Touching down in tiny Kirkenes airport in Norway’s extreme north east brings Norwegian TV series Occupied to mind. In the drama, Russian gunships commandeer Norway’s offshore rigs because its Green Party government has cut off the EU’s oil and gas supply. When Occupied arrived on Netflix earlier this year, it became Norway’s first international hit, but its creators were condemned by Moscow for “scaring Norwegian viewers with a nonexisting threat from the East”.


Occupied seems less far-fetched in Kirkenes, which is 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle and where West meets East. “Next stop… Russia!” jokes my fur-capped taxi driver, who explains that the street signs are written in Norwegian and Cyrillic because Kirkenes is only a 20-minute drive from the border. And unlike in the drama, relations are warm: there’s a monthly Russian market, and you can often hear the language spoken around town.

Kirkenes is one of the few places you can come this far north without needing your own sledge. It’s a functional little town with a novel tourist attraction: the Snowhotel. From 20 December to 20 April, it boasts a giant igloo with an ice bar and 24 “snow suites” with hand-carved sculptures. In winter, the temperature can descend to minus 30°C in these parts, but it never drops below minus 4 inside the Snowhotel, because snow insulates. Guests – and day-trippers –
can also try snowmobiling, husky-sledding and fishing for king crab in the frozen fjord nearby.


A room in the Snowhotel

How does one end up day-tripping to the Norwegian-Russian border? By plumping for a Hurtigruten cruise. There are plenty of luxurious liners to choose from if you want to experience Norway’s famous fjords, but lots of people – including me – opt to travel with this home-grown shipping company instead, which is how they end up in back-of-beyond Kirkenes.

Hurtigruten is as quintessentially Norwegian as the sweet brown cheese they love to eat for breakfast. Nowadays, the company bills itself as a cruise liner, but its ships are essentially working vessels. Since 1893, the company has been ferrying freight and passengers up and down the Norwegian coast. (“Hurtigruten” means “fast route” and it’s still the quickest way between many of the ports.) This entails weaving between hundreds of spectacular islands and inlets, which is why many passengers book a cabin for the whole 12-day return trip.

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If you’re used to mega-liners with half a dozen restaurants, three swimming pools and a nightclub, you might find Hurtigruten’s ships a bit cramped. Their smaller size means they can nip through narrow channels, but it can also mean a bumpier ride when they hit the open sea. Nor will the sedentary pace suit everyone: their ships dock at every workaday port, often only for a few minutes. But you can disembark and sign up for excursions – which cost extra – at more scenic stops, such as the art nouveau city of Alesund or Tromso, the base for Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s polar expeditions.


Enjoy the scenery from the MS Trollfjord's panoramic lounge

Choose your ship carefully: MS Lofoten is popular for nostalgia-lovers because of its four-course formal dining and old-world feel, while newly renovated MS Kong Harald lacks character but boasts rare double beds. I spent two days on MS Trollfjord and could happily have spent another week drinking in the views from her two-storey panoramic lounge. I also enjoyed the surreal experience of turning lobster-pink in one of its on-deck jacuzzis while sliding past snow-carpeted mountains.

Hurtigruten has upped its culinary game considerably in the past five years, so you can expect fantastic buffets and regional specialities on all ships. When we reached the Lofoten Islands, we were served skrei – Arctic cod that is only available from January to April and prized for its lean, flavoursome flesh. I couldn’t get enough of the smoked fish and bright berry jams at breakfast, and Norwegian bread is surely the softest and tastiest in Europe. Less traditional are the stockfish (dried and salted cod), brown cheese and Lofoten beer-flavoured ice creams in MS Kong Harald’s café.

Whatever boat you’re on, the scenery more than lives up to its reputation, although how much of it you see depends, of course, on the time of year. In June, you can enjoy the view 24 hours a day, whereas there are only a few hours of sunlight in December and January and none whatsoever in the far north. The pay-off is the novelty of polar light and (hopefully) the spectacle of the northern lights.

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The weather is a guaranteed sideshow. I was aboard MS Trollfjord at the end of February, when you have to wrap up very warm before braving the deck (unless you’re heading for the steaming jacuzzi), but are amply rewarded. One afternoon the sky was cloudless blue, the sea glossy, the snow blinding; the next, the humps of mountain were shrouded in menacing mist and the sea was inky black. The days were short but the northern lights made
an appearance during one of the long nights: a wisp of palest green snaking across the sky, like a spell from a wizard’s wand.

The most popular section is from Tromso to Trondheim, which takes you via the genuinely jaw-dropping Lofoten Islands: jagged, looming mountains circled by sea eagles, dainty red fishermen’s huts on stilts and astonishingly blue sea. The most dramatic section of all is Trollfjord (which my vessel was named after), where the ship squeezes past sheer, craggy peaks up to 1,100m high. I wasn’t the only passenger who stayed on deck hypnotised by the view long after my fingers had turned blue.

For more information about the Snowhotel, go to Find out more about Hurtigruten at

Radio Times Travel offer: Norway Classic Round Voyage, 12 days from £995pp

Cruises for explorers


May to September is high season in the Land of the Midnight Sun, although winter sailings are increasingly popular, when passengers can try husky-sledding, ice-fishing and snowmobiling as well as (hopefully) enjoying the northern lights.

In summer, you’re more likely to spy the North’s bountiful wildlife: walruses, seals, musk oxen, reindeer, whales, Arctic foxes and, of course, polar bears. Most ships sail from British or Scandinavian ports northwards along the Norwegian coastline as far as Spitsbergen on the Svalbard archipelago.


Most Alaskan cruises start from Vancouver or Seattle, wending through the Inside Passage, an archipelago of fjords, forest-carpeted mountains and glaciers populated with bald eagles, sea lions, porpoises and whales. Excursions range from guided hikes and kayak tours to helicopter trips.



Antarctica is the final frontier in cruising. The season for “the white continent” runs from December to February, when there’s 20 hours of sunlight and relatively balmy temperatures of between minus 4 and 5°C. Weather conditions will dictate the itinerary, but mountainous icebergs and penguins galore are guaranteed. Longer voyages include South Georgia or the Falklands, which also boast glorious wildlife.


Radio Times Travel offer

Norway Classic Round Voyage, 12 days from £995pp. Visit 34 ports along the coastline, and cross the Arctic Circle twice as you experience the wild and untamed Norwegian scenery. Experience your own polar expeditions like a husky sledge adventure, a snowmobile trip into the Polar Night, or see the North Cape, the northern most place on mainland Europe, for yourself. With six days above the Arctic Circle, Hurtigruten provide you with the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights in their full majesty. Read more and book.