A Short Sailing on Hurtigruten’s MS Nordnorge

After finishing up our stay at the Snowhotel, it was time to board Hurtigruten’s MS Nordnorge for the cruise portion of our trip. As you may have read in an earlier post, things didn’t quite go as planned, and we ended up getting off of the ship after only 36 hours. Nothing’s changed with my feelings on what went down both onboard the ship and since then, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I wanted to offer up what I feel is a fair review of our time onboard.

Getting from the Snowhotel to the ship was a breeze. Hurtigruten has excursions that allow you to tour the hotel when they’re in port in Kirkenes, so we were just able to hop on one of the tour buses when it returned to the ship around noon, and do so without charge, which was nice. Upon arriving at the ship, we wren’t quite sure where to go to check in, assuming we needed to find a building outside of the ship to head into. Wrong! We were told to take our luggage and board the ship, checking in once we got up the ramp. Check-in was an absolute breeze, too. We handed over our passports, she looked up our reservations, and handed us our stateroom keys. No real line, just get your stateroom key, set up your on-board account, and head to your room with your luggage. All in all it may have taken 20 minutes, counting the time we spent waiting on the people in front of us complaining about various things.

Once we checked in, we immediately headed to our cabins to drop our stuff. We had two cabins in two different categories, with Bayley having her own room on deck 3, a Polar Outside room, and Jen and I on deck 5 in an Arctic Superior. Both rooms were fine. Well appointed, comfortable, but a little small compared to your average cruise ship room, and quite lacking in storage space.

As for how a sailing on Hurtigruten compares to other cruises we’ve been on, well, it doesn’t. We knew going in that it wouldn’t, we selected this specifically because it wasn’t your average cruise. They bill it more of an adventure/exploration sailing, as your journey takes you through a number of ports between Kirkenes and Bergen. Some of the stops are short stays of 30min or less, designed to deliver supplies and/or ferry people/cars, so in those ports you’re not getting off the ship, but at the longer stops, you can walk around town, join an excursion if one’s available in that port, or even join the expedition team on an adventure in the area. That last one depends on whether or not your ship has an expedition team, which ours did. We actually put in a lot of time planning the whole trip around ensuring that we were on a refurbished ship that also had an expedition team. Well, that really didn’t end up paying off, did it? ūüôā

After boarding and grabbing some lunch in the buffet, we checked out the various decks on-board.¬†The ship itself was really nice. There are 7 decks, with deck 1 being the crew’s deck, and not available for passengers to visit. Half of deck 2 is where the cars are stored while in transit, also not open to guests. That leaves 5.5 passenger decks, with most of your time as a passenger likely spent on deck 4 (restaurant, guest services/excursion desk, shops), deck 5 (outside deck where you can walk around the entire ship), or deck 7 (panoramic lounge, bakery, sun deck). I would have thrown deck 6 in there for the outdoor jacuzzis, but they weren’t operational. Local law requires video surveillance in place, which they had yet to install.

Around 4pm, those of us who boarded in Kirkenes (around 40 people, maybe) met in the conference room on deck 4 for the required safety briefing. That mainly consisted of a video showing us what to do in the event of an emergency, including how to put on the cold water survival suits, yet another reminder you’re not in the Caribbean! During this meeting, the expedition team also gave us a little talk on what their purpose was on-board, and what sort of talks they’d be giving over the course of this sailing. Because of the change in itinerary, they were also responsible for giving us information on what had changed, what the compensation for the change was, and also hosted a Q&A on the changes. Frankly, this is where things started to go off the rails. During the Q&A, one of the other groups onboard expressed serious displeasure at the reason for the change, which was met with a very non-empathetic “well, you get to see the scenery”. Considering we chose this to be able to stop at a number of towns along the way, most of which were now cancelled, that response just made things more tense. If you take a look at the southbound map, you’ll understand. After Tromso, all stops until Bergen were cancelled. At this point, we didn’t realize we’d also be missing key stops before Tromso, too. Yikes.

After the meeting broke, we headed to the excursions desk to see about signing up for the midnight snowmobile excursion, something we were really looking forward to. That’s when we found out that we were getting close to some heavy wind, and that as a result we’d likely be missing the ports involved, as you get off in one port and rejoin in the next one after finishing up the excursion. While it was extremely disappointing, bad weather happens, regardless of where you’re sailing. That meant the only excursion we still had a shot at on the entire sailing was the midnight concert in the arctic cathedral once we got to Tromso the next day. I’m pretty sure that’s when all 3 of us started considering our options for leaving the ship.

After the disappointment at the excursions desk, we headed to our rooms to unpack before dinner. At some point during that time, we did head up to the sun deck for the first expedition team talk during our time on-board. This ended up being somewhat disappointing, as it was almost impossible to hear her unless you were right up front near her. We saw several people around us walk away indicating the same issue. I did catch some of it, with information on the area and birds that you might see if you were looking. I think it lasted 20-30 minutes max. Honestly, I found the idea of an on-board expedition team more exciting than the reality of it. I pictured a small team that in addition to giving the talks, could, at any minute, throw you into a zodiac and head to land for some snowshoeing up a mountain, vs a team that basically was on board to give short talks and walk around towns giving local history. Not saying that’s bad, just not what I think I was expecting. We didn’t sit in on any other talks during our short time on-board, and didn’t follow them around at either of our stops, so I can’t speak to anything beyond that initial meeting and talk.

At some point in here (it may have happened before the talk, I don’t quite remember), we had our first stop in Vardo. This was a short one, about 45 minutes, so we took the short walk over to¬†Vard√łhus Fortress, about the only scenery available in that amount of time. It was a pretty icy walk, so we were glad we had our ice grips with us! The expedition team also led a walk over there for anyone who wanted to go, giving a history of the place along the way, but we did it on our own.

Dinner was up next, and was delicious. I was expecting fish to be served every night, but our first night on the ship actually brought us some more reindeer, this time a filet. While I’m here, I should cover eating on board overall, too. All meals are in the restaurant at the back of deck 4. Breakfast and lunch are buffets, and are seafood heavy, which we completely expected. Dinner is a typical 3 course meal, and is the only time you have an assigned seat in here. When entering the restaurant, you are supposed to use provided antibiotic gel, similar to other lines, and you also have to scan your room card, so that the kitchen knows how much food to prepare. This is true for every meal, as they’re trying to avoid a lot of food waste. There’s no special dress code for dinner, just wear what you had on during the day, and no formal nights. It was nice not having to take a second set of clothes for dinner! No way could we have pulled that off having only taken one suitcase each.

We’d entered the windy portion of the cruise prior to dinner, so Jen and Bayley were already feeling pretty uneasy. After dinner, we headed back to the room so they could rest a bit. It was at that point when we decided staying on the boat really wasn’t an option. After discussing where we would want to spend our time after getting off in Tromso, I spent an hour or so looking at flights and hotels for that intended itinerary before approaching the guest services desk to ask about the possibility of getting off the ship. Frankly, we could have done so without asking, all we had to do was close out our on-board account and check out right before debarking, so upon learning that, I spent another 2-3 hours Sunday night getting everything booked while the girls attempted to rest and feel better. I briefly covered the new itinerary in the vacation reset post, and will be covering each stop in upcoming posts, too. Honestly, I don’t remember doing much else that night, other than dealing with booking stuff and trying to get answers out of guests services on a refund of our cruise fare. Frankly, I found dealing with the on-board guest services manager to be a pretty frustrating experience.

The next morning, after a little breakfast in the main dining room, we continued on our quest to get our refund sorted out, and figure out if they were going to cover our hotel stay in Tromso. It had been offered the day before, and if they were going to offer, we were going to take them up on it. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite come to pass as expected. Knowing Tromso was a popular town, and seeing that there weren’t many rooms left when I searched the night before, I’d already held one, as our existing experiences with their customer service left me feeling like they weren’t going to come through, and I was right.

The wind was still pretty bad, with us hitting gale force conditions overnight, and continuing on into the morning, so the girls spent part of the morning resting in the room while I explored the ship a little, trying to stay upright in the process. At some point, we also had our final stop we could get off the ship at before Tromso, in Hammerfest. We were here for about 90 minutes, if I recall, long enough to check out the area around the port, so we took advantage of it. We just walked around, checking out a few stores, and stopping in a delicious little cafe for some hot chocolate. Bayley and I agreed that they had some of the best (if not the best) hot chocolate we’ve ever had. If you’re in Hammerfest, stop in and give Cafe Cozy a try!

The rest of our day onboard was pretty uneventful. It pretty much consisted of packing, resting, walking the ship, trying to get an answer on our hotel out of guest services, and eating. Dinner was some fish none of us were really interested in trying, so we actually paid to eat at the little cafe mid-ship on deck 4. Jen and I had pizza, while Bayley got a burger. Not bad, to be honest. After dinner, I headed over to guest services one last time to settle our on-board account. It was “fun” having that handled by the same guest services manager who had promised more than once that day to get back to us on the hotel issue, only to have her not even acknowledge she recognized us as I checked out. Personally, all I ever wanted was a full refund, so I was ready to move on with life and enjoy the rest of the trip.

Around 11:30pm, we pulled into Tromso as scheduled, with the 3 of us hanging out on deck 4 with our backpacks, ready to debark. They do have a luggage room on deck 3 near reception, so after vacating our room around 8:30pm, we’d stashed our suitcases there. After waiting for the crowd to debark, we gathered our suitcases and debarked the ship one last time. Our hotel was around a quarter mile away, so we bid farewell to the ship, and headed out into the snowy center of town, excited about what was in store!

I’m sure a sailing on a Hurtigruten ship under normal circumstances is a cool experience, but in this case, it was 36 hours we were all happy to forget. In an odd twist of fate, we actually ran in to a large group of remaining passengers on Friday while walking around Bergen, so Jen decided to walk over and talk to one of them. Sounds like we made the right call in getting off, as they had at least one more rough day, and the last couple of days weren’t all that fun in general. None of them looked all that happy, and I’m sure it didn’t help that they were all standing in the rain outside the Neptune hotel Hurtigruten had put them up at waiting on a bus to the airport, also provided by the line.

One piece of advice I’d like to add to anyone thinking of sailing Hurtigruten: do your homework, and know what you’re getting in to. That’s not a knock on them at all, that’s a statement based on one family we ran into several times. They’d brought their 3 kids, all under 12ish, and seemed really miserable. When we first checked in, we were behind them in line at reception listening to them complain about the lack of kids activities on the ship and affordable excursions on land. It was quite obvious that either they didn’t research this, or if they used a travel agent, he/she didn’t do it for them. This isn’t a traditional cruise line, and really isn’t meant for young kids in my opinion. Based on our research and what we saw on-board, these are things that should absolutely infuence your decision if you plan on bringing a family:

  • There is no kids club, and there aren’t any kids activities.
  • There aren’t a lot of crew-led activities in general, outside a small number of expedition talks each day (if your ship has an expedition team)
  • Some excursions do tend to cost more than what you’d see on most US-based cruises
  • The average passenger age is probably over 50
  • There are a lot of potential add-on charges, including the water package for meals, WiFi (which was reasonable, and pretty fast), among other things. Work with your travel agent or Hurtigruten rep to be sure you understand them all ahead of time.

This is all stuff we knew and expected going in, but we also spent a lot of time researching what to expect. I’m sure I missed a few things here, too. Regardless, I went in thinking this would be a life-changing, bucket list type of thing, so the way it turned out was a huge disappointment to me. The idea of getting off of any cruise ship early had never crossed my mind, and to have to do it here was crushing, but led to some incredible memories that will be discussed in upcoming posts. Additionally, it’s taken a ton of time and effort after we got home to finally get someone in customer service to actually respond to us (copying a couple of key executives on an email tends to do that), but it looks like we have agreement from them for a full refund of the original fare, which was all I ever wanted in the first place, and we all felt was more than warranted given the reason for the changes.

I’ve probably gone on long enough here, so if you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments, and enjoy a few more pictures from our time aboard!

Norwegian Escape – First Impressions

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks, kicked off¬†by a cruise on the Norwegian Escape that sailed on 11/19, the first full 7 day sailing since the ship arrived in the US. While I plan to go in to more detail in future posts, I wanted to get one out on our overall impressions of Norwegian’s newest ship. First, a little history.

I’ve mentioned before that we haven’t cruised NCL in quite a while due to issues we had on our first sailing with them, on the NCL Jewel in March of 2006. The MDR food on that sailing was horrible, but that paled in comparison to an injury our daughter suffered to one of her hands due to negligence on the part of one of NCL’s tour operators. NCL’s response to the incident was pretty bad as well, and that played a big part in our decision to stay away from them as long as we have.

Fast forward to this year, ¬†and our company’s national conference aboard their newest ship, giving us the chance to see how much has changed with the line. It was just my wife and I, and we both went in with open minds. So what did we think? In a word: Redemption. We had a blast, and saw that many things have changed for the better. As mentioned, I plan to go into more detail on certain areas in later posts, but here’s the overall pros and cons list:

Pros

  • It’s a beautiful ship, not gaudy like others.
  • Our room, a standard balcony, was excellent. Having the bed next to the balcony door was great, there was plenty of storage space for the two of us, and there were more outlets (including USB ports in each of the bed-side lights) than most ships we’ve sailed. The bathroom layout was great too, with a ton of shelf space.
  • The food was much better than last time. We only ate at the included restaurants on 4 occasions on this sailing, with all being good. The only place we had food we really didn’t like was in the Supper Club during the “For The Record: The Brat Pack” show.
  • The specialty restaurants we ate at were outstanding. I’ll go in to more detail later, but the list of ones we ate at: Cagney’s, Teppanyaki, Food Republic, Moderno, and La Cucina. Some of the best specialty restaurants we’ve eaten at on any ship.
  • The¬†“For The Record: The Brat Pack” show was one of the best shows we’ve seen on a ship. Again, the food in here was pretty bad in our opinion (as was the service), but the show more than made up for it.
  • We never felt like there were 4,000+ people on the ship, even when debarking in each port. Getting off in port went a lot smoother than other sailings on smaller ships.
  • The staff was outstanding. It can’t be easy dealing with over 700 travel agents, and they all did a great job all week.
  • The photo setup is cool. Whenever you get your picture taken, they scan your card, and your pictures are put into a specific folder for you in the photo area, so no searching through dozens of other pictures to hunt yours down.
  • The only slide we had the chance to ride (due to the others being closed during times we were free), but the AquaRacer is a blast, especially with the tandem tubes. There’s a shot taken from the clear section of it while Jen and I were riding tandem in my pictures below. Here’s the full video of that same run:

Cons

  • The smell of smoke around the casino is flat out¬†bad. We noticed it as soon as we got on while walking around the Atrium, as the smell is already embedded in everything in the casino, and the ship only had two sailings prior to ours. The problem here is that it’s in a central area, being open to the Atrium like other ships in it’s class, so you have to put up with it any time you walk through there. They need better ventilation here.
  • The movement of the ship, even in calm seas, is more than we remember on any past cruise. It was rocking back and forth pretty much the whole cruise, and at one point even started getting to me, and I’ve never gotten motion sick in my life. Someone mentioned that NCL was using smaller keel technology, not sure if that’s true, but whatever the issue is, it’s very noticeable based on a number of people I heard complaining about it both on the ship and after the cruise. It also caused a constant creaking sound in our room as the ship rocked.
  • Lack of bar staff. There was almost always a wait at the bars when we went up to get our soda cups refilled. In most cases, there was only one person behind the bar, which during the day on sea days was problematic when there were 10+ people waiting for drinks of some kind.
  • Margaritaville’s setup is bad. Good food, and the same key lime pie from the main restaurants, but the wait was ridicu-bad. On sea days, it wasn’t uncommon to find a 2+ hour wait around meal times (we got in after a 40min wait on a port day), all while half the tables sat empty. We heard after the cruise that the kitchen in there was too small to keep up with the demand when full. Again, no idea if that’s true, but regardless, they had to deal with it. They’ve since changed it from¬†a free option to charging for items a-la-carte. ¬†It actually started with the 11/28 sailing, which IMO is wrong. Announce and give people warning it’s coming, but to blindly do it right as people are about to get on just feels wrong.
  • I’ll say it again, the food and service in the Supper Club for the Brat Pack show were both bad, start to finish. Both can be fixed, so hopefully Norwegian listens to the feedback from us and other guests.
  • I’m not a fan of their “Freestyle” setup. I get the point, it allows guests to only pay for the food and shows they want, but it means having to plan part of your schedule ahead of time. We felt like we needed to make reservations for specialty restaurants and shows before we cruised, which doesn’t really feel “freestyle” to us. We also don’t like the lack of assigned MDR seating from one aspect: getting to know your servers. It’s always fun getting to know them, and in many cases they learn your habits and will have things ready for you that they know you’ll want.
  • The outside setup on the ship is odd. There isn’t much space on the upper decks to hang out on sea days due to a good chunk of the space being taken up by clubs. The open area around the main pool is tiny compared to other ships we’ve been on, and my own pet peeve, the only place to watch the wake coming off the back of the ship (outside of aft cabins) is deck 8, which has no chairs to sit and enjoy it on. Spice H2O takes up the other good spot, with a ¬†huge video display taking up the center of the back of the deck.
  • The main theater’s design is just, well, bland. It’s really the only area of the ship where my earlier “it’s beautiful” comment doesn’t apply. Additionally, whoever designed the cup holders needs to be reassigned. They aren’t big enough to hold NCL’s own soda package cups, unless you put one of their plastic water cups in there first and then put your soda cup in that (picture below).
  • The announcements from, well, anyone, were pretty difficult to hear and understand, when we actually got any. Example: when waiting to get off in ports, we never got any updates as to when they expected to be able to allow us off, or even where to go, so people were just sort of wandering around until we finally got the announcement that the gangway was open. On other lines, our CDs have been good with ensuring guests are kept up to date with any delays, where to go after debark starts, etc.
  • Show scheduling was an issue all week. Our early show the night we boarded (The Brat Pack) was cancelled due to cast illness, with them re-booking us for the later show, which was also cancelled. We ended up seeing it the next night, but ours wasn’t the only show with this issue. Million Dollar Quartet also had cast illness (heard later it was Jerry Lee Lewis) that resulted in them cancelling the last 3 nights of shows. They did fly in Tenors of Rock for the final night, which we caught, but whatever was going on with the other cast members must have been bad (hope they’re okay), we’ve never seen show cancellations like this.

Yea, there were a few¬†negatives above, but all in all it was a great week that gave us a much better experience this time around, and we’d definitely sail them¬†again as a result. I’m not going to comment on the cruise director, her staff, or any of the on-board activities they run, as we never had time to enjoy any of it. On sea days, we were in sessions for our conference and missed out on all of that.

I’ll be posting reviews of the specialty restaurants and our excursions separately, but in the meantime, enjoy some shots of the ship! Oh, and that last picture calls out one more highlight from the cruise: Guy Harvey was on board for this sailing!

IMG_1468_SmallIMG_1083 IMG_1080 IMG_1067 IMG_1065  IMG_1010 IMG_0942 IMG_0931 IMG_0925 IMG_0844 IMG_0804 IMG_1016IMG_0792 IMG_0773 IMG_0752 IMG_0740 IMG_0692 IMG_0690 IMG_0689 IMG_0688 IMG_0687 IMG_0686 IMG_0683 IMG_0682   IMG_0658IMG_0554IMG_0665IMG_0637 IMG_0623 IMG_0597 IMG_0594 IMG_0570 IMG_0561  IMG_0548 HUDT8551

 

%d bloggers like this: