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In Search of the Northern Lights Aboard Havila’s Castor

For many travelers, seeing the sometimes-elusive Northern Lights is a bucket list item. A great place to see them is in Norway, and a delightful way is aboard one of HavilaVoyages four ships on its round-trip, 11-night Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen itinerary. While Norway is a relatively small country, it has the world’s second longest coastline. On this itinerary, guests cross the Arctic Circle with scenery second to none.

Havila Voyages has four new identical ships in its fleet, the Capella, Polaris, Pollux, and Castor, and all commenced sailing between 2021 and 2023. These 406-foot vessels were built to navigate the Norwegian coastline and span six decks. I joined Havila’s Castor last month on the round-trip Bergen-Kirkenes-Bergen voyage in search of the Northern Lights.

Fortunately, Havila has a “Northern Lights Promise” for its round-trip voyage, for its October 1, 2024 to March 31, 2025 season. If guests activate the Northern Lights Warning System on their stateroom telephone and none occur during the voyage, guests will receive a complimentary six-day or seven-day voyage during the following season. The new trip must be booked within one month of returning from the original trip.

A Multi-Purpose Cruise Ship

On this sailing, there were 133 guests aboard the Castor out of a maximum 640. Havila’s ships also act as a transportation service from one port to another, so there are a few additional passengers onboard that are not overnight guests. Additionally, Havila’s ships delivers cargo to outlying towns and villages along the coast, thus making several 15-minute to 30-minute stops en route on this 2,500 nautical mile voyage. This has the added benefit of giving passengers a glimpse of rural life in Norway’s far north while providing a lifeline to these remote villages.

Overnight passengers ranged in age from 26 to 75, and were mainly Scandinavians and Germans, with about a dozen Americans. There were 65 incredibly efficient and delightful Norwegian and Swedish crew onboard, all of whom spoke truly impeccable English. All announcements, briefings, and lectures were in Norwegian, English, and German.

The Suite Life

The Castor has 179 staterooms on Decks 4,5,7, and 8, all in Scandinavian design with efficiently intelligent use of space and decorated in light birch woods, blues, grays, and white, that mimic precisely the dramatic nature of the region.

I hung my hat in a Junior Suite containing 250-square feet with floor-to-ceiling windows, and a large balcony containing about 90-square feet. In addition to a three-person sofa that converts to a sleeper, there was an upholstered ergonomic chair, stocked mini-bar, Nespresso maker, and tea kettle. A built-in 42-inch flat screen television was creatively placed within a wall abutting the working desk separating the living and sleeping areas. It discreetly swiveled between living room and bedroom providing more evidence of Scandinavian design brilliance.

The ample wardrobe had built-in shelves, and a waist level safe. The bedroom boasted a comfortable queen size bed and built-in nightstands with two USB ports (another two USB ports were near the desk). The bathroom had ceramic tile flooring, a built-in Corian countertop, and environmentally-sound dispensers with Fjellheim products. An ample-sized shower had some of the best water pressure I’ve experienced at sea. WiFi is included and the signal was surprisingly strong throughout the voyage. The largest accommodations onboard are Deck 8’s two Lighthouse Suites, comprising 450-square feet and boast an electric fireplace, interior bathtub, and a balcony Jacuzzi.

Life Onboard 

The lobby and reception areas as well as embarkation and debarkation are all on Deck 4. Deck 6 houses the main Havrand Restaurant where breakfasts, lunches, and dinners are served, Havly Café where coffee, lunch, and snacks are served throughout the day, as well as Hildring Fine Dining, which serves breakfast for suite guests and wine-paired five-course dinners (reservations and supplement required).

Deck 6 also has several lovely seating areas, a sundries and clothing shop, the Bow Lounge, and the conference hall where daily lectures and pre-caps are given. Topics include Sami culture, ice-fishing, reindeer migration, underwater life, extreme sports, and weather patterns relating to the region. The Panorama Deck and Havblikk Bar & Lounge are on Deck 9 and are great places to relax, have a cocktail, and enjoy the stellar views.

The ship has two small gyms, both on Deck 7, one with LifeFitness cardio equipment including treadmills, spinner bike, elliptical, and rower, and one with free weights and machines. Both have floor-to-ceiling windows so guests can enjoy the views while completing their workouts. While there are no massage therapists onboard, Deck 8 has two saunas, an outdoor deck, and Jacuzzi.

Food Matters

Dining on the Castor was consistently marvelous. Under the direction of Swedish Head Chef Ulf Vernberg, every meal onboard was memorable and artistically presented. Happily, there are no buffets on Havila, and all meals at the main restaurant Havrand and fine dining Hildring are table service. The charming Vernberg and his talented team use the freshest ingredients with 95-percent of products sourced locally.

Three menus change on the voyage in Havrand, each with specialties of that region: the Fjords menu (Bergen to Ålesund to Trondheim), the Polar menu (Bodø to Tromsø to Honningsvåg) and the Arctic menu (Kirkenes to Hammerfest to Harstad). There are also staples that remain on the menu throughout the voyage, including perennial favorite porcini mushroom cappuccino, Norwegian rainbow trout sashimi, a marvelous grilled sailor steak, and Vestland fish stew with prawns, scallops, and mussels. 

The Havry Café serves coffee, pastries, cakes, snacks, and lunches throughout the day including wonderful soups, delicious burgers, individual pizzas, and daily lunch specials. There are also several coffee and water stations throughout the ship.

For a wine-paired dining extravaganza guests should book at least one evening, if not two, at Hildring for its five-course dining experience. Certain evenings three of the four savory courses are seafood, while alternate nights three courses are meat. The first time I dined at Hildring heading northbound, the menu boasted Varanger king crab, Hijra scallops, pan-fried turbot, and Dovrefjell rack of lamb.

The second time I dined at Hildring going southbound, it was meat forward with Norwegian beef tenderloin tartar, Norwegian farm duck, Lofotoen Cod, and delicious Finnmark reindeer. The chocolate terrine with Brunhost brown cheese curd made me swoon. I devoured every single dish both evenings and can say without exception, that it was culinary artwork in its presentation, while simultaneously being Michelin-star worthy at sea for both creativity and taste.

Cruising in Norway During Winter

The Norwegians like to say, “There is no bad weather in Norway, just wrong clothing.” So if voyaging during winter, bundle up! Havila offers between two and six excursions at each major port stop, so there is something for every interest. On this round-trip voyage, I went on a boat ride to UNESCO World Heritage Site Geiranger fjords for utterly breathtaking eye candy, a guided city walk in Trondheim that included Nidaros Cathedral where Archangel Michael’s face on the northwest tower’s spire was sculpted in the 1970’s based on Bob Dylan’s visage, dogsledding with delightful canines in Tromsø, up to the frigid North Cape near Honningsvåg where the Atlantic meets the Arctic Ocean, thrilling snowmobiling in Kirkenes, and evening horseback riding on gorgeous Icelandic equines along the water in Lofoten.

Also available were mountain hikes, ice crab fishing, reindeer and Sami experiences, brewery visits, polar night walks, cathedral concerts, kayaking, snowshoeing, and ice bathing. Excursions were well organized, and guides were uniformly excellent, and several were hilarious with quips like, “Last year, this far north, summer fell on a Tuesday.”

Other days, I simply walked off the ship easily meandering around the towns. As Havila’s ships centrally dock, walking to the city center normally took five to 15-minutes. Mid-winter there are plenty of icy patches on sidewalks especially from Bodø northbound, so guests may wish to buy spikes (available in most Norwegian shoe and sundry stores for $20) that easily slip over boots or walking shoes. While in Bodø, chocoholics will certainly want to pop into Craig Alibone’s shop which also has pastries that would’ve made Marie Antoinette blanche.  

While Norway is gorgeous in the summer of course, there is a unique ethereal beauty to being in Norway during wintertime. Then of course there is the utter magic of the Northern Lights. On my voyage we saw nature engage in its magic on two evenings. As the affable Captain Trusl Bruland said, “I love this route because it’s the world’s most beautiful coastline, I love the mix of tourists, transport, and cargo, and we have four distinct seasons.”

Captain Bruland is 100-percent right on all counts. If you are seeking a wonderful cruise experience minus the crowds, great food, interesting excursions, all the while taking a deep dive into Norwegian culture, and adding to that delightful mix, the intoxicating Northern Lights, Havila Voyages is definitely for you. Happy travels!

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications around the world, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com

Julie L. Kessler

Written by Julie L. Kessler

Julie L. Kessler is Money Inc's Senior Travel & Luxury Editor and writes for several major media outlets in the U.S. and overseas. She is also an attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning book "Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight." She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com

Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler

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