Never mind the aurora – it’s the overall beauty of the ‘polar night’ that makes a cruise along the coast of northern Norway unique. Carolyn Waudby reports.
It’s 7.45am and we’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle – 67 degrees north and marked by the small, barren Vikingen Island we can just make out through the cabin porthole. We celebrate with dark chocolate – among essential provisions brought from Sheffield.
Later that morning, we’re summoned to the top deck of our cruise ship, the MS Midnatsol, for an official Arctic Circle “baptism”. With trumpet fanfare and the clang of a bell, Neptune strides in clutching his beard and trident against force seven winds. We line up to have ice cubes poured down the back of our necks. Fortunately, they melt within seconds under my four layers of clothing.
We forge northwards, skirting the coast of Norway towards its tip on our Hunting the Light cruise, the temperature steadily falling and the sunrises becoming later and later. In Finnsnes at the mouth of the Gisunder Fjord, cold air meets the warmer water, filling the harbour with thick, white mist pushed towards the harbour mouth by the wind so its tufts resemble charging chariots. It looks as though the sea is boiling, but the sky is serene – to the north, a startling light turquoise with a wash of rose pink, pale gold to the west. It’s one of countless scenes of beauty we’ll witness on this voyage.
Five days after setting sail from Bergen, we dock at Tromsø, the capital of the Arctic. From now on, there will be no sunrise. We are in 24-hour darkness – the “polar night” – something I’d always wanted to experience with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.
We travel by minibus to the neighbouring island of Kvaloga and the Villmarkssenter for a dog-sled ride in darkness. It’s minus 13 and even the mushers complain of the cold. The sleds are wooden – the type used by Shackleton in Antarctica – and we’re given one of our own, pulled by four pairs of dogs.
As we bump and glide through the frozen white landscape, it feels like the perfect night to see the aurora. That night, while dining with a charming elderly German couple, an announcement is made in Norwegian. Our waitress utters the words, “Northern Lights”. Chaos follows as the entire room of diners drop their cutlery and rush for the stairs to the top deck.
Everywhere there are gasps as a huge white-green plume seems to pour from the top of a snow-clad mountain peak and arc over the sky. As we watch, it splits into swathes. Deciding the lights are here for a while, we hurry back to the cabin for our outer clothing, camera and tripod.
We capture the aurora shifting, first into a huge spectre-like shape then circles that roll across the sky. People cry with delight. We kiss. The spectacle lasts almost an hour, and later champagne toasts are drunk and a Japanese couple dance to Queen on the bar deck.
The next day we sail into Finnmark, on the same latitude as Siberia and Alaska and the land of the Sami people. We pass the sacred rocks of Finnskirke, which resemble two spires rising out of the sea. The site serves as a landmark for sailors and is used for Sami offerings, but we can only just make it out as we’re in the midst of a blizzard.
Shortly after, a small motor boat approaches carrying two fishermen with king crabs, caught in the fjord for our dinner that night. The crabs were introduced by the Russians in the 1960s, but only flesh from the immensely long legs can be eaten as the inside of the shell is “like soup”.
My other half, a fan of big portions, is underwhelmed, but can’t praise the other dishes served on the Midnatsol highly enough – reindeer stew, smoked salmon, prawns, Russian salad, Arctic cod, condiments made from berries such as juniper.
Just before midnight as we round the headland of Nordkapp – one of the most northern points on mainland Europe – we see the Northern Lights again. By now the ship’s top deck is ice-covered. This time there are two light streams, one transforming into mare’s tails.
We dock in Kirkenes, just miles from the Russian border, the next morning. Sea and sky are the same metallic grey, although there is a streak of mandarin red above the horizon from the hidden sun. The moon rises just before 1pm and strangely hangs where the sun should be. Everything feels upside down. The short hours of “daytime” are actually a sort of twilight, and by 3pm it is night. I feel as though I should be going to bed.
Kirkenes is a town in deep freeze. At -25C you cannot stay still. There is no window shopping – in fact very few shoppers at all. Some use scooters on skis with baskets on the front, as does the postman.
We walk to the statue of a Russian soldier on a hill – a monument to the Red Army who liberated the town from the Nazis – and to a concrete bomb shelter built in 1944 by the Germans. As we do so, my hair freezes.
Just outside Kirkenes is the Snow Hotel, built in a landscape of hills and pine trees. World-class ice sculptors from China are employed to create mermaids, dinosaurs, bears and goblins in its tunnels and chambers. At -5C, we chickened out of staying the night.
Kirkenes marked the end of our cruise. Thirty four ports, 1,330 miles, Tolkien-esque landscapes, and for us, the first experience of a long sea voyage – a trip that has stayed with me and probably always will.
• Carolyn Waudby travelled with Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.com). 020 3582 6642
The seven-day Classic Voyage North from Bergen to Kirkenes costs from £599 per person. Flight and transfer packages from Leeds Bradford start from an additional £550 per person.
Northern Lights promise: If the lights are not visible from your ship, Hurtigruten will give you a second voyage free of charge.
Prices for Hurtigruten’s 11-night Classic Round Voyage start from £999 per passenger, with flight and transfer packages from Leeds Bradford available from £440.