A Northern Star

  • Article by: PEG MEIER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 22, 2011 - 10:53 AM

A modest cruise ship provided just the right setting for taking in Norway's rugged coast.

With fiord under us, mountains before us and fresh salmon on our dinner plates, we raised a glass to consider, "What could be finer?"

Not much. As our little ship plied up and down the rugged, chilly coast of Norway early last spring, we felt removed not only in place but also in time. Somehow the ship evoked the decade it was built: the 1950s. Time slowed, courtesy reigned, simple pleasures trumped elegance.

Four friends and I took an ever-so-leisurely, ever-so-sweet 12-day cruise out of Bergen, on the southwest coast, to Kirkenes, on the northern tip of Norway, and back again. That's 1,250 miles just from Bergen to Kirkenes, about the distance between Florida and New York.

The Norwegian shipping line, called Hurtigruten, has 14 ships, some rather fancy and carrying up to 800 passengers. We deliberately chose the smallest, oldest, most modest ship in the line, the classic Nordstjernen. In Norwegian, that's "North Star," nicely close to the Minnesota state motto, "The Star of the North." A good omen, we thought.

Because Norway is the ancestral homeland of many Minnesotans, we expected to find fellow Twin Citians aboard our small cruise ship. But no. We were the only Americans among the 58 passengers.

"We get the passenger list a few days ahead of time, and it's bad when we see groups of Americans," said Asgeir Larsen, tourism director on our ship. "Most Americans are familiar with luxury cruises in the Caribbean, and this isn't that. They aren't necessary unhappy with our excursion, but it's not what they expected."

It is exactly what we wanted.

Built in 1956 and remodeled twice, the Nordstjernen has mostly tiny cabins. Before April 15, cabins were half-price, so we each booked one. Once on board, we couldn't imagine two people sharing a cabin. Mine was a little more than 9 feet by 5 feet, including the closet. The bathroom was tiny: 4 feet by a bit more than 3 feet. After my showers, the bathroom floor was covered with several inches of sloshing water that disappeared down a floor drain as the ship gently rolled.

Mountain peeks

No problem with lack of luxury. We used the simple cabins only for sleeping and dressing. We hung out in the lounge, bar and dining areas and outside on deck chairs.

We were pleased with the relaxed pace. Don't take this cruise if slow movies drive you bonkers. Passengers have big hunks of time to read, knit, stare at mountain peaks blending with the mist, chat with friends and strangers, nap, swap stories at the six-stool bar, flirt, shoot photos, try to conjure whatever foreign language has been in a deep brain recess since high school, play cards, ponder, pace on deck and start writing a murder mystery by determining the most likely killer aboard. On "our" ship, there's no exercise equipment, laundry, swimming pool or casino, and the library is one skinny bookshelf, with books, of course, in Norwegian.

The crew sees many repeat customers, some year after year. One winter, we were told, a blizzard kept the boat in Tromso harbor for five days, and passengers refused to disembark, even when so ordered by the captain.

"No, we're not leaving," they insisted. "We like it here."

Stories abounded. A Scotsman who teaches ecology at the college level told us he has an American friend who assured him that not one speck of North America is overpopulated. We looked dubious. "There's just one exception," said the Scotsman. "All the immigrants have to leave."

We shuddered, thinking we were about to hear a racist screed. Our storyteller grinned and added, "My American friend is an Iroquois Indian."

Look there!

Hardly a place on this Earth is more stunning than the Norwegian fiords and mountains. The scene from our ship's windows changed every hour: thawing waterfalls; whales; fishing villages with colorful houses in reds, whites and yellows; rosy-tipped mountains glowing at sunsets; islands, and, in the south, a bit of greening on the trees.

Still, there was enough snow far above the Arctic Circle, near Tromso, for us to go on a dog-sledding expedition, my favorite off-ship adventure. (Excursions are not covered in the basic price.)

We were handed snowsuits and heavy boots. Then for more than an hour, huskies pulled us almost silently across frozen plateaus, with mountains and ocean as the backdrop. This was the last ride of the winter; the temperature was 40 degrees, with rain forecast. The sun was bright, the snow glinting, the dogs cheerful and expert Sami mushers in their glory. Our hosts had an outdoor fire and hot chocolate and good coffee waiting for us at the end.

From mail to tourists

The Hurtigruten shipping line was started as a fleet of mail boats in 1893, when it was tough to carve roads along the mountainous coast. The ships later carried cargo and eventually passengers. Now 95 percent of the revenue is from tourists, only 5 percent from cargo. At every stop, the ship's crane loaded and unloaded huge crates, sometimes even boats and massive exercise equipment. The only mail carried was postcards headed home.

About 60 percent of Hurtigruten passengers are German. Our shipmates also came from France, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Switzerland. None were Norwegian -- that is, until the volcano on Iceland erupted. Then airplanes were grounded, and the ship became crowded with commuting Norwegians sleeping on couches and partying in the lounge.

Our ship attracts few young families and few very elderly passengers. We saw mostly 50- and 60-year-olds. A crew member said bluntly, "Other Hurtigruten ships [those that offer wheelchairs and elevators] can start to look like nursing homes."

My favorite quote of the trip came from a tour guide on an excursion bus: "Apologize me for not practicing English, but I've been working to build you the snow hotel." Apology accepted.

Peg Meier, a former Star Tribune reporter, is the author of "Bring Warm Clothes," "Wishing for a Snow Day" and, coming in April, "Through No Fault of My Own: A Girl's Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age."

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