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It's all in our name...
It's hard to imagine that until the late nineteenth century, there was no daily, year-round ship service along Norway's western coast. To send a letter from Trondheim in the center of the country to Hammerfest above the Arctic Circle took as long as three weeks in the summer and five months in the winter! Why so long? The coast had few lighthouses and there were only two marine charts of the route, which made it difficult to navigate, especially amidst the many islands and skerries in the dark, sometimes stormy, winter months.
Nevertheless, Norway's national steamship advisor called for an express ship service between Trondheim and Hammerfest. And Captain Richard With took up the challenge. He'd often sailed the route, and with his pilots, kept notes on courses, speeds, and times. So on the morning of July 2, 1893, he set off in the steamship Vesteralen, and three days later reached Hammerfest. The ship's arrival sparked a revolution in Norwegian communications, finally connecting coastal inhabitants and industries to the rest of the world. By 1898, the route had been lengthened to start at Bergen in the south, extending northward to Kirkenes, far above the Arctic Circle.
From the beginning, the operators of the Coastal Voyage, or "Hurtigruten" in Norwegian, recognized its tourist potential. What better way to experience the Land of the Midnight Sun and Northern Lights? Such remote wonders as the ravishing Lofoten Islands with their red and gold cabins, brilliant white sand beaches, and "lynx foot" peaks, the Trollfjord with its narrow rocky gateway, and Finnmark with its wild, austere landscape and indigenous Sami people were now readily accessible to travelers.
Today, thousands of people come from across the globe to sail what has been called "The World's Most Beautiful Voyage" and to explore Norway's coastal communities and meet their inhabitants. (They're easy to chat with; just about everyone in Norway speaks fluent English!) There's the added charm of traveling on vessels that, while affording all the comforts of a cruise ship, still convey cargo to 34 ports of call every day, all the year round. Equally quaint is the occasional arrival of a local, hopping a ride from one coastal town to another.
Yet there is nothing work-a-day about this voyage. Passengers are dazzled by an ever-changing landscape of sapphire fjords and snow-capped peaks, quaint farms nestled amidst verdant hills and bustling fishing villages hugging the rugged coast. If they like, they may also venture inland to see historic sites and unusual museums. By the time their journey is over, they will have glimpsed the sweep of Norwegian history from the Vikings to modern times.
Norway's majestic, unspoilt landscape has earned it the ranking of the world's top destination by National Geographic Traveler magazine. And the Hurtigruten heads the Lonely Planet Guide's Blue List for classic voyages. Yes, this is indeed a trip for sophisticated travelers, for those who have experienced the best the world offers. Which may be why passengers so often end up making lasting friendships with those they meet on board.