This Norwegian Cruise Comes With Front Row Seats to a Cosmic Spectacle

The Northern Lights over Norway

Is there really any way to guarantee a Northern Lights sighting when Mother Nature is in charge?

A snow-covered massif erupts dramatically from mirror-still Hardangerfjord, dwarfing a row of cute red-and-white boatsheds so they look like tiny gingerbread houses. Ribbons of pastel pink swirl around the dark granite peak before dispersing across the sky as captain Roar Winther steers Hurtigruten’s MS Trollfjord in a broad circle so his 500 guests can take in the scene from every angle.

MS Trollfjord sailing under the Northern Lights

I’ve come to Norway in the middle of winter in search of the Northern Lights but instead I’m watching the sun apply a gentle dusting of violet and rose to the summits as it attempts to rise. It was already low in the sky when we departed Bergen on the 13-day North Cape Express itinerary and now, after almost a week without any true daylight, I’m ready to let out a cheer. As we cruise the coast toward Europe’s northernmost point, we’re plunged into an icy world of frozen fjords, faraway fishing villages and mountain ranges that are white and sharp like a row of shark’s teeth. This is the “polar night”, when the sun sits below the horizon and the landscape is suspended between darkness and a glacial blue twilight for months at a time.

“I have to be quick because these dogs are like kids around an ice-cream truck. And we’re the ice-cream.” It’s minus-20 degrees and the still, pre-dawn air is broken by a chorus of yaps, wails and howls. Guide Lola still has time to crack jokes as she preps us for an unforgettable dash through the snow. Because our route stays close to a coastline dotted with innumerable fjords, inlets, bays and islands, we stop at a different port each day, including Honningsvåg (mainland Norway’s northernmost settlement), cosmopolitan Kristiansand and Lødingen, a fishing village with a population of less than 2000. Shore excursions range from gentle hikes and history lessons to challenging all-day adventures but today, outside the Arctic capital of Tromsø, an icy wind sneaks in through every gap in my clothes while eight floppy-eared Alaskan huskies strain against their harnesses to haul our three-person sled along groomed runs. When we finally come to a halt, I hop off to thank my team for their efforts and barely hear Lola’s warning before it’s too late: “If you get close enough for them to reach you, you’re consenting to French kisses.”

Guest Aboard the MS Trollfjord Marvel at the Northern LIghts Overhead

On day 10, Sammy, an architect from Sydney, is in raptures when we return from the small settlement of Ålesund. “What an incredible place, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he gushes. “I took so many photos, my phone ran out of battery.” Destroyed by fire in 1904, the town was hastily rebuilt as an Art Nouveau wonderland filled with elaborate spires, stained glass windows and façades of whimsical designs. Another outing takes us to the neighbouring archipelago of Vesterålen, where we snowshoe around a frozen lake. Clouds and fresh snowfall soften the edges of jagged mountains and leafless trees until it feels like I’m walking through a black-and-white Impressionist painting.

We dock in darkness a little further south at Svolvær in the Lofoten Islands and learn how thousands of cod are plucked from the seas and dried on giant A-frame racks. “The sea between Lofoten and the mainland is sometimes called the world’s largest maternity ward,” our guide tells us as we return to the ship. Every year, millions of Arctic cod migrate from the Barents Sea to spawn here and make it one of the world’s richest fisheries; lunch on board the next day includes a small taste of that bounty in the form of panko-fried cod cheeks served with a dill emulsion and a lovely light chablis.

Lofoten Hamnoy Village

Hurtigruten means “express route” and for more than 130 years the company has provided a vital link between these remote coastal communities. The MS Trollfjord was once used to ferry passengers and cargo before being retrofitted for cruising and, as a result, every cabin has slightly different dimensions. My mini suite boasts two portholes, a comfortable double bed and sofa, as well as enough storage space to easily stow two suitcases’ worth of luggage out of sight.

In all, more than 80 per cent of the ship’s food supplies are sourced from ports along our route and my onboard diet includes umami-rich seaweed soup studded with medallions of sweet king crab meat, skewered lollipops of langoustine and tarragon, and gamey reindeer tartar with porcini mayo and pickled cloudberries. In addition to the fine-diner Røst, the ship has a bistro serving flame-licked proteins inspired by Norway’s native Sámi people and a lunch buffet with more varieties of seafood than I normally eat in a year. But on days when it’s dark by 2pm, 1893 Bar becomes the natural gathering point. It’s the only place that ever feels crowded and Sondre, whose rakish moustache and white tux give him the air of a young Robert Downey Jr, is adept at whipping up concoctions such as the warming Valhall, which blends bourbon, spiced mead and beer served in an eye-catching goat’s horn.

A suite aboard the MS Trollfjord

At a certain point, the cold becomes as much a question of philosophy as temperature. How can one describe the difference between minus-10 and minus-20 degrees? Is it the number of photos I can take before I need to put my gloves back on; how long it takes to warm up in the ship’s sauna; or the need to add a sixth layer to my outfit? All suite guests receive a complimentary all-weather coat, beanie and a wool jumper and these additional pieces might just be the difference between sitting by the portholes in my cabin or standing on deck as we pass through an avenue of snow-clad spires on the way to Alta, several days into our journey. From nine stories up, the triangular fins slicing through the water below look like dolphins swimming alongside the boat; it’s not until another guest says the word that I realise we’re watching a pod of orcas. Although we soon outpace the magnificent creatures, the views for the next half hour are interspersed with plumes of spray from whales and tall black dorsal fins emerging against a backdrop of fearsomely tall mountains.

The extra clothes are essential when we sail through chunks of ice that look like scattered tesserae. An atomic orange glow bathes the horizon and the clouds above are lit up in electric pink and yellow. “It looks like a sunrise we’d get at home,” says Ruth, half of a honeymooning couple from Darwin. As we look towards the east, every breath is instantly transformed into a cloud of condensation by the Arctic cold. “Except for all the ice, of course. Who knew winter in Norway was so colourful?”

MS Trollfjord

“It’s like there’s green rain coming down from space,” says Dallas, Ruth’s husband, who can hardly believe his eyes. Beside him, she stares wordlessly at the scene playing out overhead. There was plenty of nervous energy when the skies remained inky black through our first night onboard – breakfast chatter the next day naturally turning to Hurtigruten’s guarantee of a free trip if the Northern Lights aren’t sighted on our voyage. But that talk is silenced as we watch the aurora borealis slowly build in intensity over the following three nights, long flares of light suffusing the sky with a soft green glow that shifts ever so subtly. 

As we sail into the heart of the “auroral oval” that surrounds the North Pole, the source of the light begins to shift from the northern horizon until it’s directly above us. This is the zone where the aurora is at its very best and each afternoon we’re given a daily forecast that includes sunlight hours, temperature and geomagnetic activity. “We measure the last one on a scale of one to nine,” says Julian, the spry 45-year-old German who leads many of the ship’s hiking expeditions. “And where we are now the lights look incredible, even if it’s only at a one or two. If there are no clouds, you can see them almost every night, especially if you are on a ship at sea.” He has spent the last few days gently encouraging guests to put their phones away and take in the full majesty of the display. So after spending several evenings (and early mornings) excitedly pointing my phone to the skies, posing for grainy selfies and observing the spectacle through my screen, I do my best to heed his advice. He’s right – the photos don’t do it justice. But when the skies above seem to crack open and rays of lime-green ectoplasm flood directly down towards me, I can’t help myself.

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SEE ALSO: Why Canada is One of the Most Magical Place to See the Northern Lights

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