The early morning sun slanted pale and ineffectual across the afterdeck. It was August, but it was cold -- blanket-wrapping, parka-wearing, glove-tugging cold.
We were traveling up the rocky, fiord-pocked coast of Norway on the Nordstjernen -- one of the Hurtigruten coastal express steamers that daily range north from the city of Bergen. It was not yet 7 a.m., but the morning was alive with chilled, bundled passengers, all awaiting an event of as much symbolic significance as practical inconsequence: the crossing of the Polarcirkel -- the Arctic Circle.
Our little vessel, a motor ship of just 2,295 tons, plowed on through the icy, dark blue waters. Mountains loomed black to the east, craggy backlit silhouettes against a pale postdawn sky. Strewn across these inshore waters of the Norwegian Sea were a scattering of small islands -- barren, uninhabited outposts of weathered rock.
The Arctic Circle. Peering ahead into a sharp, cheek-stinging breeze, I wondered exactly what we were looking for, how we would know when the mystical moment arrived. I conjured images of a cartographer's dotted line knifing across the seascape. Then, amid a world of desolation, there appeared ahead on a small island to port a small icon, clearly man-made.
As we approached, the image resolved itself into an impressionistic, open-metal sculpture of an encircled globe, an unmistakable marker. We steamed past with a resonant blast of the whistle -- an entirely satisfactory experience. That done, we hastened inside for a cup of hot coffee.
Norway's coastal express boats are unusual in ways other than the Arctic Circle crossing. The Hurtigruten, or "quick route," service runs virtually every day of the year. Nearly every night at 10 p.m., one of these modest boats steams out of Bergen, headed north with mail, light cargo and passengers, on an 11-day, 2,500-mile round trip up the coast of Norway and back. This endlessly repeated odyssey involves 35 port calls en route around the North Cape, the land of the Midnight Sun, to Kirkenes, on the Soviet border.
The service began nearly a century ago and, particularly on the northern end of the run, still provides essential transportation to a coastal region where highway access is often limited at best. For locals traveling between the smaller ports -- and for mail -- the water route is often the most direct and reliable, particularly in bad weather. (The Norwegian government provides subsidies to keep the ships sailing year-round.)
Today, tourists help the service survive. In increasing numbers, visiting Germans, Americans and Britons have discovered the spectacular scenery and reasonable prices of the coastal steamers, to the point that in summer they are the predominant passengers. The steamers' operators -- four lines that pool their boats into an 11-vessel fleet -- prefer to sell the full round trip as a cruise. They offer a special rate that includes all meals, and they give booking priority to full-cruise passengers.
Suffering as I do from an innate ambivalence about cruises, I was attracted to the idea of a line voyage -- travel from A to B with a purpose -- by coastal express steamer. So, with my family and a friend, I decided to sail from Bergen to Bodo, a small city above the Arctic Circle, then head back south by train to Trondheim and Oslo. We would be on board just under three days and cover about 600 miles.
This decided, we had to choose our boat. Most travelers skip this step: Since all 11 vessels sail exactly the same route and the same schedule, offering the same services and similar public spaces and cabins, it's perfectly reasonable to simply select a convenient sailing date and go. However, the brochure for the coastal voyages shows the profiles of all 11 boats; to me, this was an irresistible invitation to choose.
Three of the fleet are car ferries -- big, ultramodern and capable of carrying 40 automobiles apiece. The other eight vessels, all motor ships, were built between 1952 and 1964. Two of these ships, the Polarlys and the Nordstjernen, were especially appealing, with classically designed profiles.
We finally decided on the Nordstjernen -- the North Star.
On a rainy, gray August evening, we arrived at the broad, empty dock on Bergen's harbor. Fast alongside was the Nordstjernen, its white superstructure and black hull glistening in the drizzle. With the classic design, topped off by a traditional round funnel located amidships, and carrying the striking, red-banded, white-on-black markings of the Troms Fylkes Steamship Co., the steamer looked a doughty, hardworking little coaster. It also appeared older than its 1956 builder's plate allowed. We later learned that it was patterned after considerably older, now-scrapped fleetmates.
Inside, however, the illusion of age was shattered: The Nordstjernen was refurbished in 1983. Now the comfortable, if undistinguished, public spaces -- two lounges, a dining room and a cafeteria -- are characterized by pastel shades and clean-lined contemporary furniture.
Since we were not cruise passengers, our berths were not assigned in advance. The cabins that we were ultimately given -- aft on the Main Deck -- were tucked against the slope of the hull, and spartan: two berths, narrow but comfortable; wash basin, mirror, but no toilet or shower; coat hooks but no closet; and a porthole.
But who wants to be in the cabin when coastal Norway is outside? Though we were still tucked in our berths for the very first port call -- Flora, at 5:30 a.m. -- we were on deck for arrival at Maloy a bit before 8 o'clock. Our brief stop there was typical of the small ports: an item or two of cargo taken on or off -- perhaps household goods, fish nets, a hulking gasoline engine, pipe, a bicycle -- along with a passenger or two and a sack of mail.
The coastal steamers are sometimes called the mail boats, and that role helps define their personalities and adds a sense of urgency to their comings and goings. Post boxes are prominently displayed on board, and the red, blue and white Norwegian flag that flaps at the stern carries the word "post." The express steamers truly are a lifeline.
"Express" is a term more often used for trains than boats, but it does accurately apply to the coastal boats, which annually steam nearly a million miles. In order to maintain their relentless schedule, which calls for departures on all but about a dozen days a year, they dock and sail just as the published schedule says. At each port, departure time is chalked on a blackboard hung at the gangway. A single long whistle blast sends late arrivals scrambling for the gangplank, where dock workers are standing by to haul it aboard.
Particularly at the smaller villages, the express boats' daily calls are events of consequence, and the townspeople come down to the quay to watch, much as rural Americans used to congregate at the depot at train time. The presence of these local kibitzers -- along with the whining of winches during the loading and unloading of cargo, the shouted commands among the crew, the bright red mail truck at dockside -- helps form the special and highly agreeable ambiance of a working boat.
Between Maloy and Torvik -- while we rounded Cape Stadt and traversed one of the few stretches of open sea on the itinerary -- came breakfast: a koldtbord (smorgasbord) of eggs, meats, tinned sardines, cheeses, various herrings, breads, butter (Norwegian butter is wonderful enough to rate a listing), orange juice, hot chocolate, coffee and tea. This spread was plentiful but, at about $6.50, not inexpensive. Luncheon each day was also a koldtbord, costing about $20.
One advantage of a partial voyage with meals not included was that we felt no compulsion to eat both breakfast and lunch. In fact, that first day aboard we skipped lunch to walk through the winding streets of Alesund, Norway's largest fishing port, where we had a stop of more than two hours. Built on three hilly islands, this town is marked by handsome architectural homogeneity, having been almost entirely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1904.
The weather was dreary and overcast -- not unusual, we knew, in coastal Norway. But finally, late in the afternoon, the sun broke through as we approached Molde, a commercial center in a spectacular setting. Heavy clouds still brooded over an expansive range of jagged mountains -- 87 peaks, our guidebook said -- forming a deep gray backdrop against which the nearer panorama -- white ferries crossing, gulls wheeling -- seemed dazzlingly brilliant.
The dining room seemed particularly attractive that evening, with low, bright sunlight flooding in through the broad windows. Colorful gloxinias graced the tables. After serving cups of consomme', the waitress brought steaming platters of poached salmon steaks -- accompanied, in what we had learned to recognize as the typical Norwegian manner, by boiled potato, cucumber with dill and a dish of sour cream.
Our second day featured just two port calls. The first was an all-morning stop at Trondheim, Norway's third largest city. Though an excursion to the outskirts of the city was available at an extra charge -- one of five optional tours in the course of the full cruise -- we elected to explore downtown Trondheim on our own. The city's leading attraction is its 11th-century cathedral, the most impressive medieval structure in Scandinavia. We ended our tour of the city at a small maritime museum not far from the wharf.
Later that evening, when we docked at Rorvik, the schedule brought a southbound express steamer, the Finnmarken, into port just a few minutes later. We wandered aboard to compare notes. The Finnmarken, it turned out, was built in 1956, the same year as the Nordstjernen. But despite a modern profile, its wood-accented interiors were by far the more traditional of the two. Indeed, you can't judge a boat by its cover.
Aboard the steamers, full-cruisers are accorded special privileges not available to "shorts" like us. The tour guide, for example, is there to cater to the cruise crowd. But the worst thing about a partial voyage is watching your ship sail off without you -- which we did after disembarking at Bodo in the early afternoon of the third day.
Through my binoculars I watched the Nordstjernen churning its way across the wind-ruffled harbor waters. Suddenly the chunky, stalwart vessel, for which I had developed a real affection, swung sharply to starboard, before slipping out of sight between rocky piles of island.
I turned my back on the water and headed for my hotel -- glad to be where I was going, but sorry to have arrived so soon. Karl Zimmermann is a free-lance writer in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. He crossed the Atlantic nearly 40 years ago aboard the Ile de France and has been sailing ever since.