In Search of the Northern Lights: Day 12

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Aledon

There was no call last night. But we shouldn’t be greedy. Seeing the lights over 4 nights – particularly the wonderful display of the night before last – is more than many tourists get. One Norwegian, a regular traveler on the ferry, said that he hadn’t seen such a display on some many evenings for a good while.

Today we reach Bergen at about 2.30pm and the journey will be over. There is just one more port to call at before then and it is one of those fifteen minutes stops to deliver or collect goods. So no more sightseeing apart from some time in Bergen. The last listed sight according to the ferry guide is when we cross the mouth of the largest fjord in Sweden, Sognefjord. But to be honest, it is going to have to be pretty spectacular to beat what we have seen on further north. And, as with many things, you appreciate them better when you’re not there. The little villages spread around a narrow coastal shore for example. Goodness knows how many we have seen as it is the way of life; the narrow roads of wooden clad houses in some of the older areas; the Arctic Cathedral and yes the lights themselves.

So to wrap up this diary, a few thoughts on two things; what clothes to bring and shipboard life because both of these can make or break your enjoyment of the whole journey.

Snow free islands

Ideally you want clothing that will protect you from the wind first and then the cold. Layers of clothing are best so you can peel them off. On the ferry, most inside areas are warm so just a shirt and jeans are adequate. But going on deck can require something heavy to keep out the wind and the cold. Be wary though of ski jackets with small pockets that have zips. Big pockets aren’t a problem but small pockets mean that your hands will rub against the zip teeth. At some stage in the cold these will cut the skin and you’ll feel it when you wash your hands in the alcohol sanitiser. So take a jacket with big pockets. Mine has meant that I’ve used a lot of moisturising cream. A hat with a thermal underlay that preferably that be secured under your chin is good as the wind will try and remove hats if you don’t hold on to them. Nearly everyone, both on the ship and the locals on shore, wear those “Russian” fur hats with the earflaps. I haven’t used the waterproof over-trousers I’ve brought because there was only one occasion that I would have needed them and that was in the squall in Bodo. Strong thermal ski gloves are useful but no use if you are trying to use a camera at the same time. So I suggest two pairs of gloves with one being thin enough so that you can operate camera buttons but warm enough so that you can keep the cold out for the minutes that you’ll be using your camera. How some people managed to do without gloves when we spent an hour or so out looking and photographing the northern lights I don’t know. You need good walking shoes or boots more so for the more southern stops where there is hardly any covering of snow to give you grip. The ice on deck this morning is the slipperiest I’ve come across and I’m in boots.
Heading into Bergen

Spikes are useful attachments to boots and shoes in these places and you can buy them on a rubber attachment in many outdoors shops in the UK. However, the downside to these is that according to a friend made aboard you are required to remove them when going into shops on shore (not surprising really – I don’t suppose they want their floors ripped to shreds), so in places they can be more trouble than they’re worth. Have a comfortable pair of shoes for wandering around the inside of the ferry. And on your feet, thermal socks are ideal. I certainly haven’t felt the cold through mine. In a nutshell, you probably need fewer really warm clothes than you might think, as unless you feel the cold particularly badly you don’t need the serious stuff until you get north of the Arctic Circle, plus there’s a laundry on board.

Unless you can pack for 12 days or so, you’ll need to wash clothes at least once on the trip. The ferry has a laundry you can use and which will cost you NKr90 for a washer load. That includes the detergent so you don’t need to bring something like travel wash products. Drying is free, as is the use of an iron and ironing board. You can leave the washing as the laundry is guarded by CCTV. Although there is an officer called Hotel Officer, there is no pick up -laundry service. You do your own.

Life on board the ferry is casual. You don’t dress for dinner as you can do on a cruise ship, although some ladies did make the effort of putting on a necklace or a bit of make-up. However, you don’t want to be in a little cocktail dress and high heels if the call comes that the Northern Lights are outside – keep on those boots and thermals and be ready to make a run for it! The day is governed by the meal times and the port visits. Breakfast and lunch are buffet meals and usually run for a couple for hours each. They can also vary in time – as can dinner – depending on when we dock so that excursions and wandering around towns can take place. Dinner is usually waiter service with one sitting at 6.30pm and two sittings once you leave Tromso heading north. I mentioned the coffee and tea deal some days ago (a refillable cup for NKr209 for an entire voyage or in fact, the whole calendar year so if you come back again you can still use you mug). That proved a good buy as you often have three cups a day or more, virtually every time you come in after wandering the deck. Tipping isn’t expected but there is a small pot for tips in the restaurant and a little box on the desk of the tour arranger.

There is a small shop on board from which you can buy souvenirs, postcards and stamps as well as a café, largely used by Norwegians who travel from port to port only. You can get some things there that the restaurant doesn’t serve like pizza and burgers, but who wants that when the food you get served is fresh, local and has good service? So many people have experimented with new or differently prepared foods on this voyage. There are 2 bars as well and beer is quite widely drunk despite the price – which seems astronomical to many of us! There is even a play room for kids with a slide, building bricks and other toys.

The Polarlys

In terms of the weather we have been lucky. It has been very calm for most of the trip and the regulars (more on them in a minute) say that they have known much worse, when the ferries enter fjords for protection or where the crockery decides to acquaint itself with the floor. In winter even though the ferry is full at times, the ship is small enough to feel friendly yet big enough so you don’t get under other people’s feet. I’m told in summer, when the prices can be twice as high, the ship is full as people come to see the midnight sun. This summer, this particular ferry, MS Polarlys, is difficult to book. As an aside, there have been only 3 ferries that have borne this name, the first one in 1912. Since then there has always been one ship of the name in service so next year they celebrate their centenary.

I mentioned that there are regulars. One lady from Scotland is making her fourth trip, many are making their second and one Norwegian does this trip three or four times per year because he just likes it. There is always something different to see he says. For others the majesty of the mountains covered with snow and the completely different life is what attracts. Then there is the appeal of each ship. Some prefer one to another. One seems too big, another less friendly. Most of us are either British or German along with a smattering of Irish. Obviously there are Norwegians but there seem no Dutch, no Americans, only a handful of French and one Russian. Most of us are over 50, I suspect. This isn’t a holiday for everyone as it is quite expensive. The attraction is the northern lights so that might explain why the only families with young children have been Norwegians who have been using the ferry for its proper function.

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