MS Havila Castor: A journey through Norway's iconic fjords

Norway's western fjords are one of the most spectacular natural sights in the world. Indeed, whether it's the verdant mountains, the gushing waterfalls or the impossibly picturesque sleepy fjord-side villages, experiencing the deep-blue waters of the UNESCO-protected fjords is surely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for even the most frequent of travellers. Our Best Served Scandinavia specialists Meriel Lowe and Rachel Pennycook were therefore delighted to be among the first to experience this most coveted of regions aboard one of Havila Voyages' brand new ships, the MS Havila Castor. Below, they share their experiences of life on board and what to expect as they sailed north along Norway's famous west coast from Bergen towards Trondheim.

Bergen in the sunshine

We were lucky enough to receive an invitation to board the MS Havila Castor for the first couple of nights of their Norwegian Coastal route departing from Bergen. Meriel and I are complete contrasts when it comes to cruising. While Meriel has spent over two decades working onboard countless cruise lines and cruised all around the world, I was – like many of the clients who travel on one of these ships – a complete novice. This was to be my first time on board a ‘cruise’ and so I did not really know what to expect; though I was incredibly excited to see the ship and experience a small snapshot of this wonderful journey. It is also worth mentioning that I am prone to sea sickness, so was worried that this would overshadow my experience. It seems that these fears are common amongst travellers who are considering this route, so I wanted to take a moment to write about my experiences to see if I could help others who had these concerns.

Havila Castor

After a short flight from the UK and a smooth arrival from Bergen on the airport shuttle bus, we had an easy check in process at the port. My first impressions of MS Havila Castor were that it was very modern and the staff were really friendly and helpful. Havila have 4 ships which operate on this route, all with a capacity of 590 passengers. As a cruise novice, this sounded quite large to me, though Meriel was quick to note that this is actually an extremely small ship by cruise standards. People looking to watch the scenery, dockings or wildlife are in their element. There is always something to see – an island, skerry, lighthouse, mountains in the distance, stunning scenery. The fact these are smaller ships is crucial, as it means they can sail directly into some of the most picturesque and hidden fjords - in fact more than any other cruise line. We were lucky enough to be on the last sailing of the year where the ship docks into Hjørundfjorden – one of the longest fjords in Norway. With small idyllic villages framed by tall snow-peaked mountains, the scenery was truly incredible - especially when dappled by the early October sunshine.

Views of the fjords from the deck

As far as cabins are concerned, there's plenty of choice despite the size of the vessel. The sea view superior cabins all have windows and sofas so you can relax in your cabin and admire the views. If travelling for a longer time – perhaps all the way up the coast to Kirkenes – the panoramic cabins boast floor to ceiling windows where you can enjoy full views of the passing fjords. There are also cabins with balconies if you want your own outdoor space. Finally, for those looking for something extra special, the lighthouse suite has its own private jacuzzi and balcony. All cabins are decorated in minimalist Scandinavian style and have all the facilities you would expect.

Views from a Panoramic Superior Cabin

All four of Havila's ships have a bar and lounge on the top deck, this is where we spend most of our time on board the ship as it was possible to wander outside onto the promenade deck for first-hand views of the fjords. How often you go outside will likely depend on the time of year you travel, however when the ship is moving there is a strong wind on the bow so be sure to wrap up warm if you venture out even if travelling in the summer! There is ample outdoor space though, and there are also two Jacuzzis and a sauna near the outdoor bar. It's worth noting that there are no facilities for children, so we would recommend only travelling with children above a certain age. The observation lounge is the perfect place to enjoy a cup of coffee and a good book as the scenery rolls by. The emphasis really is on 'slow travel', therefore they do not play any background music in the public areas of the ship during the day. This meant you could sit back, relax, admire the scenery, and absorb the peace and quiet as you sail through this incredible region. We were sailing Friday and Saturday night, so in the evening the bar did play some background music, however it was a very civilised affair. This is not a regular cruise, so anyone expecting or wanting live music, entertainment, dressing up or a cruise director would be disappointed. The star of the show is very much the fjords, not the dance floor! The ship itself is also very quiet when it comes to vibrations or noise from the engines.

Bar and lounge on board

There are two restaurants on board MS Havila Castor, the main one as well as a fine dining option, alongside a café. They really do pride themselves on the cuisine on board with the menu changing every two days to reflect the regional delicacies of the areas you are sailing through. It is table service at breakfast, lunch and dinner and you will choose 3 courses from the menu for dinner. For breakfast and lunch, they operate as a buffet but served to you, so you don’t need to queue up waiting for your food. You simply select however many dishes you want from the menu, and they will bring them to your table, and if you want seconds that is not a problem at all. At lunch and breakfast you can order several small dishes, which are all served a bit like a tapas. The food was very, very good as was its presentation. The dining times for dinner are divided into time slots which you can choose from when on board. This means if you want to have dinner early, you also get breakfast early. The middle slots are the most popular, so we recommend seeing the restaurant manager as soon you've settled in to avoid missing out on your desired time. For those who wish to use it, there is a gym on board which I must confess I did not use. But, with treadmills facing the windows and the passing scenery I can say I was briefly tempted! The ship was spotlessly clean and very comfortable. There are two main lounges. In the lower one (on the same deck as the dining room, café, Hildring fine dining room, conference room and shop) are two serving stations where you can self-serve coffee, tea or water. There are tea bags to help yourself to as well as milk from a jug. If guests favour a particular brand of tea, they might be advised to take some with them.

Restaurant on board Havila Castor

As part of the route there are some ports that you will call into simply so passengers/cargo/post can be dropped off. However, for other ports, the ship will dock for a few hours, so you can get out and explore. It is these ports where they offer a number of excursions which you can take part in if you wish. As I mentioned at the start, I have been prone to sea sickness previously, so I took every opportunity to head to land I could! However, I will say that the Norwegian fjords in general do not experience rough sailing, particularly if you are travelling in the summer months. I would really recommend disembarking the ship at each port you have time to do so too, whether that’s on one of the excursions they offer or just independently. The excursions team have a desk in the shop so you can always pop in and ask what's on offer, and a daily briefing is also held to explain what is happening a day in advance. For those of you who are hoping to see the Northern Lights on the voyage, and are travelling within that time of year, there is an alarm you can opt into in your cabin which will go off whenever they announce a potential sighting. As a heavy sleeper, I don’t think this would have woken me if I’d have been asleep, but when it went off at 11pm or so I pulled my coat over my pyjamas and headed up to investigate! Lucky for us, we managed to spot the swirling greens in the north from the observation deck. During the winter months, it is quite a common occurrence but we would recommend bringing a good DSLR camera and a tripod if you want to try to capture it

Stop-off in the stunning port town of Ålesund

It's very difficult to put into words how stunning the journey through the fjords are. Every moment on board feels like a surreal experience as each time you look out of the window, you pass yet another beautiful area. The ships sail the Round Voyage which takes passengers from Bergen all the way up to Kirkenes and then back again, visiting a total of 34 ports along the way during a 11-night voyage. Our voyage took in just a small section of the western fjords from Bergen to Trondheim which you can experience on this longer tailor-made itinerary perfectly here. However, Havila offer many variations of these short voyages along the coast, so we can always help you decide if you are unsure of where you would like to visit. A very popular option is to do the half voyage of 6 nights, 7 days which takes in the entire coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes. We would recommend doing the trip in this direction (Northbound) as the timings for the port arrivals are much more sociable than the Southbound route.

Traditional colourful wooden houses in Trondheim

We were incredibly sad to disembark the ship when we reached Trondheim, despite having a night booked at the amazing Britannia Hotel at the end. I cannot recommend this experience enough and if you do have any questions about the ship, the food, or the route please don’t hesitate to contact myself or Meriel as we'd love to talk more about the trip!

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