30 April 1999




THE first known tourist to Norways North Cape was Louis-Philippe of Orleans, we were told, as the coach headed up the snowy road behind a snow plough.

He stood on the top of Europe in 1795, possibly reflecting on the throne lost by the Bourbons to the French Revolution.

Little did he know he was starting a trend. Today, 200,000 people a year follow in the footsteps of the future king of France. Not because there is much to see on this plateau – the Arctic Ocean one way and the barren island of Mageroya the other – but at least you can say you have been to the top of Europe and collect a certificate to prove it!

Northern Norway, known as the land of the Vikings, should really be the land of the superlative. By the time you reach Hammerfest, home of the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Club – I am member 178,512 – you have reached the most northerly town in Norway – a status confusingly also claimed by Honningsvag. It is certainly further north; the jury is out over whether its 2600 population constitutes a town, though.

&#42 Sub-sea tunnel

A tunnel opening in June between the Norwegian mainland and Mageroya island, cutting out the present ferry journey, is the most northerly sub-sea road tunnel in the world, not to mention the longest in Europe.

And if you come to the North Cape, discovered in 1553 by British seafarer Richard Chancellor, on the Norwegian Coastal Voyage you have arrived on what is billed "the worlds most beautiful sea voyage".

The Norwegian Coastal Voyage, called Hurtigruten (it means fast route), started in 1893 as a lifeline for the people living along Norways long coastline – so long that by the time you get from the top of Norway to Oslo, you are halfway to Rome.

It remains a vital source of communication because roads are long and winding and often impassable in winter when snow lays on the ground for up to six months of the year. But it also now attracts huge numbers of visitors keen to see the coastal scenery, which is, in turns, dramatic and spectacular.

So the ships, which started as steamers, are getting bigger and better – and thankfully more stable. I went on one of the newest and was pleasantly surprised – not too much rocking about, so you can enjoy all the good food served in lavish surroundings.

There are 11 ships in the fleet, all with panorama lounges dimmed so you can sit and literally watch the world go by. If you havent seen enough by the time you go to bed, the crew will wake you if there is a night-time show of Northern Lights. I confess I opted to stay in the comfort of my cabin.

The ships stop at 34 ports on the 11-day voyage up and down the coast between Bergen and Kirkenes, which is just 10km from the Russian border. Norwegians used to be able to cross to the Soviet Union for a cheap vodka or 10 until the 1960s, when it was discovered that the KGB was using this as a route to recruit their drunken neighbours. The Norwegian government hastily closed the border.

&#42 Daily departure

Hurtigruten departs daily, come rain or shine, storms or calm weather. But this year two of the top ships, Nordlys and Polarlys, are being taken out of normal service to celebrate the millennium.

The Coastal Voyage company is laying on an eight-day sailing, when you can become the last member of the Polar Bear Society this century, and a 14-day voyage with a "Viking" feast on the Lofoten Islands.

Both ships meet on New Years Eve at Honningsvag for a snow plough-cum-coach convoy to the North Cape to toast in the new century with champagne and caviar.

The sky will be lit by fireworks and if weather conditions are right, you may be treated to a display of Northern Lights. In any case, you can be sure of something to tell the grandchildren and some very special memories of a very special New Year.

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