Logo Black Blue and Green

From ferry to expedition cruise vessel

by Mike

9 December 2016 • Hurtigruten added a new vessel to its fleet of black & red ships. The SPITSBERGEN is quite particular, because she was conceived as a ferry, but never sailed as such.

The company Hurtigruten is best known for its ship voyages along the Norwegian Coast, between Bergen and Kirkeness.

In 2002 Hurtigruten wanted to diversify and started to send the NORDNORGE to Antarctica. It made sense: during the low winter season in Norway it was high season on the southern hemisphere, and the company had a lot of expertise to sail in icy conditions.

Soon it became obvious that they would need a real expedition cruise vessel. One for the Antarctic in our winter, and also one for the Arctic (Greenland, Spitsbergen) during the summer.

That's when Hurtigruten ordered their first genuine expedition vessel, the FRAM.

The last few years it became clear that expedition cruises to the planet's remote areas would attract more people. Hurtigruten (and several other companies) recently announced their plans to order four newbuildings. 

Hurtigruten ordered four new ships

The first of the four ships will not be ready before July 2018. There was a golden opportunity to have an extra ship sooner. A Portuguese shipowner had bought the ferry ATLANTIDA, which was ordered in 2006, and more or less ready in 2009. She was originally ordered by Portugal as a ferry to serve the Acores, but never used her, because she didn't reach the required speed.

To make a long story short: in 2014 the Portuguese Government wanted to sell "the ship that never sailed."

Ferry ATLANTIDA for sale (October 2014, Viana do Castelo) - Photo copyright Luis Miguel Correia

In July of 2014 the ship was acquired by Mystic Cruises, one of the companies of Mr Mario Ferreira, owner of Douro Azul (river cruises). His ambition was to rebuild the ferry into an expedition cruise vessel for the Amazon.

In December 2014 he changed his mind and decided to sell the ship. That's when Hurtigruten came in and saw the potential. The vessel was bought for €18 million, and rebuilt in the Fosen Yard near Trondheim. In June 2016 she was finally ready to start sailing, not as a ferry for the Acores or a cruise ship for the Amazon, but as an expedition vessel for Hurtigruten. She received the name SPITSBERGEN during a ceremony on July 6, 2016, and finally started to operate, seven years after her first sea trials.

The SPITSBERGEN in Urke, a small village in the Norangsfjord, which is an arm of the Hjørundfjord.

In September 2016 I had the opportunity to test-sail her for two nights, from Bergen to Trondheim, for the magazines Shippax CFI and for Travel Express Benelux.

Let me give you a guided tour of the ship. We start with the reception on the main public deck, because that's where everybody checks in.

Near the reception is a little shop, with souvenirs, warm clothes and other useful travel items.

Behind the reception passengers can find a bistro. The ship has been designed to be both a "normal" vessel for the Norwegian coast, and an expedition vessel. On the coastal service you have passengers who just hop on until the next destination, and you have others who do the whole 11-day return trip Bergen-Kirkeness-Bergen. The latter will typically have a full board formula, with three meals a day in the main restaurant. The first type of guest might prefer something light, if it is only for a short trip. The bistro is perfect for that purpose.

I loved the large table which is perfect for notebook users.

The interior has been designed by Hurtigruten in cooperation with the famous company Tillberg Design, Sweden. The style is called "New Arctic", and has been applied to four existing Hurtigruten ships too. It has a very Scandinavian flavour.

One of the cosiest places is the Explorer Bar, all the way forward on Deck 5. The centerpiece is a fireplace, which automatically gives you the impression of warmth and cosiness. The funny thing is that the flames are fake. In fact is waterdamp that's being lit by LEDs. A damn good imitation!

The Explorer Bar

Let's now have a look in the main "Torget" restaurant, astern of Deck 5.

Some meals are served as a buffet, others are three-course fixed meals. The quality is always amazing. Hurtigruten has developed a concept called Coastal Kitchen. The philosophy behind it is to offer guests the best local food. 

The deep, salty, cold Arctic Ocean, close to river estuaries with fresh water offers perfect conditions for fishing Arctic char for example. This fish will be delivered on board by local fishermen in Sigerfjord, Vesterålen.

After a stop in Trondheim, passengers can enjoy an evening dessert of sea-buckthorn (a type of berry) and aquavit ice cream produced by Gangstad Gårdsysteri dairy.

Other menu items include cured leg of lamb from Hellesylt, a town near the picturesque Geirangerfjord, and roast reindeer from Finnmark.

And as a Belgian I do of course enjoy local beers, and had the pleasure to test some exquisite Norwegian IPA's. With smoked salmon and marinated herring...what a treat.

A typical feature on any Hurtigruten ship is the observation lounge. 

On SPITSBERGEN there is also the possibility to stand on the bow, on an observation terrace. It is one of the many features which were added during the rebuilding.

On the stern they even built two Jacuzzis. What a view!

The ship has a lot of open deck space, which is essential to enjoy the surrounding landscapes. The upper deck is a bit boring though.

Time to go to bed? Well, let's have a look at my cabin.

First we need to take the staircase. What a clever solution to have it with these glass panels. It is functional and helps to keep the space open.

The corridors are decorated with large photographs of Spitsbergen / Svalbard landscapes.

Welcome in my cabin, 602.

The ship has exactly 100 brand new cabins with a total of 243 beds. Cabins are available in different categories, from inside and outside cabin to mini suite and owner's suite.

A typical feature, which you won't find anywhere else, is the northern lights alarm function on the telephone set. If you switch it on, you will hear the officer on duty announce the presence of northern lights activity, even in the middle of the night.

(By the way, if you travel with Hurtigruten to see the aurora borealis, then you should read this blogpost).

Until May 2017 ms SPITSBERGEN is sailing on the normal 11-day Hurtigruten coastal voyage, from Bergen to Kirkeness and back.

When the other Hurtigruten ship ms MIDNATSOL is back from Antarctica, then ms SPITSBERGEN will set sail to Iceland, Greenland and Canada (Newfoubdland, Labrador). In these pristine waters she will fulfill her role as expedition / exploration ship.

She will be equipped with Zodiacs to offer landings on remote places, or to come closer to glaciers, icebergs, whales etc.

The fleet of rubber Zodiacs will be stored in the garage deck. A special door has been created in the hull, in order to put the boats in the water.

The cargo hold.Inside the garage: the door where Zodiacs can be lowered into the water.Platform where passengers can embark on the tender boat or the Zodiac.

Where can you find more information?

For Belgium (Nederlands / Français): Nordic 

For other countries: Hurtigruten

This article was made possible thanks to Nordic, Hurtigruten, Shippax and Luis Miguel Correia.

Text and photos: Mike Louagie