One night I was watching TV and I decided to put it on a Smithsonian Channel program I had never before watched – Mighty Ships. The show is about very large ships around the world and I decided to watch because the description fascinated me. The show profiled the MS Norröna, a Faroese ship that operates a cruiseferry service in the North Atlantic. I had always wanted to visit the Faroe Islands and I loved Iceland, so I watched the program. By the end of the show I was captivated, and the next morning I decided to do something a little impetuous. In a spur of the moment move, I booked a cabin on the ship for an April sailing. Almost immediately I had some reservations and honestly, didn’t have a clue what I was in for. I’ve been home from that cruise for a few weeks and so I thought I’d share my experience, what a cruiseferry is all about and what I thought about the adventure.
Cruiseferries and Smyril Line
I had some initial reservations because I really didn’t understand what a cruiseferry is all about, but it’s a pretty simple concept. A cruiseferry, including the ship on which I sailed – Norröna – combines features of both a traditional ferry service and a cruise ship. In this case the Norröna, which is operated by the Smyril Line, operates every week between Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and then back again. The schedule is always the same and it provides a very real service, especially to Faroese companies who need to ship goods to and from the islands. But it’s unlike any other ferry I’ve seen, because it’s also a fully functioning cruise ship. Able to accommodate more than 1,400 people, throughout the year tourists board the ship either as a simple conveyance or to enjoy a full week at sea, experiencing the North Atlantic in a very unusual way. This isn’t your typical cruise ship though, not even close. Leave behind those images of waterslides and enrichment activities, and instead replace it with a more bare bones version of the modern leisure cruise.
Getting There & the Destinations
Since I had never spent time in Denmark, I decided to arrive a few days early, explore Copenhagen and enjoy learning about the city. On the day of embarkation, I took an easy 45-minute flight to Aalborg in the north of the country. This is where it gets a little complicated because the embarkation point, a town called Hirtshals, still wasn’t all that close. For the next two hours I took a variety of trains and buses until, finally, I arrived at the port and the ship. I wanted to take this adventure for a few reasons, namely the opportunity to finally visit the Faroe Islands and to explore the one part of Iceland I had never before seen, the eastern region. The entire voyage is 1-week including a day at sea after leaving Denmark followed by a day in the Faroe Islands, another day at sea, two days in Iceland, and then the same on the return. Thankfully, the destinations were exactly as I had hoped they would be and I was able to experience them due to an odd perk included with the booking.
I’ll cover the ship and onboard services in a few paragraphs, but suffice it to say that the Norröna is not a luxury vessel. While everything was fine, it was also very basic, exactly what one would expect the marriage between a cruise ship and a ferry to look like. I booked the cruise so quickly though because, even staying in their top-level suite for the week, the overall cost was extremely reasonable. What made it reasonable were the inclusions from just about every meal to excursions in every port. Yes, this odd cruiseferry in the North Atlantic offers a more robust complimentary excursion program than any other cruise line I’ve experienced. In both the Faroe Islands and Iceland, every passenger is entitled to participate in daylong activities, covering interesting and gorgeous parts of the islands. The experiences weren’t just basic little tours, they were complicated activities, all offered as part of our fare. I still think that’s odd, but it allowed me to best experience the ports of call.
The Ship – MS Norröna
One of only a few ways to reach the Faroe Islands, the MS Norröna is the flagship of the shipping company Smyril Line. Used by many to transport goods or even their cars between Iceland, the Faroes and mainland Europe, it’s a vital link to these North Atlantic communities. But, as I’ve shared, it’s also a passenger cruise ship and can accommodate around 1,400 people, although when I sailed there were only about 700 people onboard. The 318 cabins vary greatly in terms of size and amenities. At its most economical, cabins offer bunk beds with four people sharing a common room. On the other extreme is the cabin I booked, a truly massive suite with a spacious living rom, bedroom and massive bathroom complete with bathtub. Most passengers though opt to book a cabin that’s in between these two extremes.
Onboard there are some amenities, but not many. There’s a small cinema, a swimming pool, lounges, restaurants, slot machines, a large duty free store and even hot tubs. But that’s about it and it wasn’t until this voyage that I learned to appreciate everything traditional cruise lines do to keep their guests amused. Yes, the focus for me were the destinations and while we were in port, my entire time was spent exploring. But on the two sea days, I was very quickly bored. I was the only American onboard and just one of only a few English speakers, making getting to know other passengers a challenge. The vast majority of passengers were older German tourists, all there as part of a package tour. On the bright side though, I was able to practice my German.
I was also a little surprised by how much nickel and diming there was onboard the ship. Yes, most meals and all excursions were included, but that’s about it. Any drink at lunch or dinner, even water, included an extra charge and those hot tubs and cinema I mentioned also had extra fees attached to them. I didn’t mind the charges per se, I just wish I had known about them. I also elected to eat off of the meal plan a couple of times, buying something different in the ship’s café. The reason for this was that the menu really never changed. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner were surprisingly similar, the same options offered day after day. By the middle of the week I needed something different, something with spice and flavor that the traditional Scandinavian fare couldn’t provide.
One surprise was the duty free store I mentioned. It’s a very large space and in addition to selling traditional duty free items like alcohol and perfumes, they also have clothing, souvenirs and market-like goods such as sodas and chips. Guests are able to purchase and consume items on the ship, which was a cheaper way for me to enjoy those Diet Cokes I always like to have on hand. Overall though, I think the value for money was excellent, even in spite of the extra charges. What I paid for 7 nights onboard, inclusive of meals and excursions, was absurdly low in terms of normal Scandinavian prices.
Would I do it again?
This is an interesting question. I enjoyed my trip and I am happy that I did it. If I were to go back in time armed with the knowledge I have now, I would certainly again embark on the adventure. However, I don’t think I want to do it a second time. Operating 52 weeks a year, Smyril has their weeklong voyage down to a science, and I seriously doubt that anything changes from week to week. Also, given the somewhat spartan conditions onboard, I’m not really keen to spend a couple more days at sea with limited options except watching dubbed movies on the in-room TV. One trip was fine but a second would not be nearly as fun.
Please don’t misunderstand me, this is not at all a negative review. Instead, I think it’s important for would-be passengers though to manage their expectations. I had a really fun week and loved visiting the Faroe Islands and parts of Iceland that were new to me. It was thrilling to watch the Shetland Islands float by as we cruised the ocean and the evening sunsets were the stuff of legends. But, this is not a luxury cruise experience. No, this is a working cruiseferry that operates an important service along an important sea route; they just happen to also take onboard a lot of passengers in the process. For me though it was an adventure – it was an experience that I know I’ll never forget. I am grateful for the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and to explore again. It’s a remarkable feeling and I couldn’t imagine a better part of the world for this travel adventure.