Winter Journeys Through Northern Climes : BY SHIP ALONG NORWAY’S ARCTIC COAST
From the sea-wet deck of the Norwegian coastal ship Kong Olav, I watched anxiously as my new friend Marit hurried down the gangway, raced across the quay and disappeared into snowy winter darkness. Ships’ officers, I knew, take a stern attitude toward tardy passengers, and Marit had one more bag to add to those already stowed on board.
A hundred yards away, lights surrounding the market square in Svolvaer, a fishing village 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, floated in silver mist. Beyond the square, snow-streaked promontories leaped into the sky, then fell abruptly to the narrow shelf on which Svolvaer lies, precariously close to the sea. But the splendor of the night blazed overhead: the aurora borealis, its veils of emerald, amethyst and gold sweeping around the North Star.
Within minutes, Marit Omberg emerged from the shadows, loping shipward with a duffel bag over one shoulder. A pink-cheeked seaman waiting to unlatch the gangway reached forward and lifted her burden over the last leg. “So!” he announced, extending his broad paw. The ship’s horn sounded a nasal bleat, the gangway clattered against the quay and the Kong (Norwegian for King ) Olav moved north into the Arctic night.
I stashed my backpack in my cabin and said good night to Marit, who was worn out from luggage-toting. On the deserted quarterdeck, I hoisted myself up on a chest and settled back against a wooden beam to savor the exhilaration of being at sea in November. Clumps of snow, soft as Angora cat combings, collected on the deck’s surface. A thin layer of clouds fleeced the sky, so sheer I could make out the boundaries of the Milky Way and a horned moon near the horizon.
Snow stopped falling when the Kong Olav turned her prow into the Raftsund, a narrow strait between two islands in the Lofoten archipelago. Lining the narrows, pinnacles glowed as if lit with embers within, and skerries, or rocks, reflected moonlight in the slate-dark sea.
At midnight I went to the cafeteria for a cup of hot chocolate. The cafeteria smelled of the sea and of wet wool, of beer and oranges and freshly brewed coffee. Half a dozen men with country airs clutched glasses of beer and leaned toward the television, their gaze fixed on the wavering picture. A sturdy young woman with an orange soft drink in one hand tenderly watched a black dog huddled at her feet, its eyes white-rimmed with fear.
“He’s seasick,” she explained. “I gave him a seasickness pill, but it didn’t help.” A few minutes later she carried the unhappy creature into the cabin which, she told me, she also shared with her husband and three children. It was no more than I would expect in a country where regular-sized dogs ride passenger trains with a child’s ticket, and lap-sized dogs ride free.
The Kong Olav is one of a fleet of 11 vessels calling at ports along the 12,500-mile Norwegian coastline from Bergen, where most passengers board, all the way up to Kirkenes, a village of 1,300 on the Russian border. Each evening, year-round, one of the ships heads north with a cargo of port-to-port passengers, automobiles, mail, produce--and, during the summer months, tourists from a dozen countries travel north to see the midnight sun paint the sky in stripes of copper and coral.
The coastal ships are a century-long tradition in Norway, and even today isolated villages depend on them for mail and transportation. The vessels are retired to other lines of service after three or four decades of plying the fiord. The newer ships provide such amenities as elevators and an enclosed observation deck, though ship-lovers prefer the older vessels, citing among their reasons that the “traditionals,” as they are called by veteran cruisers, ride more smoothly on rough seas. I can speak with authority on that, having taken a total of five such journeys, most recently in November of last winter, on board both the “traditionals” and the more modern vessels.
The ships are comfortable rather than luxurious, though public spaces on one of the fleet’s newer ships, the Kong Harald, which I saw docked in Svolvaer, looked suspiciously cruisey. Three meals a day are included on the cruises, but there is also an a la carte cafeteria, open 24 hours a day. I found the traditional Norwegian fare to be hearty, abundant and in some instances quite impressive. The wines and beers served were international and interesting, although expensive.
My cabin on the Kong Olav--like others in the economy class--was small but immaculate, with all the necessary amenities including a comfortable berth, a closet and a sink. I have taken this journey in more expensive cabins and found them to be similar, although more roomy with a bath, a sofa and a porthole. There is no planned entertainment--no films (except on television in the lounges and the bar), no lectures, no deck games. Passengers talk to each other, play cards, read or enjoy doing nothing at all but watching the island-studded coastline glide by.
The 285-foot Kong Olav, built in 1964 and completely rebuilt in 1986, is my favorite of the fleet. This was my third trip on board. After twice indulging during the magnificent Norwegian spring, I succumbed to my lust for wind-whipped winter waves and unplumbable silence. Fringe benefits, from the aurora to the unearthly cant of light at noon, spilled from every pocket.
Next morning I slept until we were close to Tromso, where our arrival was scheduled for 2 p.m. It would be dark when we docked. Above the Arctic Circle days are short, with pale, noontime sunlight shining at the horizon for less than an hour. The Gulf Stream brings milder temperatures, however, and the lower slopes along the Troms county coast were green. Rain fell halfheartedly, and I decided not to reclaim my deck perch, but breakfasted on bread and cheese with Marit, sharing provisions she carried in her backpack.
At these latitudes, weather carries a single guarantee: It exists. And befitting a region created by fire and ice, it is capricious. Inhabitants of the north experience many variations of the weather found on our planet, from near-tropical midsummer heat to howling winter gales that seem to bury the universe in snow.
Weather is never described as “good” or “bad” by residents of the Far North, who reserve moral judgment--and use it sparingly--for human endeavors. Less reserve is shown by their southern cousins, who consider the Far North a place where the laws and the prophets are in scant supply, and its denizens less finely hewn than themselves. This uncharitableness may have begun in the 16th Century when a Catholic cardinal penned a treatise locating hell in Norway’s farthest reaches. From that unholy place, the ecclesiastic wrote, three trillion demons and devils would someday emerge.
The cardinal is perhaps not wholly to blame. In ancient Greece, many geographers believed that the earth reached its outer limit in the mists of the north; nothing lay beyond the darkness and ice but emptiness--the Abyss, or Great Void.
Tromso, population 50,000, lies 300 miles above the Moral Circle, as the Arctic Circle is sometimes called by dwellers on its underside, and has more bars, restaurants and discos per capita than any other Norwegian city. However, on earlier visits my attention had never snagged on such sights. Instead, I enjoyed world-class music--jazz, classical, folk and rock--during the city’s annual Northern Lights Festival, celebrated each January (this year Jan. 19-22), to welcome the sun’s return after three months of absence. (The St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the London Sinfonietta have performed at past festivals.) Tromso also has a first-rate Lapp and Viking museum (the Tromso Museum), the Planetarium, the Ishavskatedralen (a cathedral designed to resemble an iceberg) and Tromso University, a full-fledged university with degree programs for professionals. Toting up even more superlatives, Tromso declares itself the home of the world’s most northerly brewery and supplies an appreciative global clientele with its Mack Ale.
Tromso was swathed in snow when the Kong Olav docked alongside the wharf. Deep snow had accumulated on the quay and on its pedestrians-only main street, on gabled Victorian buildings and shoe box-shaped citadels of commerce. Snow spiraled down as if from an inexhaustible source, covering all traces of footprints and fashioning white epaulets on the shoulders of strolling groups of young people.
In a cafe near the quay I said goodby to Marit, who planned to job hunt in Tromso. A waitress brought us heart-shaped waffles hot from the griddle with strawberry jam and tall mugs of coffee. Then each of us took our separate paths: hers to the pension, where she had a room, and mine to the Kong Olav and the next segment of my voyage north.
I remained on deck as we inched through the pinnacled elbows of the Lyngen fiord near Tromso. The Lyngen Alps, noted for superb cross-country and downhill ski terrain, reared ghostly summits all around. On shore, lights from isolated villages trailed past like messages in Morse code.
We reached open ocean. Snow-swollen clouds released a final flurry, stretched into rags and disappeared against the darkness. Drifts of stars multiplied themselves over and over again across the sky, and the aurora borealis kindled the cosmos with twisting, translucent scarves. In a corner where ships’ lights did not compete with the blazing firmament, I watched until a cannonade of wind tore in from the west carrying clouds, and all the lights in heaven went out.
In my cabin I stretched out on my berth to read, surfacing to full awareness when my book blew from my hands and slapped against the wall. My cosmetic kit bounced after it, and my jacket flopped into haphazard folds on the floor. The cradle had stopped rocking.
I retrieved my jacket, buried my hands in mittens and grasped my way toward deck, where I could watch the raging universe. I didn’t get far. A crewman in a dripping jumpsuit announced “Det blaser"--it blows--when I stepped over a door ledge. He added that open deck was off-limits. I crept to the cafeteria, where the only activity was flying crockery.
For the past two days the sea had carried us with the even, scalloped motion of a carousel pony. Now walls of water pounded the 2,600-ton ship with the accumulated strength of all the world’s oceans, lifting, then dropping her prow in a dive toward the bottom of the sea. A hysterical wind flogged the ship with stupefying clout.
During the night, the elements’ free-for-all was spent. I awoke when we dropped anchor at the world’s northernmost town of Hammerfest, whose streets were the first in Europe, in 1890, to have electric lights. Snow blurred cliffs looming over the town of 9,400, and instead of exploring I headed for the ship’s dining salon, where I breakfasted with the greatest of ease on fish cakes in cream sauce, on bacon and boiled eggs and rolls with butter and marmalade, on orange juice and hardtack.
By midday the sea was steady, and we approached Europe’s most northern point: the huge Gibralter-shaped North Cape, barely visible through the dusk. I went on deck to watch the changing sky. A tufted quilt of clouds floated overhead above a bone-colored strip at the horizon. As I scanned the earth’s contours, a rosy bruise separated sea and sky.
Slowly infusing the air with life, spears of light fanned up from below the world’s cusp. A flame shot up and grew larger until an oval of scarlet fire lay on the rim of the earth, as piercing as the eye of God. And there was day.
In Kirkenes, I trudged down the gangway with my backpack. I waved goodby to my fellow passengers and crew. I stood on the pier to watch until the horn sounded and the Kong Olav eased into the fiord on her southward journey. Kirkenes waited for me under a film of twilight, and I headed toward the town. I already missed the ship and the high seas she gallantly traversed. Especially the sea.
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Getting there: From LAX fly, with connections, to Bergen on British Air, United or Delta. Round-trip fares start at about $830. Or fly to Oslo, with connections, on United, SAS, Continental, Northwest or KLM.
From Oslo to Bergen, the railroad trip over mountains and glaciers is breathtaking. (Call RailEurope, tel. (800) 848-7245 or 303-443-5100 for train information.)
There are also frequent air flights on SAS and Braathens SAFE (800) 221-2350 and the two cities are connected by highway, but roads may be closed during the winter.
To book passage: Coastal ships are Norwegian-owned and operated but Bergen Line is the sales and marketing representative in the United States: Bergen Line, 405 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; tel. (212) 319-1300 or (800) 323-7436.
Ships leave Bergen every evening, year round, and travel north along the coast to Kirkenes, where they turn around for the return trip to Bergen.
The round-trip journey takes 12 days. Round-trip prices range from about $1,000 to $3,700, depending on type of cabin and season of travel.
The fleet of 11 ships includes: Nordlys (launched in 1994), Richard With and Kong Harald (1993), which are newer and offer more luxury; a slightly smaller generation of ships, the Vesteraalen, Narvik and Midnatsol, built in 1982 and 1983, and the traditional steamer ships, Kong Olav, Nordnorge, Harald Jarl, Ragnvald Jarl and Lofoten, which are often the favorites of avid sailors.
Summer trips--May through mid-September--tend to fill up nine months in advance so booking early makes sense.
For more information: Norwegian Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017; tel. (212) 949-2333.