Bill Clinton, Norwegian chess and the depths of the polar night: on the Hurtigruten

The view from the Panorama Lounge on
decks 8 and 9, MS Midnatsol.

This morning was spent eavesdropping on two old fellas from San Diego: from taking photos with Bill Clinton, to Russia as a re-emerging military power and car parking in downtown San Diego.

On this journey on the Hurtigruten, from Kirkenes in far northern Norway to Bergen in the south, the guests are predominantly British, American and German. I catch Australian accents more times than I expected, many drawn by the lure of spotting the Northern Lights.  

There is also a substantial smattering of Norwegians using the ship for its original purpose: as a means of transportation between the country's coastal towns and cities.

The Hurtigruten is a route, not one particular ship ('hurtig ruten' = fast route'). A ship leaves Bergen every day of the year and has been doing so since 1936, interrupted only by wars. My ship is the MS Midnatsol, (Midnight Sun) built in 2003 and with 644 berths, can take up to 1000 passengers.

One of the many lounges on the MS Midnatsol,
The oldest ship, the MS Lofoten, was built in 1964 and takes just 153 passengers. Apparently it’s very popular with tourists, though locals fight to understand why. “It’s just an old barge, compared with the Midnatsol,” one tells me. 

Our cabin is a cosy little affair: two couches fold down to make comfortable beds, there’s a little desk and a bathroom. There are hooks and nooks to tuck your gear away in, though the ship’s lounges, cafes and libraries are preferable, with their panoramic windows and wi-fi which, undestandably, gets a bit shaky when the weather is tossing the ship around on the stretches of open sea.

“You won’t starve on the journey,” a waitress tells me sorrowfully. Our induction to the chef’s hand is lunch, with five types of fish including roasted cod, gravalax (smoked salmon), tubes of Mills Caviar and yes, today features a reindeer casserole with onions and mushrooms.

The dining room on the MS Midnatsol.
Stopping at coastal habitations, sometimes for less than 15 minutes, we’re encouraged to jump off and explore, be it a polar bear museum, taking a dip in the Arctic pool on the open Deck 9 or listening to a midnight concert when we reach Tromso. With restaurants, gym, auditoriums, laundry and saunas, it’s a floating world, yet unlike the global cruise liners, all the staff are local or from neighbouring Sweden. 

And with reindeer pate and caramelised cheese on the menu, live chess broadcasts on the local tv station and a gift shop full of toy trolls and snowflake knits, it’s undeniably Norwegian.

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