by land to reach the northern parts of the country. It took three weeks in summer and five months in winter for a letter to go from Trondheim, the old capital, to Hammerfest, the world’s most northerly town. There were no complete maps of the Norwegian coast even though the Vikings, a millennium before, had sailed those seas with celebrated self-assurance.

The Way of the Vikings

“The hot-headed Vikings went wherever their predatory instincts (and the uncertain winds) took them,” wrote Erling Welle Strand in his book, . “They even went to America before Columbus, and then forgot about it. But the ‘Main Street,’ or rather channel … was the coast of Norway.”

And what a coast! Even a bird would find it a long 1,645-mile flight; a fish, a famous Norwegian herring maybe, going in and out each dip in the coast line would have to swim 35,580 miles — one-third more than the distance around the Equator.

“Northern Norwegians once regarded Scotland and Iceland as being easier to reach than the region around present day Oslo,” say the guide books.

As the 19th century advanced so did the idea that ships, if commanded well, might sail year round along the edge of Norway. It would take courage. In 1880 there were only 20 lighthouses on the Norwegian coast and many of them were simply harbor beacons for fishermen. By 1941, Norway had 2,329 lighthouses.

The many steamboat companies, meantime, had been shaken-out into two final survivors. They joined forces to call themselves Hurtigruten.

SS Vesteraalen

The day to capture the “Long Coast” came on July 2, 1893. The first ship of the company that became Hurtigruten, the left Trondheim with Captain Richard With in command. From this first successful Hurtigruten voyage of 1893 has come a story as exciting as this land itself.

Historian Mike Bent has written about it at length. He says, “Sailing this Long Coast is a glance at the real Norwegian soul.”

hurtigruten

This beautiful land we now call Norway was, perhaps, Europe’s last frontier. The success of the coastal voyages allowed a new economy, tourism, to develop and a dominant shipping line to offer the “fast route,” in Norwegian, past the land of the fjords all the way to Kirkenes in the north.

It is 1050 miles from Oslo, the capital, to Kirkenes but still that much again to the North Pole. You are indeed far North in Kirkenes. It is the most far away port of call of the coastal voyages, but a popular comment by Norwegian children is that if you fixed Oslo as the pivot and rotated Norway from the North to the South, the tip of Norway would reach Rome. But would it want to?

in winter

Sailing with Hurtigruten up the Long Coast of Norway is not exactly a Caribbean cruise — especially if you’ve become Southern California weather wimps. You’ll be lugging more in the way of clothing than you normally carry, for sure but fortunately Scandinavian Airlines doesn’t charge for the first bag even in Economy. Furthermore, Norway’s airports don’t have the frantic pace of America’s and most Norwegians, even the older ones, are fairly fluent in English.

So there’s no downside to visiting Norway? Well, you’d better like seafood. You’re going to see a lot of it. But there’s only one issue that affects your pocket: Norway is expensive — beyond the typical American complaint that Europe has become very pricey.

A Norwegian friend points out that Norwegian hotels tend to include hefty breakfasts and “typically traveling Norwegians go into that meal with a plastic bag and fill it up quite openly that morning for their lunch later,” he says. “Finns and Swedes laugh at us for doing this, but we do it because we Vikings learned frugality from the Scots.”

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

he 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