From an enchanting winter landscape 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, which means different things to different people, is difficult to explain succinctly.
For locals in small coastal communities it is an essential ferry service. For companies it is an important freight vehicle that is available every day of the year. For international tourists who take a package deal, it’s a cruise-like experience, albeit with significant differences.
The full route from Bergen to Kirkenes and back visits 34 ports during the eleven-night journey, with most of them visited on both the northern and southern routes.
Most port calls are short and only intended to pick up and drop off local passengers and freight, while others in larger cities last several hours, giving return passengers the chance to explore the ports and take part in excursions. Essentially it’s a cruise, but on a ferry.
The round trip or other longer routes are popular with international tourists in the summer season, when the midnight sun provides constant opportunities to enjoy the scenery. But even in the limited light of winter, the Norwegian Coastal Route offers an extremely enjoyable experience.
Brand new ships
Although Hurtigruten is a well-known name operating on the route, tourists considering the full loop or one of the longer sections of the coastal route now have a great new option to consider.
Havila Voyages now operates four out of eleven sailings and has made an impression in the travel industry with its four brand new ships.
They are powered by LNG and can sail for up to four hours on battery power alone. They are among the greenest ships of their kind in the world.
The interior is immaculate with a strong Scandinavian design aesthetic and much more spacious sea view cabins than on older ships sailing the route.
There is also much better use of light, with ample seating near large windows throughout the ship.
Exceptional winter landscapes
Although the Northern Lights are the main advertising tool for these winter cruises, it is the landscapes that really stick in the memory.
Highlights include the narrow Sound Raftsundet through which no larger ship can pass, and arriving at small ports in the deep indigo light of the afternoon. The approach to Risøyhamn also requires navigating an incredibly narrow marked navigation channel with spectacular scenery in all directions.
Although there is less light in December and January, both November and February offer more hours of real daylight to enjoy the landscapes. Late February and early March at night offer the best balance of Northern Lights opportunities and more daylight for scenic cruises.
Exciting winter experiences
Although excursions are completely optional, they can enhance your experience if you’re willing to pay. The excursions offered by both companies are essentially the same, ranging from simple bus tours of cities to longer, immersive experiences where you disembark at one port and re-board at the next.
Because organized excursions are expensive, it is much cheaper to skip the cheaper bus trips and save your money for one or two unforgettable trips that take full advantage of the winter conditions.
Whether you choose the northern, southern or full trip, consider adding a visit to the Kirkenes Snow Hotel. Various excursions are possible here, including a tour of the ice sculptures and snow hotel rooms, a husky sled ride and a snowmobile tour.
If the idea of a snowmobile appeals to you, consider the ride where guests race the ship through the moonlit landscape between the harbors of Kjøllefjord and Mehamn.
Sailing away from the lights of the big city and constantly moving in search of clear skies are just two reasons why a ship is the ideal place to hunt for the Northern Lights.
The full tour gives guests the best chance of a sighting, as the ship spends six nights north of the Arctic Circle.
All ships make announcements over loudspeakers and optionally in guest rooms when a sighting is confirmed. Observations range from a milky cloud-like streak on the horizon to a pulsating display of color overhead.
Unique to the Norwegian coastal journey: both Havila Voyages and Hurtigruten offer a Northern Lights guarantee.
You’ll have to read the fine print, but basically the companies offer a free one-way ticket (that’s 6 nights north or 5 nights south) in case the aurora doesn’t appear for people taking the full round trip.
Unpredictable winter weather
There is one major disadvantage to sailing the coastal route in winter, and all travelers should be prepared for it. Although far from normal, winter storms can impact schedules, resulting in missed ports, canceled excursions and the outer deck being closed for certain periods.
There is also a greater chance of rough seas, especially on the handful of stretches of open sea along the route. These routes are announced in advance.
Although designed and built to handle such conditions along the Norwegian coastline, all coastal ships are relatively small and guests can feel the movement more than on larger cruise ships. Choose a cabin in the middle of the ship if you suffer from motion sickness.
Many winter routes run according to schedule, but changes require a flexible attitude.
Nature is the entertainment
One major difference from regular cruises that is critical to understand is the lack of entertainment on board ships on coastal routes.
The small expedition team will have daily conversations about destinations, but other than that, don’t expect typical cruise entertainment such as trivia nights, live shows, casinos or bingo.
The entertainment is nature outside. Norway’s coastal cruise ships are rarely far from land, so there’s almost always something to see outside, with major landmarks announced in Norwegian, English and German.
Although the short daylight hours in early winter limit evening sightseeing, there are ports of call in the late afternoon and evening where guests can explore the coast, including Svolvær and Tromsø.
If beautiful cruises are high on your wish list, choose a departure in February or March so that there is more daylight.
The dining options at both coastal cruise providers are limited, but of excellent quality. Both offer a three-course meal in the evening, but take a different approach earlier in the day.
Hurtigruten ships offer a buffet for breakfast and lunch, while Havila Voyages offer an all-inclusive buffet a la carte concept of unlimited small dishes, designed to minimize food waste.
Whichever company you sail with, you will enjoy the very best that Norway’s coast has to offer. Due to the high number of port calls, the ships can receive fresh ingredients and local specialties on board throughout the entire voyage.
Scallops from Hitra Island, skrei (Arctic cod) from Lofoten and reindeer from the Arctic are among the highlights. Vegetarians are catered for, but there is a strong emphasis on fish and seafood on the menus.