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Cruising Altitude: Above the Arctic Circle

A Norwegian Cruise Ship Cuts Through A Narrow Canal Lined With Mountains, Norway Cruises

Trym Ivar Bergsmo

The Midnatsol cruising along the coast of Norway.

The sun was finally setting at 10 p.m. over this stretch of coastal Norway, 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. We'd just met up, this mild August night, with a trawler carrying shrimp plucked from these waters and cooked by the fishermen themselves. Now about 60 of us—Norwegian and international passengers, the Norwegian captain and his officers—were gathered on the deck, talking and laughing as we peeled shrimp and popped them into our mouths. The craggy, snow-capped Lyngen Alps glowed pink and mauve in the distance.

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Travel moments don't come more magical than this.

I have to admit that when I boarded the Midnatsol in Kirkenes, Norway, I was mostly drawn by the promise of the ship itself, a well-appointed tourist vessel boasting a remarkable collection of contemporary Norwegian art, a five-deck-high atrium with glass elevators, fluffy European duvets on its beds and succulent king crab, berries and other Norwegian delicacies in its restaurant. I planned to lounge by the window in my cabin, bubble in the outdoor hot tub and happily sweat in a sauna fitted with a window.

But it wasn't long before those delectable accoutrements were overshadowed. Whether you sail on a six-day southbound run, a seven-day northbound run or a round trip, it's easy to see why seasoned travelers call the Midnatsol's route the world's most beautiful voyage. We rarely crossed open sea and instead hugged the coastline as landscapes scrolled by like the scenes of a movie. I watched as we glided past forests and glaciers, sheer granite cliffs and barn-red cabins that dotted islets floating on turquoise waters.

The top deck quickly became my preferred vantage point, and it was there that I gaped in awe one afternoon as our ship entered the impossibly narrow Trollfjord, pivoted like one of the graceful hippo ballerinas in Fantasia and steamed back out past silvery threads of water tumbling from moss-covered mountainsides.

It wasn't just the scenery, though, that made this trip feel different from a standard Mediterranean or Caribbean cruise. On the Hurtigruten vessels (Midnatsol is one of the line's largest, with 638 berths spread among 321 cabins and suites, and a total capacity of 1,000 passengers), jazzy, big-ship amenities such as casinos and nightly floor shows are missing. Dress is decidedly casual—no tuxedos or gowns needed, even during usually formal events such as the captain's dinner.

Port calls are far more frequent—and briefer, too. But what passengers give up in time to tour ashore, they gain in serendipitous adventures. On a walk through the tiny, remote fishing village of Vardø, I spied "Cod Is Great" neatly painted on a harbor wall. The three-and-a-half-hour stop in Trondheim gave me plenty of time to enjoy a cup of tea and warm apple cake at a koselig ("cozy") cafe housed in a 1791 inn, and to visit the solemn Gothic cathedral, Nidaros, where for centuries Norwegian kings were crowned.

One time, just after arriving on the Lofoten Islands, five fellow passengers and I took a van to a seaside riding center and, astride sturdy Icelandic horses, we clip-clopped through an ancient Viking site and along a crescent of pearly white beach. Although it was hours after leaving the ship, the van had dropped us off in time for us to board at the next port of call.

Perhaps the best part of a Hurtigruten cruise is how local it can feel. One warm, sunny morning, as we left the Arctic Circle, I fell into conversation with a young Norwegian mother who was knitting a cap for the newborn dozing in a pram beside her. They had just had a nice visit with her in-laws up north, she told me, her needles clicking, but it would be good to get home.

Just another day along the coast of Norway, I thought, and I'm part of it.

Cruise Details

SHIP: Hurtigruten's Midnatsol

HOME PORT: Bergen or Kirkenes, Norway

DURATION: 6,7,11 or 12 days; one way or round trip

COST: From $1,170 per person, double

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