“Last summer we had four sunny days,” our blonde tour guide tells us cheerfully. And I thought I’d be basking in the midnight sun …
This is northern Norway, a grey-green wilderness ravaged by ancient glaciers and cut by deep fjords, where icy seas smash into dark granite mountains. Little wonder the few brave fishermen and reindeer herdsmen who settled here remained isolated for centuries until the age of steam, when mail ships began plying the coastline.
These days the Hurtigruten Coastal Express’ fleet of smart red and black liners carry not just supplies but tourists too, stopping at most towns and offering a kind of hop-on, hop-off transport service for one of Europe’s most beautiful coastlines.
We board our steam ship at Kirkenes, near the Russian border, though if you’re arriving from London it’s easier to fly to Bergen and start from there. We set sail to North Cape, stopping off before turning south and journeying to the port cities of Tromsø and then Trondheim.
The ships are comfortable but don’t have the razzle-dazzle of traditional cruise liners. But then who needs bingo nights when you’ve got mountains and glaciers on the starboard bow?
Our cabin is a triumph of Scandinavian design – benches fold out into beds, and we have to decide whether to open the cupboard or the bathroom door because it’s an either/or situation. Ironically the bathroom resembles the inside of a cupboard.
The space saved in the cabins is spent on generous indoor and outdoor decks, where floor-to-ceiling windows, sun loungers and thick woollen blankets are perfect accompaniments to the landscape passing by.
Two days after leaving our North Cape deep freeze we arrive at the Lofoten Islands, where the weather is far more welcoming. Once on land you can choose between hiking, biking, kayaking or simply relaxing and sampling the fare of the local fishing industry before hopping on the next passing ship.
We hire bikes and pedal around the coast, which is strung with fishing villages, their neat harbours sheltering brightly painted fishing smacks. Further on, steep mountains give way to fields of flowers and fishing cabins set around turquoise inlets – water that looks tropical but feels polar.
In the evening we sit on the rocks near our wooden cabin, gorging on cured salmon and aquavit – the fiery local spirit.
At midnight the sun hovers stubbornly above the horizon, painting the snow-sprinkled mountains on the distant mainland dusky pink. It drifts sideways for a while before rising again a few hours later, playing havoc with our body clocks.
Back on the ship we steam southward, ducking in and out of narrow fjords – perfectly still water inlets between towering mountains. Further on we see pure white waterfalls tumble into pine forests and thickly grassed pastures betray farmhouses, their red wooden walls matching the Norwegian pennants flying from flagpoles.
For all the magnificence of the landscape and fjords, though, one of the major stars is the ship herself, a massive moving hotel that ducks side waterways and throws U-turns in blind alleys.
At times we almost touch the rock walls on either side, and cliff faces tower hundreds of metres above us. And is that another glacier I can see? Bingo!
Norwegian food ranges from fresher-than-fresh seafood to rich cheeses and cured meats. Smoked and cured salmon are best enjoyed with sweet dill mustard, while shrimps are served by the bucketful. Salt cod is a traditional delicacy
– every town has large drying racks – which is soaked and cooked as a rich fishy stew. Try classic Jarlsberg or rich brown Gjetost cheese for breakfast, preferably with local raspberry jam. For cheap street food try a pølser mit lumpe – grilled sausage in a potato pancake, slathered with sweet mustard and crisp onion flakes. Norway’s strawberries and raspberries are sublime, while orange cloudberries are a local delicacy. Finally, if your conscience permits, the Lofoten Islands are one of the few places in the world where you can sample whale.