The spirit of Norway

By Andrea Gross

I stay up all night to babysit the sun. At midnight, its glow is faint, but the sky is still bright enough that I can read a newspaper without a flashlight and see the shore without squinting. By 2 a.m., the darkest part of the night has passed, and the light of the sky matches the white of the snow-covered mountains. The day that never ended has become the morning that has just begun.

I’m traveling up the coast of Norway on a mid-size cruise ship, the MS Polarlys, and early this morning, as we cruised past a stylized globe atop a small isle of rock, we officially entered the Arctic Circle. I am now in a place where winter days are cloaked with a polar night in which the sun never rises above the horizon, and summer nights glow with a midnight sun during which the sun never drops below it. In other words, I’m headed to the top of the world.

To call the MS Polarlys – one of the recently refurbished ships owned by Hurtigruten Cruise Line – a cruise ship is to miss the point. It’s a lovely vessel, awash with sleek, handsome wood that has a distinctly Nordic sensibility, and it spoils its cruise passengers (at least those who like fish fresh from the sea and locally grown vegetables) with insanely good meals. But its real mission is to deliver goods ranging from food to furniture to remote villages, at the same time helping residents travel to other coastal towns. (Think FedEx blended with Greyhound Bus.) Although the company was founded in 1893, cruise passengers weren’t welcomed aboard until the 1980s, when the company saw tourism as a way to make full use of its ships.

Between never-ending hours of daylight and the slow speed of the ship – Hurtigruten ships can be outpaced by an average dog or reasonably fit cyclist – we have plenty of time to ogle the scenery. On our first night after entering the Arctic Circle, our captain takes us for a midnight ride into Trollfjord, a channel of water so narrow it’s off limits to larger ships. I forget to be tired as I gaze at the snow-capped cliffs towering above us, outlined by the dusky light of the midnight sun.

As we relax in the ship’s Panorama Lounge, we become hypnotized by the passing scenes of small villages. Some are perched on rocky outcroppings, others are tucked into the hills and all are dotted with small houses, most of which are painted in tones of red and gold. The traditional colors date back to the time when red was made from the blood and oil of codfish and ochre was produced from iron oxide found in the soil.

On a typical seven-day cruise, a Hurtigruten vessel visits 34 ports, most for only a few minutes, but several for three or four hours. We disembark on the longer stops and, on occasion, treat ourselves to a ship-sponsored excursion.

Thus we hear a concert of Nordic music, visit a cathedral honoring Viking king Olav Tryggvason and ride in a rubber boat to the edge of the world’s most powerful whirlpool.

But mostly we explore the villages on our own, engaging people in conversation and absorbing the rhythms of their life. In Skarsvåg, a gathering of 40 people that may well be one of the smallest communities north of the Arctic Circle, economic conditions caused fish-processing plants to close and young people to search for jobs in larger towns. As the town dwindled to one-third its former size, the women began knitting thick scarves and socks they hoped to sell to tourists if they could entice some to come their way. It will take a lot of scarves to save the village, but when you live in what they dubbed the “world’s northernmost fishing village,” resilience is bred in the bones — or, pardon the pun, knit into the fabric of your existence.

As we leave Skarsvåg clutching our bag of warm mittens, we see our first reindeer. There are 100,000 reindeer in Norway –some roam free but most belong to the Sami, indigenous people who have traditionally worked as reindeer herders. We spend more than an hour with the Utsi family, who tell us about Sami traditions and offer us a cup of homemade reindeer broth.

On our way back to the ship, we see North Cape, the northernmost outpost in Europe. This obviously deserves a toast. That night, with the sun still high in the sky, we go to the Panorama Lounge and, with our fellow passengers, cheer the fact that we’ve truly reached the top of the world. Skål!

For an expanded version of this article and more information on Norway, go to our companion website,