Hurtigruten's Coastal Express makes it easy to explore the beauty of the Norweigan coast.
Written by Claire Williams
Rarely do I get the feeling of being "off the grid," but I did so on a recent trip to Norway. I'd describe the experience as something out of a fairytale for those who've never ventured that far north. The coastal archipelago, with its soaring mountains, waterfalls cascading down mammoth rock faces, and greenery as far as the eye can see, reminded me of the first aerial view of Neverland that leaves Wendy wide-eyed when flying with Peter Pan, complete with rainbows bowing over the magical scene. However, the beauty and tranquility that's so captivating also pose a challenge. While Peter Pan might be able to hover over the varied topography of Neverland and visit every little isle with faith, trust, and pixie dust, we mere mortals, unfortunately, don't have that luxury. Since 1893, this is where the Hurtigruten Group comes in (hurtigruten.com). The company is not only a necessity for being able to visit Norway off the beaten path but also vital for Norway in itself. We had the pleasure of boarding the MS Nordkapp to join part of the southbound journey on its Coastal Express (hurtigruten.com/destinations/norway).
Upon embarkation, you're greeted by authentic Norwegian touches. Andre Pettersen, Vice President of Hotel Operations, explained this intentional design ensures that the vessel doesn't feel like an IKEA showroom but rather like stepping into a Norwegian home. Nature and landscape motifs, coupled with areas of exposed wood that call to mind Lincoln Logs, gave me the impression that I was staying at a floating mountain lodge. Amenities spread across the ship's seven floors included a sauna, two Jacuzzis, a gym, various dining options, a rooftop bar, and an open-top deck optimal for viewing the fjords or taking a spoonful of cod oil to celebrate crossing over Artic Circle. As a company, the Hurtigruten Group stands apart for being highly focused on sustainable cruising, including removing single-use plastic from their entire fleet and building the first-ever hybrid-electric powered expedition cruise ships. This past June, Hurtigruten Norway launched two iconic sailings – the Svalbard Express and North Cape Express, which will set sail in 2023 on board the fully refurbished MS Trollfjord. The new itineraries will bring an elevated addition to the existing Coastal Express product for the first time in the brand’s history.
A defining characteristic of its Coastal Express route is visiting multiple ports daily and 34 in total on the six-day sailing from Bergen in southern Norway to Kirkenes in the far north. While the stops allow visitors a chance for interesting shore excursions, it also enables Hurtigruten to live up to its name as the "lifeline of Norway" by delivering medicine, mail, cars, and goods at each port. With 90% of the Norwegian population living by the sea, Hurtigruten’s Coastal Express is vital to their livelihoods. Hurtigruten Norway’s CEO Hedda Felin said locals celebrated Hurtigruten's return to regular frequency after the pandemic by donning their traditional Norwegian garb as the ships docked in their harbors. Felin is one of two female CEOs in the company, with Asta Lassesen serving as CEO of Hurtigruten Expeditions. At each stop during our sailing adventure, which allowed us to take full advantage of the arctic summer's midnight sun, there was always something new to discover. We trekked up the side of a mountain, which according to Norwegian lore was actually comprised of poor unfortunate trolls. At one stop while touring the Atlantic Ocean Road, one of Norway's most cinematic and picturesque coasts, we spied brave locals jumping from a bridge into the icy port waters in their "tighty whities." An integral aspect of the Hurtigruten Coastal Express experience is its Coastal Kitchen. A partnership between awardwinning Norwegian chefs Astrid Nässlander and Halvar Ellingsen with Hurtigruten Norway’s own Head of Food and Beverage Øistein Nilsen, means that passengers aboard the Coastal Express can revel in sustainably sourced, locally crafted, and seasonally inspired plates. Hurtigruten Norway relies on 70 local producers to deliver to the ship at numerous stops during its voyage. Pettersen described the Coastal Kitchen as "not a concept, but the DNA" of Norway. As a native of the United States who has lived in France for the past four years, I concur that a country's cuisine is the best storyteller of its people and culture, and Norwegian food is just that. Before boarding the MS Nordkapp, we had the pleasure of meeting Halvar Ellingsen, one of the critically acclaimed culinary ambassadors that helped craft the menu for Hurtigruten's Coastal Kitchen, at his own farm and rustic inn in Kvitnes (kvitnes.com/ en/forside). Ellingsen said he was tired of hearing the term "farm to table" thrown around and decided to take it literally. As a result, everything Ellingsen serves to guests comes directly from his farm; the only ingredients they outsource are basics such as flour and sugar. Ellingsen even goes as far as to use lamb bones as coals for the fire and cow manure as biogas, to try to make his operation as sustainable as possible.
Ellingsen boasts that although he hosted 2,800 guests last year at the nine room inn (with just as many on a waitlist for a coveted reservation), he hasn't purchased vegetables from an outside source in over two years. In France, where my next pain au chocolat is always a cobblestone street away, it was incredible and admirable to see someone's life so dependent on the natural world's rhythms. A continuation of the hospitable thread running throughout Norway, the Kvitnes farm, built in 1730 by Ellingsen's great-great grandfather, and where they've unearthed swords dating back to the time of the Vikings, truly felt like staying at someone's house in the least intrusive way possible. We removed our shoes before entering, were welcomed to relax in front of the fire, and ate dinner in our cozy wool socks. Our extensive 13-course dinner was a master course in freshness and how sometimes less is more, as the plates didn't rely on frivolity and Ellingsen let the natural flavors sing. Our Swedish guide Anders made it clear that his idea of "spice" is salt and pepper, as the ingredients sourced in Norway already provide enough flavor. We feasted on reindeer, halibut, whale, and even lamb testicles. During our meal, Ellingsen's farmhands, dressed in their Sunday best, doubled as servers and sommeliers. They'd pour a new wine with each course while taking brief intermissions to go outside, hike up their skirts, and wrangle the goats going astray in the pasture. The cuisine of Norway truly runs parallel with its people and culture: no frills, down-to-earth, land-focused, and adventurous. Kysten, Hurtigruten Coastal Express's fine dining restaurant aboard the MS Trollfjord, highlights seaweed, the unsung hero and lungs of the sea. The kelp forests in Norway are major carbon sinks. Hurtigruten Norway's lineup of chefs has managed to weave seaweed throughout every aspect of the menu. From arctic char with parsley and kelp emulsion to goat tartare with truffle seaweed mayonnaise, the Coastal Kitchen has elevated an often overlooked ingredient. During our time on "the world's most beautiful voyage," not only were we well fed, but genuinely spoiled by a most accommodating crew and the natural wonders of Norway. Hurtigruten is simply and quite literally a vessel for witnessing Norway's breathtaking heart and landscape in its purest and most natural form.