* Prices may differ from that shown
The Hurtigruten is marketed as the world's most beautiful voyage. That's a bold claim that takes a lot of living up to.
* What is it?
The Hurtigruten company runs daily long distance cruises form Bergen to Kirkenes and back. If your Norwegian geography is not too hot, then you need to imagine travelling from as far north as the top of the Shetland Isles to the northernmost point of Europe at 71 degrees north. You also go as far east as Egypt. The round trip takes eleven days, and a boat leaves Bergen every day. Kirkenes is almost in Russia.
* What are the boats like?
There is a range of ships to travel on from the 1964-built traditional vessel MS Lofoten to modern cruisers such as MS Midnatsol and MS Finnmarken, built within the last six years. You choose your boat when booking. We travelled on Finnmarken and were lucky enough to get a forward facing cabin with windows both at the front and at the side. Cabins range a lot in price, which also depends on the season in which you are travelling. To give an idea of the range of prices, the cheapest way to do the Hurtigruten in a cabin is to travel in winter in the lowest grade cabin (still good accommodation) at £995, and the most expensive is to go in July with a cabin suite at up to £5720.
Finnmarken is a luxury cruiser. Although not all of the cabins have the same view, there are no class distinctions with any of the ship's facilities. The meals are fantastic. Breakfast and lunch offer lavish buffets where you can have as much as you like. Dinner is a more formal meal where you have a set table and are waited upon. Fish is abundant - of course! - but there are plenty of other things to eat. If you are a little underweight, then Hurtigruten will certainly put you right. The puddings are things of wonder and beauty.
Outside the cabins, there are many other excellent features. On Finnmarken there was a fitness and health area, with a swimming pool, two Jacuzzis, a weights room and male and female saunas, all for use without extra charge, and, for a fee, beauty and wellness treatments, including massages and haircuts.
On the various decks can be found bars, shops, cafes and an observation lounge. It is easy to travel around the ship - there are staircases everywhere and also two lifts.
* The voyage
From the day you leave Bergen to the time eleven days later, the journey is wonderful. The boat is travelling continually, making stops in ports all the way along the coast. The Hurtigruten was originally set up to transport goods and commodities, and still does so, but the chief part of its income is now from those who travel for pleasure. Norway's fjords are deservedly famous. The towns and villages you will visit have seemingly impossibly beautiful settings, often with the buildings cradled by mountains. Some of the stops are just for transhipments, but usually you can get off and have a little look at where you are. In the larger cities, such as Trondheim and Tromsø, you have a few hours at your disposal.
The route takes you through intimate fjords and four-hour sea crossings. Mountains are everywhere - Norway is a climber's paradise. Some come directly out of the sea and rise to well over 3000 feet. You will see some on the voyage that are over 6000 feet high.
The trip is organised cleverly so that the ports you visit in the middle of the night on the northbound journey to Kirkenes are seen in the daytime on the way back to Bergen.
If you go in the height of summer, then you can experience the famous Midnight Sun. Winter journeys offer you the chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Hurtigruten offer excursions at almost every port. These cost extra, but are voluntary. We went on four, all of which were excellent. They were as follows:
A guided coach tour of Tromsø, including the Polaria centre, where there was a five screen film of far north Svalbard, and a chance to see many sea animals, including the captivating bearded seals.
A trip to Nordkapp, the (almost) northernmost point of Europe, also meeting a Sami gentleman and his reindeer.
A guided tour of Kirkenes, including an iron ore mine and a trip to the Russian border.
The midnight concert in Tromsø, given by Norwegian professionals.
There are about twenty excursions offered in all, ranging in price from about £20 to around £90. Some are very active ones, such as quad-biking, dog-sledging (in winter only), snowmobiles, river boats and Zodiac boats.
* Life on board
The members of staff are courteous and friendly. All of them. It feels like a huge family being on board, and the general feeling of travellers is of wanting to come back again. You feel an affinity for the ship you are on, but also greet the other Hurtigruten ships warmly (there is an exchange of ship horn greetings at every meeting. Finnmarken had a splendid trio of horns playing a mournful C# minor triad blast. Most people are friendly and happy to enjoy a conversation. On board, you will hear Norwegian, English and German over the loudspeakers, and also French and sometimes Spanish as well. The Tour Manager gives out practical instructions about what to do, but also points out interesting features of the trip, so that you don't miss anything important.
If you want to know where you are, the television in your room has a GPS channel, which gives very precise compass bearings. If you have maps with you, then you can chart progress very exactly. There are a number of excellent guides to the journey available, which will tell you about the settlements and country that you pass and visit.
The ship itself.
Bergen as a spectacular starting point.
The journey in the beautiful Geirangerfjord.
Crossing the Arctic Circle.
Trollfjord and the Lofoten Islands in the dusk.
Tromsø's Arctic Cathedral and the Midnight Concert.
The journey to the top of Europe at Nordkapp.
Reindeer on the iron ore mine near to the Russian border.
The Seven Sisters and Torghatten mountains.
Beautiful Bergen again.
If you are lucky or time it right, then you can arrive in Bergen as the Tall Ships are leaving. We were lucky and saw these, and it made an amazing finale to an unforgettable journey.
The complete Hurtigruten voyage is not cheap, and living in Norway is really costly. You can bring you own wine (up to 3 litres per person) to avoid paying £35 to £40 for a bottle in the restaurant, or be served with free tap water. It's also worth bringing your own kettle and tea bags if you like an early morning cuppa. Most things are charged for, but there are occasional specials, for example when you cross the Arctic Circle or come out of Trollfjord.
You could do without a cabin, buy all of your own meals, and keep clean with the fitness room showers, and save a packet, and still enjoy the journey, which is the main part of the Hurtigruten experience, but I would recommend that you try to save up and do it properly. For us it was the holiday of a lifetime.
It's worth getting the brochure, obtainable either from the website, where you can read a virtual copy, or through your travel agent, and also worth registering with Hurtigruten, as they quite often send tempting special offers by e-mail. We'll be able to resist for a a few years, but eventually we'll crack and do it again!