Crossing the Arctic Circle

Crossing the Arctic Circle

You can tell there is something really special about sailing into Norway’s impossibly narrow Trollfjord when the Captain leans over the bridge to take his own holiday snaps.

We were heading away from the stunningly beautiful Lofoten Islands off Norway’s North Western Coast on MS Boudicca when our excited captain announced that the weather conditions were good enough to take the ship through the 100 metres wide mouth of the Fjord

Bear in mind that his ship is just over 25 metres wide and this is the first time he has made the intricate manoeuvre and his excitement is understandable.

Having managed to first take a sharp left hand turn to enter the fjord, we nautically crept along until we reached the end of what is a water version of a cul de sac and then executed a maritime three point to head out again.

Captain Stein Bjørheim had told us and fellow travellers at the welcome cocktail party that his aim was to create memories for us. He certainly succeeded – and clearly created a few for himself –   even playing his own favourite sing on the ship’s PA system.

With sea eagles flying over ahead, swooping from side to side of the mountains surrounding the fjord that rise to 1,100 metres, this was one of those unforgettable moments.

As we re-entered the larger waterway, the Raftsund, we headed for cocktails and dinner after taking one more glorious look at the steep peaks of the Lofoten Islands glisten in the failing evening light.

Leknes on Vestvagoy in the Lofoten Islands was our first port of call after departing on the Boudicca from Newcastle upon Tyne on such a sunny afternoon that we greeted the North Sea by jumping into the jacuzzi with our first bubbly drink of the cruise.  Heading so far north we did not expect to make much use of the ship’s pool but we swam virtually every day, although most passengers kept more wrapped up.

I am a firm believer in not looking at photographs and certainly not travel programmes about somewhere I am visiting and so the Lofoten Islands came as an awesome surprise. This is a collection of islands rising as sheer mountains out of the Norwegian Sea that seem to defy habitation yet have nurtured centuries of men and women who lived from the cold waters.

From a distance it seems these islands could not possibly support populations but as you sail closer and take to the roads to explore the islands closer, small fishing settlements cling to craggy coves and covet any flat land.

Once fishermen lived a precarious life as they exploited the cod and survived the bitter winters, when the fish migrated from the Barents Sea to spawn. Those fishermen at first slept under their upturned boats until rorbu cabins, wooden houses on stilts, were built on the craggy shores. Nusfjord is one of the most picturesque of such settlements.

Life is much kinder now but they still harvest the feast of the sea, fillet the fish and either salt a (klippfish) or air dry (stockfish) them in the special climatic conditions. Most are now exported to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Brazil and we know this as bacalao. The dried fish heads are exported to African countries.

This is also the land of the Vikings and at Borge we visited a reconstructed long house reminding us that the people of the North Western European coast sailed out when the skies and seas were calm and stretched out as far as our own islands, Iceland, Greenland and even Newfoundland.

Leaving those majestic islands behind us we headed further North along the inner passage that those monstrously large cruise ships abandon as they head out back to sea and then head back to the coast for the next port of call.

We headed further north to Tromsø. The city was destroyed by the retreating Nazis after World War 2 but now the city has risen again and reclaimed its heritage as the gateway to the Arctic. This was Amundsen’s launch pad for his explorations including the Arctic and becoming the first man to reach the South Pole ahead of Captain Scott. Those bold days are captured in the Polaris Museum (along with some gruesome reminders that this is still a whaling nation).

Visitors now cross Trømso Bridge from the city centre on the Island of Tromsøya to visit the Artic Cathedral, resembling stacks of ice, and perhaps getting to know something about the indigenous Sami people, their way of life, handicrafts, unusual singing and of course those reindeer.

Onwards north we reached Honningsvǻg which frankly is only visited on the way to the Northern Cape, mainland  Europe’s (almost) most northerly point – there is another cape slightly further north but this is the one that has been visited for centuries including a King of Siam which explains a small Thai museum amongst the visitor attractions.

Like Tromsø, the most spectacular time to visit this far North is in the winter when you can see the Northern Lights but you will also experience temperatures that plunge to way below freezing. We were content to enjoy the views and the symbolism of having been to the very extremes of the Continent.

We were back in the jacuzzi again as we started to head south, this time sipping rum punch during the deck party as we sailed out of Alta having marveled at some of Europe’s oldest rock carving and rolled up our trousers to paddle in the Altafjord – still hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Having recrossed the Arctic Circle – this time in daytime – we headed to Kristiansund, a small port now stretching over three islands served by a cute ferry bus that is one of the world’s oldest passenger services although the wealth of Norway means that just as everywhere else you visit sleek bridges now form the modern links.

There are two things that strike you when you travel the length of Norway – the outstanding beauty of this country and the remarkable infrastructure that has been made possible by the new wealth the sea has given this nation, oil and gas. Bridges, incredibly long tunnels, excellent roads and railways, all speak of the natural wealth from under the sea.

We completed our very special trip through the inner passage, hugging the coast, passing under bridges that other vessels would sweep away, we reached the most frequently visited Western Fjords.

After stopping off at Olden to visit glaciers we reached our final destination, charming Bergen and another flurry of popular excursions from mountainside hugging Flam Railway, calming waters mirroring lush valleys and picturesque coves, settlements and solitary wooden houses and boathouses painted in reds and ochres.

After a remarkably smooth day at sea, peppered with talks, daft activities such as dolphin racing (don’t worry they are made of wood), deck quoits and a futile trip to the gym to burn off a few pounds after two weeks of four course meals, cocktails and even the odd trip to the late supper club, it was home time.


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