CROSSING THE ARCTIC CIRCLE -- As I write, in a wood paneled library on board the MS Nordlys, my ship is crossing the top of the world. We're at 66 degrees latitude, north of the equator, heading south -- about as far as we can be, in location and ambience, from the Caribbean cruises ships we know best.
It is late summer. Some of the fjords along the route are crowned with snow and the temperature is somewhere in the 40s. Passengers on deck are wearing windbreakers and drinking coffee. There are no bikinis or margaritas in sight.
The Hurtigruten Co., which operates the Norwegian Coastal Voyage, offers the only fleet of ships that provides daily trips through the fjords -- these long narrow inlets with steep sides in valleys created by glacial activity -- along the entire Norway coastline. The company began in 1892 to map the seas along the southern and northern regions on Norway, finding a safe route for trade among islands, reefs and inlets. Hurtigruten, which translates to "fast route," carries mail, cargo, cars and locals in transit on a daily run, under a contract with the Norwegian government. It is the cruise passengers, though, who make the voyage profitable.
One of the fleet's 11 vessels departs every day of the year from Bergen, in the south of Norway, on a round-trip to Kirkenes, high above the Arctic Circle near the Russian border. The entire trip, stopping at 34 ports along the way, takes 12 days.
Passengers can take a segment of the journey, perhaps the northbound or the southbound segment, or the entire trip, which allows visitors to see all ports (including the ones missed while sleeping).
There are hotels and airports in many towns, allowing passengers to create a flexible itinerary, spending a few days in a port, then boarding the next ship coming into port.
The ships are a lifeline to these villages, particularly in the far north, bringing supplies and tourists to their small communities. The ships stop long enough in some ports to allow for shore excursions, at least one excursion each day, at additional cost, some to see reindeer, visit with the indigenous people known as the Samis, take small boat trips to view sea eagles or travel to the border with Russia.
One excursion was to attend a midnight concert in the Arctic Cathedral in Tromso, a large A-frame building, reminiscent of the fish drying racks seen all over the countryside. The glowing white structure also symbolizes the Northern Lights and the Midnight Sun. One of my traveling companions described the concert as the highlight of the cruise. The singers, she said, had the voices of angels.
There are several UNESCO World Heritage sites along the route, the Meridian Column in Hammerfest, the Vega Archipelago, the rock carvings at Alta, the Geirangerfjord, and the Hanseatic buildings in the area of Bergen called Bryggen.
Residents of the villages have made a living in the fishing and wood industry, or working in tourism. It has not been an affluent area. Throughout history they've been battered by nature and humankind. When Norway was invaded and occupied by Germany in World War II, the northern coastal area was bombed by both the Allies and the Germans, as they struggled for access to the iron ore in the north, control of a route to Russia and the use of the long Norwegian coastline.
As the Germans retreated near the end of the war, they destroyed the small towns by scorching the earth. Nothing was left. The housing that was rebuilt in haste after World War II provided shelter with stark facades.
But things are changing with the magic potions of oil and gas. Along with active oil fields in the North Sea, three natural gas fields in the Barents Sea are producing energy, through one of the largest pipelines in the world connected to a refinery on a small island, Melkoya, near the town of Hammerfest.
Statoil, the government-owned oil company, is planning to build another plant at Melkoya starting in 2013, said Harald Hansen, public relations manager at Innovation Norway, which promotes business and enterprise in Norway. Gas produced today is exported to Spain, Portugal, France and the U.S. East Coast. The boom has brought new jobs and housing to the northern coast.
As our ship weaves in and out among the fjords most passengers sit inside or on the deck, watching the spectacular scenery, reading and, of course, taking hundreds of photos. They're primarily an older group, mainly from Norway, Great Britain, Germany and the United States. The pace is slower than on a Caribbean cruise. Evening entertainment is minimal; a passenger with a guitar and a good voice might perform in one of the lounges. There is no midnight buffet -- no one is up that late -- but passengers are lined up early for all three meals. No one dresses for dinner. If anything, guests put on a better sweater.
Breakfast and lunch feature a hot and a cold buffet, to be eaten separately, if Norwegian custom is followed. Breakfast has three or four kinds of fish on the buffet, along with the usual and some exotic breakfast foods. Lunch includes a dozen varieties of fish such as Greenland smoked halibut and peppered mackerel, Norwegian King Crab legs, salmon heaped high, herring fixed four ways and three kinds of caviar, served with sour cream and chopped onion. The chef estimates that 600 pounds of fish are delivered to the ship every day, about two pounds per passenger. For dinner, reindeer steaks may be on the menu.
All but two ships have at least one wheelchair accessible cabin.
Shortly after my trip, tragedy struck the MS Nordlys. An explosive fire broke out in the engine room on Sept. 15. All 207 passengers were evacuated safely into lifeboats, but two crew members were killed and 14 others suffered smoke inhalation and minor injuries.
Many passengers gave the ship's crew high marks for the orderly evacuation, concurring with French tourist Danielle Passebois-Paya. "It was a well-organized evacuation," she told the Associated Press. "The crew did a really good job. Everything was calm and went smoothly. There was no panic."
The MS Nordlys is expected to resume sailing in December.
Bette McDevitt is a freelance writer: email@example.com . First Published October 16, 2011 4:00 AM