From spellbinding winter scenery straight out of a fairytale to dining on the freshest seafood on brand new ships, the Norwegian coastal route offers a truly unique travel experience during the winter months.
Norway’s historic coastal route, meaning different things to different people, is hard to succinctly explain.
To locals in small coastal communities, it’s a vital ferry service. For businesses, it’s an important cargo delivery vehicle available every day of the year. To international tourists taking a package deal, it’s a cruise-like experience, albeit one with significant differences.
The full route from Bergen to Kirkenes and back calls at 34 ports throughout the 11-night voyage, visiting most of them on both the northbound and southbound leg.
Most port calls are short, designed just to collect and drop off local passengers and cargo, while others in larger cities last for several hours, allowing roundtrip passengers the chance to explore the ports and join excursions. Essentially, it’s a cruise, but on a ferry.
The roundtrip or other longer segments are popular with international tourists in the summer season, when the midnight sun offers constant opportunities to enjoy the scenery. But even in the limited light of winter, Norway’s coastal route offers a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Brand New Ships
Although Hurtigruten is a well-known name operating on the route, tourists considering the full roundtrip or one of the longer segments of the coastal route now have a great new option to consider.
LNG-powered and capable of sailing on battery power alone for up to four hours, they are some of the greenest vessels of their kind anywhere in the world.
The interiors are immaculate with a strong Nordic design aesthetic and much more spacious seaview cabins than on older ships operating on the route.
There is also a much better use of light, with plenty of seating at large windows available throughout the ship.
Outstanding Winter Landscapes
Although the northern lights is the primary advertising tool of these winter cruises, it’s the landscapes that truly linger in the memory.
Highlights include the narrow sound Raftsundet that no ship bigger than this can sail through, and the arrivals at tiny ports in the deep indigo light of the afternoon. The approach to Risøyhamn also requires navigating an incredibly narrow marked shipping channel with spectacular scenery in all directions.
Although there is less light in December and January, both November and February offer more hours of true daylight to enjoy the landscapes. Late February and early March offer the best balance of northern lights opportunities at night with more daylight for scenic cruising.
Exhilarating Winter Experiences
Although excursions are entirely optional, they can enhance your experience if you’re prepared to pay. Excursions offered by both companies are essentially the same, ranging from simple bus tours of towns to longer, immersive experiences that involve getting off at one port and rejoining the ship at the next.
Because organized excursions are expensive, it’s far better value to skip the cheaper bus tours and save your money for one or two truly memorable trips that take full advantage of the winter conditions.
Whether you choose the northbound, southbound, or full voyage, consider adding on a visit to the Kirkenes Snow Hotel. Various excursions are available here including a tour of the ice sculptures and snow hotel rooms, a husky-pulled sled ride, and a snowmobile trip.
If the idea of a snowmobile appeals, consider the tour that sees guests race against the ship through the moonlit scenery between the ports of Kjøllefjord and Mehamn.
Sailing away from big city lights and constantly moving in search of clear skies are just two reasons why a ship is the ideal place to hunt the northern lights.
The full roundtrip will give guests the best chance of a sighting, as the ship spends six nights north of the Arctic circle.
All ships make announcements over the loudspeakers and optionally in guest rooms when a sighting is confirmed. Sightings vary from a milky cloud-like streak on the horizon to a pulsing, blaze of color overhead.
Unique to the Norwegian coastal voyage, both Havila Voyages and Hurtigruten offer a northern lights guarantee.
You’ll need to read the small print, but in principle the companies offer a free one-way trip (that’s 6 nights northbound or 5 nights southbound) in the event that the aurora doesn’t make an appearance for people taking the full roundtrip voyage.
Unpredictable Winter Weather
There is one significant downside to sailing on the coastal route in the winter, and it’s one that all travelers must be prepared for. Although far from normal, winter storms can impact the timetable, resulting in missed ports, canceled excursions, and closed outside decks for periods of time.
There’s also a higher chance of rough seas, especially on the handful of stretches of open sea sailings along the route. These stretches are announced in advance.
Although designed and built to handle such conditions along the Norwegian coastline, all the coastal vessels are relatively small and guests may feel the movement more than on bigger cruise ships. Pick a cabin towards the center of the ship if you are prone to travel sickness.
Many winter itineraries run to schedule, but a flexible attitude is required in case of changes.
Nature Is The Entertainment
One major difference from regular cruises that’s critical to understand is the lack of onboard entertainment on coastal route ships.
The small expedition team will hold daily talks about destinations but aside from that, you shouldn’t expect any typical cruise entertainment like trivia nights, live shows, casinos, or bingo.
The entertainment is the nature outside. Norway’s coastal cruise ships are rarely far from land, so there is almost always something to see outside, with significant landmarks announced in Norwegian, English, and German.
Although the short daylight hours of early winter does limit evening sightseeing, there are late afternoon and evening ports of call that enable guests to explore ashore, including Svolvær and Tromsø.
If scenic cruising is high on your wish list, pick a departure in February or March for more daylight hours.
The dining options on both operators of the coastal cruise are limited, but of excellent quality. Both offer three-course menus in the evening, but take a different approach earlier in the day.
Hurtigruten vessels operate a buffet for breakfast and lunch, while Havila Voyages operates an all à la carte concept of unlimited small dishes, designed to minimize food waste.
Whichever company you sail with, you’ll enjoy the very best of what coastal Norway has to offer. The high number of port calls means the ships can take on fresh ingredients and local specialties throughout the voyage.
Scallops from the island of Hitra, skrei (Arctic cod) from Lofoten, and reindeer from the Arctic region are among the highlights. Vegetarians are catered for, but there’s a strong focus on fish and seafood on the menus.