I’ve just discovered why I’ve never seen the northern lights in all their colourful glory, despite having made several visits to Norway. “If you’re not out in two minutes once the announcement is made, you’ve missed it,” self-confessed northern lights geek Dr John Mason tells me.
The announcements he refers to are made from the bridge on Hurtigruten ships as they cruise north and south along the Norwegian coast if the lights, officially the aurora borealis, make an appearance. If you are lucky, the call will come late evening; more often than not it’s in the dead of night when most people are tucked up and asleep.
Not Dr Mason. A regular guest astronomer on Hurtigruten’s ships, he is usually up on the top deck until the wee small hours waiting for the aurora borealis to start flashing across the sky. Having seen his spectacular videos at a recent gathering in London recently, I am hooked.
The event was celebrating the launch of Hurtigruten’s first-ever cruises from the UK. I know, I know. Flying to Norway is hardly arduous, but it’s so much easier so get to Dover and hop straight on a ship. Which is no doubt one reason why, just two weeks after the 14-night cruises went on sale in August, bookings were already rolling in. No pressure but there are just 12 departures on offer.
The other reason is that these cruises look simply fantastic. They’ll spend six days above the Arctic Circle, pushing your chance of seeing the aurora borealis to over 90%, according to Dr Mason, and there’ll be a team of on board experts to give talks and answer questions about everything from local wildlife and geology to the best ways to photograph the northern lights.
You’ll sail round-trip from Dover, with everyone embarking and disembarking at the same time rather than getting on and off throughout the journey, as happens on the coastal voyage and prices will include wine or beer with lunch and dinner, Wi-Fi, gratuities and one excursion every day.
I’ve spotted rides up funiculars and cable cars in Bergen and Tromsø, an excursion to a place in the Lofoten Islands intriguingly called Å (apparently it means small river and rather unimaginatively there are at least seven other villages with the same name in Norway) and a tour to Senja, known in Norway as ‘fairytale island’ because of its scenic mountains, beaches and forests.
The Dover cruises will be on one of three ships; MS Finnmarken, MS Midnatsol and MS Trollfjord, that Hurtigruten are converting into environmentally-friendly hybrid expedition vessels, that operate on liquefied natural gas and can be switched to battery power for short periods. Their interiors will be transformed with Scandinavian-style decor, new Science Centers where you can look down microscopes and grill the expedition team about the places you are visiting, a wellness centre with a spa and gym and posh balcony suites.
They’ll also have four places to dine - Restaurant Aune for breakfast, lunch and dinner, posh Restaurant Lindstrøm for traditional Norwegian specialities and Fredheim and a new outdoor grill for a casual bites.
Once the upgrades are complete - one in 2020, two in 2021 - the three ships will be renamed. MS Finnmarken becomes MS Otto Sverdrup, in honour of a polar captain who skied across Greenland with explorer Fridtjof Nansen and helmed Hurtigruten’s ships in his spare time. MS Midnatsol becomes Eirik Raude (that’s Eric the Red to you and me), after the Viking chief who named Greenland. MS Trollfjord becomes MS Maud, after Hurtigruten’s 1925 flagship, which in turn was named in honour of Norway’s Queen Maud.
And there’s your British connection because Queen Maud was the daughter of Britain’s Edward VII and therefore a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. How fitting then that Maud has been chosen for the Dover cruises. It’s like she’s coming home!