Away to the east the dawn skies reveal just a hint of weak sun above the mountains around Romsdal. Closer to hand, a cool mist drapes many of the islands. All is quiet on the ship, with the early risers strolling the open decks. Suddenly, there is the long, round blare of the ship’s horn. Ahead of us, and slightly off to starboard is the little island of Nautøya, while to port there are good views of Bergsøya, an island which is well settled and on its south shore has wharves, warehousing and a scatter of industrial premises.
That loud blast echoes across the water. It is an occasional morning ritual to which the people of Bergsøya have become accustomed over these past months. It marks the moment, usually around eight o’clock, when one of the Havila ships bound for the far north of Norway slips by their remote island community. The Havila Castor will be back in ten days, this time travelling down the coast towards Bergen, but on that southbound trip it will be around three in the morning, so the people of Bergsøya shall be left to sleep in peace. On their regular journeys from Bergen to Kirkenes and back, the Havila ships pass by a thousand islands, but it’s only Bergsøya which is honoured with that morning salute.
“It’s just our way of saying hello to the team at our company headquarters,” explains the purser on the Havila Castor, one of four modern ships with which Havila is bringing some stiff competition to Hurtigruten on the classic Norwegian coastal voyage (kystruten). Hurtigruten has operated on the coastal route since 1893, a remarkable innings which has seen the transformation of transport to island and coastal communities. What started as a lifeline service has developed over the years into what is often now promoted as Europe’s finest slow travel experience.
The Norwegian government’s decision to invite competition resulted in newcomer Havila securing precious slots on the coastal voyage. Between them, Hurtigruten and Havila offer departures almost daily from Bergen for the long voyage to the Barents Sea port of Kirkenes and back with over sixty ports of call along the way.