Greetings from the library of the MS Midnatsol, (“Midnight Sun”) part of the Hurtigtruten cruise ship fleet based in Bergen, Norway. This is the first full day at sea on a twelve day round trip up and down the Norwegian coast. Here is the current view from my library table.
Since my decision early this year to take this trip, I’ve been referring to it as The Mail Run. And with good reason. Norway’s very rugged 780 mile western coastline makes overland travel difficult and much of the transportation of people and freight takes place by sea. Toward the end of the 19th century demand was high but service was random, slow and unreliable.
Enter Captain Richard With, who showed up in the port of Bergen in 1893 with a steamship hoping to establish a regular sea link from Bergen (the southernmost) to Kirkenes (the northermost) port on the cost. He named his company “Hurtigruten,” which means “the fast route.” His ship stopped at scores of towns and villages along the coastline delivering mail, medicine, groceries, and people.
The shipping company flourished, but the ambitious Captain With had even bigger plans. In 1896 he transported a prefabricated hotel from the mainland to a choice island spot with stunning views that he named “Hotellnest” (Hotel Nest). Shortly thereafter he procured a second steamer in order to offer a “Sportsman’s Route.” So began the recreational dimension of his business. Today the Hurtigruten fleet consists of fifteen vessels offering educational and adventure voyages throughout Europe, Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Alaska, the Northwest Passage and, most recently, South and Central America and the Caribbean.
So back to the Mail Run. My friends Nancy, Claire and Martee and I are following the original Hurtigruten route up the coast. It has been described as “the world’s most beautiful voyage”. Even if that distinction was bestowed by Hurtigruten’s marketing team, it certainly seems defensible. Norway’s stunningly beautiful coastline is nearly always in view. Snow-capped peaks, many with sparkling waterfalls cascading down their faces, give way to emerald green valleys dotted with quaint looking villages. The sky is constantly changing. We have already enjoyed bright sunshine, dense fog, pelting rain and six (I think) breath-taking rainbows.
In addition to marinating in the beauty, we spend our time on board reading, enjoying lectures on the history and geography of our surroundings and discussing aspects of our lives and our world from the profound to the silly and everything in between.
Our journey will include 34 stops to drop off mail, medicine, consumer goods, and people — just like Captain With did in 1893. A limited number of passengers use the ship like an auto train. (No theme from Star Wars yet thank heaven!) Space permitting, they pay for passage between two ports and our vessel can carry 20 vehicles.
While most of our stops last no longer than 15 minutes, one stop each day is long enough to allow for excursions into the port town and surrounding areas. We made our first such stop today in the town of Alesund. It is one of Norway’s newer looking towns since it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1904. Today it is the home of Norway’s most important fishing harbor.
Our trip ashore was short lived. We disembarked hoping to see the lone wooden structure that survived the great fire, but found a rain shower instead and returned to the ship soggy and cold. But a scrumptious meal of clipfish carpaccio, leg of lamb with a vegetable-horseradish stew, and carmelized apples with ice cream made us feel much better.
Our last views before heading to sleep:
The Seven Sisters (l), who dance playfully down the side of the mountain, and The Suitor (r), who flirts from directly across the the fjord.