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MV Finnmarken

MV Finnmarken:   A Ship With A Mission
                                               
By Roger J. Ritchie

Hurtigruten—Norway’s maritime lifeline—has evolved into a comfortable travelers experience with some really special characteristics - and it presents an interesting compromise between the mission of important community service and a tourist’s sight-seeing experience. The dedicated ships of the Hurtigruten service—formerly called Norwegian Coastal Voyage in North America—keep a daily schedule year-round, calling at the coastal communities along the mountainous shores of the world’s most “maritime” nation.
The fleet includes enough specially-built ships to provide a daily departure from Bergen northward along the scenic coastline to the most northwestern corner of the country and return over an 11–day schedule. No overnight pauses are made—the ship travels continuously making short service calls day or night with tick-tock punctuality—a total of 64 stops during the round-trip voyage.
This writer made the round trip voyage in mid-September, the first “off- season” sailing of the 2007 fall season. The ships of the Hurtigruten fleet share most features, but they are not identical. The arrangement of onboard facilities has evolved over the 15-year career of the “new” generation of coastal service ships. As the line is well organized and consistent, I think that my experience on the M/VFinnmarken may be considered as being quite typical.

A voyage on a ship-with-a-mission . . .
The Finnmarken is a ship of today’s technology with a tradition of made-for-purpose communication and cargo vessels that have served Norway for well over a hundred years. The latest MV Finnmarken is the third in the line to carry this name along Norway’s coast. It is just five years old, built in Norway and reflecting the highest standards of design and technology. The plain and practical service of a century ago has been updated over generations of ships to contemporary accommodations for passengers and slick roll-on-roll-off service for assorted cargoes of goods and automobiles. A garage deck can accommodate up to 47 cars.
Hurtigruten operates entirely in Norwegian waters, so that onboard the Finnmarken the culture extends to the Norwegian high cost of living and the Norwegian attitude towards drinking. To maintain an attractive fare scale, the ships are not filled with amenities and luxury touches—and certainly no cocktail bars!
The Finnmarken atmosphere is totally informal with warm outer-gear the on-deck essential clothing and easy-going wooly-wear just the right thing from morning until night inside the ship. 

It’s the views that count . . .
Finnmarken weighs in at a gross tonnage of 15,530 – cruises at 15 knots and (as you might imagine) built to get in and out of confined ports with great alacrity. The ship is configured to provide indoor and outdoor passenger services that fulfill the environment for which it was most carefully designed. There are 283 passenger cabins and all the usual public rooms to be expected of a small cruise liner. But this is no cruise ship and the public rooms and facilities are organized for the exploitation of the wonderful views and, importantly, the service of the traveling Norwegian public. For a ship of its size the Finnmarken boasts a good deal of deck-rail space so important for the scenery-gazing, which is the major attraction of being aboard. The bow is actually “stadium” arranged in step-downs so that the crowds may enjoy the passage through particularly amazing spots on the route. Staying inside during any of the voyage—all eleven days of it—is a shame. There’s always something to see, and what you miss on a northbound passage during the night is to be seen on the southbound trip.
All to be enjoyed if well wrapped up! Even in the summer the ship creates its own stiff breeze, and in the winter the splendid views can only be enjoyed if truly sensible, cold weather outer gear is taken along.

Outdoor living . . .
While the Finnmarken’s decks are the best place for watching the passing scene of Norway’s coastline and villages—the forward Observation Lounge on Deck 8 is a fine place to sit within a hugely windowed space should the weather turn inclement or you do not wish to loose a moment of viewing during your pre-dinner cocktail. Like the other public room on the ship, the décor is pleasant but not striking.
The Finnmarken’s interiors echo the Art Nouveau of the first ship to carry the name. The comfortable chairs in the Observation Lounge are the main attraction. Like other rooms on Finnmarken, the bar is self service: order and pick up your drinks like an English pub.
The daily voyages in each direction attract and international patronage with a high percentage of German travelers, followed, in breakdown, by an informal crowd of British and American travelers. The onboard announcement is made in three or four languages and the brief daily program made available at the Tour Manager’s desk, includes English, German and French as well as the native Norwegian information.

Indoor spaces . . .
One deck down from the top-of-the-ship Observation Lounge is a self-service café and bar that opens on to the aft deck pool and hot-tub area. These pay-as-you-go services were not open on my mid-September voyage, due to the light passenger load. The Finnmarken’s swimming pool is unusual for a Hurtigruten ship, but it is well heated to combat the chilly air. But the whole coastal fleet offers the increasingly anticipated hot tubs, which do offer another outdoor spot for keeping an eye on the marvelous scenery.
All of Finnmarken’s other public rooms are located on Deck 4 where the facilities extend from the high-windowed Dining Room, occupying the full width at the stern to the suite of conference rooms at this deck’s forward end.
A promenade opens forward of the Dining Room on the starboard side, leading to spaces that include the Internet nook (with three sets) and a play zone for the kids, along with the shop, and a café-bar. A lobby zone spanning the ship comes next before the voyager steps into a lounge with a service bar. This is Deck 4’s entertainment area; it leads in turn to the forward conference rooms. One of the conference rooms can be incorporated into the lounge to provide a dance floor. A small, cozy Library is tucked into one side (Port) of this Main Lounge.
The conference room facilities at the forward end of Finnmarken’s Deck 4 are a part of the multi-service role required of the Hurtigruten ships. A business or  professional group from any of the towns along the route may come aboard for a voyage of a night or two while conducting meetings in the comfort of the Hurtigruten vessel—and return home by air or a Hurtigruten sailing in the opposite direction. Every port-stop is served daily— northbound and southbound. And some of the village piers are amazingly small. So, each village gains a mobile, multi-media-equipped conference room once a day!

Rooms with a view . . .
Cabins on the Finnmarken are practical, unfussy and in keeping with the ship-on-a-mission concept. The bathrooms are the irreducible minimum, with showers only. The small number of balcony cabins (only 14) are snapped up quickly, as they offer the best views from within the ship’s accommodations. The 14 balcony rooms (called suites – but really a small seating area added) on Deck 6 are only available with double beds. These and Deck 3 cabins are also good for the views of the ever-changing scenery. The nice cabins on Deck 5, while handy in location are overlooking the outside promenade and lack a private view. Almost all cabins (other than the balcony/mini-suites are in the Hurtigruten ferry boat traditional layout with one of the two beds folded against the wall with the other tipped over to become a daytime sofa. The evening preparation for bedtime of this cabin configuration is another self-service activity.

The Good Ship do-it-yourself . . .
The Norwegian culture tends not to lend itself to high levels of personal service. The Hurtigruten is a national (somewhat subsidized) service to appeal to all classes of travelers. This means that cruise-line service in not offered on the ships of this line when on the coastal voyage.  Drinks or coffee are picked up oneself from the service bars. Finnmarken offers several outlets for drinks and snacks on different levels—the idea being that some passengers traveling only between towns a day or two apart may travel without buying their food ahead of time. These day passengers create the ferry-boat atmosphere that is a characteristic of the ship. The opening times of the service outlets are tailored to number of passengers aboard. So, a cup of coffee on Deck 7 means a trip to Deck 4 to make the coffee pick-up and payment.
The on-board systems are up to the moment. A single card provides passenger identification and room access, and if you wish, full charge card for all onboard expenses. 
In keeping with the self-service customs onboard,– the brief Daily Program (four languages – one sheet) is available for pickup at the Tour Manager’s desk and other amenities are on a do-it-yourself basis. Be sure to take your cabin towel to the sauna and bring along a box of Kleenex… and a bar of soap if you prefer it to the liquid soap in the cabin dispensers.

The Norwegians and their food  . . .
It can be confidently said that nobody goes to Norway for the food! The Finnmarken’s cuisine is reflective of the Norway’s exclusion from the international culinary excitement of Europe. With its 100 percent Norwegian staff, the ship is generally insensitive to the levels of food anticipated by international travelers. The breakfast and luncheon in the Dining Room remain identical throughout the 11-day round trip. The Evening’s Dinner service is simply a three-course set menu served on the plastic table cloths with the minimum of tableware.  
Salmon fans are in great shape with the offerings on the luncheon buffet and the Hurtigruten voyage provides a good opportunity to explore the Norwegian variations in the fish department.

The charm offensive . . .
There’s no problem—even the indifferent dinner-time food—that the Finnmarken’s staff cannot smile way with their consistent charm and good looks.  The ship’s staff is well organized and the ship itself is meticulously maintained. The overall impression is that the operator must be careful with staff utilization.
The evenings are quiet on board Finnmarken. On my voyage, the off- season entertainment was a talented duo in the Deck 4 Lounge. In the high-season there may be entertainers in the Observation Lounge, which has a dance floor, or at the piano in the Café, one deck down.
Modern telecommunications are provided on the Finnmarken, and as the ship in always in coastal waters, it has its own cell-phone repeater station.
The Internet sets are located in an alcove the main deck (three screens) and in the Observation Lounge (two sets). The Tour Desk sells Internet access codes for blocks of broadband time. The Wi-Fi coverage includes most of the public spaces and, of course the frequent stops provide opportunities to stroll to a land line connection for anyone without a cell or mobile phone.
           
A ship experience—not a cruise . . .
The Hurtigruten voyage is not a cruise. It is the opportunity to see some of the most charming scenery in the world while “riding along” on a service that fulfills a nation’s promise to its provincial communities. The combination is exhilarating at times and also a little irritating when there’s a backpacker sprawled out on the lounge seating. But that’s because the ships are really egalitarian in a way that reflects their nationality and that they are built and operated to serve a varied public. All travelers are provided for—from the balconied mini-suite passengers on Deck 7 to the young backpack crowd hiking their way though the Norway’s magnificent scenery.  

Shore excursions—watching the clock  . . .
A number of excursions away from the ship are offered by the Tour Desk onboard each Hurtigruten ship. They must be carefully timed to co-ordinate with the ship’s day-and-night schedule. The outings vary for a walking tour of some towns to a boat excursion—birding being a feature—and it includes an exciting pickup from shipside. One option: a midnight concert in the town of Tromso was an appealing experience for me. The quick stroll along a pier in some tiny port mostly suffices as a break from oohing and ahhing at the scenery.

The weather-flavored voyage . . .
As the delights of the Hurtigruten are all outside the ship – the weather is a huge influence on the character of your trip. The summer time voyages are very popular; and while they may enjoy the superior weather, the busy full-ship conditions onboard suggest, to me a much less appealing travelers opportunity than the off-season voyages. Although the great days may be less frequent—the most breathtaking vistas can turn up unexpectedly at any time of year. Snow can add its own charms!
Also, it must be pointed out that the off-season—pricing of the voyage is an incentive to flirt with a possible passing snow storm that will certainly produce a thrilling winter time vista.
When watching the shoreline slip by, I’m sure that several times a day you’ll find yourself wishing (as I did) to be on the porch of one of the marvelously situated cottages along the water’s edge… just looking back at the passing Finnmarken from these enchanting locations— with some bracing refreshment in hand, of course!

The journey like no other . . .
The Finnmarken and the Hurtigruten is the traveler’s most convenient access “system” to some of the most remarkable scenery in the world. The ships are working vessels and their amenities are tailored to the unique working conditions of Norway’s Hurtigruten system. It’s a comfortable voyage—not a cruise—and the delightful scenery throughout the journey will leave you thrilled.  I think that the full voyage to the north and return gives you access to Norway’s full box of eye-candy, as it lets the scenery you missed at night when going North, to be seen on the southbound voyage.  Also, the weather opportunities are improved with the full trip but remember to wrap up warmly!

                                                ******************
-- Roger J. Ritchie is a Contributing Editor to ShipsandCruises.com.

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