The list of reasons to sail with Norwegian cruise line Havila Voyages is as long as the coast that its vessels travel. First, there’s the Coastal Route that the ships sail, which showcases some of the best of Norway, from fjords and islands to important cities both above and below the polar region. Then there’s the fact that Havila’s cruise ships are among the most sustainable at sea. Individual excursions along the Norwegian coast add dozens more reasons to sail with Havila Voyages, while the simple yet immaculate ships also provide several enticing amenities.
One amenity stood out on my recent cruise from Tromsø to Trondheim aboard the Capella. It wasn’t the sauna, jacuzzi, or fitness room that opened to expansive views, making me feel as though I was running on water. Neither was it Havly Cafe where I tasted Norwegian waffles for the first time, nor the Hildring restaurant where I had my first-ever bite of reindeer meat as part of an elegant five-course meal.
Of all things, the amenity that I came to value most during my time with Havila Voyages was the seemingly commonplace phone that sat on the desk of my cabin, which I quickly learned had a feature that could make or break the entire experience.
A northern lights guarantee on the Norwegian coast
Havila Voyages sails four identical ships: the Polaris, Pollux, Capella, and Castor. A full journey on the Coastal Route spans 12 days and 34 ports, traveling from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. The route covers nearly the entire length of Norway’s coast, from southwest to northeast, reaching as far as 250 miles above the Arctic Circle. It’s there, above the Arctic Circle, where the northern lights are the most frequent and vivid.
Havila Voyages knows this. It knows that the aurora borealis is a big incentive for travelers to choose Norway as a cruising destination and wants to help deliver on the promise of a celestial spectacle. That’s why the company has a northern-lights guarantee: If you fail to see the northern lights during peak aurora season, Havila Voyages will invite you to join a repeat cruise for free.
There are a few conditions. The guarantee is only available to cruisers who book a full journey between October 1 and March 31. If the aurora does’nt appear during your sail, you can redeem a one-way journey traveling either north or south, provided you book a new voyage within one month of your original return date.
The guarantee doesn’t apply if you sleep through an auroral event, but the company provides a safeguard against that, too. Every cabin phone is outfitted with a northern lights wake-up call. Simply activate the optional warning system when you check into your room, and the crew will alert you when the aurora appears, no matter the hour.
A cruise ship that doubles as a local ferry
Only round-trip cruisers are eligible for the northern-lights guarantee, but with Havila Voyages, the length of your journey is entirely up to you. You can book a one-way cruise from Bergen or Kirkenes. You can sail for three nights, as I did, having flown into Tromsø and out of Trondheim. You can even travel from just one port to the next.
The earliest iteration of the Coastal Route dates back to the late 1800s when a Norwegian captain established an express shipping route through the fjords to transport goods, mail, and passengers between local communities. The route and its touristic value have since grown, but it remains a vital transport system for the people of coastal Norway. Havila Voyages, as well as its sole competitor on the route, Hurtigruten, continue to transport both goods and locals to this day.
Many of Havila’s port-to-port travelers live on the Norwegian coast, but the company’s ferry-like service is available to all. Ticket prices for port-to-port stops are set by the government and comparable to that of a bus. The pace of travel is marginally slower by boat than by bus, but the experience is far more relaxing.
I saw several port-to-port travelers during my brief sail. Most were easy to spot, curled up with daypacks in the observation lounge on deck nine or admiring the scenery from the bow. Others might have been mistaken for overnight cruisers, snacking on Norwegian Havly buns in the cafe. There’s even a dedicated room on deck four where cabin-less travelers can recline in plush chairs, which cost roughly $20 to reserve but are included in the ticket price for overnight port-to-port travel.
One afternoon, more than 200 passengers boarded the Capella for a special detour from Stokmarknes to Eidsfjord. Beginning in the 1850s, a thriving herring trade brought countless mariners to the Eidsfjord. It was the success of this herring industry that later inspired the Coastal Route as an avenue for transporting herring more effectively via steamship, along with cargo and mail from nearby communities.
To celebrate the historic excursion, Havila Voyages set up a herring service in the observation lounge, complete with a trio of small bites. This created the perfect excuse to try another traditional Norwegian pairing: a glass of the ship’s very own Havila Pilsner from the Geiranger Handcraft Brewery with a shot of aquavit, a distilled Scandinavian spirit, both of which are available in the Havblikk lounge bar.
Excursions on a Havila Voyages cruise
On large cruises, the schedule is typically as follows: Ships dock in the morning, spend the better part of the day at various ports, depart in the late afternoon, and sail the open seas at night. Havila Voyages operates differently.
To start, the small ships, which have the capacity for 640 passengers and some 70 crew members, cling close to the coast, navigating through several of the 900 fjords that exist between Bergen and Kirkenes. This means that some of the most exciting and scenic excursions that cruisers can experience with Havila Voyages happen right there on the ship. Sailing through the narrow Trollfjorden and ensuing Raftsundet Strait, for example, the ship passes so close to the surrounding mountain walls that it’s hard to believe you’re traveling on a cruise-sized vessel at all.
Then there’s the matter of docking. At any given time, Havila’s cargo holds carry as many as 300 palettes of goods to be transported between coastal communities, which requires the ships to dock frequently, both day and night. Some port visits are long enough for cruisers to spend a few hours ashore; others are purely functional, allowing cruisers to disembark for just a few minutes, if that.
During longer stops, Havila Voyages hosts guided excursions, ranging from polar-night walks, horseback rides, and snowmobiling excursions depending on the season to city tours by tram or bike, depending on the port. Excursions typically last two to three hours. Admittedly, this feels quick when you factor in transfer times to various outings. I experienced two excursions during my sail: a visit to the Tromsø Wilderness Center for a husky visit and a hike at Torghatten, a small mountain with a naturally occurring tunnel in the center that legend says was created by a troll king.
The meet-and-greet with the huskies, which typically lasts 3.5 hours and includes a dog-sled ride in the winter and spring, was well-paced. The group of journalists that I was traveling with joined the excursion immediately after arriving at the Tromsø airport, before we even set foot on the Capella. Our visit was truncated but nonetheless left plenty of time to get up-close and personal with the sled dogs, tour the yard, and enjoy coffee and cake around a fire inside of a cozy yurt.
The hike, while pleasant, was brief. On the recommendation of our local guide, a few of us had planned to stop for strawberry ice cream back at the dock, but by the time the larger group returned to the bus from Torghatten, we’d run out of time for independent exploration. Were I to travel with Havila Voyages again, I’d keep this in mind: Like the old adage says, cruising with Havila Voyages is all about the journey on the Coastal Route, perhaps less so the ports along the way.
Sustainability at sea
For eco-minded travelers, perhaps the most interesting fact about Havila’s ships is that they operate as plug-in hybrids. Each vessel is equipped with two battery rooms that together hold roughly the same amount of stored energy as 80 Teslas when the batteries are fully charged. That translates to approximately four hours of zero-emission battery power while the ship is underway. The batteries are charged at ports along the coast using shore power from hydropower plants, a renewable energy source that’s ubiquitous in Norway.
When they’re not operating on battery power, Havila’s ships run on liquid natural gas (LNG) that’s being gradually blended with biogas from waste created by fish and land farms in Norway, which drastically reduces the fleet’s carbon footprint. But biogas is only a “midterm solution,” explains Lasse Vangstein, Havila’s Chief Communications and Marketing Officer. The ships are designed to be able to convert to clean-burning hydrogen power as soon as it becomes commercially viable.
Soon, the sustainability measures that Havila Voyages has already taken will be a requirement for every cruise line that sails through Norway’s fragile western fjords. In 2018, the Norwegian government resolved to allow only zero-emission vessels to sail through the UNESCO-protected Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord by 2026 — just two years before Havila Voyages endeavors to be a carbon-neutral cruise line and four years before it hopes that its ships will be entirely emission-free.
Even now, cruising on battery power is an experience travelers can appreciate, not only ideologically but also experientially. Passing through Trollfjorden, for example, I relished the Capella’s atypical silence as it sailed harmoniously through the majestic fjord. According to Vangstein, if you listen carefully when the ship is operating on battery power, you could even hear a single drop of water splash into the sound.
Small plates, not buffets, that showcase the local cuisine
Havila Voyages implements another sustainability measure that has a more obvious impact on cruisers: the food service. Mealtime on many cruises is synonymous with buffets. Many cruisers like this. Buffets mean fast service, plentiful options, and general indulgence. What they’re not is environmentally friendly. According to USA Today, the Carnival Corporation’s cruise lines average 1.3 pounds of food waste per person per day. That equates to nearly 590 grams of food waste. By comparison, Havila Voyages has set a goal of seeing no more than 75 grams of food waste per person per day. So far this year, the company has been logging just 69 grams.
The company is able to achieve this by replacing the buffet concept. For breakfast and lunch in the main Havrand restaurant, diners select dishes from an a la carte menu of small plates, which are then served tableside. The food arrives almost instantly, which together with the small-plate concept allows meals to be just as quick and varied as a buffet. Dinner begins similarly with as many appetizers as you’d like to try, followed by your choice of entree, which is served alongside a set of communal sides for the table. At any meal, Havila Gold cruisers can order from a small specialty menu, which for other cruisers costs extra.
I typically ordered four small plates for breakfast and lunch at Havrand, which is lined with wall-to-wall windows. Nearly all of the food served on board is produced in Norway, and the daily dishes allow international cruisers to sample traditional ingredients, such as brunost, or brown cheese, which is a mildly sweet and nutty whey product that’s technically not cheese at all. My favorite plates generally centered on seafood, such as small but hearty bowls of mussels or fish stew, although standout dishes usually aligned with where we were sailing.
Along with the set menu, cruisers can choose from a selection of regional dishes that reflect the flavors of the four areas where the ships sail as they’re passing through those areas: think fresh fruit and seafood from the fjords; cod served fresh, dried, and as roe from the polar region; king crab, char, lamb, and reindeer from the Arctic; and klipfish and herring from the archipelago.
For special occasions, you can also splurge on a prix-fixe dinner in the fine-dining Hildring restaurant, which Havila Gold cruisers can do twice on a round-trip voyage or once on a one-way voyage at no extra cost. And for everything else, there’s the Havly Cafe, which is open from 8 AM to 10 PM and serves baked goods and sweets, sandwiches, burgers, pizza, soups, salads, and a variety of hot and cold beverages.
How Havila Voyages compares to the competition
When Havila Voyages sailed its maiden voyage in 2021, the Capella was the first ship to embark on Norway’s Coastal Route in 18 years. In the years prior, that privilege belonged exclusively to a company called Hurtigruten.
Hurtigruten and Havila Voyages follow the same model: They share the Coastal Route, stopping at the same ports according to the same timetable. Both operate as cargo and passenger services as well as cruise ships. Many of Havila’s crew members previously worked for Hurtigruten. The two companies even share a similar northern-lights guarantee. Where Havila Voyages has an edge over the competition is in the newness of its ships, both literally and conceptually.
Beyond Havila’s green hybrid technologies, which Hurtigruten is retrofitting its fleet to match, and its buffet-free food concept, which Hurtigruten is not, Havila’s ships feature a more modern Scandinavian design than Hurtigurten’s ships. The interiors are pristine and minimalist yet quite cozy. The design reflects the scenery outside, allowing passengers to feel as though they’re immersed in Norwegian nature whether or not they’re sitting by a window — of which there are countless on board.
Havila’s cabins also tend to be larger. At about 160 square feet, my Seaview Superior cabin was plenty spacious for one person, with a window on the far wall that guaranteed I always woke up to something beautiful. Havila’s largest suites, known as the Lighthouse Suites, are roughly 500 square feet, about the size of a studio apartment in Manhattan. Each ship has two Lighthouse Suites, each of which is outfitted with living and dining room seating, both a shower and a bath, and a private jacuzzi on the balcony. (Non-Lighthouse Suite cruisers also have access to shared outdoor jacuzzis on deck eight, a stone’s throw from the gendered saunas.)
With all that extra space and brand-new amenities, you might be wondering how the cost of a Havila Voyages cruise compares to that of Hurtigruten. Surprisingly, it’s cheaper. Though the actual price of either cruise will vary depending on the package that you book, Havila quotes a round-trip voyage at a little over $1,500 per person, a steal compared to the almost $2,500 you’d pay for the same trip on Hurtigruten.
I suppose Havila’s forward-thinking sustainability, pristine Nordic aesthetic, and attention to every last detail are just bonuses.