Havila Voyages: Seeing the lights in Norway

Steve Hartridge joins Havila Castor for a winter cruise up the Norwegian coastline that is packed with activities and breathtaking scenery

“Snow hooks up” says our guide, and with a jolt we are off. The cacophony of excited canine yelping abruptly stops and is replaced by the sound of metal sliding over snow. 

It is late February and I am in northern Norway, ‘mushing’ my own team of six Alaskan huskies. In truth, the dogs are controlling me, as they eagerly pull the sled along a well-worn path cut through a forest of snow-heavy spruces and pines. 

As afternoon turns to dusk, the tiny light on my helmet captures flickering snowflakes that become steadier and chunkier until they sting my face. 

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Dog sledding is just one of many activities offered on a Havila Voyages cruise. The Norwegian-owned company has four identical eco-friendly ships that year round cruise Norway’s scenic coastal waters between Bergen in the south and Kirkenes in the far north – a 12-day round trip. 

Havila offers an affordable alternative, and a different product, to other cruise lines that serve the same route. 

It also arguably offers a more authentic taste of the region too  as one of the conditions of its operating licence is that its ships stop off at coastal towns and villages along the way – all 34 of them.  

Along with the larger towns of Tromsø and Trondheim, which rise into hills from narrow breaks in the seashore, are charming small communities with folkloric sounding names, such as Torvik, Risøyhamn and Hammerfest.

Some stops last for little more than 15 minutes, at ports where the ‘village’ is made up of what looks like a few warehouses, a gift shop and a road out into the sprawling mountains beyond. 

At these stops Havila Castor loads cargo and takes on assorted passengers that on our trip include backpackers, an ice hockey team and a surgeon. This makes for an unusual but interesting mix of cruisers and itinerant local passengers. 

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Norwegian blue

But this is no ferry masquerading as a cruise ship: my cabin was fabulous – spacious (with a sea view), comfy sofa, writing desk and tea and coffee. The ship also features two hot tubs and a sauna. 

Showcasing a host of Norwegian seafood, meats, breads, cheeses and more the food on board is superb and varies depending on the region the ship is sailing through: for example, halibut tart and poached salmon in the Fjords and stockfish (unsalted cod dried in the sun and wind on wooden racks) when in the Arctic. 

Guests can upgrade to a Gold package, offering exclusive meal choices – I enjoy crayfish soup and North Atlantic scallops while others in my group feast on grilled fillet of reindeer– and a dining experience in Hildring, the ship’s fine-dining restaurant.

For my four-day sampler cruise, I flew from Gatwick to Oslo and on to Bodø, located 90 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, to meet up with Havila Castor guests four days into their cruise.

Before boarding the ship I join those guests on a scenic three-kilometre coastal walk, our snow shoe chains crunching on the snowy forest floor. We stop to look at unassuming humps in the ground that are Viking burial sites and enjoy views of the broiling ocean beyond. 

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Green themes

Our voyage north is framed by imposing craggy mountains that rise from the calm waters like timeless sentinels. Occasionally a sea eagle rides a thermal, while dotting the shoreline are red wooden homes.

In such a pristine and mostly silent environment it seems fitting that Havila’s ships are some of the most eco-friendly of any cruise line, powered by natural gas and huge onboard battery packs. 

Havila’s aim is to replace natural gas with biogas and be carbon-neutral by 2028. By 2030 it will switch to emission-free fuel alternatives such as hydrogen, and the goal is zero emissions by 2030 – a target attainable with its current fleet of ships. 

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Other excursions include snowmobiling and a bus ride from the small fishing village of Honningsvåg to the North Cape, located at the northernmost tip of Europe in a region where Sami reindeer herders live on and where Hobbit-like turf homes stand out in a treeless landscape.

From Kirkenes, in Norway’s far north-eastern extremes, we take a visit to the border with Russia. Here, Russians are not quite the pariahs they are elsewhere in Europe: there’s a fondness that dates back to 1944 when the Red Army liberated the area from four years of Nazi occupation. 

In Kirkenes, there’s even a towering statue of a Russian soldier (although a nearby bush was scattered with small blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags). 

I watch king crabs – the evening’s dinner – being pulled by the dozen from a hole in a frozen lake, and later that same night I cocoon myself in a high-density sleeping bag made to withstand much lower temperatures than the -4C in the ice chamber of the Snow Hotel. 

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The highlight for many arrives on my third evening, when the ship’s captain announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Northern Lights are in the sky on our starboard side.” 

I join the rush to Deck 8 and see a raven-black sky lightened by white streaks – but where are the Northern Lights?  

I point my phone camera to the sky anyway – and that’s when the magic begins as the resulting picture reveals those coveted green streaks that are often not visible to the naked eye.  

Havila’s Northern Lights Promise isn’t needed on this evening but is worth noting: If the lights do not appear on 12-day cruises taken between October 1 and March 31 clients can claim a free six- or seven-day voyage with the cruise line. 

Book it with… Havila Voyages

The 12-day round-voyage from Bergen to Bergen (via Kirkenes) starts from £917pp, for dates in January 2024 (full-board basis in an inside cabin and based on two sharing). A Sea View superior cabin is from £1,515pp. havilavoyages.com