Cool climate cruising has just as much to offer as the Mediterranean and Caribbean, as Bev Wood discovers.
If you are in search of a cruise with a difference, a trip along the Norwegian Coast on any of the Hurtigruten ships is a must. There are no casinos and live shows but the scenery, food and ports make up for it. And that's what the passengers on our February sailing on the MS Midnatsol from Bergen to Kirkenes had come for.
The ships are working boats which cater not only for tourists but also for the locals.
The Midnatsol has capacity for 500 passengers and 35 cars and, as it wends its way up the coast from Bergen, it sails in and out of fjords stopping at towns and villages to pick up or offload passengers and cargo.
From the porthole in my cabin I had vistas of the ever-changing scenery. However, I didn't spend much time there as the lounges are comfortable and afford panoramic views.
There was plenty to see — scattered islands, rugged mountains reaching to the shoreline, small towns and villages with red painted houses stark against the snowy background, lighthouses, seabirds, sometimes another ship and once a solitary yachtie wrapped warmly against the winter cold waved out to us.
Our trip started in the picturesque and historic town of Bergen.
The old wooden buildings, leaning higgledy-piggledy have been well preserved. The wharf area is a Unesco World Heritage site and we marvelled at how these buildings have stood the test of time. We caught the cable car up a nearby mountain which gave us extensive but misty views of the town and fjords beyond.
In the little souvenir store at the top of the cable car I bought what proved to be one of the best buys of the journey — a pair of cleats to attach to my boots. This saved me from slipping and sliding on the many icy paths to come. We soon realised that what we thought was terra firma was actually terra slippery. With my new accessories I intended to stay upright and I did — with only one exception. This was not a slip-over but a tip-out! More of that later.
As we travelled north we enjoyed going ashore at several of the ports. In each place we had a local guide — although this was a bit of a misnomer as our guides came from widely different countries — Spain, Italy, France, Zimbabwe — but they were all knowledgeable and informative.
The nearer we came to the Arctic Circle the thicker the snow became and in some places parked cars and bicycles were barely visible under layers of snow. I was a snow virgin. It was the first time I'd experienced a completely white landscape. Our trip had been billed as Following the Northern Lights, but our view of the lights was minimal. On a couple of nights we did see a faint green swathe like a curtain crossing the sky, but it was not the dancing, colourful phenomenon we'd hoped for. However the magic of the winter wonderland more than made up for it.
King Neptune put in an appearance on the deck as we crossed the Arctic Circle. He and his cohorts poured ice down the backs of those passengers brave or silly enough to volunteer. They were rewarded with a shot glass of aquavit, but as neither appealed I was not among the volunteers.
Our visit to the beautiful medieval Nidaros Cathedral in the city of Trondheim was a highlight, as was the Polar Museum in Tromso. We even stopped at Mack's, the most northern brewery in the world.
On a bus trip from the small town of Honningsvag we wound up and up past icy lakes, scattered houses and a campsite buried in snow. We travelled in convoy with other buses and private vehicles, a snowplough ahead of us clearing the way sending flurries high in the air.
Our destination was Nordkapp (the North Cape) and even in near blizzard conditions it was spectacular. Wrapped against the cold we struggled to the edge of the high plateau perched above sheer cliffs to catch views of the wild Atlantic Ocean meeting the Barents Sea way below us.
Hundreds of tonnes of ice and snow are used each winter to build the temporary structures of the Snow Hotel in Kirkenes. Each room had different ice carvings, from Disney characters to Marilyn Monroe. Even the furniture was carved from ice; armchairs, tables and beds; I preferred the comfort of a proper bed and lodgings.
After seven days we left the Midnatasol at Kirkenes. From the craggy mountains of Norway we were transported by coach into the flat, white expanse of Finnish Lapland where we experienced a two-hour husky safari. Our six excited huskies were itching to get going, and as soon as our guide had given us instructions we were off, up slopes, bumping down the other side, round gentle curves with the guide signalling "slow down". One bend was sharper than expected and my sled tipped, toppling me into snow like softly whipped pavlova. The well-trained huskies waited while the sled was righted and off we went though the magical landscape. My tip-out was a source of much amusement. Another day brought a sleigh ride behind gentle reindeer. What a wonderful sensation, gliding though forests of spindly birch, spruce and pines. Smaller trees bowing under the weight of snow pompoms looked like trolls and could have been the origin of those Nordic legends.
Fly to Norway with Singapore and Scandinavian Airlines. Sail the Norwegian Coast with Hurtigruten.