Before you say cruising isn’t for you, know that we understand your objections.
For intrepid types, it’s hard to have an authentic travel experience when you and thousands of other travellers are dropping in from your massive, floating resort at one overly touristy stop after another for just a few hours. We get that. But before you dismiss the notion of ship travel altogether, know that a journey aboard Hurtigruten, a freight and cruising line that traverses Norway’s western and northern coast, will counter your most staunch anti-cruising argument.
What happened to relaxation?!
At first glance, the seemingly endless onboard activity options on most large-scale cruises might seem attractive. Water-coasters? Check. Ice skating? Check. Rock-climbing walls? They’ve got them in spades. But these are hardly the makings of a relaxing or enriching vacation. On Hurtigruten MS Polarlys, on the other hand, the options are–wait for it–nil (some of Hurtigruten’s 13 other vessels offer on-deck hot tubs and workout facilities, but that’s the extent of it). And yet, the boredom factor is pretty much non-existent.
Hurtigruten’s marketing proposition, “the world’s most beautiful voyage,” may seem like superlative hype, but the Norwegian fjords are objectively and transfixingly gorgeous. When skies are clear, the water hits it-must-be-Photoshopped shades of azure and indigo, banked by craggy mountains striped with powerful glacial waterfalls. When the weather is less spectacular, the scenery is dark and dramatic, a non-stop stream of Instagram-worthy mood shots. Either way, it’s surprising how fast the hours fly by when your eyes are glued to the horizon (we barely picked up our book, even though we were on board for six days). It’s a completely rejuvenating remedy for modern-day ADHD.
Timing is everything
If you’re trying to avoid school-vacation crowds and skirt around hurricane season, finding optimal timing for a cruise can be tricky. But while you might not think it, there’s really no bad time for cruising north of the Arctic Circle. At the height of summer, the sun never sets, while winter offers the bucket-list opportunity to view the northern lights. The company’s Northern Lights Promise guarantees a free cruise if nature fails to do its colourful dance; and if you loathe the cold, note that the Gulf Stream keeps temperatures relatively balmy compared to Canada. Spring, when the fantastical icy landscapes begin their annual melt, and fall, when the colours are mesmerizing, aren’t too shabby either.
Quantity over quality dining
One thing about cruising: You will not go hungry. But mass-market cruises tend to be round-the-clock all-you-can-eat feasts with an emphasis that tends to be decidedly on the quantity (lots and lots, followed by one more round at the buffet) with less thought going into food that is local, sustainable, seasonal and fresh.
Hurtigruten makes tasty use of the 34 ports along its coastal journey, picking up 80 per cent of the food served from local providers: Think cured or smoked salmon and trout, Arctic char, king crab and Norwegian delicacies such as reindeer and cloudberries.
Wonderful things happen to strawberries when they’re exposed to a combination of cool air and 22 hours of summertime daylight: Because they ripen so slowly, Norwegian strawberries are likely the sweetest you’ll ever taste. The beer on tap is brewed in one of the world’s northernmost breweries, and the lunchtime buffets compete with the most luxe of cruise lines thanks to huge help-yourself jars of caviar. As they say in Norwegian, håper det smaker!
You’ve done one beach port, you’ve done them all
While each Caribbean island tends to have a different flavour, it’s hard to get much of a feel when you dock amidst a crush of same-same souvenir stands and make a beeline to the beach. True appreciation for most of the islands is a harder thing to reap; it takes time to explore and have meaningful interactions with the locals, things which are hard to come by when you’re disembarking for a quick stop with thousands of other tourists.
Northern Norway offers cruisers a huge number of options that serve up an unmistakable sense of place: Sample Norwegian waffles and brown cheese, a delicacy made from caramelized whey and similar to dulce de leche at Baklandet Skydsstation, a traditional café housed inside a building that dates back to 1791 in the culture-rich university city of Trondheim, and peer out over the breathtaking serpentine curves of Trollstigen, a spectacular mountain pass that’s only open from late spring to early fall.
Architecture buffs will enjoy the unusual contrast of colourful Art Nouveau buildings set against the fjords, Sunnmøre Alps and the starkly modern Arctic Cathedral, which resembles the Sydney Opera House, in Tromsø. The journey offers whale-watching and puffin and white-tailed eagle spotting for wildlife lovers. To top it off, because it’s a shipping route, Hurtigruten makes dozens of stops along the way, and the liveliness and distinct character of each is a major highlight.
In case you can’t tell, we highly recommend this journey. Cruises don’t need to be plastic-fantastic germ factories.