Roald Amundsen opened the door of the telegraph office at Fort Egbert, near Eagle City, Alaska. Established by the U.S. Army to bring law and order to the gold fields of the Klondike, the fort possessed the only means of communication within hundreds of miles. The Norwegian explorer had important news to transmit. The year was 1905, and Amundsen and his small crew of scientists had found their way through the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic Circle.
Amundsen had left Norway two years earlier when Sweden and Norway were still united under one monarch. To his surprise, the telegraph operator informed him Norway had its own king now. Amundsen quickly changed the addressee of the telegram to His Royal Majesty King Haakon VII and claimed his discovery of the Northwest Passage for the crown of Norway.
First Hybrid Electric Cruise Ship
When Amundsen was a boy, he had a dream about the Northwest Passage, inspired by the explorers who influenced his life’s path. “In my imagination, I created an electric ship that could break through all kinds of ice, that nice and elegantly, fearful and irresistible, could sail through the Arctic oceans, straight to the pole,” he wrote.
While sailing straight to the pole has yet to be achieved, Amundsen’s words were clearly on the minds of those at the helm of Hurtigruten, the Norwegian expedition cruise and ferry company. When it came time to christen their first of 10 new electric-hybrid exploration ships, Amundsen’s name led the list. Not only was he the first explorer to sail through the Northwest Passage, he was the first explorer to reach the South Pole and the first to fly over the North Pole in an airship.
When I boarded the ship in Vancouver, British Columbia, it had recently completed its first cruise following in the wake of Amundsen’s scientific voyage. What took Amundsen and his crew two years was quickly accomplished by his namesake ship in just two weeks. Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, was just 47 tons and served a total of six men. Accommodating only 530 passengers and 151 crew, the MV Roald Amundsen is the first purpose-built electric hybrid passenger ship in the world. Its sister ship, the MV Fridtjof Nansen, also named for a famous explorer, is due to launch in 2020. These new ships will minimize emissions on the sensitive environments they will visit; namely the Arctic, Antarctica and, for the MV Roald Amundsen, its first North American cruises in Alaska.
When I boarded the ship in Vancouver, for a tour and overnight stay for travel professionals, it had recently completed its first cruise following in the wake of Amundsen’s scientific voyage.
Scandinavian Design at Sea
Stepping aboard the ship was like being welcomed into a Scandinavian home. Clean lines, gracious open spaces, rich woods and neutral colors provide an atmosphere of Nordic modesty. Even the seven-story-tall LED screen, the largest at sea and located amidships in the atrium, seemed understated.
The main restaurant on board is called Aune, named in honor of the chandler Tinus Aune who outfitted many Norwegian expeditions. It features Scandinavian-inspired dishes with a diverse menu. Nearby, Fredheim is a more casual dining space that features small plates like tacos; burgers; and milkshakes, a favorite dessert of Hurtgruten’s CEO, Daniel Skjeldam.
Like many cruise ships, the MV Roald Amundsen features a specialty restaurant, Lindstrøm, named for the explorer’s cook. The upscale menu is presented within elegant surroundings, including paintings by Queen Sonja of Norway, just a few of the nearly 600 pieces of art to be found aboard ship.
Other public spaces are designed for passengers to engage with each other. The Explorer Lounge and Bar offers a full selection of libations, including Aquavit, an alcoholic favorite from northern Europe. Passengers will have a tough choice between the comfortable window seats gazing out to the open sea and near the faux fireplace in the center of the lounge, inviting cozy conversation.
A small gym and wellness center complement an outdoor pool with two flanking hot tubs, nicely suited to induce relaxation after a day of observing wildlife from land or water. But the best option seems to be the large dry sauna that straddles locker rooms for men and women and features floor-to-ceiling windows looking out toward the horizon.
The small size of the ship doesn’t provide limitations on cabin size or design. In fact, 13 categories are available to suit all needs, ranging from slightly less than 200 square feet to just over 500 square feet. All cabins face the outside, and half have private balconies. The aft suites feature private outdoor hot tubs and amazing views from the stern of the ship.
Cruising in some of the most challenging waters of the world, you won’t find the amenities of the super cruise vessels aboard this ship. No ice skating rinks, go-cart tracks, laser tag or Broadway shows. These ships are designed for expeditionary cruising and as a conduit for education and exploration.
Aboard the ship is an impressive science station, the first purpose-built lab for a cruise ship at sea. Passengers can use Zeiss microscopes linked to a network of large screens for group viewing. Museum-quality exhibits fill the lab, personally curated for each cruise. Underwater cameras provide a picture beneath the waves while drones fly above the ship, providing views from higher elevations. Future ships in the Hurtigruten line will have similar facilities, and older ships will have labs added during retrofits. Forward of the lab, passengers will find a two-story, indoor/outdoor observation area with windows that wrap around the raked bow.
Down below, an area affectionately called “The Mud Room” helps to build excitement as passengers prepare for shore excursions, from rides on Zodiac inflatable boats to find sea life to pitching tents and overnighting on the shores of Antarctica. Webbed chairs face a large LED screen, allowing the crew to brief passengers on their trips off ship. A storage room filled with tents, snowshoes, rain boots and slickers provides any equipment required. Passengers board the Zodiac boats from a dock built into the ship that folds out over the water.
Setting himself apart from other explorers of his time, Amundsen came to regard local inhabitants of the places he visited with the utmost respect. Rather than relying exclusively on Western-made materials during his travels, Amundsen adapted his exploration lifestyle to the local cultures and climates. During his time surveying the Northwest Passage, he learned the language of the Inuit people and adopted their techniques for survival.
“He did exploring the way other explorers didn’t,” said Skjeldam. “He learned from the Inuit culture. He used the techniques of the locals.”
It’s that philosophy Hurtigruten has ingrained in its crews and wants to share with its passengers through community engagement and its varied science programs.
Verena Meraldi, a biologist and chief scientist of Hurtigruten, wants to make sure passengers and crew are afforded the opportunity to take advantage of expedition cruise ships.
“Investing in the communities Hurtigruten visits works both ways,” she said. “Hurtigruten trains local guides to provide local expeditions, and locals share traditional dance, music and customs.”
Meanwhile, ship crews engage in the communities they visit by playing games and participating in service projects.
“We do boardwalk repair and beach cleaning,” Meraldi said. “We find mostly plastic and fishing materials, which the ship carts off.”
Science programs offered on board are diverse, and many crew members themselves are scientists. Hurtigruten ships also provide transportation for personnel and equipment bound for science stations near or along the route of cruises. Guest scientists offer onboard lectures and hands-on activities both on the ship and onshore.
Off the ship, passengers can dive deeper into scientific exploration by participating in several programs offered aboard Hurtigruten vessels, including seabird and seal research, NASA’s Globe Cloud Protocol Study and the Secchi Disk Study to measure water clarity.
Coming to the U.S. Market
Although Hurtigruten began cruising the fjords of Norway in 1893 and the company cruises to over 200 ports in 30 countries, the company is largely unknown in North America. Skjeldam wants to change that.
“The U.S. is important as a destination and a market, and there have been changes in the product to be more attractive,” he said.
This especially includes the addition of an all-inclusive cruising product so common to Americans. The traditional Hurtigruten model has offered a la carte cruising with separate costs for meals and accommodations. This was more realistic for a company that built its product for a more utilitarian approach ferrying passengers and supplies to and from isolated Norwegian communities. Cruises to Alaska, scheduled to begin this year, will be all-inclusive.
Demand for expeditionary cruises like those offered by Hurtigruten is expected to increase quickly. According to research from Travel Market Report, 55% of baby boomers and 42% of luxury travelers are very likely to book an expeditionary cruise in the next 24 months. Nearly 80% of respondents want close-up experiences with locals and wildlife on cruises, while 64% want a cultural experience
These numbers are music to the ears of companies like Hurtigruten.
Kevin Murphy is owner of Open Roads Tour and Travel Solutions, a receptive tour operator for the western U.S. and Canada.