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Sailing in the trails of the Vikings - The Norröna Experience
Here comes my report and photos from my voyage onboard Smyril Line's M/S "Norröna" on a 3-nights sailing from Hirtshals, Denmark to Seydisfjordur, Iceland via Tórshavn, Faroe Islands. I know quite a few have looked forward to hear more about this experience.
What's really the take on going on a long sailing like this? Personally, it's something I've wanted to do for many years, mostly because of my interest in passenger ships and I was curious of what this ship was like and what experience it could bring. And then it is the journey itself, sailing in the trails of the Vikings and there is something special about arriving to the Faroe Islands and Iceland on a ship, seeing the islands rise out of the horizon in the midst of the vast North Atlantic ocean, just like the first Scandinavian settlers did around 1,150 years ago. Practically, people wanting to bring their own car to any of these remote islands, going by M/S "Norröna" is the only way, unless you send it as goods on a cargo ship, which for many may not be the best solution. As a general tourist, going by air is the only other option to reach the Faroes or Iceland.
Smyril Line was founded in the Faroe Islands in 1982 and the new company subsequently purchased a second-hand ferry, the Swedish M/S "Gustav Vasa" (built in 1973) and was put into service in 1983 with the name "Norröna". Due to increasing demands, it was considered necessary to build a new and larger purpose-built ferry and in 2003, the present ship was delivered from Flender Werft in Lübeck, Germany at a cost of around 100 million Euros. This didn't come without some economical difficulties and Smyril Line had to get financial support from the Faroe government to keep the business running.
Today, the ship is doing weekly departures from Hirtshals and Seydisfjordur in the winter, calling at Tórshavn both ways and an extra sailing between Denmark and the Faroe Islands in the summer. The ship did previously also make calls at Lerwick (Shetland), Scrabster (Scotland) and Bergen (Norway) and with Esbjerg and Hanstholm as turnaround ports in Denmark.
In many ways, "Norröna" reminds me of my own workplace in Hurtigruten. It serves a mixed combination of cruises, car and passenger transport and cargo. The ship, as I was told by crew, is normally quite full during the summer season, but in the winter, there is very few passengers (apart from occational larger groups/cruises) and pretty much only cargo. On my sailing, departing Hirtshals on 27/09/2014, there was well over 500 passengers onboard, fairly good for the time of the year, but the large number was due to the around 230 German Viking group cruise guests going on a full week long roundtrip. Before our arrival to Tórshavn on 29/09/2014, it was made known to us that because of a weather front passing by later that day, the departure was moved forward by 4 hours and our visit to the city was shortened - also resulting in 110 passengers suppose to board the ship there was left behind. Because of that there was some fewer passengers onboard after departure Tórshavn.
Weatherwise the voyage was mostly comfortable. It is hard and rarely you can avoid any swell in the North Atlantic at this time of the year - and for the most at any time - but apart from short periods of notable waves, the sailing was smooth and pleasant and for the most also sunny. So, what about the onboard ship experience? A few things to point out first. M/S "Norröna" was not built to look particularly elegant, nor to provide upscale cruise ferry experiences as many have come to expect onboard the larger and more modern glamorous cruise ferries of today. The ship is built to sail on long overseas crossings in some of the harshest waters and climate in the world - the North Atlantic. And she sure is very well built for that. A high hull (also due to the large volume of car, trucks and cargo space) and bow, a simple superstructure with only large windows in the aft part of deck 5 and 6 (and midships deck 5 inside the lifeboat davits), a fairly wide hull (30 meters) compared to overall length (165 meters) and generally sturdy built. Having that said, don't let the exterior fool you. The ship is nice inside, in my opinion, and provides a delightful atmosphere. You can of course judge for yourself by looking through the photos. The ship has a variety of features and activities, from three outside jacuzzis with ocean view, a swimming pool and sauna to a spacious, well equipped fitness center and a small football/sports pitch on open deck. A small cinema, a couple of gaming rooms , a teens room/kids playground, in addition to several restaurants, a tax-free store and a dedicated bar made for a very decent selection of options onboard the ship. The pool, as you can see on the picture, was empty because of maintenance when I was there. But sauna and the jacuzzis were open when they should.
The biggest pluses from my sailing with her though, was the food and crew. I had one of the best steaks and burgers in my life at Simmers Dim and the quality of food in the Norröna buffet and The Diner was marvelous. The eating options on this ship is surprisingly diverse. In addition to the 3 just mentioned places (restaurants), you had lighter food options in Saga Café, the Cafeteria and the Sky Bar. Wending machines with sandwiches, snacks and drinks were available 24-hours on the promenade on deck 5, in addition to the reception stocking some snacks and other basic articles. I sure did not suffer from starvation onboard! A huge thumbs up to the chefs and cooks, which of one I spoke to. His description of meat choices, animal behaviour compared to meat quality, how they're feed, activated, location and climate, storing and temperatures, cooking methods and so on, made me loose track very early, but there is no doubt that this guy together with his fellow collegues know very well what they're doing and it certainly reflects on food quality. And food is an important part of long crossings like this and Smyril Line apparently takes this seriously.
Then there is the crew. I've worked on passenger ships for almost 13 years (both cruise and ferries) and I know how onboard satisfaction among crew transfers to good passenger services. I can't, of course, speak on behalf of all those working there, but my general impression was good. The interaction I witnessed looked very positive and the service I received all the way was very satisfactory, friendly and many really did what they could to make you feel welcome.
When it comes to entertainment, it was basically the musicians in The Naust Bar in the evening that stood for this. And the two that played while I was onboard were both entertaining and professional locals from the Faroe Islands. One of them even sang two songs in norwegian after I had met him and he learned that I was a norwegian. This came as a surprise to me and as the only norwegian in the Naust Bar, I sure got noticed when singing along. Otherwise they had one bingo session on the full day at sea between Hirtshals and Tórshavn. They could probably have put together a couple of other easily arrangable activities though, like a quiz, a horse race (yes, I know it's unpopular among sailors by tradition, but it's actually fun), ship orientation game or other to fill in the many hours at sea.
What I can say, to sum this up, is that my sailing onboard Smyril Line's M/S "Norröna" exceeded my expectations. With a lovely ship, top quality food, great crew and service, a good variety of onboard public spaces, sailing in historical waters with exciting destinations and a delightful onboard atmosphere, there was not much not to love with M/S "Norröna" in my eyes. The only thing I regret is: Why haven't I done this before?
Thank you for your attention.
Sverre Andreas Rud, Fredrikstad.