Home Features The Coastal Express, a Norwegian institution

The Coastal Express, a Norwegian institution

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Alesund Old Town

God Dag!

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.

Contract

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.

Five-month post

“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 Lights

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.

Kirkenes

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.

Farvel!

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.

Read more from David Bailey on Macfilos

  1. The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage 2017 Hurtigruten by Hurtigruten ASA

21 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely photos and article, David. In 2013 my wife and I went to Oslo for a meet up of a group of friends from various countries. We thought long and hard about going on the Hurtigruten as far as Kirkenes and then flying back to Oslo, but we changed our minds for a number of reasons and went on a different journey; by train to Flam to see Europe’s steepest railway and then onto a boat for a fjord trip and onward by rail again to Bergen. It was very enjoyable, but seeing your photos brings some some tinges of regret that we did not do the Hurtigruten trip. Maybe we might do it someday, if we are ever allowed to travel on ships again.

    William

    • Thanks William. It was a great voyage which we would much recommend to anyone, except those who do not like the sea, mountains or cold!
      We went on the Flam railway some years ago which wa excellent and it was then we first decided we would like to do the Hurtigruten cruise up the coast

      David

  2. Hi David,

    Thank you for this lovely journey along the scenic Nordic coast. I have always loved coastal images with colourful reflections, as I often publish from my time in and around Whitby. And i really like the colourful houses in rows with their mirrored reflections, so nicely done.

    I personally would like to both see and photograph the Northern Lights, its just deciding which country to go and see it from, and what kit to take with me to make it happen.

    Keep safe and best wishes.

    Dave

    • Thank you Dave. You’re right about coastal and other water images and reflections. I am thinking of a series of images done in the rain with reflections of course when we get some more rain. This could be soon!

      The Northern lights were very hard to photograph from a moving boat with my cameras. The only answer was a phone. I imagine a fast lens and a tripod are essential neither of which I had with me.

      Hope we can all get out and about again ere too long!

      David

      • The rain certainly arrived today here in Kent, so much so, it’s still with us.

        I hope we can all get out soon, I am hearing the grim news that even our Christmas Dickens could be cancelled – so that means going the entire length of 2020 without a decent street event to get out and play in. hmmmm. Not good.

  3. Thanks for showing these images David. I’m assuming that you used your Fuji kit to catch them. If yes, then they have served you well. We often read about how well Fuji do bold colours, but your images also show how well they do more subtle snowscapes. Some good ‘uns in there.

    • Thanks Wayne. I used my Fuji X T2 plus 50 – 140 mm f2.8 and my X T20 plus 10 -24mm f4 for all images except the Northern Lights ones which were phone images, as per my answer to Dave above.

      I take all images in RAW and do post in Capture One 20 and/or Affinity Photo but have always loved fuji colours (and cameras!).

      David

  4. My only question is how come you didn’t organize your fellow passengers and hi jack that boat. Boy that is a pretty ship ( if ships are pretty). I love the Harbour with the two boats, they look like wooden works of love.You and Fuji had a wonderful time, hope you have many more to share with us arm chair travelers.thank you

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, Wayne.
      Kong Harald is a very pretty ship. Sad to think the Hurtigruten Coastal Express is still in operation for mail and freight with a skeleton crew and no tourists. Some locals will still be on board presumably for necessary travel.
      The two boats in harbour are in Alesund which is an excellent place to visit both the town and harbour and a steep hill which gives great views over town.

      David

  5. Hi David
    A grand article with wonderful images. I particularly like the images of Alesung old town and Trondheim city. Any new acquisitions for your Fuji system? I guess the 50-140 must have been preety useful for the shots from the sea. It’s one case when you do need a telephoto lens. Thanks for sharing and stay safe

    • Thank you, Jean. Alesund is such a lovely place. We only had about four hours to wander round but you could easily spend several days there.
      Big excitement as my new Fuji X T4 arriving later today. If only I could go out immediately all day and every day to use it. It will have to come with me on my daily dog walk cum exercise hour whatever the weather until our lockdown is eased and bigger expeditions are allowed. (The X T2 becomes my second camera and the X T20 will be sold.)
      Best wishes and take care yourself.

  6. Thanks David for these lovely photos which brought back memories from a trip I took in 1977 to a little further north than the town of Narvik which was as far as I could reach by train. I returned by boat down the coast and was struck by the beauty of the Lofoten Islands.

    I find it strange (and rather frustrating) that iPhones are so often better in low light than our mirrorless cameras. For this size of photo I should add. Another reason perhaps why the younger generation shun mirrorless and DSLR cameras in favour of their phones.

    • Especially since most people never look at a picture bigger than an iPhone screen or, at best, on an iPad.If you go back to the days of film, the vast majority of amateur photographs sent their rolls off to Boots and received 36 (if lucky) little postcards – not far removed from the size of an iPhone Max screen – and never wanted larger prints.

    • Kevin, I do not share your conclusion that mobile phones are better in low light than mirrorless cameras. David chose to use zoom lenses on his Fuji cameras with their inherently slower starting apertures. If a major aim had been to capture such a challenging subject as the Northern Lights, I would have chosen to add a fast prime lens. In his situation his fastest lens was his smart phone, but there are alternatives.

      • As well as (relatively) slow lenses, I had no tripod and was on a vibrating vessel travelling at 15 knots. There was no hope of a long enough steady exposure to cater for such dim phenomena. When I was on solid land, there weren’t any northern Lights so I rest my case!

    • Thanks Kevin. Glad the article evoked some memories of your own trip North. The Lofoten Islands part of the trip was spectacular. We would like to have gone ashore but couldn’t do every side trip on the cruise!
      With the gear I had with me, I could not have taken the Northern Lights at all but it was still a great experience if, as you say, a bit frustrating when you think about it.

  7. Hi David, great shots! I have just completed the round trip of this cruise. Flew back on Friday, March 13, and the ship (Nordnorge) was still taking passengers, but they would not be able to embark/disembark at any stops. When we got to Bergen airport, they had refused to let in the 70 odd Brits to Norway, supposed to replace us on the ship. So they were stuck in the small departure lounge all day and made to fly back on our plane to Gatwick – minus their luggage for some reason, not happy bunnies. I have posted my images of the trip at http://www.jackdelmonte.com/norway. I sort of got immersed in the weird, surreal stuff we saw in north Norway – but some places you will no doubt recognise. Some taken with iPhone 11 Pro but most with Leica MP240 and 35/1.4 I did not see the Northern Lights, so they have rebooked me free of charge for the single up coast trip for October – which may or may not happen.
    Best,
    Jack

    • Thank you, Jack. I have just enjoyed your images very much, many of them ones I wish I had taken! I think we are both lucky to have got our trips in before operations for tourists were halted. I am glad to see Hurtigruten honouring their promise to give you a free cruise later. They are a great outfit in my opinion.
      All best wishes
      David

  8. Hi David. Thank you for your comments. The crew on our ship were amazing. The ship was basically shut down for the last 3 days on the way back. They had to reorganise everything – food etc. Just brilliant. A really good company and staff.

  9. Thank you David for sharing your amazing voyage with us! I haven’t travel to Northern Europe yet but visiting Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and seeing the aurora borealis are all in my bucket list. I am hoping to arrange such a trip next year, keeping my fingers crossed. My favorite images are the Old Alesund Town and Kjeungskjoer Lighthouse. Those colorful houses truly reflect the local culture and architecture. I always have a thing about lighthouses, they are romantic but portray loneliness at the same time. I am glad the Fuiji cameras have served you good. During the film days, Fuiji film was my favorite. However, I can’t say I like the color profile of their X-Trans sensors. I like the punchy colors but seems “artificial” sometimes. I was deciding between the Fuiji XE-3 and the Leica CL for my travel camera back in 2018. After extensive research and handling both at the camera store, I finally picked the CL and never looked back. I hope Leica will continue their APSC line or at least the CL model. Let’s hope we can all do some traveling soon, be safe and healthy everyone!

    Yours Truly,
    Patrick

    • Thank you Patrick. I can only encourage you to take a voyage on the Coastal Express along with your Leica CL and can promise you will not be disappointed with the holiday or the image possibilities.
      You’ll understand me saying I think you made the wrong call with the Leica but there it is! I expect some kickback here from other Leica photographers about this comment…….

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