A travel writers description of his voyage onboard Hurtigruten, along Norway’s impressive coastline.
The Hurtigruten website modestly describes its cruise up the Norwegian coast as “the world’s most beautiful voyage.” When I read this, I could not help but think of that old Monty Python skit in which a man writes the world’s funniest joke — a joke so funny that everyone who reads it instantly dies from laughter. I wondered if beauty, pressed toward hyperbole, could become similarly perilous. Would the decks of the ship be littered with tourists smitten by the sublime?
We were about to find out. I was standing on the top deck of the nine-deck MS Trollfjord with my wife, Katie, and 6-month-old son, Holt. On the quay far below us, my Norwegian relatives were maniacally waving at the boat, though not at where we were standing on the ferry. I had just spent the last day running around Trondheim — a lovable, wharf-laden university town perched on the lip of a fjord — trying to track down my grandfather’s old house, with mixed success. It seemed he had lived in several different houses, or maybe no house at all. I, like many Americans before me, had dragged my family to Norway for mysterious reasons. I was only technically one-quarter Norwegian, though yearned for much more. My heart swelled every time Norwegians mistakenly addressed me in their native tongue even when I would have to sheepishly reply in English. I both relished and hated my role as an impostor.
I also fancied myself a kind of amateur anthropologist. The previous night around 10 p.m., as the sun showed no real intention of setting, my cousin Coleman had asked if we wanted to go on an “afternoon” walk. Such is the casual relationship that people seemed to maintain with time at northern latitudes, where in winter the daylight shrinks to a couple of hours and in the summer the night never quite grows dark. Above the Arctic Circle, this binary existence becomes even more extreme, to the point where the entire year becomes a kind of single, interminable day, with six months of light and six months of night. I wanted to go as far north as I could and see for myself how people managed to survive such a dualistic relationship with the sun without going at least some kind of crazy.
My relatives had finally located us on the top deck. I tried to match the enthusiasm of their waves. The breeze had freshened against our faces; a hovering gull eyed us skeptically. I could feel that very particular tingle that one feels just before departing for uncertain territory. With a long blast from the ship’s horn, we pulled out into the fjord and headed north. I watched as the mint-colored steeple of Trondheim’s cathedral slipped from view, replaced by layered mountains of pine that swept down to the water’s edge, forming a narrow channel to the sea.
Hurtigruten literally means “the express route,” and while there is nothing “express” about it these days, back when it was founded in 1893, the ferry line was nothing short of a revelation, delivering mail and cargo and passengers to northern communities that were otherwise completely isolated from the rest of the world. By combining navigational prowess, humble practicality and stunning natural beauty, the Hurtigruten has become one of Norway’s treasured national symbols. My grandfather took my father on this same route 50 years ago.
Yet the Hurtigruten of 2014 bears little resemblance to the Hurtigruten of old. Over time, the original service mission of the coastal express became largely redundant as mail, cargo and passengers turned increasingly to the convenience of air transport, forcing the company to look toward tourism for its primary source of revenue. Its transition from a utilitarian coastal ferry to an all-out cruise line has caused more than a few growing pains.
Built in 2002, our ship, the 445-foot MS Trollfjord, was representative of this new Hurtigruten. As Holt and I excitedly explored the ship’s decks, what quickly became apparent was that we were witnessing a company in the midst of a mild identity crisis. Our hosts were trying to simultaneously indulge the desires of the increasingly discerning modern cruise passenger while also maintaining the understated modesty of Norwegian culture. Thus, the MS Trollfjord featured two small Jacuzzis on Deck 9, complete with multicolored party lights, but these closed promptly at 11 p.m. There was no swimming pool or water slide or mini-golf course. Deck 8 featured an abandoned dance floor that nonetheless piped out soft ’80s ballads 24 hours a day, as elderly couples sat nearby sipping Scotch and playing bridge. One night around 1 a.m., insomniac and alone, I couldn’t resist dancing solo to “Life Is a Highway,” as I stared out at a distant smattering of islands silhouetted like beached whales against a sky that had forgotten to turn dark.
Part of the issue here was the crowd. The passengers were 80 to 90 percent German retirees, a high percentage of whom sported fanny packs and matching Jack Wolfskin parkas. Needless to say, these people had not come to Norway to dance. Much of our fellow passengers’ focus was concentrated on the various off-boat excursions offered each day. This was a relatively recent addition to the Hurtigruten package, and clearly an attempt to placate the demands of the modern cruise tourist. On any given day you could go dog sledding, hang out with sea eagles or eat a meal with a man dressed as a Viking. There were also near constant P.A. announcements in Norwegian, German and English about the excursions. When I later met Esklid Arne Ognes, who broadcast these announcements, I felt a bit as if I were meeting the voice of God.
People act in peculiar ways when forced to live together in confined places. This is particularly true on sightseeing cruises like the Hurtigruten, where landscape is transformed into a kind of currency. By boarding a ship that declares itself “the world’s most beautiful voyage,” passengers maintain an expectation of transcendent topographic voyeurism and this was encouraged by the ship’s layout: almost all chairs faced outward. Such an arrangement did not inspire community or group engagement. People could get territorial about their sightlines. Seats in the very front of the panorama lounge on Decks 8 and 9 were always occupied, and if someone abandoned a post (gasp), a keen lingerer would quickly take up the position.
The view, admittedly, was fantastic. If you have never been to Norway, you must understand it is blessed with an overabundance of staggering landscapes. Glaciers tend to leave dramatic geology in their wake, and Norway is no exception: Soaring granite mountains drop straight down into the sea; waterfalls plunge 300 feet through scree fields and terraced alpine meadows; everywhere you look there are clusters of rocky islands and impossibly cute red farmhouses poised on the crook of some bluff. Think coast of Maine meets Yosemite meets Tolkien. After a day or two navigating these panoramas, one becomes so desensitized to the utter stunningness of it all that you begin to take just another spectacular sea-and-mountain vista for granted, even if this same vista in the United States would instantly become a national park.
Despite being only 150,000 square miles (about the size of Montana), the country boasts one of the most undulatory coastlines in the world, measuring an astonishing 64,000 miles long. (By comparison the entire coast of the United States is 95,471, according to the National Ocean Service.) Unsurprisingly, the Norwegian coastline is essential to the country’s identity — and not just because of the country’s primary industries of fishing and offshore drilling. A line of skerries — essentially small, uninhabited rocky reefs — creates a naturally protected coastal passage all the way to the North Cape and gives rise to the country’s name: Nor-way means “the way north” in Old Norse. Studying Norway’s ragged coast, with its hundreds of thousands of islands, is like studying the country’s metaphorical DNA: It is unique; it is unendingly complex; it is the fingerprint of a nation.
But what’s fascinating is that the view from the Hurtigruten’s panorama lounges is also very slow. As in: very, very slow. Despite once upon a time being billed as the “coastal express,” the Hurtigruten actually travels at a maximum speed of around 15 knots, which is about the speed of a brisk bicycle ride. So you really have time to linger on every skerry, every shoal, every little red farmhouse.
This protracted (and mediated) narrative pace mirrors a baffling trend taking place in Norwegian television called Slow TV. In 2009, the public television station NRK broadcast a six-hour, 22-minute uninterrupted train trip from Bergen to Oslo by mounting a camera on the front of the locomotive. NRK had modest expectations for viewership, but the show became an overnight sensation — approximately 20 percent of all Norwegians tuned in to the train ride at some point. One 76-year-old viewer, upon arrival of the train in Oslo, forgot that he was not actually a passenger himself, and when he got up to fetch his overhead luggage he crashed into his living room curtains.
NRK followed this up two years later with an even slower program, “Hurtigruten Minute for Minute,” in which the entire 134-hour coastal journey was broadcast live. After a relatively subdued departure from Bergen, the show began to steadily gather viewers, such that by the third or fourth day, entire towns were coming out to greet the camera. People dressed up in ridiculous Norwegian costumes; marching bands serenaded the boat’s arrival and departures; one opportunistic local politician announced her candidacy on the show by unfurling a giant banner across the quay. The last day of the trip the queen of Norway even waved to the ship from her royal yacht. The program became a bona fide national event —half the country watched the voyage at some point. I made a habit of asking almost every Norwegian I met why they thought Slow TV was so popular in Norway. Most of them gave me highly unsatisfactory answers — they said that Norwegians were simply “patriotic” or that they found the shows “relaxing.” I explained to them that many people were patriotic or wanted to relax, but this did not mean they would sit down and watch a train for six hours.
I began to develop a more robust hypothesis about what attracted Norwegians in particular to Slow TV after speaking with Sverre Andreas Rud, the MS Trollfjord’s first officer. He was showing me around the ship’s impressive bridge, demonstrating how the boat’s giant twin propellers could rotate 360 degrees and turn the boat on a dime, which is convenient for some of the smaller harbors.
We got to talking about how much Norway has changed in the last 20 years, a sentiment echoed by many of those I talked to. Officially founded in 1905 after finally ridding itself of Swedish rule, Norway is the second youngest of the Scandinavian nations. But then oil reserves were discovered off Norway’s coast in 1969, and everything changed. The youngest child had suddenly become rich.
One of the byproducts of this sudden influx of capital has been an intensive modernization in nearly all sectors of Norwegian life. Just 20 years ago, Oslo was a sleepy, provincial town known mainly for annually handing out the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, it is Europe’s fastest growing capital. Everywhere you look, skyscrapers are being hastily erected, including a controversial sequence of five metal and glass buildings disparagingly called the “bar code.” As income and consumerism have increased, the pace of life has also accelerated dramatically. In trying to adjust to such rapid change in a relatively short amount of time, many Norwegians seem to be suffering from a kind of cultural whiplash, leaving them apprehensive for the future and nostalgic for a past that was barely the past.
When I asked him about his thoughts on Slow TV’s popularity, Mr. Rud became reflective.
“Maybe it’s a way for people to get back to the way things were not so long ago,” he said. “To remember what it was like.”
“What was it like?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Slower.”
The more I thought about this, the more sense it made, as even Norwegians in their 30s would grow nostalgic about their youth using the same kind of hyperbole normally reserved for people in their 80s. It seemed particularly appropriate that this mode of nostalgia, while directed at a mythical pace of life that perhaps never quite existed, does so via an entirely modern medium. The live Twitter feedback that NRK receives over the course of a program (which the station claims affects its content and editing choices in real time) feels like new media recreating old forms of storytelling: Norwegians gather around the virtual campfire to hear wistful tales from the old frontier.
Of course, Norway, with only five million people, is still small enough (and homogeneous enough) to allow a story or program to become a national event. When I visited the country a couple of years ago, all anyone could talk about was Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 1,600-page autobiographical novel “My Struggle,” the first two volumes of which had just been published. Never in my life had I seen a culture so captured by a piece of literature. And “My Struggle” is perhaps the ultimate form of slow storytelling — it is a celebration of the exquisite beauty of the mundane, in which Mr. Knausgaard recounts his life’s minutiae. Just like Slow TV, Mr. Knausgaard manages to reinvent narrative stakes by pushing past the point when we feel the camera should cut away or the writer should put down his pen. He dares us to keep reading, to keep watching, and in doing so we become complicit in a mutual humanness — we are all this ordinary, and isn’t that extraordinary.
We disembarked and bid adieu to the MS Trollfjord at the village of Stamsund, on the southern coast of the Lofoten Archipelago, which extends out into the Norwegian Sea like a lazy finger. Lofoten is famous for its scenery, and in a country blessed with a bounty of scenery, this is really saying something. The island chain features a wall of soaring, granite peaks running down its spine. In the summer, the rock faces of these mountains are brushed with a soft palette of green scrub and lichen; from a distance, the islands appear to be floating above the surface of the sea.
Even though it lies 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Lofoten, like the rest of Norway, remains relatively temperate due primarily to the Gulf Stream flowing up from Florida. Every Norwegian should write an annual love letter to the Gulf Stream. The warm currents keep harbors from freezing in the winter, provide bountiful fishing grounds and moderate sea and land temperatures all year round. From Stamsund we drove out to Moskenes Island, at the very tip of the finger. The drive, across a series of 16 bridges, was jaw-dropping and also nose-wrinkling, especially when we passed by one of the many racks of cod being air-dried into stockfish, a popular dish in Italy, Spain and Nigeria. Cod fishing used to be Lofoten’s main industry but industrial boats, offshore processing and corporate consolidation have caused entire villages to disappear. We stayed in the village of Reine, at Reine Rorbuer, which lies on a beautiful little nugget of a peninsula bordered on three sides by towering Middle Earth mountains. The rorbuer, or fisherman’s cabin, is the classic accommodation in Lofoten, particularly because so many of them are unused these days. Our cabin, painted in immaculate Norwegian red, sat on stilts and overlooked a sleepy little harbor of puttering fishing boats.
Drained from taking in so much landscape, we settled down for a dinner at the cute Gammelbua restaurant and sampled whale steak, which tasted a bit like overcooked entrecôte, and cod fish tongues, a local delicacy, which tasted divine. We eventually climbed into bed around midnight, though such a choice seemed merely happenstance, since the light was still streaming through the windows.
The next day, we headed back to Stamsund to catch our new boat, the MS Kong Harald. If the Trollfjord was the Bellagio of Hurtigrutens, then the Kong Harald was the El Cortez in downtown Vegas. Built in 1993, it had a lovely element of ’80s kitsch — inappropriate brass columns, faux leather couches, heavy carpeting, a ceiling that was a couple of inches too low. It felt a bit as though Barry Manilow might show up at any minute and warble out a couple of numbers. And I mean this as a compliment — I actually preferred the Kong Harald’s décor to the clean, cool modernity of the Trollfjord. The Kong was a decisive step back toward Hurtigruten’s workmanlike roots.
The crowd had also changed. Gone were the parka-clad Germans, replaced by a boisterous French charter group. God now spoke in Norwegian, French and English. There was a palpable liveliness in the air. This French crowd was also remarkably aggressive. When the ship squeezed through the Trollfjord — a narrow fjord buttressed by soaring cliffs on either side — the value of landscape currency skyrocketed. Elbows were thrown; grown men could be seen sprinting from one side of the boat to the other brandishing their telephoto lenses; several children were knocked down in the mayhem.
On our last night on the Kong, as we rounded the very north of Norway and brushed against the rolls of the Barents Sea, we finally decided to spring for the seated dinner, since it was a lavish seafood buffet appropriately named “The End of the World.” We had not sat down to a proper dinner yet in the dining hall. Unlike most passengers, who had purchased full board, we had bought a basic ticket that included only our cabin and breakfast.
I would be remiss, at this point, not to mention the prices in Norway. Let us not mince words: The country is bone-chillingly expensive. The spiraling cost of living is another inadvertent offshoot of the oil boom, but it is also the single biggest impediment to the tourism industry and is why I cannot fully endorse a trip to Norway unless you, like me, are on some crazy ancestral/identity goose chase. I was told never to convert Norwegian kroner into dollars lest you give yourself a stroke, but after purchasing a $12 coffee and $30 personal pizza for the umpteenth time, my very moral fibers began to erode and I contemplated becoming a kleptomaniac just on principle alone. For most of the trip, we had subsisted on apples and nuts and open-face sandwiches, but our last night on the Kong seemed as good a time as any to splurge on all-you-can-eat king crab legs and halibut.
But we never got to taste those king crab legs. The dinner hostess, who was a bit shocked to see us — “Where have you been the whole trip?” — seated us at Table 1, the delinquent table, and we waited for the French, who had gathered in a kind of pulsating, impenetrable nebula around the buffet table, to finish loading up their plates. This did not happen. By the time diners had just completed amassing their first helping, people were already getting their second. Wave after wave of passengers came at the buffet, like some kind of culinary re-enactment of the Battle of Normandy. After 15 minutes of waiting without so much as a glimpse of the food through this mass of humanity, our appetites disappeared, and we left the dining room under the reproachful eye of the hostess for the safer ground of the cafeteria, where we ordered our usual prawn-and-tomato-on-bread standby.
Unlike the televised Hurtigruten, our boat sailed into Kirkenes sans royal greeting. Nestled in a sheltered bay next to the Russian border, Kirkenes is an oddly anticlimactic terminus for such a beautiful journey. The town, like much of the north, was destroyed during World War II and it feels like a place that was rebuilt without a plan. Walking through the streets, I could not help but be reminded of certain pop-up mining towns in the American West.
We stayed at the lovely, if minimalist, Sollia Guesthouse, a 15-minute drive out of town, 500 yards from the Russian border station. Sollia has an operating husky kennel; in the winters you can go on dog sled runs through a boreal forest of small spruce and pine. Curiously, the no-nonsense guesthouse also features a world-class restaurant, Gaphahuken, housed in an elegant wooden wave of a building on the shore of a lake. We ate silky arctic char and reindeer — which is possibly the best tasting meat in the world — and slowly sipped at glasses of white wine while staring at the foreboding specter of Mother Russia on the other side of the lake.
The owners, Jorunn and Eivind Nordhus, were delightful. Eivind was also the accomplished chef. A lanky, understated man, he looked a bit like an amateur magician in his chef’s whites. He has cooked for, among others, the Norwegian royal family and the president of Russia. I asked him if the different seasons of light and darkness affected his preparations. He shook his head, “I used to cook in a submarine when I was in the navy,” he said. “So I can cook in a box.” But after pausing a minute he added, “I like the winters. The winters are bigger than the summers.”
Indeed, in my anthropological quest to discover how Norwegians survived such extreme seasonal light conditions, I was met with a giant collective shrug. People did universally admit that they slept less in the summer and gained a kind of energy from the sun, but beyond that, they had not really thought about it.
“I lived in Florida for a year,” said Trine Moller, the husky trainer at Sollia. “It was much weirder to have no seasons at all.”
In the end, I realized my whole premise about the interrelationship between light and sanity was flawed. It was like my turning to someone and asking, “But how do you survive the night? It gets dark every day, right? That’scrazy.” The answer is: Repetition normalizes all. People adapt. It’s what we do.
Norwegians do not speak of the midnight sun. The midnight sun is an arbitrary concept invented for tourists’ hats and perpetuated by writers of uncertain talent. But if I’d learned anything on this trip to the north, it is that truth and significance have little to do with each other. Even if glimpsing the sun at midnight was completely arbitrary, I still wanted to see it. And I hadn’t gotten to all trip, as we were blessed with the quite common Norwegian weather of complete, 24-hour cloud cover, which is incredibly disorienting because the light remains flat and endless, and time begins to feel like a distant memory.
On our last night in Norway, the sky finally began to clear. So I scurried up a small mountain, just reaching its crest at 11:58 p.m. I had low expectations; I was ready to be disappointed by whatever I saw. The clock struck midnight and there it was: the sun, unimpeded, resplendent. The same sun as always. But what a sun. And what an earth. I imagined myself at the top of a swiftly spinning planet, tilting its head in salutation to that distant solar body. It was what I had seen every day but I had never seen it before today.
Text Reif Larsen Photos: Damon Winter/The New York Times
Feature image (on top): The village of Reine in the Lofoten Islands. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Reif Larsen is the author of “The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet,” which has been made into a film. His second novel, “I Am Radar,” will be published in February.
In this way New York Times recommends Norway as a tourist country.
Read also: Hurtigruten (The Speed Route)
IF YOU GO
To get from Oslo to Bergen to start your boat trip, you can take the stunning Bergenspan train across the Hardanger plateau to Bergen (seven hours; from 249 kroner, or $40 at 6.15 kroner to the dollar, one way; nsb.no).
Hurtigruten’s vessels depart Bergen to Kirkenes daily (one way, seven days, from about $2,000 per person in summer, and lower in winter; prices include full board;hurtigruten.us). You can also book shorter port-to-port trips, which include only breakfast.
In Lofoten, Reine Rorbuer and Gammelbua restaurant (range of cabins, from 1,395 kroner; classicnorway.com/hotels/reine-rorbuer).
In Kirkenes, Sollia Guesthouse and Gaphuken restaurant (rooms from 1,690 kroner for four people; storskog.no/engelsk).