Good Times in Tromsø, Part 2!

A recap of our amazing trip in search of the northern lights!

On the bus ride back from the reindeer encounter, we started talking about what to do the rest of the day. We knew that if we were going to see the northern lights, this night would be our only shot, as we were headed to Trondheim the following afternoon, which would put us too far south. While discussing it, the woman sitting in front of us mentioned she’d done a northern lights tour the night before with Tromsø Safari (the same tour company we were looking at), and absolutely loved it. We’d also heard that one of the owners of the company was on-board our bus, so after we got off the bus, we decided to walk over and talk to him. We mentioned this was our last night in Tromsø, and he agreed, based on the rest of our itinerary, this would likely be our last shot to see them. Looking at the weather, which was pretty overcast and snowy, he also indicated that we were looking at a 30% chance that night at best. We decided to at least try, as we didn’t come all that way to give up!

After we finished talking to him, we headed in to the Radisson Blu to book our tour, as Tromsø Safari has a small booth on the left hand side of the lobby. They have a couple different options for northern lights tours that we were interested in, one being a minibus tour where you stay on the bus and they basically drive around various areas that give the best chance of seeing the lights based on weather reports, or a base camp tour, where they choose from one of their 5 different base camps based on the same weather forecasting. Turned out, the minibus tour was full, so we signed up for the base camp tour. They already knew which one they were heading to, a camp near the Finnish border in Helligskogen, which was a couple of hours away. You can see all of their base camp locations on this map, with the one we went to circled in red down in the bottom right. With Tromsø closer to the center of the image (in the yellow box), you can see how far we were going to be going chasing these things!

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We weren’t slated to meet up for the tour until late in the afternoon, so we headed back to the hotel to rest after doing a little shopping. After that needed rest period, we headed back towards the Radisson and grabbed a late lunch / early dinner at Pastafabrikken AS, just around the corner from where we were meeting for the tour. That lasagna was delicious!

At around 6:30, we arrived back at the Radisson and met up with our guide, Leander. The woman we spoke to on the bus earlier in the day had Leander as her guide and raved about him, so we were excited. After getting everyone on the bus, he explained that their weather forecasting predicted our best chance was at the Helligskogen base camp, and that we’d have a 2-2.5 hour drive out, with one snack/bathroom stop along the way. The drive was incredibly scenic while there was still light out, and even from a moving bus I was able to get some decent shots:

Upon arriving at the base camp, we all headed inside for a quick explanation of how things would go. Basically, we had the option of standing outside and watching for the lights to appear, or we could relax inside while waiting. For those who paid to add it on, dinner was provided. For those of us who didn’t there were some light snacks and drinks. Leander also walked around helping those with cameras set them up to successfully capture the lights, explaining the changes he was making as he did it. They also provide tripods, which was nice, as it meant I didn’t have to lug my tripod on the bus with us. I’d also left my DSLR in the hotel, which a part of me regrets, as it would have been fun to try and get some solid shots with it. Based on the low chance of seeing the lights, and knowing our guide would also take pictures of any lights that did appear, I decided against the extra weight. I did end up using a tripod with my iPhone to at least try and get some pictures, however. I’d downloaded a couple of apps prior to travelling to Norway, sticking with NightCap Pro to shoot with at base camp. I got it set up, attached to the tripod (using my Shoulderpod S1), and headed outside to wait for the show. We didn’t have to wait long 🙂

Leander had warned us all along that the low cloud cover that was over the entire area meant we didn’t have the best chance to see the lights, but he was also in touch with the mini-bus to check their progress in case they spotted them. If they did, we’d have the option to hop on the bus and head in that direction. Fortunately, it never came to that. A handful of us had been wandering around outside when the clouds parted and suddenly we saw them! A very dull greenish-grey streak suddenly appeared overhead and kept getting slightly stronger. The northern lights!

I should pause here and mention one thing to anybody that hasn’t seen them in person before: the vibrant colors you see in pictures of the lights are accomplished via outstanding photography and post processing. In person, at least from what I’ve read and now seen, the lights are fairly dull in color and tend to be more grey. As an example, here’s one of my relatively unedited pictures from NightCap Pro (noise reduction applied, no other edits)

After I took a few shots in different places, Leander was set up to take pictures of anyone who wanted a shot with his camera. We jumped at the chance and got a couple of family shots, along with a solo of Bayley. One really awesome thing about Tromsø Safari’s tour is that they don’t charge extra for the pictures your guide takes, so we have all of the full resolution images Leander shot while we were there. Take a look, he did amazing work!

The lights hung around for 15-20 minutes, shifting location the whole time. After they disappeared, we hung around for another 20min or so hoping they’d come back, but no such luck. Frankly, considering the weather in the time leading up to our tour, I feel lucky that we got to see them at all. Regardless, that was about the time we had to head back to Tromsø, so we all gathered up our stuff and hopped on the bus for the long ride back.

We absolutely loved our tour with Tromsø Safari, and would recommend them to anyone visiting the area who’s in search of the northern lights, you won’t be disappointed!

Good Times in Tromsø, Part 1!

Next up in our Norway blog series, our visit to a reindeer farm in Tromsø!

As I mentioned in my last post, we made what was a last minute decision to debark the ship Monday night, only one day into the sailing. This meant the next four days were going to be completely different than originally scheduled, with most of the planning happening on the fly. I’d booked our various hotels and flights the night before, so we knew what towns we’d be in and where we’d be staying, but had little else in the way of an idea of what we wanted to do. Fortunately, Jen had heard about an excursion company in Tromsø, Tromsø Arctic Reindeer, so she’d emailed them a few hours before we go off the ship Monday night to check on availability for their reindeer excursion. They were extremely fast to respond, so even before we got off the ship Monday night and walked to the hotel, she’d booked us on their morning trip to the reindeer camp.

On Tuesday morning we got up, got ready, and headed out for a quick snack before the tour. We found an awesome little cafe around the corner from our hotel, Lugar 34. If you’re looking for a small cafe to grab a quick bite to eat in, I highly recommend it. Friendly staff, good food, and delicious hot chocolate!

After arriving at the designated meeting spot for the tour, the Radisson Blu, we hopped on the bus and headed for the reindeer! The camp itself is maintained by a Sami family who herd the reindeer onto their property in late fall in an effort to protect them over winter. Generally they release them back into the mountains in mid-April, so we were arriving near the end of the season. As our bus pulled up to their compound, it was snowing pretty hard, but that wasn’t deterring anyone in the group. We headed into the main lavuu (Sami tent) to get introduced to our Sami hosts, and receive more info on what the program’s schedule was.

First up was some Reindeer feeding. Even having done this on a smaller scale at the SnowHotel, we were unprepared for just how fun this would be. Upon entering the field where they lived, we were handed large buckets of food, which the reindeer were obviously used to, so groups of them started heading for us right away, looking to fill their bellies. We all sort of scattered around the large enclosure, with groups of reindeer heading for different guests.

While you’re feeding them, you also have the opportunity to practice lassoing reindeer as well. In reality, you’re practicing on a wooden setup, not actual reindeer, at least that’s what was supposed to happen :). One woman who wanted to try it threw the rope a little too far and actually got one of the reindeer trapped in the lasso. It took a couple of minutes to get the animal calmed down enough to get the rope off of her, but in the end she was fine, just a little scared. I have to admit it was a little funny to see it all unfold, but I know the woman who threw the rope felt horrible.

Our little lassoing adventure over, it was time for the reindeer sledding. As we got set to go, the clouds moved in and started dumping snow on us. It was pretty cold, and visibility was next to nothing, but it was an absolute blast! There were 3 or 4 sleds in our group, with a reindeer pulling each one, and one of the Sami guides leading the way as they took us in a loop around the property. With the sleds being so close, I even had some visits from the reindeer towing the sled behind me!

After we finished our loop on the sleds, it was time to head in to the gamme for a treat. Our hosts had prepared some reindeer stew for us, along with a selection of warm drinks; coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Bayley was a bit conflicted about eating reindeer meat after having just had the opportunity to give them some love, but we all ate up. I have to say, I normally decline stew, as I’m not really a fan of the texture of stew meat, but this was absolutely delicious. Pretty sure I ate every drop of mine!

After our snack, we had time for a little more feeding, and headed back out into the enclosure to play with the reindeer. We probably spent another 20 minutes or so out there before heading to the last activity, which was an introduction to the Sami culture from one of our hosts inside the main lavuu. He gave us a good long talk on the history of the Sami people, how they came to heard reindeer, the various aspects of their clothing, and even included a joik performance (traditional Sami folk song)!

Following our talk on Sami culture, it was time to head out. On the way, Bayley stopped to take a picture with one of the reindeer who had pulled our sled, complete with one of the articles of Sami clothing!

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Our time at the Sami camp over, we all hopped on the bus for the 25 minute ride back to the Radisson. With big smiles on our faces, we all agreed that the decision to abandon ship and end our Hurtigruten sailing one day in was a good one. We highly recommend Tromsø Arctic Reindeer, as this is one of the best excursions we’ve ever done. We loved the staff, we loved our Sami hosts, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat! If you’re in Tromsø during reindeer herding season, look them up, you won’t be disappointed!

Next up, our unforgettable adventure in search of the Northern Lights!

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? 🙂

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 Vardøhus 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!

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