Take it to the limit

Steve Newman braves the icy conditions along a century-old shipping route to isolated villages and fiords.

The sun washes the rooftops with a golden glow as we slip out of Bergen harbour on the evening tide. I'm on a Hurtigruten Norwegian cruise to see the midnight sun but just as many people make the journey in autumn and winter to experience the Northern Lights.

Hurtigruten's ships have been sailing between Bergen in the south to Kirkenes on the Russian border, inside the Arctic Circle, for more than 100 years. So these are not cruises in the normal sense, more a way of life, providing ferry, postal and other services to 34 often-isolated communities up and down the coast. Ships are relatively small, allowing access to fiords and scenery closed to other vessels but they have the refinements of a cruise ship.

The cruises have been called the most beautiful in the world and I begin to see why as we travel the 17 kilometres of fiord that leads to the village of Geiranger. Towering cliffs are laced with waterfalls, dwarfing the ship, against the backdrop of a blue sky and sea eagles drifting on the breeze.

Most cruises have one stop a day: on Hurtigruten's you can get five. Most are no longer than 30 minutes, except at the bigger cities and towns, but the joy of leaning over the rail and watching what's being loaded and unloaded and who's getting on and off is hard to beat.

In Geiranger we pick up the driver of the local hearse, off to ''pick up a client''; in the small town of Molde we pick up an elderly Australian couple who are getting off at every stop to explore the walking trails and see bird-life; Kristiansund produces a depressed-looking gentleman on his way to the dentist in Trondheim.

A little later I find myself and five other thrill-seekers wrapped head to toe in a bright orange waterproof suit wearing goggles and a hood. Soon we're roaring across the sound, clutching the aluminium handle in front of us as our rubber inflatable skims across the waves to enter the Saltstraumen. Colossal quantities of water are forced through this narrow channel every day, creating some of the most dangerous waters anywhere on Earth. I look down at the whirlpools rushing past us and wonder why I've taken this trip. Only when I'm safely back on board the ship clutching a single malt in the lounge, laughing with my fellow ''Saltstraumers'' do I understand.

Before supper, as the ship steers away from land, I find myself marvelling from the bow at what I thought would be an empty sea, now alive with gannets, puffins and shearwaters.

Supper is excellent. ''We try to source all our food from Norway,'' says Kystein Valle, who has been a chef on Hurtigruten ships for 38 years.

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''Menus will always include such things as cod roe, reindeer, king crab, salmon, cloudberries and traditional breads.''

Among the larger towns I especially enjoy Trondheim, where we have a five-hour stop, and its beautiful painted houses. Tromso, too (another five-hour stop), is a delight. Forget the coach excursions - explore this lovely time capsule on foot. See the bright yellow wooden cathedral, exquisite wooden houses and leave time for the fascinating Polar Museum.

At five the next morning my alarm clock wakes me as we dock at Hammerfest, reputedly the world's most northerly town.

I go up on deck and into town and have the immediate sense that something is not quite right. ''There is a sadness here,'' the local policeman says. ''Like many towns and villages we were burned to the ground as part of the German's scorched-earth policy in 1945 to stop the Russians invading. Many people can tell you stories about entire families living in holes in the ground through the winter.''

The next day I join Eric, a sprightly octogenarian from Bath, on a visit to mainland Europe's most northerly point. We encounter all four seasons in the half-hour it takes the coach to reach the North Cape, which rises about 300 metres almost vertically from the Arctic Ocean.

The tundra crunches under my feet and the icy wind goes through rather than around me - I marvel at how anything could live here. Yet live they do, for this part of Norway is inhabited by the Sami, reindeer herders who have been here for thousands of years.

My last afternoon is spent coughing as wood smoke fills my lungs while I am inside a traditional Sami tent.

The reindeer are kept here only for the summer and are then taken across a wide channel to their winter quarters. ''In the old days we'd swim them across,'' says one of the old men. ''Now we put them on the ferry - it's easier.''

Times change but not Norway's scenery, nor Hurtigruten's coastal odyssey, as beautiful today as it must have been a century ago.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Thai Airways flies to Oslo for about $2120; flying to Bangkok (9hr), then Oslo (12hr). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.

Hurtigruten has 11 ships based in Norway and runs cruises year round. See www.hurtigruten.co.uk. For bookings, phone 1800 623 267 or email hurtigruten@discovertheworld.com.au.

If you're flying independently to join a cruise or wish to do part of the trip, the most scenic option is the stretch from Bodo (a 90-minute flight from Oslo) to Kirkenes. You can also join the ships with flights from Oslo and Bergen at ports all the way up the coast, depending on the time of year.

Best routes

Summer has the obvious advantages of light and weather, while winter cruises offer beautiful wintry landscapes and the chance to see the Northern Lights. The best option is the one-way northbound cruise, as it offers long stays at Trondheim and Tromso year round. In winter, southbound departures offer daytime sailing through the Lofoten and Vesteralen islands, some of the cruises' most picturesque scenery. Start at Bergen and finish at Kirkenes, as this means you fly back over the length of Norway, with superb views.

From November 1, full board for the seven-day cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes costs from £941 ($1500) a person, twin share, this year. A 15 per cent early-bird special for 2011 bookings made before December 31 costs from £918. Cruises with return flight to Bergen, plus transfer to the ship and to Kirkenes Airport, cost an extra £435 a person for 2010 and £495 for 2011.

A cheaper option is the six-day Venture into the Arctic cruise, from £795 a person this year and £825 next year, from Bergen to Tromso via Alesund and Trondheim.

Best excursions

The North Cape (northbound) is Hurtigruten's most popular excursion to the European mainland's most northerly point; £72 this year, £77 next year.

Geiranger Panorama (northbound, summer only) takes you 600 metres above the water by bus for breathtaking views of the fiord, mountains and the Seven Sisters waterfall; £61 this year, £65 next year.

Tromso midnight concert (southbound) is held in the candle-lit Arctic Cathedral, with its huge mosaic window and fantastic acoustics; £37 this year, £40 next year.

Staying there

Hurtigruten has land extensions, including:

Radisson Blu Plaza is in Oslo's city centre and close to the railway station. It's the largest hotel in Norway, with 673 newly renovated rooms. Doubles from £66, including breakfast, see www.radissonblu.com/plazahotel-oslo.

The Clarion Hotel Admiral, Bergen, is a converted 1890s warehouse. Get a harbour-facing room with a balcony for views of the wharf and the mountains. Doubles cost from £73 with breakfast, see www.admiral.no.

The Thon Hotel, Hammerfest, which has undergone renovations but will reopen next year, has harbour views. Doubles cost from £71, including breakfast. See www.thonhotels.com.

Eating there

Bryggeloftet & Stuene, in Bergen's old wharf area, has traditional Norwegian fish and game specialities. Try lutefisk, the pungent local fish. See www.bryggeloftet.no/interior3e.html.

Baklandet Skydsstation in Trondheim is a friendly restaurant with old Norwegian dishes. Try the traditional sodd, a Norwegian meatball dish. See www.skydsstation.no.

- Telegraph, London

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