Back from the 5-day trial run of the new Hurtigruten ship MS Fridtjof Nansen which left Liverpool on Thursday last 12th March for Dublin, Cardiff, Fowey (Cornwall) and Dartmouth (Devon) before disembarking its passengers at Portsmouth on Tuesday morning 17th.
Those who’ve read my blogs will know I’m no fan of cruising but this trip was exceptional and I’m now a big fan of, not cruising, but the Hurtigruten fleet and their way of presenting a cruise. So much so that I would have signed up immediately for another trip with them but for the Coronavirus situation which makes forward planning difficult.
Hurtigruten has long been in the forefront of ecological travel and the MS Friedtjof Nansen, being the latest ship in the fleet, has a very sophisticated operating system. In line with their ecological profile is the cutting-edge hybrid engine system which consists of large battery packs with extra electric power that allows the engines to function at optimal levels: these, in tu, substantially lower fuel usage and CO2 emission. In addition, the ship has the option to run just on battery power for limited periods of time which means no fuel spent and zero emissions.
Our cabin was spacious and well-furnished in cool Nordic fashion with blissfully comfortable beds and duvets, plus thick Scandinavian blankets should they be needed (they weren’t). A good-sized bathroom with super rain-shower led off the hall, but the cherry on the cake was the large balcony with a hot-tub which steamed away throughout the voyage – available for use day or night. A giant TV screen was both television and information display for temperatures, maps, up-coming talks, lectures, films, restaurants and menus, and just about everything one wanted, or needed to know on the voyage. A state-of-the-art coffee machine and tea-maker well-supplied with the necessary makings, meant we had all we needed should we want to spend time in our cabin.
A choice of talks from onboard professionals throughout the day (all enthusiasts with sense of humour) meant that we were immersed in an experience second to none, and difficult though it was to draw oneself away from the hot tub on the balcony (or the hot jacuzzi on the top deck for those who wanted a more social immersion) I found it hard not to attend as many as possible.
The Nansen Science Centre is the onboard HQ for the expedition team, an edutainment venue where guests and crew meet. This Centre will come into its own when the ship voyages to the polar areas that the Hurtigruten fleet have made their own, equipped as it is with VR goggles which will allow passengers to use Pioneer BluEye underwater drone cameras.
Large cube screens in the Science Center showcase engaging content and it is equipped with advanced microscopes to examine samples from the field, offering a perspective on the natural world. Although we were sailing in UK waters, we were able to see and handle many exciting finds from polar regions, like Narwahl tusks, killer whale teeth, walrus tusks, polar bear skulls and dolphin fin skeletons which resemble nothing so much as a human hand.
Disembarkation in Dublin was cancelled because it was in lockdown so our first port of call was Cardiff.
Arriving at the Port, the life-size statue of Ivor Novello sitting atop a plinth of red granite took me back to my teens when we danced to the music of this favourite son of Cardiff. Or did we? I can remember my mother singing We’ll Gather Lilacs so perhaps it’s the mind playing tricks.
Outstanding architecture and great use of space made the area a very agreeable place in which to saunter before popping into the Millennium Building for a tour of the theatre (the acoustics are very impressive) and the lush red terracotta Pierhead Building (now the Welsh History Museum) built of glazed terracotta blocks from Wrexham. The interior is no less startling in its use of terracotta and locally produced ceramic tiles. It houses a terracotta fireplace, a terracotta staircase the balusters of which are made of terracotta, and a banister of glazed ceramic that echoes the lovely tiles that line the walls.
Much has been made of the waterfront development in Cardiff and with its many cafes and restaurants we experienced a very Welsh welcome wherever we went. We even sampled Welsh cakes and Bara Brith with our morning coffee.
Fowey (which I learned to pronounce Foy) in Cornwall was a pretty little place and as there was an optional river trip up the estuary many people opted for that but I spent the day in the village and was rewarded by some delightful sights as I strolled around the village.
The light rain persisted for most of the day so although it was possible to take photograhs, the effect on the final images was to make them all look a bit misty. In fact, a typical day in an English seaside resort in spring.
Dartmouth I completely fell in love with. I was entranced by the medieval buildings still being used as dwelling houses, the narrow cobbled alleyways, the parks, the sense of history everywhere, and the absence of big stores.
Independent shops, boutiques, and providers of food, wine and butchery, serve the local population from 17th and 18th century merchants’ houses. It is said that Dartmouth has the best collection of these merchant houses of this period, but it must also be said that it has some exuberant imitations. The Butterwalk is the most impressive block. It consists of four timber framed houses built between 1628-1640 and beautifully restored after bomb damage during the Second World War.
We took a trip up the river Dart, passing Sir Walter Raleigh’s boathouse, to Greenway House, the former home of Agatha Christie and now a National Trust property. The house overlooks stunning views of the River Dart and the 30-minute cruise, operated exclusively for the National Trust, is a perfect way to approach Christie’s mansion and superb grounds.
We didn’t go inside Greenway but spent a lovely sunny afternoon walking the extensive grounds and woodland, admiring the wild cyclamen, bluebells, primroses and irises growing under the trees and along the edges of the paths, and inhaling the perfume of the magnolia trees, magnificently in bloom. Do rhododendrons smell? I can’t remember but in their full glory of crimson, yellow and pink blossom they were a sight to behold.
A quick ferry across the river to Dittisham, an exceptionally beautiful riverside settlement on the Dart and one of the most attractive villages in South Devon. Famous for its plums at one time, it is now a relaxing day-trip from many places in the county and an ideal spot for a short break – or even a day trip.
And then it was back to our Norwegian home for our last night on board. It had been a wonderful five days, much better than I had imagined it would, and I put it all down to the Hurtigruten staff who made sure everything ran smoothly, the comfort of the cabins with their cool Norwegian décor, and the simple yet wonderful food. I even bought a stuffed huskie to take home and I wasn’t even in the arctic!