North by north-east

The boat journey up Norway's northern coast transports passengers from mountainous beauty to barren wilderness. Bernice Davison joins the cars, booze and conifers on the Hurtigruten

Finnmark, the northernmost area of Norway, demands to be visited by water, not land. The bounty from the latest sea harvest - oil and gas - may have ensured that virtually every settlement is now accessible by road and bridge, but to drive the lonely E6 Arctic Highway for mile after empty mile would be to miss a very special journey.

Finnmark, the northernmost area of Norway, demands to be visited by water, not land. The bounty from the latest sea harvest - oil and gas - may have ensured that virtually every settlement is now accessible by road and bridge, but to drive the lonely E6 Arctic Highway for mile after empty mile would be to miss a very special journey.

For more than a century the Hurtigruten ("fast route") coastal ships have linked the tiny hamlets and settlements strung out along Norway's northern coast, bringing mail, parcels and people every day, all year round. The mail contract has gone now, and the freight gets lighter and lighter each year. The older, smaller steamers are being replaced by comfortable larger ships with snug berths and viewing lounges, but the 12-day round-trip voyage between Bergen and Kirkenes remains the same: a slow unwinding, slipping at a steady 16 knots or so past thousands of tiny islands. As you leave behind the rich Alpine pastures and dramatic scenery of the fjords the trees diminish in size, the lush greenness fades and it seems that the Earth's covering thins and weakens until the underlying bone - solid rock - shows through.

You are left with hard land, sea and sky. It is an awesome transition, a gradual paring-away of the rush and bustle and, of course, your own stress and worries. There is literally nothing to do. You simply sit and stare.

The sky is cornflower blue, the sea royal blue fading to navy and Indian ink. The low islands have pinky-orange strands in the bright light, their moss-green tops only occasionally punctuated with a tree stump. Clumps of marram grass ripple in the quiet and endless stream of icy wind working its way south from the polar icecap.

Occasionally we pass through a narrow channel to stop at a settlement, the houses so close I can see people inside. There are few permanent locals - many headed for the towns in the Sixties and Seventies and now only return for their summer holidays. There was a greater exodus 100 years earlier, when thousands made the journey to the New World in the footsteps of their Viking forebears.

"My great-grandfather left here in the 1870s," the blonde American of a certain age had told me that morning over coffee in the ship's café. "He worked on the harbour boats in New York but then moved away to work on a farm. I'll bet he'd never believe his family would come back for a holiday."

Not everyone on board the Hurtigruten is here only for the view, though many of the plump older passengers were rarely seen far from the panoramic lounge or the lunchtime buffet table. The 12 Hurtigruten ships, which ply the route year-round, calling at 34 ports, are still used as on-off ferries for locals visiting family and friends. Families hop on, the children play in the ball park until their parents call them out to get off at the next stop. Teenage girls with pierced belly-buttons bagged the best seats for an overnight snooze; a couple of car salesmen, their bags stuffed with glossy brochures for 4x4s, headed for the bar.

Their sales may have included the new vehicles I saw being driven off the car deck a couple of days later. The loading and unloading of goods and people makes compulsive viewing. The ship is deftly docked, the side doors open and the fork-lift drivers bring out the booty - cars; tyres; bicycles; great bales of clingfilm; paper; wood; crates of beer; pallets of brandy; engines; trolley jacks; a self-build greenhouse. Bizarrely, there was also a neatly-crated conifer, presumably to be carefully nurtured and wrapped up each winter against the Arctic winds in the hope of bringing a splash of permanent green to a garden above the tree line.

Sometimes the ships stop for only a few minutes, especially in the small hours, even though it's daylight up here north of the Arctic Circle. The permanent light makes it hard to sleep properly, so I dozed through the early stop at Hammerfest, which was a shame as I'd wanted to check out a place described by Bill Bryson in Neither Here Nor There as "an agreeable enough town in a thank-you-God-for-not-making-me-live-here sort of way".

Many of the towns have that feel. In the larger places further south such as Trondheim and Tromso, you've a few hours to walk around, to visit museums, churches and internet cafés. At these northerly ports you make your own amusement. I spotted what looked like an old submarine moored at the end of the deserted dock at Finnsnes, so I strolled across the wooden gangplank to stand on top of it. The outer hatch was open, the inner temptingly fitted with a rope handle, which I slowly pulled up to peer inside.

A startled submariner standing directly under the hatch, coffee cup in hand, looked up at the equally startled English tourist. "So sorry," I said in a genteel, black-and-white-movie kind of way. "That's all right," he said. "But close the door please." I did, then remove myself from the property of the polite Norwegian Navy.

There were other small delights: the sharp scent of cod drying in the wind on home-made A-frame racks; vast piles of colourful buoys glowing on a cobbled dock; wind turbines striding along a shoreline; gulls, terns and cormorants wheeling and screeching behind a fishing boat cleaning its catch. And the light: the endless, glorious, strange pure light of the far north in summer.

I joined the tourist coach trip to Nordkapp, the "official" northernmost spot of mainland Europe, though it's actually on Mageroya island. Once out of the self-sufficient little town ("we have our own pubs, shops, restaurants, schools, a cinema and the world's northernmost brewery," the guide explained), the snow lay undisturbed on the mossy hilltops. The visitor centre at Nordkapp is dispiriting, though there is something compelling about the clifftop view of absolutely nothing when you know that there is no more land between you and the North Pole.

Fear and loathing have long permeated this barren border territory. The Russians were always dubious about local trading between fishing settlements; the Sami, the indigenous, reindeer-herding people (some of whom had just returned to Mageroya with their winter-skinny herds to be fattened on the island's summer grazing) lost not only their lands but their language, customs and beliefs when the god-fearing Norwegians insisted they be "civilised". Discrimination against the Sami, a people who have never produced weapons for anything but hunting and have no word for war, ended only in the 1970s.

By now the ship was on the final stretch of Norwegian coast. Totally barren headlands led into bleak rock-face fjords where a few homes huddled for shelter. I got off briefly at Vardso at 7.30am, ignored the "Russian souvenirs" stall and headed for the town's one point of interest to me - the mooring mast for the airships of Amundsen and Nobile, still standing at the water's edge where the two explorers set off on their journeys over the Pole almost a century ago.

I was back on board for breakfast before the ship docked at Kirkenes, the last Norwegian port before the Russian border, a sad-feeling place where the "No Stopping, No Photography" signs start at the scrubby edges of town.

"Do you know, I've just been up all night, thinking about absolutely nothing, just watching," said the teenage German backpacker after we'd shared a table in amicable silence. "Isn't it good? I did that yesterday too, for most of the day. There aren't many places anywhere in the world where you can do that."

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Norwegian Coastal Voyages' (020-8846 2600; www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.com) runs 14-night return trips from Bergen to Kirkenes from £1,192 including flights from Gatwick, cabin accommodation and all meals, from now until the end of August. NCV currently has a good deal on five-night "Midnight Sun" voyages, calling at all the northerly ports for £745, including cabin, meals and flights from Stansted to Tromso, until 22 July.

If you wish to plan your journey independently, hopping on and off the ships, bookings can be made direct with Hurtigruten (00 47 7696 7693 or 00 47 7764 8200; www.hurtigruten.com). The journey from Bergen to Alesund, for example, costs Nkr918 (£72). Norwegian Air Shuttle (00 47 67 59 3000; www.norwegian.no) flies from Stansted to Bergen and Oslo, with connections to Tromso. In addition, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), and SAS Scandinavian Airlines (0870 60 727 727; www.scandinavian.net) fly from the UK to Oslo. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and Prestwick to Torp, about 60 miles south of Oslo, and from Stansted to Haugesund, near Bergen.

If you want to take your car to Norway, Fjord Line (0191 296 1313; www.fjordline.co.uk) runs ferries between Newcastle and Bergen, via Stavanger. Return tickets start at around £358 for a passenger and a standard vehicle. The journey takes around 26 hours. Some highways tolls in Norway can be steep for longer west-coast stretches (£20 isn't unknown).

STAYING THERE

Accommodation in Norway can be booked via the Norwegian Tourist Authority (020-7839 2650; www.visitnorway.com). A B&B will generally set you back about Nkr200 (£15.50) per person per night.

WHAT TO TAKE

Strong insect repellent; spring and summer mosquitoes are numerous and persistent. Sun protection; even though temperatures rarely soar, the sun still burns. An eye mask, to help you sleep through the endless summer days.

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