Described as “the world’s most beautiful sea voyage,” the round trip from Bergen to Kirkenes and back aboard a Hurtigruten ship has become a Norwegian institution.
Story of the Express
The story behind this service goes back to 1891 when the Norwegian national steamship advisor, August Kriegsman Gran, floated the idea of an express boat service between Trondheim and Hammerfest, one of the most northerly towns in Norway. Two steamship companies were offered the route but declined since they considered it too dangerous during the dark and stormy winters. At this time, only two marine charts existed and there were only 28 lighthouses north of Trondheim.1
In addition, the Norwegian and Barents Seas off the rugged Norwegian coastline have always been considered to be amongst the most challenging of maritime environments. There are approximately 56,000 islands off Norway which add a further layer to the complexity of the navigational challenges.
However, Captain Richard With of the Vesterålens Dampskibsselskab (Vesteraalens Steamship Company) based in Stokmarknes did not accept defeat.
Based on meticulous information gathered by his pilots relating to courses, speeds and times on the route between Trondheim and Hammerfest, he judged that such a service could be viable.
On the 18 May 1893, the Government awarded a four-year contract to VDS to provide a weekly sailing between Trondheim and Hammerfest during the summer and between Trondheim and Tromso during the winter, with nine ports of call between.
“On the morning of 2 July 1893, the steamship Vesteraalen left Trondheim for Hammerfest. This started a communications revolution, giving industry and coastal inhabitants better access to the outside world. Letters from Trondheim, which had previously taken up to three weeks to reach Hammerfest during the summer and five months during the winter, could now be delivered by the Coastal Express in just a few days.”
Over the years more companies became involved in the Coastal Express and, by 1936, a daily vessel left Bergen heading north, a tradition which has continued uninterrupted ever since, except during the Second World War. Early on, it was realised that tourism would become a major activity along with mail and freight. From 2006, the Coastal Express has been operated within Hurtigruten ASA.
The Round Trip
After leaving Bergen, the Coastal Express calls at 34 ports as it travels north to Kirkenes on the Russian border and on the return voyage at 33 ports back south to Bergen, which is a total journey of approximately 2,600 nautical miles.
It should be remembered that what we called our “cruise” was actually time on a working vessel, conveying freight and mail as well as tourists. Of the passengers on the MS Kong Harald, about five hundred were tourists with some locals utilising the ferry service for shorter trips between ports. For such local travel, the sea voyage between ports may be considerably easier and faster than the road trip, particularly in winter.
Since the Coastal Express is a continuous service, with a Hurtigruten vessel leaving Bergen each day for the full round trip, one of the features of the voyage is watching out for south-bound vessels as you travel north and for northbound vessels as you travel south.
MS Kong Harald
The ship was constructed in 1993 and had a major refit in 2016. It has 222 cabins and can carry 22 cars. The ship is 121.8 metres long with a beam of 19.2 metres and a gross tonnage of 11204. Normal cruising speed is 15 knots. Cabins are well fitted out but snug. Public areas are comfortable but inevitably less luxurious than those on a much larger dedicated cruise ship.
A special mention for the catering on board. All the food we had on board during the twelve days was excellent, with good portions of tasty dishes and some equally good alternative choices. The quality of raw materials used was very high — whether beef, lamb, pork or the reindeer which we had in a superb casserole.
We were served many different types of fish, all of the highest possible standard, and in larger portions than we would ever see in the UK: salmon, cod, halibut, arctic char and more. For those with large appetites, there were also other choices between meals: a faster food cafe and a coffee bar with panoramic views.
If the catering was excellent, then the customer service was world class. From the captain down, the whole crew made every possible effort to look after their passengers. Hurtigruten stress that they see themselves as a family company. It is to their immense credit that, from the first boarding until we left the ship, we felt welcome and included within that Hurtigruten family.
In this context of high standards, we were particularly impressed by the Expedition Team of Tilda, Giska and Heinz…
It was their responsibility to make presentations on board, arrange and accompany excursions off the ship and, in general, to look after our entertainment and welfare. Please take a bow, Expedition Team, you were fabulous!
Northern Norway is situated well within the arctic circle and the auroral zone. Since 22 of the 34 ports served by Hurtigruten are above the arctic circle, it is one of the top objectives of tourists to see the northern lights, In fact, so confident is the company that the northern lights will be seen that they issue a Northern Lights promise in the form of a “free voyage if the aurora borealis doesn’t occur on your 12-day voyage from October to March.”
Unfortunately for our chances of securing the free voyage, we did see the northern lights but the compensation is that they are indeed spectacular. On the moving vessel, I did not attempt any long exposure shots with my cameras so here are some phone images.
North Cape – Honningsvag
The most northerly region of Norway is the North Cape plateau where a large globe is mounted, on top of the cliffs some three hundred metres above the sea. It was definitely a place to visit but not for very long since the Arctic wind was blasting over the sea and up the cliffs.
As the northern endpoint for the Coastal Express, Kirkenes is a small town of some 3,500 inhabitants, close to the Finnish and Russian borders.
It is acclaimed as the most northerly town in Norway and has shops and services catering not only to locals but also to a good number of Russians living over the border for whom their alternative supermarket is more than seven hours of arctic driving away in Murmansk.
However, Kirkenes has the potential for massive expansion over the next few years. In 2018, the Finnish government chose Kirkenes in Norway to be the site of the new Arctic railways terminal in a bid to link up the Arctic region through to the centre of Europe. It could be the vital rail hub for the north-east passage development. Follow this link for more details.
Gear Note: I used a Fuji X-T2 with the Fujinon 50–140 mm f/2.8 and an X-T20 with the Fujinon 10 -24mm f/4 for all images except the Northern Lights pictures which were taken with an iPhone.
- The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage 2017 Hurtigruten by Hurtigruten ASA ↩