by Sebastian Price and Deirdre Frost
During late August our voyage began, the sky still hung pale blue as the early evening ushered in a soft breeze, the ship gathered speed, and soon we entered an empty fjord.
As one of the modern fleet of ships operated by the Hurtigruten line, the MS Midnatsol begins one of the world’s classic cruises, the Norwegian Coastal Voyage, in Norway’s second largest city, Bergen. The coastal voyage hugs some of the most scenic coastline in the world and takes about seven days to reach the Norwegian town of Kirkenes near the Russian border.
Onboard we soon discovered that the ship is not overwhelmingly large with one rather spacious dining area that affords ample seating to enjoy the meals while casually glancing at the passing scenery. There are a maximum of 286 sleeping cabins and 23 larger suites. The ship is designed to capture in relaxed comfort, the breath-taking outdoor beauty of the coastal waters. The ships crew and staff are all Norwegian with an unassuming presence. When asked, they gave insightful details about the sights and ports of call along the way.
After familiarizing ourselves with the ship, we disembarked in the small port town of Geiranger for our first shore excursion. Particular highlights of the day turned out to be the surrounding dramatic landscape and descending the famous Trollstigen road with its many hairpin turns. The view of our departing ship navigating the Romsdalsfjord as seen from a nearby mountain view seems reflective of these majestic surroundings.
The ship appeared as a small object in an inland sea of vast proportions. Continuing on our land journey, the driver reached the descent into the steep Trollstigen valley that is only undertaken during the summer months as the narrow razor back roads are closed during winter. This exciting ride reached the bottom and then continued to the town of Molde to rendezvous with the ship.
Each day it seems is filled with something new. New intriguing rock formations some giving rise to the imagination like captured frozen Trolls appear or timeless, cascading waterfalls that unexpectedly come into view. Sometimes the ship seems about to squeeze through a narrow fjord before reaching a much larger one. Other times it passes small remote islands touched only by colonies of nesting birds.
The ship stops often at various ports of call since it also transports cargo and mail to small remote communities, dependent on these visits. On many occasions the ship stays for less than one hour to discharge or take on more cargo. These brief stoppages to our momentum become precious moments that prove a delight for us onboard. The brief time ashore allows the opportunity for perhaps a chance encounter with a seasoned fisherman or just a quick visit to the local store sometimes finding an interesting souvenir. Oftentimes just a short walk around a small tightly knit community seems pleasing to the inner spirit.
Onboard the Midnatsol, we enjoyed the dining experience. As expected the breakfasts and lunches are buffet or smorgasbord arrangements. At those times the wide selections are well prepared and there is always something new added every day. In the evening as is the custom passengers are allocated different seating times when there is full service. While the choices of main courses are limited to a set menu, the food served is of a high standard. We particularly enjoyed the freshly prepared seafood such as coal fish that is caught in local waters. Of course it would not be Scandinavia without lots of shrimp, smoked salmon and herring.
The ship stopped near the Svartisen glacier which is the second largest in Norway. Also on the shore trip, we encountered the world’s strongest tidal current called Saltstraumen and enjoyed the beautiful journey on the scenic coastal highway.
As we walked a short distance towards the glacier the weather continued sunny and very warm. Given that the ship had passed the Arctic Circle the weather could not be better. Closer we came to the glacier deeper the translucent blue it became like the color of a beautiful sapphire. The coastal highway became a pleasant and relaxing sojourn through green countryside and rugged coast. One of the highlights along the coastal highway is a quiet walk on a remote sand covered beach.
The Saltsaumen is famous for its incredible swift flowing tide. As we watched local fisherman catching big fish under the bridge, large seabirds floating in the water seem to be trying to swim backwards as the powerful current propelled them in the opposite direction.
The next day the ship passed the impressive Lofoten Wall stopping briefly at Svolvaer one of the ports in the chain of Lofoten Islands. The wall is actually a series of mountainous rock face that form part of the Lofoten islands. As the fading daylight turns a solemn misty grey the wall takes on a surreal quality. One could easily see the beginnings of Norse mythology as much of the coast and surroundings give rise to possible primordial creation.
During one of the last days on the coastal voyage, we found ourselves in the tiny fishing village of Gjesvaer, waiting for the small boat that would take us to the Gjesvaerstappan nature reserve offshore. The nature reserve consists of an archipelago of islands on which colonies of nesting birds occupy cliffs and rocky outcrops. Conservationists estimate that there are about 3 million nesting birds on the islands. One of the largest puffin colonies in Northern Norway is located there. Kittiwakes, auks and great cormorants are also observed in great numbers. High above circling with a two meter wingspan the magnificent sea eagle seems to be always on the look out for prey. We caught that morning many eagles striding high above the restless, rocky seas below. In contrast, the frolicking seals diving and surfacing near the boat seemed curiously amused by our intrusion.
The next day the Midnatsol arrived in Kirkenes, the coastal journey had reached the northern terminus. Many of the passengers would be completing the return southern passage to Bergen. We are told that during the winter months when mists and dark shadows descend upon the voyage, the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis dazzle onlookers. During part of the summer months the midnight sun casts an eternal light. The other seasons no doubt have special moments. The beautiful sunsets of late summer for ourselves will be remembered as our special moments.
Before we flew to Oslo we undertook a special three day excursion offered by the Norwegian Coastal Voyage called a Taste of Lapland.
Without doubt the highlight of the tour is exposure to the fascinating Sámi culture and precious moments of complete solitude. As we travel from Kirkenes, along a scenic road devoid of traffic, the arctic tundra gradually gave way to pine forests, woods, inland lakes and the appearance of roaming bands of reindeer. The passing beauty of the surrounding countryside is interrupted only by our arrival in Inari.
The village of Inari in northern Finland is a center of Sámi culture and life. Spending at least a few hours in the well designed Sámi museum provided a stimulating and excellent introduction to the Sámi people of Lapland. The museum’s creative use of multimedia and insightful exhibitions greatly adds to our understanding and appreciation of the ancient Sámi culture. This extensive exhibition explores the heritage of the Sámi in Lapland. At the same time it shows Sámi culture as active and vital in Inari and its surroundings. Similar to other native peoples the Sámi people have a unique understanding and powerful connection to nature.
Later, we took a pleasant boat trip to Ukomsaari Island on Lake Inari which is an ancient sacrificial site of the Sámi. The lake is vast with hundreds of islands and sparse human settlement. Excavations on Ukomsaari reveal interesting artifacts of the Sámi whose ancestors first came to the site. We discovered that the island is an ideal place to marvel at the vast lake and natural surroundings and also to appreciate the powerful presence of nature.
On our last day, we visited the small Skolt Sámi village of Sevettijarvi which is located about 110 km northeast from Inari. The Sámi men and women appeared in costume to perform native dances and sing ancient Sámi songs.
The costumes are most colorful on both men and women and different costume designs reflect the marital status of the individual. After an interesting performance each member gladly engaged in personal conversation about their community and way of life. Most of the Skolt Sámi population lives in the village or within a short distance away. This encounter is one of many fascinating encounters that took place within a short space of time when we visited with the Sámi of Lapland.
After leaving the Skolt Sámi, the air flight from Kirkenes took us to Oslo for a brief stopover before returning to the U.S.A.