It’s the ultimate voyage for stargazers. Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis joins a Hurtigruten cruise along the Norwegian coast in search of the aurora borealis.
Inky blackness surrounds MS Nordkapp as we stand on the top deck in perilously cold winds, nursing cups of hot chocolate and looking up in vain at the unyielding sky. The only lights on view are those coming from the tiny fishing villages lining the Norwegian coast. Disheartened at the lack of aurora borealis, we troop back to our cabins.
Less than 15 minutes later – the time it takes to remove all arctic clothing, including boots and thermals – an announcement comes over the ship’s tannoy: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have Northern Lights on the port side of the ship.” Excitedly pulling on my wool snood, gloves, hat and parka, I rush to the nearest exit and out on deck: and there they are, those enigmatic, ethereal shapes silhouetted against the night sky.
The first few times we see them they are white and the palest lime, although they’ll change colour as our voyage continues. They look a little like enormous clouds, and are brighter than any star in the sky. They are there for around half an hour, and then they disappear just as suddenly as they appeared. But they will be back.
This is very much an adventure cruise, and there are people from all over the world on board, from the Netherlands to China. Despite the language barriers, there’s a real sense of community because every one of us is there with the same aim: chasing the Northern Lights.
My cabin is small but perfectly formed with an abundance of cupboards that could be straight out of a Scandinavian superstore. There’s a picture window, but no TV, mini bar or any of the usual accoutrements. The ship really resembles a ferry but it’s comfortable enough, with a roomy bar and viewing deck at the top and one restaurant.
Entertainment on board comprises lectures and a man playing some sort of electronic organ, although I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the wifi connection is among the best I’ve experienced at sea. Still, the main events on this kind of cruise are always going to be what’s happening outside the ship, rather than on it.
Our voyage on MS Nordkapp takes us from Tromsø to Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, and back. Along the way we stop at various towns and traditional Norwegian fishing villages.
The mountains that line our route are covered in snow and the sunsets extraordinary: crimson, violet and the palest pink, enhancing the natural beauty of the white-clad mountains and reflected in the sea.
This is a proper working ship and being able to disembark frequently, always remembering to be back on board in time, is a bonus. In Hammerfest, though, it’s so icy I struggle to walk along the street for longer than five minutes, taking refuge in a café where I’m only too happy to part with a fiver for a coffee (everything you’ve heard about Norway being expensive is absolutely true).
At Honningsvåg we make our way gingerly along the icy paths to board a coach for the North Cape, one of the northernmost points of Europe.The scenery is breathtaking: vast mountains and endless white. At the North Cape, it’s so windy it’s almost like being in a snow storm, and it’s so bitterly cold, not even trees can grow there. The snow is at least 8ft deep, like giant mounds of icing sugar (I make the mistake of trying to walk on it and nearly end up to my neck. Definitely stick to the paths). And yet there’s nothing bleak about it: the white accentuates the cornflower blue of the sky.
My favourite excursion, though, is at Kirkenes, where we’re taken to a glistening snow-covered forest next to an enormous lake of ice surrounded by trees. It’s ridiculously, Christmas card pretty. We don snowsuits, boots and balaclavas and then we’re taken to meet the huskies, who pull us on rickety wooden sledges through the trees to the lake, barking all the way. They wear little boots on their feet – these are dogs who sleep outside but it’s so cold on the ice that even their hardy paws need protection.
It’s bumpy, exhilarating and at one point I nearly fall off, losing both my gloves and the ones I’ve been lent in the middle of the lake. The dogs certainly seem to enjoy the ride, with the majority only too happy to be petted. Afterwards we’re taken inside a log cabin with a blazing fire and served hot berry juice to warm up, before making our way into the intriguing ice hotel, with its extraordinary carvings and cool vibe. Our guide assures us that you’re perfectly warm when you stay there, although I’m not sure I’d ever be brave enough to try it out.
All our meals are included in the price of our cruise, and the food on MS Nordkapp is incredibly good, very Scandinavian, fresh and healthy: every conceivable kind of fish, delicious bread, plus smoked salmon, caviar, creamy cheeses served with sour cherries. I reject the reindeer on offer but it’s certainly popular with some of the other guests on the cruise.
Northern Lights dream
At night there’s plenty of time for reading, or playing games but none of us have forgotten our goal of finding the Northern Lights.
Before we set off, I had plenty of people telling me about their failed attempts to see the aurora borealis; but a friend advised me that the best time to see them is from January to March, when the sky is at its clearest, and he was absolutely right.
So it feels almost greedy to admit that during our trip we saw the Northern Lights a total of nine times, each more mesmerising, more vibrant than the last. It’s an incredibly emotional experience, one you share with everyone around you as you all look up at the sky and gasp in wonder.
I learned the hard way, though, that a camera phone simply won’t cut it on this kind of trip, because all you’ll end up with is black: take the best camera you can afford, preferably with a tripod, so you can stand back and admire the lights while capturing them to share with friends and family.
On the last night, as we head back towards Tromsø, the lights are vivid shades of emerald, lime and jade, the archetypal colours we’ve all been hoping for. Silence falls over the ship as we stare at the sky, spellbound. For so many people this is a dream trip, the journey of a lifetime. It’s a voyage I will never forget.
GETTING THERE: For more info see hurtigruten.co.uk or call 020 3582 6642.
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