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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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.