by liz Fleming

Snow HotelThe world-famous snow hotel in Kirkenes, Norway - courtesy Klaus-Peter Kappfest/Hurtigruten

Keen to cruise the fjords of Norway? Heard all about the stunning vistas, the sun glistening on the water and the tiny alpine flowers blooming on green hills? Who wouldn’t love to explore Norway?

How would you feel about doing it in the dead of winter?

Great adventures come in all seasons and the fjords of Norway are particularly beautiful when they’re in the icy grip of Njord, the Norwegian god of winter.  I know, because it was a chilly March day when I met him, just as our ship, the MS Nordkapp, one of the many ships in the Hurtigruten fleet, crossed the Arctic circle.

It’s a long-standing tradition onboard to christen Arctic Circle crossing-virgins. Dressed in flowing blue robes, Njord descends from the snowy mountaintops, magically boards the ship, invokes the spirits of the wind, the snow and the cold, and then dumps a ladleful of ice cubes down the newbie’s back – truly a spine-tingling welcome.

Njord and his ladle were just the beginning of the wintry excitement aboard the Nordkapp.  If it could be done with snow and ice, we did it.

CrabThe freshest and most delicious crab - courtesy of Yrjan Bertelsen/Hurtigruten

One gloriously sunny afternoon, we set out across a frozen fjord to find our lunch – under the ice. A short snowmobile ride brought us to the edge of a hole where we peered carefully over the edge, into the dark, deep water. As we watched, our guides began to haul up traps laden with the biggest crabs we’d ever seen. Like prehistoric creatures, their legs were nearly as long as my arms – and they were destined for the lunch table. When the giant hopper was full and loaded on the back of a sled, we raced across the fjord, to a small cottage where other guides waited, stoking the fire under a huge steaming pot.  Inside, another fire blazed and we were soon devouring the sweetest crab ever, accompanied by nothing but melted butter and bread. If that had been my last meal on earth, I’d have died with a smile on my face and many pounds of crab in my belly.

Snow was essential to our adventures so we bundled up and learned to love it.  Covered in thick robes, we were packed into sleds on a wintry plain near Tromsø, and hitched to teams of howling, barking, frenzied dogs. A mixed bag of barkers, with ancestry closer to wolves than huskies, those dogs wanted nothing more than to race along hard-packed trails through the snowy woods, with us rocking and rolling behind, tears of laughter freezing on our red faces. Were we cold? Yes. Did it matter? Not once we started to laugh!

Snowmobile safariSnowmobile safari in search of the northern lights - courtesy of Yrjan Bertelsen/Hurtigruten

On one memorable evening, so cold that the snow squeaked under our boots and our breath seemed to freeze in puffs in front of our faces, we suited up in bulky thermal gear and climbed aboard a fleet of snowmobiles. Following our leader through the Lapland darkness, our snowmobile safari group raced across hard, crusty snow, in search of an elusive quarry. We’d been promised a sighting but, who knew?  Though our heads were entirely covered by helmets, the icy wind still managed to poke through tiny gaps to find bits of unprotected neck. We shivered and hunkered further down behind the windscreen. Just when I was thinking I might freeze solid, the sky ahead began to glow. Soft grayish green tendrils at first, then brighter green swirls and then an iridescent pink – the colors filled the heavens and we stopped, killed our engines and stared upward. In the silence, we forgot the cold and flipped up our face-shields so nothing would be between us and the northern lights. We’d found what we were searching for.

Life onboard the MS Nordkapp was simple but comfortable. Our staterooms were small, with two European-style single beds that folded down from the wall, a compact desk and heated bathroom floors – a feature that easily made up for any lack of other more luxurious fittings. Operating all winter with ships sailing north and south, departing from Kirkenes in the north and Bergen in the south for a 780-mile journey, the MS Nordkapp and her sister ships have a number of lounge areas that seem curiously out of place until you realize that these vessels serve not only as cruise ships for guests who have booked the full journey, but also as a sort of commuter vessel for people who live in the remote northern communities we visited. Each day, new people board or disembark at the various ports, meaning there are always groups relaxing in the various lounges and fresh faces in the dining room.

ms Nordkappms Nordkapp - courtesy of Hurtigruten

In that dining room, we learned to love fish in all forms – baked, broiled, fried, poached and most importantly, pickled.  No buffet lunch or breakfast spread was complete without at least six or seven different types of fish and seafood – all different and all delicious – but my real passion was the Norwegian brown cheese.  A sort of cross between cheese and fudge (trust me, it’s heaven) brown cheese is eaten in sandwiches and on crackers, but most importantly, on the thin, slightly crispy Norwegian waffles, smothered in fresh berries.  

Onboard entertainment consisted of nightly port talks and presentations on the geography, culture and history of the places we were visiting, punctuated by the occasional sing-along or dramatic reading by crew members.  The lounge – a long, pub-cozy room filled with small tables, served as a bar and gathering place while the more academic presentations that involved slides and powerpoint presentations  were held in a small lecture hall. It was low-key but we didn’t miss the Broadway-style shows of larger, more commercial ships. Our days were so full that by the time we’d had dinner and were full of fresh Norwegian air and platters of fish, we were ready crawl into bed and recharge for the next day’s adventures.

LoungesCourtesy of Simon Skreddernes/Hurtigruten

A café and a small store offered a random blend of chocolates, snacks, Norwegian souvenirs and dangerously tempting Dale of Norway sweaters and Helle Hansen jackets. Not surprisingly, the coldest days were best for business, with guests who’d underestimated the bone chilling winds of the North Pole hurrying in to stock up on extra gear.

Our wonderful, wintry cruise ended with a frosty sleepover at the world-famous snow hotel in Kirkenes, Norway.  Each of the more than twenty bedrooms was a masterpiece of frigidity – with walls, hallways and even beds carved from snow and ice. Each different, the rooms were lavishly decorated with sculpted walls and spectacular furnishings. After a tummy-warming dinner of reindeer stew, we headed to our beds to settle in. The instructions we’d been given were to snuggle into our special polar sleeping bags wearing just a single layer of thermal underwear but I soon jettisoned that plan. When the room is so cold your nose feels like it might snap off, long-johns just don’t do the trick. Instead, I crawled into bed in thermal underwear, snow pants, jacket and hat. After a few frosty moments, I did a rethink and added the liners from my boots.  I won’t tell you it was a comfortable night, because it wasn’t – I alternated between burying my head under the sleeping bag to warm my face and thrusting my head rather desperately out of the covers to avoid the inconvenience of suffocation. The experience was worth the discomfort simply for the bragging rights.  Because it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I will never, ever have to do it again!

What I will do again, is visit Norway, one of the most beautiful, welcoming, civilized countries I’ve ever visited. Though I may plan my next trip for warmer months, so I can see those tiny alpine flowers, I can’t imagine that I’ll find Norway in summer any more fabulous than when her frozen fjords were draped in pristine winter white.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall 2017 issue.

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