Nothing but long woollen underwear and a waterproof onesie lie between me and the Arctic elements of Lofoten archipelago as I sit astride the speedboat's saddle-like front seat for unadulterated views and wind impact. Captivated by the moody weather and primeval rock rising near vertically from the inky water and disappearing into the mist above, I lose all sense of time. Meanwhile, back in the port of Stokmarknes, my ship has sailed. The Norwegian coastline, not including every tiny island and inlet and Svalbard, is arguably about a third the length of Australia's total coast but its land mass is only 5 per cent of ours. Since 1893, Norway's strewn communities have been sustained by a marine freight and transport service – now called Hurtigruten – which accommodates overnight passengers but refuses to classify itself as a cruise company. There is no dressing up for dinner, no on-board entertainment, no different classes of travel, no waiting for straggling passengers.
The name Hurtigruten means the "fast route" in honour of the coastal service's revolutionary impact on the country when it first began, cutting delivery time of a domestic letter from months to days. Now 11 ships perpetually work the Norwegian coast on an 11-day return route between 34 ports from Kirkenes – 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle – down to Bergen, which is latitudinally similar to Oslo. Stops are generally 15 minutes long with some scheduled for 30 minutes and a handful are four hours. Ships collect and deliver mail, cars, tractors, furniture, electrical goods, fresh produce, and transport people, including the occasional prisoner and dead body.
"You don't need to describe Hurtigruten to any Norwegian – it's part of us," says the company's spokesman, Oystein Knoph, who is as local as his name suggests. He shows me a 1930s photograph of his grandfather – born in the 1890s – who rowed the fiords and dog-sledded the winter landscape of Spitsbergen and Greenland where he trapped and hunted. In the sepia snapshot, the man is feeding polar bear cubs from a hand-held bowl.
But times have changed and, to stay afloat, so has Norway's coastal express. Yet Hurtigruten hasn't lost sight of the original purpose and local responsibilities. Tourists have always had a place on board but, as chief executive officer Daniel Skjeldam explains: "Hurtigruten is a combination of a necessary lifeline for the communities we pass, and tourism. We're all about what you experience from the ship".
Which is why, only a day after boarding MS Richard With, I'm zipping around the Lofoten islands on a rigid inflatable boat spotting puffins and sea eagles through fogged goggles and dreaming of moving into my own fiord-side cabin. It's just after summer solstice and I'm in Norway for a week to get a feel for Hurtigruten and attend the christening, in Svolvaer, of the latest addition to their fleet: MS Spitsbergen. Norwegian adventurer, guide, lecturer and the first woman to reach the world's seven summits and both poles, Cecilie Skog, will be there too to break the bottle.
At my Tromso hotel the previous morning, Morten – more the Viking stereotype than any hair-extensioned Hollywood actor has ever been – casually told me all about his city's 60 polar days and 60 polar nights and the cosy Norwegian concept of koselig as he poured coffee. The further north you go in Norway, they say, the warmer people get.
After tearing myself away from breakfast, I spent the day wandering the Polar Museum, touring Mack – the world's northernmost brewery – then sea-kayaked amid snow-patched mountains under the instruction of fiercely kind local woman, Tove. Hurtigruten's other Tromso-based summer activities include a hike above the city or a trip to Kvaloya Island Wilderness Centre to cuddle husky pups. In winter, there is a polar history walk for the four-hour southbound stopover or dog sledding on Kvaloya.
Back at the city's waterfront, I dined on local fish dish, bacalao, before walking across Tromso Bridge in broad daylight for a midnight concert of haunting operatic-style versions of traditional Sami music and Norwegian folk songs in the Arctic Cathedral. Then it was time to board.
As we sailed south, I stood on deck wide-eyed from jet lag and the excitement of being in Norway and because there were no obvious go-to-bed cues except a total absence of people. Gliding past enormous clusters of floundering blackfish and unsettled seagulls and the low-profile rural landscape, I tried to imagine it all in mid-winter – everything under snow and lit by a full moon or the northern lights with only the warm Gulf Stream current keeping the fiords from freezing.
But once I reached my cabin – a good functional space with a large porthole, single bed, couch, desk and en suite – I fell asleep in seconds aboard our "floating base camp" as Oystein likes to call it. Some of his family members also boarded in Tromso headed for the ship christening and live music event in Svolvaer; about 150,000 Norwegians used the coastal express last year for travel within their own country.
"Local people treat Hurtigruten like a train or bus," says tour manager Harald Weinreich as MS Richard With crosses the Arctic Circle a few days later. He is completely undermining Hurtigruten's no-on-board-entertainment policy by wearing a plastic Viking helmet and flopping his fake cod around as we're offered champagne and cod liver oil.
The son of a shipmaster, Tromso-born Richard With grew to be a shipmaster himself as well as a merchant and left-wing politician. Towards the end of the 19th century, his steamship company answered the call to provide a year-round coastal express ferry service in Norway when no other company thought it possible, given the Arctic darkness of winter, prevalence of storms and minimal lighthouses. Richard With and his pilots simply navigated using compass and clock.
By 1896, With had even established a sports route for expeditions from Hammerfest to Spitsbergen where he had built a hotel. It was the same year explorer Fridtjof Nansen returned from his North Pole expedition aboard polar ship, Fram, having left Norway the same year the coastal express was established. But the fiord specialist focus remained local until early this century when Hurtigruten's expedition ships, such as their own Fram, began venturing to Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica where Norwegian exploration has a strong history.
Since then, Hurtigruten has been ramping things up on the expedition and adventure front, and now offers more than 70 shore activities from edible, musical, natural, cultural to animal, mineral, physical, spiritual. Although the same ports are visited in both directions, it's at different times of the day and night so excursion options vary each way. And, seasonally, everything shifts.
Weinreich prefers winter when, below the Arctic Circle, "the sun is a burning fire on the sea". He claims to have never had bad weather in both directions.
I quite like the cut of Hurtigruten's jib – the company seems to genuinely give a ship about the environment and their society. They buy excursions and source food locally, are into energy recycling, plan to add beach clean-ups to their activities and there is an even gender balance in managerial positions.
It has also worked out how passengers can explore Norway without compromising the locals' service. Excursions like the Atlantic Road bus tour from Kristiansand to Molde, winter snowmobiling between Kjollefjord and Mehamn or this RIB adventure from Stokmarknes simply meet up with the floating base camp at the next port.
We slip into the former fishing village of Svolvaer in soggy jumpsuits well before Richard With arrives and dock in the evening shadow of the hull of Spitsbergen. Knoph calls the latest expedition ship "a devil in disguise": the inside looks like a boutique hotel but it's "really tough – Spits is meant for ice". And his face and voice subtly contain what I've begun to recognise as the deep-seated Norwegian fervour for connecting with the great outdoors.
Emirates flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Oslo (via Dubai). See www.emirates.com/au
Scandinavian Airlines then connects you to domestic Norwegian airports Kirkenes and Bergen. See www.flysas.com
From 2017, Hurtigruten will operate expedition sailing along the Norwegian coast with on-board expedition teams, lectures and excursions. The company also offer explorer trips to Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Spitsbergen, Europe, the Americas and across the Atlantic.
Take a look at Hurtigruten's navigable website for details and book through www.discovertravelshop.com.au
Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Bryggen 5, Bergen, is near the wharf and has an excellent breakfast buffet. Rooms start from $140 a person a night; see www.radissonblu.com/en/royalhotel-bergen
Fiskompani, Killengrens Gate, Tromso. Phone +47 77 68 76 00; see www.fiskekompani.no
Bare Restaurant Bergen, Nedre Ole Bulls plass 4. Phone +47 400 02 455; see www.barerestaurant.no
THE FIVE SAILING SEASONS OF THE NORWEGIAN ARCTIC
JANUARY TO MARCH
Weather stabilises and clouds dissipate to reveal the northern lights. January is a cold, dark and magical month but, if eternal night doesn't float your boat, daylight hours swiftly increase in February.
MAY TO JULY
You'll have more energy and need less sleep travelling under the midnight sun, and will once again be that child who wouldn't go to bed when your parents had a dinner party.
JULY AND AUGUST
Although theoretically the warmest time of the year, Arctic weather conditions are fickle so pack a beanie and jacket with your shorts and T-shirts.
With the autumn foliage and vibrant sunrises and sunsets, this is a colourful time to sail the coast without the climatic extremes of midwinter or high summer.
OCTOBER TO DECEMBER
Stormy weather means my lunch and I ain't together. Travel during the least stable months gives you a real feel for pre-radar navigational challenges and your own vestibular tolerances.
Elspeth Callender was a guest of Hurtigruten