66°33’N may not mean much to the average traveller, so let me explain. These are the southernmost co-ordinates of the Arctic Circle in Norway. But it’s so far north that for around two months of the year the sun refuses to set. Head 217 miles further north from this point – just as I did – and you’ll find yourself in Tromsø, an understated fjord-side town.
Tromsø and its midnight summer sun was the launchpad for an expedition by sea that led south along Norway’s arctic coastline – itself home to some 50,000 islands, totalling a whopping 5,200 miles – and would eventually lead to my final stop in Bergen. Tromsø itself, naturally, has that certain Scandi-panache we’ve become accustomed to. Yes, there are coffee shops, vinyl stores and craft beer breweries, but its position on the North Sea is the big draw – there’s simply no better place to begin discovering Norway’s breathtaking Arctic coastline.
But if you want a real taste of Arctic Norway, you need to get closer to the fjords of the North Sea, and there’s no better way to do it than by kayak. A 15-minute drive took me to Håkøya, a wondrous stretch of water that – through the snow-capped mountains and across the navy-blue water – stretched even further north as I paddled in my kayak, all making for an idyllic starting point for any would-be explorer.
However, because of its size and, let’s be frank, my laughably weedy upper-body strength, this little plastic bucket wouldn’t get me to Bergen. I needed a bigger boat. Thankfully, MS Richard With, the 11,205-tonne veteran of expedition voyage operator Hurtigruten, was waiting back in Tromsø’s port, so I ditched my kayak.
By this point, the clock was drawing near midnight and my departure aboard the MS Richard With edged closer, but that midnight sun continued to shine. Tempting me from sleep (it’s overrated anyway), the constant daylight drew me into Tromsø’s extraordinary arctic cathedral, where local singers and musicians played hypnotic music to help me pass the time. By the time I dozily vacated my pew, the eerie sun had transformed into a grizzly thunderstorm – not what you want to see when you’re spending the next five days at sea.
Norway's artic coastline is home to 50,000 islands
We set off in the morning, heading south towards Sortland, and continued to sail towards Stokmarknes for noon. While the arctic weather continued to play its game I decided to join a group heading for Trollfjorden, a 3 mile-long fjord between the archipelagos of Lofoten and Vesterålen. Leaving the MS Richard With behind us,
we slid into immersion suits (a garment somewhere between a spacesuit and a bin-bag) and clambered aboard an inflatable RIB to get a little closer to Trollfjorden. We bounced across the water, heading southbound, away from the mothership.
Once we arrived there were – unbelievably; disappointingly – no trolls in sight at Trollfjorden. Just a handful of dishevelled locals witnessing a group of recently sea-hardened travellers speeding around, stopping only to ogle at sea eagles and mountains. Regardless, we continuedfurther south for a handful of hours, speeding and spraying before docking in the port town of Svolvær, beating the MS Richard With only by minutes.
While particularly secluded, Svolvær is Lofoten’s liveliest spot, where high mountains overlook the town and the peninsula on which it sits. As we docked – to our thirsty delight – the town was hosting a celebration for the christening of Hurtigruten’s new flagship, the impressive MS Spitsbergen, in perhaps the most Scandi way possible: live folk music and craft beer. Who was I to deny? After several IPAs my sea-legs were better than ever, and ready for a night at sea aboard the MS Richard With. The following morning, after a few espressos, I was (just) ready to set sail for 66°33’N. These are the coordinates for Vikingen Island, where any vessel heading south passes out of the Arctic Circle.
The change, bizarrely, was almost immediately noticeable, and that unforgiving arctic weather was switched to Norwegian summer sun, thanks mostly to the flow of the Gulf Stream. To the delight of our captain and his crew, this special moment called for a glass of champagne and, er, a shot of cod liver oil. Two substances not to be mixed, take my word for it. I ventured onwards – my stomach now fully lubricated by repurposed fish remains – to Vegaøyan. An insight into a more frugal way of life and one based on fishing and harvesting, this weather-beaten island’s main show comes from the adored population of eider ducks, which live in tiny houses to protect their valuable fur. While we’re not talking a centrally-located two-bed maisonette here, the eider ducks’ houses show how Norway’s animal population is one of the most cherished in the world. In Kristiansund, local farmers import llamas from South America to ‘bodyguard’ livestock, while Molde’s cows are treated to a six-week holiday each year. That’s more than the average human gets – in terms of protective llamas and days off.
I venture onwards, my stomach now fully lubricated by repurposed fish remains
But my journey called once again and we cruised south through the night, touching down in delightful Kristiansund in the morning to meet Norway’s Atlantic Road the following afternoon. The five-mile road runs through some of Norway’s most scenic areas and over the iconic Storseisundet Bridge, an architectural marvel that saw builders battle 12 hurricanes over a period of six years to get the job done.
The road finishes near Molde, home of “roses, jazz and ship propellers”, apparently, plus some 222 snowy mountain peaks. Here, I boarded the boat for the final time and spent the night cruising to Bergen. Journey complete, I disembarked in Bergen and walked past an ominous sign on the boat’s deck, warning travellers of a “DANGER OF LIFE!”, (read: death) if you decide to jump off the boat into the great outdoors. Never has danger looked like so much fun.
In northern Norway, the climate makes the rules – just ask the builders of Storsisundet Bridge, the fishermen of Trollfjorden, the duck farmers of Vegaøyan or the kayakers of Håkøya – and, love it or hate it, you have no say whatsoever.
Your job? Set your sights to 66°33’N and get exploring, pronto.
Aboard the MS Spitsbergen, Hurtigruten’s swashbuckling flagship. Explore northern Norway in the newly refurbished and luxurious vessel, stopping along some of the world’s most rugged and spectacular coastal spots.
At Bjartmars Favorittkro, on the Atlantic Road. Grab a window seat, gawk at the fjords and order a pot of bacalao – a hearty cod-based stew and a local favourite – with a side dish of warm, crusty bread and a cup of dark ale. Congratulations – you’ve gone full-blown Norwegian.
At Mack’s Brewery, Tromsø. Once the northernmost brewery in the world – having been bumped to a humble second place by Svalbard’s Bryggeri Brewery – it still holds the largest selection of beer in Europe, with 67 brews on tap.
Ed was a guest of explorer voyage operator Hurtigruten. Sail aboard the flagship MS Spitsbrtgen from Tromsø to Bergen from £373pp for three days, hurtigruten.co.uk