by Lee Foster
Cruising the Norway coastal fjords on Bergen Line freighters will appeal to the adventurer in cruise travel, who says, “What I’d like to try next is freighter travel, especially if the freighter is as comfortable as a modern cruise ship.”
The Bergen ships, used in their “Norwegian Coastal Voyage” cruise product, are freight and car transport vehicles, but also carry passengers. The more modern vessels in the fleet have the amenities of modern cruise ships. The Nordlys (meaning “northern lights”), on which I sailed, was built in 1994 and boasts comfortable, modern cabins, cruise-quality dining rooms, and plenty of posh lounges from which to observe the stunning scenery of Norway. The older ships, now called “traditional” Bergen freighters, have fewer amenities. About 80 percent of the Bergen Line revenue comes from passengers, 20 percent from freight.
Bergen ships travel on a fixed 12-day round-trip cruise with stops at 34 small towns along the Norway coast. Cruise patrons can buy 6, 7, or 12-day tickets, or even take their chances in Norway to get on and off the ships at will, space available. The ship pauses briefly to load cargo, then proceeds. In some ports there are a couple of hours of exploration time, but you must re-board promptly before the ship sails.
Bergen takes the cruise patron to some fresh territory–the northernmost point in Europe, far above the Arctic Circle, passing hundreds of scenic fjords. The ships start in Bergen and proceed up the coast and around the northern tip of the country to Kirkenes, near the Russian port of Mirmansk, then return back to Bergen. One ship in the fleet leaves every day, year round. The ships travel day and night, stopping at ports at all hours.
Summer is the most popular passenger sailing season, when the weather is warm and the sunlight almost perpetual in this northerly latitude, known at the Land of the Midnight Sun, especially in late June. Most of the Bergen cruise patrons are Europeans.
The adventurer could even travel this year-round route in snowy winter, if desired, when heavy darkness descends December through January, offering only a few hours of blue-grey Arctic twilight at noon. September is fall-color month. My trip took place during the brooding, pensive month of October, when the sky mirrored the slate rock in the soil and first snows sugared the mountains. The lingering, meditative, calming twilight in this northerly clime is the antithesis of sunset abruptness in an equatorial setting. I traveled on the Nordlys, which has 490 berths. The ship fills quickly to capacity in summer.
Bergen Line: A Hundred Years of Sailing
For more than a hundred years Bergen has maintained this special freighter-cruiser route. Although passengers have always been welcome, the boom in passenger travel has occurred only in recent decades. Now, with each addition of a new ship to the Bergen fleet, these coastal steamers look more like modern cruise vessels,even though the year-round rationale of the fleet remains freight. For many of the small towns, located on islands, the Bergen ships are the main physical link to the outside world.
I was pleasantly surprised by the stylish decor and attentive service on the Nordlys. I could enjoy the working-vessel dramas, such as the loading of fish at the small port of Havoysund. Then I could return to the comfortable skydeck lounge and watch the scenery of the fjords while drinking a Norwegian beer. This was not “freighter” travel, as in deck passage on some banana boat out of Joseph Conrad, ambling around Latin American ports. This was luxury freighter travel, a cruise ship with a dual commercial purpose, carrying both freight and passengers.
Breakfast and lunch amounted to a typical Norwegian smorgasbord, with ample amounts of herring, salmon, and cheese. Dinner service included menu options such as reindeer pate and fried fresh cod. The favored dessert was wild cloudberry in whipped cream.
Shore excursions offered some unusual adventures. One morning, I left the ship at Harstad, an old Viking town, surveyed the countryside, visited the medieval church at Trondenes, and met the ship again two ports later, at Sortland.
Don’t expect Las Vegas-type review shows and casinos–that’s not the Bergen scene. You make your own entertainment here, interacting with the small towns, gazing at the fjords, and meeting the austere Norwegians.
Norway: Small Towns, Scenery, and Norwegians
It’s possible to arrange a couple of days on your own, off the ship, either before or after a cruise. I enjoyed some time in the northern Norway town of Alta.
I wanted to see the noted Alta Museum, which celebrates the rock carvings made here from 6,000-2,500 years ago in the late Stone Age. The carvings, found accidentally in 1973, were hidden by vegetation. About 3,000 carvings of reindeer, moose, bear, birds, hunters, men, women, children, boats, people dancing, musicians, fishing, and other subjects were chipped into the slate rock with a bone hammer and quartz chisel by Stone Age people. These rock carvings at Alta, the densest number of such carvings in Europe, have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Soon after the ice-age retreated, early humans established their settlements in this area. The same warm Gulf Stream ocean currents that keep these ports ice-free in winter may have preserved islands of land ice-free here during the glacial period.
Another intriguing stop in the area is Nordkapp, the North Cape, the actual northernmost point in Europe. Nordkapp can be toured from the ship as a shore excursion. An elaborate visitor center honors this location and the immense psychic attraction it has held for travelers for hundreds of years. The North Cape is only 1,200 miles from the North Pole, but one of the oldest settlements in Scandinavia, carbon dated to 10,300 years ago, existed here. Between Alta and Nordkapp, forlorn, small birch trees barely survive in the slatey soil adjacent to the tundra. The birches have contorted trunks due to the oppressive weight of the snow.
In summer at Nordkapp you can enjoy the traditional champagne-and-caviar ritual that Norway’s King Oscar II found appropriate when he started the touristic pilgrimages here in 1873. Summer travelers will see reindeer and Sami, the indigenous people of the north, who manage the reindeer herds. Summer visitors can also see the Midnight Sun here for 77 nights, from May 14 to July 30. Winter travelers can savor the northern lights, the aurora borealis, which mystify in the dark sky on clear nights. Gas bursts from the sun, known as solar wind, create the light effect as they collide with the atmosphere. The sun remains below the horizon here from November 19 to January 23.
Small towns along the coast each have their own character. Historically, the people survived by cod fishing, drying the fish on racks, then exporting the product. A typical family sustained itself with both a small farm and a fishing boat. Graveyards tend to be filled with the tombstones of women because men often went to their deaths on their fishing boats. Today the fish are flown out fresh or frozen, although in recent times the herring and cod fisheries have occasionally collapsed due to overfishing.
Hammerfest in one of the picturesque towns. A museum in the town center features the Polar Bear Society, a celebration of the long hunting tradition of the town. Ships left from here for the treacherous Arctic to harvest bears, seals, and whales.
Like many of the towns in northern Norway, Hammerfest was torched by the Nazis down to the last home as they retreated in 1944. Only the churches were spared. The Nazis wanted to make the area useless for an impending Russian invasion, which never came. Before-and-after World War II photos of all these towns hang in the local museums. The photos make a visitor wince at the cruelty and destructiveness of war. Each town was rebuilt quickly after 1945.
Trondheim is another of the coastal treasures to visit. This old Viking town was the country’s first capital. It contains Norway’s largest medieval church, where the revered St. Olav is buried.
Deeply-cut fjords are the signature natural feature of the coast. These glacially-gouged U’s or river-worn V’s provide constant visual drama. Green in summer and snow-covered in winter, the fjords serve as scenic fairytales that exceed the expectations of most visitors. Bergen Line calls its trip “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage.”
The laconic inhabitants of these towns, the reserved Norwegians, are intriguing to observe. Immense oil wealth from offshore wells has enabled the four million Norwegians to enjoy possibly the highest living standard in the world (the prize for highest is an all-Scandinavian contest between Norway, Denmark, and Sweden). While commercial oil deposits were only discovered in 1968, oil now accounts for a hefty percent of Norway’s GNP. The country is relatively large and the population is small, so Norway is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. Pervasive cradle-to-grave socialism, financed by the oil wealth, puts a secure face on the well-fed body politic. There are no homeless or hungry in the country. You may be unemployed here, but you are never at risk. University education is free. When a child is born, a generous maternity leave (one year) and even a paternity leave (one month) is the norm. Skin color remains inexorably white, due to severe immigration restriction.
For a cruise traveler interested in exploring something unusual, Bergen Line offers an inviting option in its freighter-with-passengers Norwegian Coastal Voyage.
Cruising with the Bergen Line: If You Go
Bergen’s Norwegian Coastal Voyage trips are sold through travel agents. Review the website http://www.hurtigruten.us.
Air to Scandinavia is convenient with Scandinavian Airlines (SAS).
Tourism information for Norway comes from the Norwegian Tourist Board at http://www.visitnorway.com/us.