It looked like a giant Hershey Kiss; a chocolate cone dusted with icing sugar rising from the freezing waters of the Norwegian Sea. Snow swirled from its peak as enormous seabirds wheeled above.
This first view of Arctic Norway in daylight was breathtaking. Not just because of the icy wind whipping round the ship's forward deck but mainly because of the imposing scenery floating by. Dark blue waters chopped and slooped beneath the big red ship as we sailed slowly along the fjord towards a colourful little village. Jagged rocks jutted out from sheer snow-clad cliffs and an ever-changing cloudscape cast shadows across the white and black landscape, dwarfing a little fishing boat pootling out to sea.
I had boarded Hurtigruten MV â€˜Richard With' with a group of travel bloggers and photographers in TromsÃ¸ the previous night. I'd been to Norway once before, on a cruise in May and seen the splendours of Geiranger Fjord, travelled on the quirky FlÃ¥m railway and enjoyed the delicious sights and flavours of the more southerly regions – but this voyage was very different. Hurtigruten runs a regular ferry service along the filigree coast of Norway from Bergen to Kirkenes, providing a life-line for the tiny hamlets dotted along the way, as well as a unique sea-going experience to the very edge of the inhabited world.
As we manoeuvred our way alongside HavÃ¸ysund docks more people came out to watch and capture the scene on camera. One hardy soul dressed only in jeans and shirt seemed oblivious to the cold and undulating motion as he focused his enormous zoom lens onto the old church in the middle of the town. HavÃ¸ysund is a traditional fishing village with a population of about 1,000; its terracotta buildings will be forever in my mind because it was the first – and there were many more beautiful sights to see in the next few days …
We were quickly on our way again but the weather closed in and the sky turned an uninviting grey. I retreated to the warmth of the lounge. The ship's tannoy announced we were passing MÃ¥sÃ¸y Island. A craggy shape loomed out of the snow-dark sky. Apparently there are over 400,000 puffins living here – not one to be seen on the day we passed.
Next stop was to be the highlight of our trip – HonningsvÃ¥g and North Cape, the northernmost point of mainland Europe on the 71st parallel. But the weather gods had other ideas. â€œLadies and Gentlemen, we are sorry to announce that the excursion to North Cape has been cancelled as the roads are blocked by snowdrifts. We still have a few places left on the trip to SkarsvÃ¥g, the world's most northerly fishing village.â€ There was a rush to the Excursion Desk as disappointed adventurers vied to get on to another superlative-laden jaunt.
â€œIt's such a shame we can't go to North Cape. I've just bought some croutons from the shop.â€ The elderly lady standing next to me held up a paper bag decorated with the Hurtigruten logo.
We gazed at it in some bewilderment. Was she hoping to feed some of the seabirds at the Cape? â€œUm, what are they for?â€ asked fellow blogger Kathryn. â€œOh, to put on the bottom of my shoes. They make walking in the snow so much easier.â€ There was a stunned silence as we tried to picture this novel idea. â€œEr, do you mean crampons?â€ â€œOh yes, silly me,â€ she said with a wry smile and held aloft the now redundant pair for all to see.
We didn't get on the fishing village trip (apparently its main attractions are the swimming pool and flowers in the gardens) so instead went for a walk round HonningsvÃ¥g, capital of the Nordkapp region (also the â€˜most northerly city in Europe'). The first tourist was an Italian priest called Francesco Negri who travelled this area in 1664, curious to see how people could survive this far north.
Disembarking from the ship I saw a large sickle-shaped metal sculpture called â€˜Boreas the Northern Wind', symbol of the extreme weather conditions that rock this hardy coastline. With a flourishing fishing industry the port is awash with vessels of all shapes and sizes, plus one very weird looking ship boasting a huge cannon-like affair on its deck. Maybe to blow the fish out of the water, or to keep marauding Russian trawlers at bay?
Other sights include the world's most northerly Micro-Brewery and the Nordkappmuseet with a small collection of Sami artefacts, local crafts and photographs of reindeer and snowscapes. Outside is a statue of Bamse, a St Bernhard dog owned by a Norwegian captain and famous for his exploits in Second World War.
It is said that in battle â€œhe would stand on the front gun tower of the boat, and the crew made him a special metal helmet.â€ Wikipedia.
HonningsvÃ¥g was mostly destroyed during WWII but a simple wooden church still stands. Built in 1885 it is one of the few churches to survie in the Finmark region of Norway and the War Memorial in front of the building is testimony to the many local people who lost their lives in the war.
On the way back to our Hurtigruten mothership I passed a gigantic snow plough. We'd been unable to get to North Cape because a beast like this couldn't get through the snow â€¦
Every cloud has a silver lining. If we had made that final trek to the North Cape I wouldn't have seen the world's most northerly American Car Club …
I travelled Norway’s Arctic Circle coast from historic TromsÃ¸ to snowy Kirkenes with Hurtigruten UK. Many thanks to Marianne and her team for providing the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong ambition to see this exceptional part of our planet in this unique way.