A Daily Diary of Norway’s Coastal Route in Winter (Part 2: Southbound)

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Are you curious about the Norwegian coastal voyage? Join me as I share the final part of the full 11-night roundtrip experience in the winter, sailing back from Kirkenes to Bergen.

Welcome back, dear readers! This is a continuation of my daily diary from my winter trip on the brand new Norwegian coastal cruise ferry, Havila Polaris.

David at sea on the Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.
Enjoying the winter light from the Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, head over here to read the first part! Since writing that, I've also published this companion video, which you can check out if you prefer watching to reading.

The first part of this diary dealt with the northbound leg of the Norwegian coastal route. It's considered by many to be the “best” of the two one-way options because there are more port calls of a longer duration.

However, I'd been told by several of the crew that they prefer the southbound route for the scenery. Having experienced bad weather and no northern lights on the northbound leg, I was keen to place my trust in them!

Day 7: Turnaround in Kirkenes

As I wrote about briefly at the end of part one, day seven started badly for me as I was kept awake. Although I didn’t feel sick at all, the movement of the ship meant I couldn’t fall asleep so I went for a walk around the ship and chatted to the few crew working night shift.

I did eventually get some sleep and awoke to yet more fantastic Arctic scenery on approach to Kirkenes, the end of the line for those doing the northbound voyage

Many people staying on the ship for the southbound leg, including me, headed to the Kirkenes Snow Hotel for one of several excursions packed with winter fun.

Example bedroom in Kirkenes Snow Hotel. Photo: David Nikel.
Example bedroom in Kirkenes Snow Hotel. Photo: David Nikel.

I didn't know what to expect, but there was far more than I thought. Aside from the amazing sculptures inside the snow hotel, there were huskies, reindeer, snowmobiles, and more.

I published my best photos from this excursion over on Forbes, so do check that article out to see just how spectacular it was!

On the way back we had a short photo stop to see Kirkenes and our ship from an elevated vantage point.

Havila Polaris docked in Kirkenes. Photo: David Nikel.
Havila Polaris docked in Kirkenes. Photo: David Nikel.

Back on board, it soon became clear the ship had taken on new supplies as we had the third new lunch and dinner menu of the trip featuring Arctic cuisine including reindeer and cloudberries.

We also emjoyed another food event out on deck, this time presenting bidos, the Sami reindeer stew.

Within hours of leaving Kirkenes, we finally saw some fantastic northern lights! I immediately felt sorry for the 50 people or so who left the ship earlier in the day.

Northern lights seen from Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.
Northern lights seen from Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.

The aurora display lasted a long time but I only saw it at its very best for about two or three minutes, which just goes to show the patience you need to have when aurora hunting.

Day 8: Hammerfest

Despite strong winds and plummeting temperatures, I went out on deck to greet one of the passing Hurtigruten ships in the morning.

Something I like about the coastal route is all ships, regardless of whether they are operated by Huritgruten or Havila, salute each other as they pass.

The morning gave us another chance to see the beautiful port of Havøysund, before the ship made it to Hammerfest. If there's one word to sum up the few hours there, it is “cold.”

The temperature in Hammerfest was only -6°C, but the super strong wind made it feel much colder, -16°C according to my phone.

A cold winter day in Hammerfest. Photo: David Nikel.
Many guests chose to take the relatively long walk into central Hammerfest. Photo: David Nikel.

Having been to Hammerfest before and realising we docked at a temporary quay on the other side of the bay, I stayed out for just 15 minutes for some photos.

I soon returned to the warmth of the ship for a fantastic fish-based lunch including a lovely, creamy fish soup. Best of all, I had the main dining room mostly to myself, so service was super fast!

I had a late night planned as I needed to stay up to welcome some friends on board In Tromsø. With hours to kill, I made the most of my time by watching the picturesque sail-ins to Øksfjord and Skjervøy.

In the evening, I chose to visit Hildring, the fine dining restaurant on the Havila Polaris, for the second time. On my voyage there was a “fish menu” and a “meat menu”, so as long as you check in advance, it's possible to visit twice and not eat the same food.

Once again I enjoyed a fixed five-course menu. Although the food is sensational, you’re not missing out too much if you stick to the main dining room because the food there is so good.

Some of the courses in Hildring restaurant on Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.
Some of the courses in Hildring restaurant on Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.

On an 11-day voyage though, it's definitely worth giving Hildring a try at least once, especially if you have a visit there included in your package.

Later that evening the excursion team hosted a trivia night, something that proved very popular. Being a Norwegian experience, they–of course–used Kahoot! After passing another coastal ship, this time one of the Havila sister ships, we got to see some more northern lights.

Although they weren't as strong as the night before, they peeked in and out of a cloudy sky creating an experience I hadn't seen too often before and leading to some fantastic photo opportunities.

Shortly before midnight, we finally arrived in Tromsø. The outside decks were surprisingly busy as many people prepared for a midnight walk, or to leave the ship.

We picked up a lot of local passengers here, including my friends who would stay on for the rest of the trip back to Bergen. I gave them a very quick tour of the ship before bidding them goodnight.

Day 9: Incredible Scenery from Vesterålen to Lofoten

Given my late night, I skipped my early fixed time for breakfast and instead chose a sweet pastry (or two!) from the cafe later in the morning to start my day.

The fact these are included in the meal package—along with select meals from the cafe—is a big benefit for voyage travellers, and I really hope they keep the concept.

I’d warned my friends in advance that day 9 was the very best scenery on the entire voyage, so they should be prepared to be out on deck most of the day, whatever the weather.

Enjoying the morning scenery in Northern Norway. Photo: David Nikel.
Enjoying the morning scenery in Northern Norway. Photo: David Nikel.

The scenery did not disappoint. Far from it, in fact. I’d go as far as to say with the snow cover and the fantastic light conditions throughout the day, this ranked among the best scenery I’d ever seen in Norway.

The Risøy channel is a very narrow shipping lane marking the entrance to the Vesterålen archipelago, and one that demanded standing out at the front of the ship to watch.

I assume the ship was mostly sailing on battery power at this point as it was mostly silent, creeping along at a very slow pace to ensure it stayed within the lane. Standing at the front of the ship, it was a compelling watch.

Later in the day we sailed the Raftsund, a sound lined by steep mountains that looked absolutely incredible in its winter coat.

The stunning Raftsund. Photo: David Nikel.
The stunning Raftsund. Photo: David Nikel.

The last time I sailed through the Raftsund it was a few weeks earlier in the year than this, and the difference having just a little more light made was incredible.

On my Hurtigruten trip four years ago, I took a bus tour of Vesterålen, which ended in Sortland. Our bus crossed the bridge into Sortland as the ship sailed underneath.

This time, I was on the ship to welcome the bus, and it was super fun to stand at the front of the ship in the bright sunshine, waving our Norwegian flags, as we passed underneath the bridge and the bus. Honk, honk!

In between yet more fabulous coastal scenery, we made a few short port calls giving me time to briefly explore Sortland, known as Norway’s blue town, and Stokmarknes, the birthplace of the coastal route. Both towns were a joy to explore with all the fresh snowfall underfoot.

Stunning scenery in Lofoten. Photo: David Nikel.
Norway's coastal ships get very close to land. Photo: David Nikel.

Back on board, the region’s speciality stockfish was presented at another food event, but it was not as popular as previous dishes! As darkness fell, it was soon time to make our return trip to Svolvær, this time for a two-hour visit.

I joined an organized tour of Lofotpils, a local brewery that has gone from strength to strength. A short brewery tour soon gives way to the best part, the beer tasting. It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit, and thankfully, the brewery is just a two-minute walk back to the ship!

The only downside to a wonderful day was the worsening weather, meaning there was no chance for my friends to see any northern lights, although I did stay up to see the atmospheric approach to Stamsund, a port we’d been forced to miss on the northbound leg because of the stormy weather.

Day 10: The Helgeland Coast

After the visual assault on the senses followed the brewery tour the previous day, taking it easy was my plan for day 10. This was helped by the worsening weather, although it was clear when we crossed the Arctic circle in the morning.

However, far more interesting than sailing past the globe monument was a truly bizarre sight. There looked to be a small building being towed by a boat.

Barn towed by boat in Norway. Photo: David Nikel.
This topped the list of things I didn't expect to see on the trip. Photo: David Nikel.

I had to go fetch someone to double check my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, but yes, there really was a barn being towed by boat!

After a good few hours relaxing on the ship, we arrived into Brønnøysund for a two-hour stop. Most people seemed keen to get off for a walk or a play in the snow, but the weather quickly changed, again. All of a sudden we were in a blizzard. You’ve got to love Norway in the winter.

Nevertheless, I persevered and took a walk around the town and along the harbour. It was certainly a refreshing hour or so!

A winter day in Brønnøysund. Photo: David Nikel.
A refreshing (!) walk in Brønnøysund. Photo: David Nikel.

After yet another enjoyable dinner, we made our way to the observation lounge for the evening. Although there’s not usually entertainment on the coastal ships, a crew member performed for us. It was a mix of covers and her own songs, and it was a nice way to spend the evening.

I know there is a very small crew on the coastal ships, but one or two additional events like this or the trivia night would make a real positive difference for roundtrip passengers. Perhaps such events are less needed in the summer when the endless days keep the scenery lit up all through the evening.

Day 11: Breakfast in Trondheim

It was an early start in Trondheim, my home town and an important cargo stop for the route. But the reason I was up early wasn't about the cargo!

It was to welcome my husband who joined me and my friends for breakfast. He had to pay, of course. As I said before, locals being able to use this route as a local cafe or floating restaurant is one of the things I love most about the service.

I’m a creature of habit when it comes to breakfast, so it was fun for me to see what some of the other breakfast options were! That was especially true as my friends both had the Havila Gold package, which comes with additional premium menu options in the main dining room.

Group breakfast in Trondheim. Photo: David Nikel.
It was nice to have company for breakfast! Photo: David Nikel.

Many people took the chance to visit Trondheim despite the early port call (6.30am-9.30am), because we'd missed the port on the northbound leg. There was even a bus sightseeing tour that included a visit to Nidaros Cathedral. But having lived in Trondheim for more than 10 years, a tour of the town was not something I needed!

As we left Trondheim, we passed the northbound Hurtigruten ship Nordkapp and so we did the obligatory salute. Moments later on the other side of the ship we passed Munkholmen, marking our departure from Trondheim.

Several hours at sea followed so it was a chance to relax and hear from the expedition team once again, this time about Bergen. We also spent some time on the outside decks, where the final food presentation of the voyage was made, this time bacalao.

Now that we were much farther south, we had more light, so we were able to thoroughly enjoy arguably the best sail-in experience of the trip, into Kristiansund.

Gorgeous winter light in Kristiansund. Photo: David Nikel.
Gorgeous winter light in Kristiansund. Photo: David Nikel.

This was the last realistic opportunity to leave the ship, so many people, including us, took full advantage even though the stop was just one hour and I'd visited the town several times before.

After a late port call at Molde, it was time to turn my thoughts to packing, for the voyage was almost at an end.

Day 12: Return to Bergen

I was up early on the final day of the voyage to finish packing, as suitcases had to be left for collection by 9am. By the time we arrived at Florø, the final port call before Bergen, I was done, so I headed outside to take in the beautiful snowy scenery.

With no more port calls, we spent the final few hours on board sitting in the cafe chatting, saying goodbye to new friends, and enjoying the scenery.

It was a much more interesting day for scenery than I remembered from last time, and I spent a lot of time heading out on deck for yet more photos.

Sailing towards Bergen on Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.
Sailing towards Bergen on Havila Polaris. Photo: David Nikel.

Disembarkation at Bergen is super quick. Even though we were the last deck to be called, it took just 15 minutes after docking for us to be at the luggage belt waiting for our bags.

What a voyage it has been. We have had some of the worst weather Norway has seen in decades.

We've had storms, sensational sunny days, incredible scenery, and I've gotten to know a wonderful ship and wonderful people, both crew and fellow passengers, over the last 12 days. I've enjoyed some fantastic food, and some great winter experiences including some northern lights.

It's been a breathless trip. People often wonder if they'll get bored on a trip like this, but I don't see how that's possible. There's so much to see out of the windows even in the winter and when you get to go ashore.

But whether a winter trip is for you is a different question. My trip had bad weather, rough seas, and missed ports. But it also had northern lights and sensational winter landscapes.

If you take a trip in the winter on the coastal voyage, it's bound to be completely different from my experience. That's what I love about sailing in Norway at this time of year!

Have you taken the southbound coastal route, or perhaps the full roundtrip? How was it for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences down in the comments.

About David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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