Randall Hackley  /  AP
The Hurtigruten's MS Vesteralen cruise ship is seen in May 2010 from Trollfjord, Norway. Hurtigruten prides itself as "the anti-cruise ship" line.
updated 1/24/2011 4:20:52 PM ET 2011-01-24T21:20:52

In the arms race now gripping the travel industry, there is almost nothing cruise ships won't do to tempt new customers.

Some boast of climbing walls, ice skating rinks and water parks. Others offer endless bingo, salsa, yoga or gambling. Travelers can go clubbing all night, have their bodies scrubbed with precious oils, or attend culture and history lectures by Ivy League professors. Their children can be mesmerized by entertainment professionals, their dogs cared for in onboard kennels, their wallets emptied by endless shopping choices.

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And then there is Norway's Hurtigruten line.

Hurtigruten, which plies Norway's magnificently craggy western coast, specializes in rocks, fish and sea, with a dollop of heavy machinery thrown in. It prides itself as "the anti-cruise ship" line — an ornery outlook that snagged my counterculture psyche hook, line and sinker.

Near-freezing temperatures at the end of May? Can do. A schedule that dumps you off at all hours of the day and night into hamlets that may or may not be open? Why not. Breakfast, lunch and dinner — and the ship's cargo area — chock-full of fish in every possible permutation? OK, I'm game.

Arctic Circle, Norwegian fjords, and depending on the season, northern lights and midnight sun?

Sign me up.

A working ship
"No bingo, no karaoke, no dancing girls — you can't call us a cruise ship," said Ebgert Pijfers, tour leader on Hurtigruten's MS Vesteralen. "We are a working ship, the lifeline for some villages in the north."

Nearly every day year-round, a Hurtigruten ship leaves the western city of Bergen for the 12-day odyssey up north and back. The ships churn past some of the world's most remote, remarkable scenery, above the Arctic Circle, past UNESCO-honored island communities, through the icy Barents Sea and into Kirkenes, an energy boom town close to the Russian border. Then they head back south, plying a nautical highway that began in a limited way in 1893 and has continued ever since.

The ships haul refrigerators, dryers, lumber and electronics north to tiny coastal communities, dwarfing local docks even with the vessels' modest size. Going south, they pick up pallet after pallet of fish, as well as the occasional equipment that needs fixing.

Oil and gas workers, college students, retirees and families are transported in both directions, along with their cars, bikes and strollers. Tourists are welcome north, south or round-trip — as long as they understand the route doesn't revolve around them.

"What you see outside the ship plays the main role here," said Pijfers.

The scenery is a 24-hour event, but only the most noticeable sights — say, crossing the Arctic Circle or having playful killer whales ride the ship's bow wave as it leaves a fjord — get pointed out on the loudspeaker.

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At the dock, it's a forklift ballet. A ship stays anywhere from 15 minutes to over three hours in port, loading and unloading. Tourists can leave the ship and wander, stay and watch, or ignore the stop completely and curl up with a thriller in the lounge.

Hurtigruten ships material by pallet — unusual in an industry that prefers shipping by container or entire boat — because that matches the needs of tiny northern towns.

My husband and I rode the MS Vesteralen, one of the line's older ships, with about 180 tourists and 30 locals from Kirkenes south to Bergen at the end of May. Between the midnight sun, the odd port times, the occasional fog, the chilly weather and our Spartan, submarine-like sleeping quarters, I was slightly disoriented — in a good way — the entire time.

The newer Hurtigruten ships do offer saunas and an exercise room. And the line also offers cruises to Greenland and the island of Spitsbergen to see glaciers, icebergs and polar bears.

Shore excursions
For Hurtigruten ships plying the coast, the choreography of the docks defines the schedule. Ships arrive or depart in the middle of meals or the middle of the night. We had an 11:45 p.m. stop in the picturesque university town of Tromsoe, a 2 a.m. docking in tiny Bodoe and a midnight walk around Aalesund, an Art Nouveau town voted the most beautiful in Norway.

Other daytime dockings allow for a handful of spectacular off-ship excursions to view sea eagles, visit ancient Viking sites or peer out from one of the northernmost points in mainland Europe.

The line's busiest season is February, when travelers flock to see the northern lights. Other winter excursions include sledding with dogs or reindeer, going fishing for king crab, or taking an icy dip in the Barents Sea.

Bundling up in full winter gear (even though it was technically spring), we ducked and squealed as over a dozen sea eagles hunted down our little boat to snatch fish tossed into the air. Sami herders and their reindeer greeted us en route to Nordkapp, a plunging cliff at the top of Europe.

If you are left behind at a stop, that's your problem. No one goes out rounding up errant vacationers. Getting back is guaranteed to be both expensive and complicated — some tiny hamlets have bus or train stations, others don't. The best option could be the next Hurtigruten boat, but that will never catch up to the ship you were booked on.

Ole Hare, 68, a retired seaman from Molde, Norway, took our ship south to pick up a boat.

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"It's fun to meet people from all over," he said, enjoying the view from the lounge's high windows.

Lots and lots of fish
No one should venture forth on Hurtigruten if they can't stomach fish. At one luncheon buffet, I counted 14 varieties, including lox, tuna salad, smoked mackerel, salmon with peppers, smoked Greenland halibut, coalfish with asparagus and several shellfish salads.

Whale used to be on the menu years back, but now Hurtigruten prefers them in the sea. Some restaurants in Kirkenes still offer the controversial meat and blubber.

The relief was palatable when the ship finally did serve chicken and we erupted in a mad case of the giggles as we saw the captain of the ship dig in at the officers' table next to ours.

Some passengers revel in the menu.

If you go ...

"Best food I have ever had, fish in every way, shape or form," said Helen Johnston of Mequon, Wis., whose four daughters took her round-trip from Bergen to celebrate her 84th birthday. That's quite the culinary compliment from one who has traveled all over Europe.

Her youngest daughter, Barbara Holtz, 48, of Mukwonago, Wis., loved the midnight concert at Trondheim's famous church.

"You couldn't tell what time it was," she marveled. "I am not religious but that was so moving."

At a longer stop in Tromsoe, the American women marched with a homemade "USA loves Norway" sign in the country's National Day parade, marveling at the spirit of thousands around them.

Hurtigruten says that pride also infuses its crew.

"We are a little piece of Norway floating along the coast," Pijfers said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: New cruise ships sailing into 2011

  • Image: Allure of the Seas
    Roni Lehti  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Allure of the Seas

    Looks like it’s full speed ahead for the cruise industry. With Allure of the Seas now in Fort Lauderdale, Disney Dream set to debut and a half-dozen other new ships on the way, the rough seas of the recession are growing calmer by the day.

    That’s good news for cruisers, says Stewart Chiron, aka The Cruise Guy. “The fact that these ships are coming out during difficult times is a testament to the industry’s resilience,” he said. “A lot of people who wouldn’t have taken a cruise before are now considering one.”

    First-timer or not, here’s a look at eight new additions to the fleet:

  • Allure of the Seas

    Image: Allure of the Seas' zipline
    Rob Lovitt

    Allure embarked on her inaugural cruise on Dec. 5, and she shares the title of world’s biggest cruise ship with its twin Oasis of the Seas, but adds a few new amenities. In addition to the zip line and skating rink, the surf machines and climbing walls, you’ll also find a 3-D theater, the first Romero Britto store at sea and two new restaurants, including a Mexican cantina and Brazilian steakhouse. Get some sleep before you go, suggests Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief at CruiseCritic.com, or be prepared to swing by another new onboard amenity: the first Starbucks at sea.

  • Marina

    Image: Oceania Marina

    A Lalique grand staircase, a hands-on culinary arts center co-sponsored by Bon Appétit and a trio of owners’ suites with Ralph Lauren furnishings — Marina has all the makings of an ultra-premium experience, but with a surprisingly “egalitarian” ambience. As Oceania’s first purpose-built ship (launching Jan. 22), Marina is significantly larger than its siblings (65,000 tons vs. 30,000), carries more passengers (1,258 vs. 684) and features several new restaurants, including Jacques, the first eatery anywhere to bear the name of famed French chef Jacques Pépin. “[Marina] will be an intriguing hybrid of luxury and mid-market pricing,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s a category that’s never existed before.”

  • Disney Dream

    Image: Disney Dream

    It’s been 11 years since Disney launched a new cruise ship and Mickey’s minions have clearly gone all out. Launching on Jan. 26, the ship will carry 2,500 passengers (4,000 with all beds filled) on fantasy-filled cruises between Port Canaveral and the Bahamas. Among the innovations: The Enchanted Garden restaurant, where the decor changes from day to night; inside cabins with virtual portholes with underwater scenes, and the AquaDuck, a 750-foot “watercoaster” that winds up, down and around the ship’s upper decks. “Dream is the Oasis of 2011,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s going to be different than everything that’s come before it.”

  • L’Austral

    Image: L'Austral
    Erick Larrieu  /  L'Austral

    Having opened a U.S. office just this year, the French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant is probably still unfamiliar to many American cruisers. That may change with the arrival of the line’s fifth ship, L’Austral, a 132-cabin mega-yacht that will launch on April 27. Not surprisingly, the onboard amenities — two restaurants, plus a spa, theater, lounge and library — will provide more than a soupçon of French flair even as the ship’s itineraries take her far beyond the Côte d’Azur. After spending the summer in the Mediterranean, the ship will sail on to Africa, Antarctica and other exotic ports of call.

  • Carnival Magic

    Image: Carnival Magic

    The latest addition to the Carnival fleet manages a neat trick: Although it’s a carbon copy of Carnival Dream, this 130,000-ton, 3,690-passenger ship tweaks the Fun Ship formula with several new amenities. Get a workout on the first ropes course at sea; cool off in a waterpark featuring a 500-gallon dump bucket, then retire to the RedFrog Pub for private-label beers and Caribbean-flavored snacks or Cucina del Capitano for hand-made pastas and select Italian wines. Launching on May 1, “Magic is perfect for entry-level or first-time cruisers,” said Dwain Wall, senior vice president/general manager for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

  • Seabourn Quest

    Image: Seabourn Odyssey
    Copyright 2009 Michel Verdure

    As the sister ship to the Odyssey (pictured) and Sojourn, Seabourn Quest joins a fleet that Chiron calls “quite possibly the nicest cruise ships on the planet.” Like her predecessors, the ship features a two-deck spa, four restaurants and 225 suite-style cabins, 90 percent of which have private balconies. The result: a yacht-like experience without upper-crust fustiness that draws younger cruisers than other ultra-luxury lines. You can join them on a three-day pre-inaugural cruise from Monte Carlo on June 9, a 14-day maiden voyage from Barcelona on June 20 or, if you’re feeling flush, a 109-day world cruise starting Jan. 5, 2012.

  • Costa Favolosa

    Image: Costa Favoloso
    Matteo Piazza  /  Courtesy of Costa Cruises

    The name is Italian for fairy tale; the decor is modeled after an enchanted castle, and the ambience is Carnival Fun Ship (Costa’s parent company) meets the Continent. Launching on July 4, the 3,000-passenger ship offers several of Costa’s signature Concordia-class amenities, including a Grand Prix driving simulator, 4-D cinema (3-D, plus physical effects) and two-level pool deck with a glass roof and movie screen. New additions, including verandah suites with Jacuzzi tubs, a teen entertainment area and a water park for little cruisers, should only add to la dolce vita.

  • Celebrity Silhouette

    Image: Celebrity Eclipse
    Simon Brooke-Webb  /  Celebrity

    Details are still sketchy on Celebrity’s newest ship, but the fourth vessel in the line’s innovative Solstice class will replicate the most popular amenities of her predecessors, including a glass-blowing studio, recreation area with real grass and Qsine, the eclectic, iPad-menu-equipped restaurant that debuted on Eclipse (pictured). “It’ll be like a floating boutique hotel,” said Chiron of the 2,850-passenger ship, which will begin sailing Mediterranean and Holy Land itineraries on July 23. Those who prefer more tropical itineraries will have to wait until next fall when the ship will start offering 12-night Caribbean cruises from Bayonne, N.J.


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