MS Finnmarken

Prologue

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Norway’s Hurtigruten plays a unique role in the lives of the many remote communities scattered along the country’s 4,000-kilometer coastline. Since its founding by Captain Richard With in 1893, one of the line’s ships leaves Bergen daily heading north to Kirkenes deep within the Arctic Circle and back, carrying passengers and cargo. Join us as we board the MS Finnmarken on the “world’s most beautiful voyage”.

 

First Impressions

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We had arranged a convenient transfer service with Hurtigruten and were met at the railway station for the short drive to the pier. Being the line’s southern terminus, the facility was set up with airport-style check-in counters to process passengers efficiently. We were quickly checked-in by the cheerful staff and handed our cruise packs, while our luggage was tagged and sent onboard separately. Passengers were then ushered to the second level for the safety demonstration in-place of the muster drill, with emphasis given to the donning of survival suits necessary for the cold waters we will be sailing in.

 

Passengers may board the ship at their convenience from 1530 hrs, with this being a simple scan of the cruise card and a walk across the gangway. Hurtigruten markets its product as working ships that carry passengers and there was none of the usual cruise ship-type souvenir photo stops or welcome cocktails during embarkation.

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The MS Finnmarken was built in 2002 and is one of the newer ships in the fleet. Wood veneers and burgundy colours dominate the onboard decor, which is in the Art Noveau style. We found the ship to be very well-maintained given how she had been in service for over a decade (including a stint as a hotel ship in Australia). As the cabins were not yet ready, most passengers headed to the panoramic lounge and publics rooms to wait.

 

Cabin

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As a coastal ferry, Hurtigruten offers several categories of cabins onboard, ranging from Interior Cabins to Suites with double beds and balconies. For our voyage, we booked an Interior Cabin, located on Deck 3 forward and easily accessible to the Reception desk and gangway.

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We found the cabin to be very well laid-out despite the limited space, with the workdesk and chair to the left and a couch to the right which is converted to a bed by the crew during turndown. A pullman above accommodates a second occupant, but was not necessary on our trip and folded away.

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The bathroom was a standard shipboard unit comprising a shower, vacumn toilet and vanity, compact but more than adequate for a single passenger. Hot water was readily available and the water pressure was strong to our liking, while Norwegian sensibilities were clearly present in the sunken shower stall and heated floor.

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Our cabin definitely lacked some of the bells & whistles when compared to the higher category accommodations and those found on regular cruise ships. Cabin amenities were basic but functional, including a bedside telephone, wall-mounted television, mini-fridge and electrical outlets within easy reach. There was also an electronic safe and ample storage in the wardrobe for clothes and heavy winter jackets. These added up to create a very cozy and home-like space for the duration of our time onboard.

 

Dining

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The ubiquitous Restaurant Finnmarken is the main dining venue onboard, serving 3 meals a day for passengers whose fare include dining. Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style with open seating, while dinner adopts a more traditional 3-course meal with assigned seating.

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Hurtigruten prides itself in showcasing the best of Norway and one area where this is done especially well is the food. Menus were clearly Norwegian, with plenty of fish (we counted more than 10 varieties and cooking styles) and seafood, cold cuts and also exotic options such as reindeer served, although more conservative hot items could also be found. These were accompanied by some of the best breads and desserts we have tasted, freshly made onboard by the very talented pastry chef.

 

As with most ships, beverages are extra charge and MS Finnmarken carries a sizable choice of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. While alcohol is expensive onboard, what we could not agree with is the charge for water, especially since the tap water is safe for consumption and costs the ship next to nothing.

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Not wanting to lose out on the specialty dining opportunity, Hurtigruten had created an a la carte restaurant, Babette’s Cafe, onboard MS Finnmarken for passengers. This is complemented by the Mørestruen Cafe on deck 4, which was the main dining option for day passengers whose fares are for passage only. Outside of the dining room, drinks are available for purchase at the Floybaren Bar, Stiftsstaden Bar and the Brotoppen Panorama Lounge. Given the prices, most passengers instead opted for the coffee and tea package.

 

Pools & Decks

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MS Finnmarken is unique in the Hurtigruten fleet as being the only coastal ferry with a swimming pool. The cold weather and rough seas did not deter some passengers from taking a dip and relishing the feel of a wave pool, before jumping into the 2 hot tubs flanking the pool.

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Another feature unique to the ship is its wraparound promenade deck that extends to the bow where technical equipment would normally be installed. Over the course of the voyage, this area became the main gathering place for cruisers to take in the sights of the Norwegian landscape, as well as being the exercise route for morning and evening walks.

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The open spaces on deck 8 were also popular spots for passengers, offering the requisite height above the water to take in the stunning panoramas. This area was also crowded during low bridge crossings, with passengers gathered to witness the ship squeezing under the bridge deck as it sailed past.

 

Recreation

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Hurtigruten ships are first and foremost working vessels and one will never find rock climbing walls or surf simulators onboard. MS Finnmarken is equipped with a decent-sized fitness room with treadmills and free weights, while the less active can take things slow with a book in the Finstuen Library or simply take in the art nouveau decor along the public corridors. Here the crew have printed news from key passenger source markets (France, Germany, Japan, UK and USA) for an added touch of home and younger passengers have their own play area nearby.

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Beyond what the ship can offer, the real recreation for most passengers was the everchanging Norwegian scenery outside. As we sailed north, the landscape gradually changed from the cold and wet of the south in Bergen to a snow-blanketed arctic in Kirkenes. Majestic mountains and stunning cliffs contrast against small coastal villages and fishing ports, offering a glimpse of life in this part of the world.

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Expertly maneuvering in the narrow fjords, the landscape was often in close proximity to the passengers gathered out on deck.

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The crew were also on hand to point out highlights and landmarks as we passed them, including the Munkholmen (Monk’s Islet) off Trondheim and the distinctive Kjeungskjaer Lighthouse nearby. The globe of the Arctic Circle Monument is greeted with a blast of the ship’s horn, signaling the entry into arctic territory.

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The breathtaking views enhanced by the golden rays of the sun soon gave way to the darkness of night, revealing yet another highlight of the voyage – aurora borealis!

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Possibly the singular factor that bonds most (if not all) of the passengers onboard, the aurora borealis / northern lights have long drawn visitors from around the world keen to be mesmerized by the ghostly green hue in the dark sky. We were fortunate to encounter sightings on 3 of our 4 nights in the arctic, accompanied by clear skies and the milky way mapped out above.

 

Entertainment

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Passengers onboard Hurtigruten ships will find that there are no broadway-style shows, 4D cinemas or discotheques. In its place, the entertainment is focused towards enrichment in Norwegian history and culture, with films on topics such as the aurora borealis and arctic exploration. On our voyage, we were also treated to a performance by the local folk music trio Bokna Karan, whose songs tell of the stories of the people and places visited by the fleet.

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The crew also organize activities to keep passengers occupied, with a highlight being the arctic circle baptism. Njord, the god of the sea in Norse mythology, presides over a ceremony on deck shortly after the ship crosses 66°33’45.7″N where he christens passengers crossing the arctic circle for the first time (with a ladle of ice water down the back). Passengers are encouraged to participate and receive a shot of aquavit to warm up, as well as a certificate to take home.

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Another highlight was the visit from a local crab fisherman with his catch of King Crabs. Introduced to the Barents Sea from Siberia by the Russians, the spiny crustaceans are today a key mainstay of the fishing industry in this part of Norway. The presentation not only allowed many passengers to get up close with the creatures, but also educated them on their biology and the livelihood of the crab fishermen.

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Apart from the organized activities, most passengers were also enthralled by the cargo loading and unloading taking place at port calls. Hurtigruten has perfected the procedure down to an art, being able to transfer stores and equipment in under 15 minutes, allowing for quick and efficient stops throughout the day and night.

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Meeting a fleetmate also generated much excitement amongst the passengers. When passing each other at sea, the ships would salute each other with a blast of their horns, cheered on by the passengers on deck. Where schedules permit, passengers could also board another coastal ferry for a visit as port guests, a unique experience probably found nowhere else.

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Hurtigruten also offers a variety of shore excursions at different ports, ranging from easy city walks to more adventurous activities such as snowmobile and rib boat safaris. We signed up for the Lofoten Viking Feast visit to the site of a Viking chieftain’s estate, a dog sledding trip in Tromsø and the Nordkapp trip, the line’s most popular excursion. Whilst pricey, each was unique and instrumental in helping us gain an understanding of the local culture.

 

Service / Staff

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The largely Norwegian crew onboard were highly professional and pleasant. Although slightly reserved, there was always a smile from the hardworking crew. Special mention goes out to the tour manager, whose witty humour was very entertaining and a reassuring guide onboard.

 

Verdict

A coastal voyage with Hurtigruten more than deserves the accolade of the “Most Beautiful Voyage in the World”. The journey and destinations take centerstage here and the line’s working ships complement rather than compete for attention from passengers. The intimate size of the vessels also allow for a reasonable degree of exclusivity as opposed to mainstream cruise ships, compounded by excellent crew. Over the course of our 7 days onboard, we had come to love the beautiful MS Finnmarken, and would not hesitate to recommend her for a trip along the Norwegian coast.

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