The end of a government subsidy in 2001 could sink Norway's magnificent coastal express ships. Hallam Murray goes aboard before it is too late
As a child I remember being told by my father that it was our forebear, Jo Murray III, who had coined the word "guidebook". He was one of the most distinguished publishers of his time, the originator of the red Murray Guides (1836) and a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society. His passion was for travel, and it was with the 1897 (ninth) edition of Murray's Handbook for Norway tucked into my pocket that I nearly met my end, as I leapt several feet from the quay at Rorvik over the icy waters. I just caught hold of a metal deck rail of the Harald Jarl as it left harbour to continue its journey north and across the Arctic Circle. I'd disembarked to meet the captain of the Lofoten, which was travelling south, not realising that after dark these ships don't sound their horns before departure.

The Hurtigruten, or Coastal Express, is the last of the great European ship voyages to combine passengers and cargo. Over the 100 years of its operation, more than 70 ships have plied the route. Today, 11 ships still steam north from Bergen and back from Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, making 34 stops in each direction and taking 11 days to complete the round trip of just over 3,000 miles. Each harbour receives a daily, or nightly, visit from north and south, a service still sometimes referred to as the "fruit and veg run" - although, for all but the smallest and most remote harbours, the Hurtigruten no longer plays such a vital role for trade and communication. In 2001 the Norwegian government subsidy, upon which this service relies, will be removed from the operating companies and there is considerable anxiety that this historic service will have to end in its present form. Whatever the future holds, few years remain in which to experience the romance of the old ships, of which only the Lofoten and the Harald Jarl remain.

Harald Jarl, built in 1960, is the oldest of the 11 ships. At 2,500 tons, it's dwarfed by the modern ships of 11,000 tons that have recently joined the fleet. With wooden decks, dated interior furnishings, and a bridge almost exposed to the elements, it has a character that is lacking from the more recent additions, referred to disparagingly by one of our captains as "floating Lego". Its small scale, cosy feel, and its passionately loyal crew tends to attract the trainspotter type among its regular passengers. Aubrey, a retired art dealer from Brighton, was on his fifth round trip. However bad the weather, whenever there was anything of interest to see (which was most of the time) he was invariably to be found heavily wrapped up on the tiny deck beside the bridge with his nose dripping and his camcorder at the ready. "I'm hoping to fit in 10 more round trips before I die," he shouted over to me during a force seven storm.

"Any advice for sea-sickness?" I asked.

"Yes, remember to take your false teeth out first." I later discovered from our knowledgeable Danish guide and commentator Carl, who first worked on the ship in 1980, that he knew a German lady gardener of 40 whose 40th trip will be next year and a Swede who had made the round trip 92 times. It was Bruce, a retired naval man from Maine, who had flown Liberator bombers in the Pacific War, who summed up the old ship for me. "Wherever you are on the ship," he said, "you can feel its heartbeat through the soles of your feet." Later, after a couple of days on Polarlys, the most modern in the fleet, I began to appreciate the true difference between the generations of ship. On the Harald Jarl we were travelling with the ocean and the elements, whereas on Polarlys, with its vast bulk and stabilisers, we were fighting them and virtually unaware of being at sea at all.

Nicholas Crane, my companion, and I flew to Bergen in time to spend half a day exploring on foot the old, cobbled districts with the fine timber warehouses of Bryggen - the soul of old Bergen - and smoky cafes selling hot chocolate smothered in cream. Climbing along narrow streets and up stone flights of steps, we reached the funicular railway. Within minutes we were high above the city, with expansive but misty views across the harbours to islands and beyond. With binoculars we could make out our ship lying diminutively against Puddefjorden dock.

We sailed at 10.30pm. The engines throbbed gently as we pulled away from the city lights. Soon, all we could see were the flashing beacons that helped Captain Ottar Nilssen with his navigation, and the hypnotic shadow of the moving radar arm against the calm waters below.

Nilssen went to sea at 14 and has been with his company for 26 years. "I always knew that I wanted to become a captain," he said. "About 10 years ago I had to cope with a big fire on board. We had a 20ft container of explosives strapped on deck and many barrels of oil and other inflammables down below. It was one hell of a frightening experience, but I kept my head and we got the fire out before a single life was lost. I was quite proud of that." He scratched his temple before shouting some instructions to one of his officers who was at the helm. "I have great respect for the power of the sea, but I am not afraid of it."

My cabin was small, but it included a loo and shower and all was spotlessly clean. With a comfortable bed and the regular throbbing of the engines, it was never difficult to get to sleep. Through the porthole it was always possible to see what was going on outside and one of the joys of this small ship was the fact that only a few strides separated our cabins from the open deck.

For five and a half days we sailed north to Kirkenes, jumping ships at Svolvaer to spend a day exploring the Lofoten Islands. We were rarely out of sight of land and for the most part we were threading our way in and out of a latticework of fjords, islands, and tiny skerries. It reminded me of an exciting journey by ship along the coast of Chile, from Puerto Aisen to Puerto Montt, made with my wife and infant son, Quin, a few years ago. But on that occasion our propeller was damaged by an iceberg, and one of the great advantages of the Norwegian coast is that despite its high latitude (equalling that of Siberia) it is protected from winter ice by the Gulf Stream.

My favourite port of call was Trondheim, with its magnificent Gothic cathedral and unique bicycle lift for dragging cyclists up a steep cobbled street. All along the Nidelva River, below the Cathedral, were timber warehouses painted in yellow, sage green, and bullocks blood, built on wooden stilts that rose straight from the water. Behind one of these we found the Kafe Gasa, owned by a remarkable character called Edgar Pederson. He squatted here 25 years ago to prevent a big trunk road being pushed through what is now a grade one conservation area. These days, "Norway's first conservationist" has a large fan club, but he continues to work with alcoholics and down-and-outs and to play the double bass in his atmospheric cafe, a popular venue for successful Norwegian jazz groups. Drinking strong coffee, surrounded by walls covered in antique garden spades, musical instruments, old leather rucksacks, top hats, and 19th century skates, we could easily have spent a week with this charismatic man.

The following day we had a rough crossing of the Vestfjord to reach the Lofoten Islands. Reading my 19th century Murray Guide, it could just as easily have been written last year. "Approaching the Lofoten, the traveller will have the advantage of one of the finest sea-views in the world ... a scene of beautiful, impressive and matchless grandeur ... no view in the Alps can equal it." Even Nick, a seasoned climber and the only person I know to have climbed Mont Blanc on a Boxing Day, was impressed by the tremendous view of this chain of denticular spikes. High above, sea eagles were riding the air currents. In the sea below, fishing boats were ploughing through the swell, catching the cod that provides these isolated but supremely beautiful islands with their main industry.

As we travelled on to the north the weather deteriorated, but by now we were aboard Polarlys and were almost oblivious of the conditions outside. This ship was not full of enthusiasts, but of more conventional cruising types, who were clearly at home with the added luxury that these large, modern vessels can offer. There were spacious, glitzy public rooms, saunas, and even a conference hall where 100 delegates were discussing the future of the cod industry. The bridge was something out of science fiction, with every conceivable computerised gadget, and an uncanny, almost total, quietness. Alf Johannessen, the first officer, took great pride in his ship. "But if the technology fails," he whispered, "then we're instantly back in the stone age."

Sadly, the weather was too bad for the shore excursion from Honningsvag to the North Cape, Europe's northernmost point. However, early in the morning of our last full day at sea, the ship called in to Hammerfest, the world's most northerly town. Here we had the surreal experience of watching some Danes being inducted into the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society by a glamorous lady brandishing a walrus penis.


Getting there

Hallam Murray was the guest of the Scandinavian Travel Service (0171 559-6666), which features a choice of tours on the Norway Coastal Express, including the full round trip from pounds 980 per person in low season on one of the traditional vessels (pounds 1,195 on a new ship). In high season (1 June- 31 August) the prices are pounds 1,195 on a traditional ship (pounds 1,630 on a new vessel). Prices include return scheduled flights from the UK to Bergen, airport taxes, coach transfers, full board on the voyage, one night at a hotel in Bergen, and a 130-page book describing the voyage. Half-voyage prices start at pounds 975 for the voyage south and pounds 990 for the voyage north.

When to go

All seasons have their own attractions. The captains unanimously recommend August and September (for the autumn colours and warm weather). For the midnight sun take the voyage from May to early August. The best chance of seeing the Northern Lights is between October and March. General information on Norway from the Norwegian Tourist Board (0171 839-6255).