Havila Voyages provides passengers with authentic adventures and unforgettable experiences on an eco-friendly ship
At the sound of the guide’s voice the dogs spring forward, and we start heading across a vast snow-covered field. Moments earlier the crisp Norwegian air had been filled with a cacophony of barking as the huskies jumped impatiently in the air, straining against their harnesses.
Now we are off, and the only sounds are the swish of the sled runners and multiple sets of paws chasing across the freshly fallen snow. Penne – the youngest member of the team and born in the year when all the dogs at the Tromso Wilderness Centre were named after types of pasta – can hardly contain his excitement as he tries to overtake the ones in front, and our ‘musher’ calls him back into line.
As we glide across the snow, she explains the contribution these hardy and enthusiastic dogs have made to the Norwegian culture and how much they are prized. During lockdown the centre lost all its income and there was a real danger the 200 Alaskan huskies couldn’t be kept on. But concerned locals rallied round to take them into their homes and look after them at their own expense until the centre reopened.
It’s a heartening tale and afterwards we walk around the compound to pat the friendly animals and are allowed a cuddle the latest litter of adorably cute puppies while their proud mother looks on.
The trip was one of many immersive and exciting shore excursions on offer from Havila Voyages which is an all-new name sailing on the coast route between Bergen and Kirkenes which calls at 34 ports along the way. Most people know the name Hurtigruten, which has been plying the route since 1893, initially providing a daily lifeline delivering post and goods to towns and villages – some of them inaccessible by road – as well as providing a public ferry service for locals.
As tourism developed along this stunning stretch of coastline the line also started offering cruises and, until recently, held the monopoly. Four years ago, the Norwegian government divided the route tender into three, to encourage competition and give passengers a choice, and Hurtigruten was awarded two contracts with the third going to Havila.
The new line, which is part of an established family-run business with a background in shipping, launched Havila Capella earlier this year, recently unveiled Havila Castor and has two more brand new ships on the way. There are 179 cabins for cruise passengers, who can choose from a choice of different sailings, and although Havila Castor is very much a workhorse, it has all the facilities you’d expect from a cruise ship.
The very fact it is a working vessel is a big part of the attraction. Stopping several times a day, often in the middle of night and only for a few minutes at the more obscure and smaller ports to let people on and off, it always hugs the coastline which means there is always something to see. It’s also fun watching the comings and goings as assorted goods are loaded on and off the ship.
Havila Castor, and its current sibling, are plug-in hybrid ships equipped with the world’s largest battery packs designed for passenger ships. The batteries weigh 86 tons and can generate power equivalent to 600 top of the range Teslas, enabling the ships to sail silently and totally under battery power for up to four hours at time. We experienced some battery-only sailing and there was a perceptible difference as the ship glided smoothly along, the only sound being the water parted by the bow.
In June Havila Castor will make history when it becomes the first-ever passenger ship to sail into the Geirangerfjord purely on battery power, four years before the Norwegian government’s requirement to only allow this type of navigation in the UNESCO-listed area.
The line has designed optional shore tours with the same eco-ethos in mind and they variously provide authentic green experiences, such as hiking, e-bike and e-bus tours, or genuinely support the local economy.
In Bodo we went for a gentle walk along the coastline, listening to the lyrical guide talk about the dramatic landscape and we were surprised to discover so-called cold water corals thrive off the Norwegian coastline. Another day we set off by coach from Honningsvag to the North Cape plateau which rises 307 metres from the Arctic Ocean and is Europe’s most northerly point. On the way we passed the tiny tongue-in-cheek strip of ‘Copacabana Beach’ where robust residents take a dip at the first glimmer of sunshine. Later we hear how the free roaming reindeer owned by ethic Sami people were initially confused by the artificial turf laid on the most northerly football pitch.
There’s always a warm welcome back onboard Havila Castor. Unsurprisingly, as a new ship, it has a bright, contemporary feel with an understated and stylish Scandi vibe. Novel touches include “crackling” faux fires in the lounges, photos and texts telling the story of Nordic heritage and eye-popping modern artwork brightening up the stairwells. Chairs in the dining room recline slightly so you can relax during mealtimes.
Unconventionally, menus are mostly made up of numerous small plates, rather than traditional starters and mains, and you can order as many as you want which provides the option of sampling lots of specialities. Menus change every three days to reflect the destinations being visited: the fjords, polar region, Arctic and archipelago. For an additional fee there’s the excellent fine dining restaurant Hildring, which is well worth visiting at least once during a sailing. Like everywhere in Norway drink prices aren’t cheap, but you can offset the cost with one of the drinks packages or the Gold Package that includes a meal in Hildring and other perks.
When the ship crosses the Arctic Circle there’s an entertaining “christening ceremony” involving icy water and presided over by Njord, the Norse god of the sea. Anyone who takes part is rewarded with a warming shot of cloudberry liqueur.
Depending on when you go, visits to this part of the world involve seeing Mother Nature’s spectacle of the almost constant light of the Midnight Sun or the more unpredictable Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, between September to April.
However, Havila provides the best chance of spotting them if they make an appearance in the middle of the night. The cabin phone has a “Nor Light” button which you can press if you want to be woken up if the lights come out to play, which they did.
Even the sub-zero chill of the night air didn’t detract from the broad sweep of green arching across the sky. It was simply breathtaking. And although sightings are never guaranteed we were lucky enough to see them three times during our cruise on this lovely new ship into the snowy wonderland of Norway.
Havila Castor sails on the full 11-night Bergen to Kirkenes round-trip, six-night northbound or five-night southbound journeys, or one and two-night taster sailings. The six-night Bergen to Kirkenes sailing starts from £763 departing in December 2022. For further information, prices and dates visit www.havilavoyages.com.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Jeannine Williamson and courtesy of Havila