Plans are at an advanced stage to build a ship tunnel-more than a mile long-big enough to allow all Hurtigruten ships to completely bypass the dangerous ocean crossing at Stad. In one sense this is a shame, but the experience of sailing through a 118-foot-wide tunnel on one of these vessels would give a new twist to the voyage.
The Chief Officer's manner led me to believe that most winter guests will experience a storm at least once. I asked about the challenges of navigating the tough stretches of water in such a small ship: "It's rarely a problem. The Vesterålen is the best place to be in winds like that. It's the most stable ship in the fleet."
The larger Hurtigruten ships have more facilities, such as more comfortable lounges, bakeries, ice-cream bars, and hot tubs out on deck. The Vesterålen is smaller, or to be precise, shorter, than almost all the other ships except the historic MS Lofoten.
While its size helps with balance, it also means you continually bump into the same people over and over again. That could be good or bad for you, depending on the luck of the draw. That said, I didn't see the elderly lady from day two again until the final day of the voyage. That day was a come-down of sorts, because after some spectacular experiences in the north, we were sailing down a much more ordinary coastline on our gentle return to Bergen.
"I think this has been the best day for scenery so far," she offered. No one knew what to say, so we glanced around at each other letting our eyes do the talking. We all silently agreed that this had been the least interesting day so far. I gently probed for more. "A few days ago I went on deck to see the northern lights but it just looked like cloud to me, so I went back inside. I don't understand why everyone says it's green," she added, turning again to admire the sub-par scenery passing by outside.
To be fair, she wasn't the only person on board who'd expected to see a sky full of vivid green whenever darkness fell, just like the magazine ad promised. She'd even brought the advert along with her and showed us.
But of course, the northern lights aren't like that. Unless the magnetic storm is especially strong, the human eye doesn't pick up the intensity of the color like a camera can. But what the eye can do better is follow the movement-sometimes gentle like a feather on a breeze, sometimes drastic like a child playing with a ribbon, and sometimes disappearing and reappearing right behind you. The thrill of seeing the northern lights is in the hunt.
To fully appreciate the lights, you must let your eyes adjust to the darkness, and wait for the movement to begin. She had expected an on-demand Las Vegas-style light show and was too scared to spend any decent time away from her cabin after the stormy first nights. Those who wait are rewarded handsomely, some of the time at least.
But the tragedy of her trip didn't end there. The northern winter light is about so much more than the aurora borealis. At this time of year when the sun doesn't rise, cities like Tromsø enjoy civil twilight for many hours. The length of this 'blue hour', when the entire landscape is bathed in a deep indigo light as if you've put on a pair of tinted glasses, drags on through more shades of purple and blue than you ever thought could exist. It's a breathtaking sight from the deck, but it's much harder to fully appreciate from inside the ship.
Then there's the moonlight. We saw more of the moon than the sun on this voyage, which thankfully coincided with a super moon. It's hard to believe just how much illumination a super moon provides. Those of us who braved the freezing temperatures up on deck day after day were treated to the granite mountains of the Lofoten islands lit by the super moon.
The countless hours up on deck in freezing temperatures, a face and hands red raw from the Arctic winds, sleepless night after sleepless night, it suddenly all became worthwhile. I'd come to hunt a different light show, but this is the one I would remember most.
A few days later the dark skies of the Norwegian winter had one final treat for us: the "super blood wolf moon." Having just recently finished re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was a little hesitant to be in the presence of a thing such named so early in the morning, but at 5.30am I hauled myself out of bed nevertheless.
When I heaved open the deck door I was greeted with the starriest sky I've ever seen. For the first time in the voyage the sky was completely clear and we were far away from any lights on land. I stood staring for many seconds before I heard a shouted whisper, "David!"
These were my people. Five of them in all, different nationalities, with a giant red moon behind them. I'd spent countless hours with these people out on deck looking for the aurora or just enjoying the moonlit landscapes, and this was our final reward. Many members of the crew also put in an appearance, but the other 100 or so guests were nowhere to be seen.
I've never seen the moon behave in this manner, changing color and disappearing several times before my eyes. We were torn between trying to capture the moment on film or simply staring at the pulsating colorful disc in the sky. There was no better way to end the voyage.
If you are used to cruising through the Caribbean and dressing for dinner, a winter Hurtigruten voyage is absolutely not for you. If you've never set foot on a cruise ship and never will, and have even the slightest interest in landscapes and/or photography, then welcome on board! Just remember to bring your motion sickness pills.
David Nikel is a British writer who lives in and writes about Norway. He's the author of the Moon Norway guidebook, and runs the Life in Norway website and podcast about living in and travelling around the country.
Karaoke at Sea on a Cargo Ship - Rebecca A. Hall
The Darker and Wetter Side of Bergen, Norway - David Nikel
Finding the Secret Beaches of Panama and Costa Rica - Tim Leffel
Their Northernmost Life in Arctic Norway - David Nikel
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