FEBRUARY 2016 – Bright ice, big lights

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Getting there by degrees. On no other voyage do you have the same sense of place, the same sense of your progress being measured on some great global chart, like you do on the Hurtigruten Arctic cruise. Every time you wake up on a cruise ship on the Hurtigruten line it is important to check what is happening, what has changed. It is not just the stunning scenery. Can scenery continue to stun when there is such a plentifuls upply of it?. The scenery becomes almost routine on a trip that has styled itself for a hundred years a the most beautiful voyage on the ocean.

It is also important to check how far north, how far east, how many degrees further from the norm. Nowhere does this sense of excitement and enthralment become more important than you have passed the north Cape. This piece of rocky headland is on the top left hand corner of Norway. Next stop will be the North Pole or, more likely, Svalbard, which, for all intents and purposes, may be the same thing. The journey then does something unexpected, it ratchets up the excitement and introduces a sense of enhanced anticipation and expectation about going east, and starts putting our noses into the ear of the Russian bear, as it were.

Our journey in March 2015 was an eventful one. Most of the customers that had come were charter passengers sent by Irish travel agents in anticipation of the northern lights and a solar eclipse. Both performed to some degree. We saw the eclipse on the shimmering waves through a gap in the clouds.

The Northern lights were fashionably late arriving, like a beautiful woman, and did not reveal enough to remove our sense of anticipation and desire to return to see more. That may have been a good thing, because the lights are seductive and really should take many dates before they have been wooed and won. The Northern Lights, the far famed aurora borealis were peripheral to the experience. The voyage did something even more spectacular. It tossed us and turned us and threw us in the air. The captain announced one night that he was going through a force twelve. The ship rocked outrageously. The most expensive berries in the world, cloud berries, had been served for desert, and many of them ended up in unexpected places, decorating the drains along the deck and in the lavatories.Our small group of battle hardened journalists from Ireland drank the Hurtigruten red wine, watched the carnage, and enjoyed the rock and roll, jive and swing, like teenagers at their first dance. The ocean and the climate here are harsh, they are supposed to be. We saw the ocean for three successive days at its harshest and it proved a greater highlight of the voyage than the Northern lights could ever have delivered. As for the climate, we got a blast of that too. When we rushed to deck at night in response to every reputed sighting of the northern lights, sounded out over the tannoy like an air raid warning, we got sand blasted with tiny particles of ice on our faces. The enthusiasm never abated. If he had said the ship was sinking there would not have been such a scramble to the deck.

And we pretended we enjoyed the experience. Some of us even did. The wind was cold as a brass monkey’s mammalian protuberance. The passengers wrapped and double wrapped in the layers they were told to bring and raised eyebrows at each other in the absence of any other means of communication. I had my long standing weather-beaten Antarctic Hurtigruten jacket and it stood, as might be expected, the worst of the excesses of the weather.

Then, a surprise. The longer you stayed to face the Arctic the more rewarding it became, the greater the sense that you were in one of the last pieces of a planet that had not been tamed by what the marketing departments of tour odorators like to describe in their brochure as “experiential tourism.” It didn’t get any more experiential than a minus 25 wind chill on a dark night in the Barents Sea. What to do to enhance the experience further? Having a personal and national reputation to protect, I had to swim. They led us ashore, Michael Hirschel from Dusseldorf, Rachel Guy from Dun Laoghaire, and Eoghan from Straffan, like the international revolutionary “viva cold water” ringleaders been brought to the firing squad. We togged out in a gymnasium, and were led along the dock to a basket, akin to those they use for shark dives in South Africa and Australia. Except this time WE were the spectacle, and any chad that had decided to stop by to spend a Sunday afternoon inshore with their wife and chadlings was going to have a great laugh as our expense. I went first, as is my wont, plunged and reemerged from the water, probably too quickly.

More than anyone else, I should know that water that is still liquid is going to be warmer than the air outside. It was warm, a balmy plus two and a half. And the wind when it came to whip my bared shoulders and legs after I had reemerged from the water was not as harsh as I had anticipated. It was like the Barents Sea had warmed me up so much that the cold wind outside would have no occasion to worry me, at least for a few minutes. Michael stayed longest, stretching his legs, and wiggling his toes, and I wished I had done the same. They gave me a certificate to show that I was in the Barents Sea for a swim. All I could think of was the “here be dragons” warning in the medieval seafarer maps, or perhaps those old Ordnance Survey maps which always featured a wing of the workhouse called the idiots wing.

Don’t tell anyone about to book a Hurtigruten holiday, but the Northern Cape is a fraud. The real Northern Cape was too inaccessible and provided too great a difficulty to build a visitor centre there, so they picked another spot instead. Not that it matters, it is like being shown the site of the true crucifixion or the tomb in Jerusalem, or the Battle of Clontarf at Heddigan’s pub. Exactitudes do not concern international tourism. Instead the Norwegianshave done a terrific job.

They have built a visitor centre which is where most of the cruise shore xers to the Northern Cape will spend their time. Because, when the fog comes down which does 27 times an hour, judging by what happened when we were there, there is not much to see. True, in between the cloud will lift and this amazing Arctic scene will come dancing before the eyes of the visitors. But hanging around waiting for pretty stuff is not really an option in a wind of minus 25. So what next, but to drop in to a visitor centre that starts and ends, like all visitor centres do, with the gift shop, and along the way offers some interesting displays, a church, a Thai temple and a video depicting this coastline in all its glory. It doesn’t really matter if the real Northern Cape is a lump of stone a little bit further up the coast.

Definitely the coolest call of the week was to the snow hotel in Kirkenes, where three time zones meet, (like the words of a Brendan Shine song), Russia is two hours behind, Finland just one hour behind. IN theory you can run around the marker and confuse your smartphone. Astrid Lund showed us through the snow hotel, the pride of the area’s bed stock, all ice sculptures and filter lights.. Why the fire extinguishers?

“We are still a hotel and subject to hotel regulations,” Astrid says, “the politicians in their wisdom require us to have them.” A worrying development, coolers have had to be used to keep the snow hotel at the required temperature in recent years due to global warming. Others went husky driving along the ice, the dogs with their tongues sideways from their mouths, occasionally barking with excitement. Some of the cruise ship excursionists look like they are about to do the same.“We call it boiling point,” said Astrid, “70 degrees north and 30 degrees east.”

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