Norway, so far north that I always imagined the landscape to be dominated by ice, fjords and glaciers, has always seemed like a mystical place to me, and after reading Philip Pullman's book, "Northern Lights" (a.k.a. "The Golden Compass" in the U.S.), which features many scenes there, I was even more intrigued by the region. Not only is the country's western coastline full of scenic and, in summer, green and lush forests fjords, it's also known for its quaint, colourfully painted coastal houses. This sailing route seemed to be one of the prettiest in the world -- a great reason to take a Norwegian Fjords cruise.
As I began to research itineraries, I discovered a few more perks for U.K. cruisers like me. I didn't have to travel far to depart on my northern journey -- plenty of cruises leave from convenient U.K. homeports. And I wouldn't have to worry about jet lag because there's only a one-hour time difference between England and Norway. Plus, I'd be able to stretch each day of my holiday to the fullest because most Northern Europe cruises take place in the summer, when magical, never-ending days are pretty much guaranteed in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
With numerous options on tap -- from the small, no-nonsense coastal ships of Hurtigruten that stop in tiny villages to the massive, Southampton-based Grand Princess, complete with onboard features like a casino, spa and multiple dining venues -- making a choice about which kind of Norwegian Fjords cruise really does boil down to itinerary (in-depth versus hitting the high points) and onboard amenities. This time out, I went for the latter and boarded Princess' Southampton-based Grand Princess for the journey.
Choosing a Northern Europe Cruise
Cruise lines offer a variety of itineraries to Northern Europe. Some visit great Baltic cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki, with overnight calls in Russia's St. Petersburg. Others combine Baltic ports with a handful of Western Europe ports like Brugge. If you really want to try something special, you can do an Arctic cruise with an expedition ship. Silversea's Prince Albert II is one such ship and offers a fantastic luxury expedition trip to the Svalbard Peninsula, following the routes of famed explorers, such as Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
However, I was interested in a country-specific, Norway-focused cruise that went as far north as possible -- in this case, the North Cape. My seven-night sailing included visits to Stavanger, Geiranger, Trondheim, Honningsvag (The North Cape) and finally Tromso, with two days at sea. It was a real treat sailing in and out of these natural wonders each day -- instead of the endless stretches of water to either side of the ship, which are the norm on most cruises, we had constant scenic views.
An all-Norway cruise may seem very specific and unique, but several lines, including Princess, P&O Cruises, Cunard and Transocean Tours, offer options. Other U.S. lines, including Celebrity and NCL, have a smattering of Norway-focused cruises from the U.K. Niche cruise line Hurtigruten, which carries passengers on its daily cargo delivery service along the coast, features the biggest variety of port calls -- 34 ports on its 11-night Coastal Voyage. In fact, in almost every port, you're pretty much guaranteed to see a Hurtigruten ship. Year-round, 10 to 11 of the line's no-frills ships offer daily one-way and round-trip departures, but time ashore is more limited (45 minutes to about four hours per port) than the full day you would have on a regular cruise ship. And, other than the occasional special sailing, the itinerary never changes.
A Day at Sea
On a cruise that heads to Northern Europe, you are probably not going to find a packed sun deck area or guests dancing in a conga line outdoors. The vibe for this kind of cruise is a lot more subdued and relaxed -- think cosying up with a good book in the library, rather than slapping on the sunscreen for a day by the pool. Guests on my sailing tended to be mature travellers, and there were hardly any families onboard (possibly because school holidays hadn't yet started). However, it struck me that the leisurely itinerary, combined with an older clientele, made the onboard atmosphere more mellow.
The North Sea was kind to us, and the weather was sunny -- always a plus. Breakfast, complete with tea and English bacon for the Brits, was served in Horizon Court, the ship's buffet venue, which was bustling with cruisers eagerly anticipating their first day onboard. In fact, this was the only area that ever seemed crowded. Otherwise, I would never have known I was sharing the ship with thousands of other people. Grand Princess is designed very well and keeps passenger flow running smoothly.
On sea days, a lecturer gave classes on the various ports we'd be visiting. I went to the talk on Honningsvag and the North Cape, which was well-attended and, in fact, very interesting. We learned all about the traditional Sami people of Norway and that about 6,000 reindeer migrate to the island during the summer. The presentation gave us all a real flavour of what was to come when we reached port. The other sea-day activities were more typical cruise ship fare and included line-dancing classes, arts and crafts, and golf-putting competitions. I enjoyed a master class in cooking, taught by Princess Cruises' master chef, Alfredo Marzi. The food looked so tempting and delicious that we bought his book, "Courses," and have used it at home since. The crab cake recipe is just delicious!
As the day wore on, we were reminded of which way we were headed -- the ship passed a number of oil rigs and container ships on its journey north.
The Land of the Midnight Sun
By the time we reached our first port, Stavanger, at about 10:30 p.m., the sun was setting. But, before we knew it, we were blessed with bright, blue skies at midnight. It was a little eerie, but I soon got used to it. Princess anticipated the problems of sleeping when it's still light out, so Grand Princess' cabins were fitted with blackout curtains. It was sufficiently dark to aid my sleep; however, as the cruise went on, and the nights became lighter, my travelling companion began to struggle to fall sleep. The cure for him: an eye mask that I had cleverly packed in my bag.
One thing that struck me was the evening behaviour of guests. On typical sailings, people tend to head to their preferred night spots and bars for after-dinner tipples as night closes in. On this cruise, however, it was clear that passengers were more spread out through the ship, rather than being concentrated in the lounges. We, like many others, dined later and took more time to wander out on deck to take in the scenery -- even late at night. One evening, I sat up in Skywalkers Nightclub (raised up high on Deck 17) at 11:30 p.m., looking out at the ocean in pure daylight. This normally buzzing night spot was being used more as a relaxing lounge with views than as a disco -- even though the disc jockey was playing party tunes. It just seemed awkward to boogie down when the sun was still high in the sky.
A Surprise in Stavanger
We woke up in Stavanger to dark skies and pouring rain -- not quite the welcome we had hoped for. Like many others, we got off the ship and headed for the first place that looked, well, dry. It happened to be the city's cathedral -- Norway's oldest. And how about this for coincidence: The cathedral was built by a British man from Winchester!
Stavanger may be Norway's fourth-largest city, but it seemed like a small town to us Londoners. In fact, small ports with small-scale attractions are what you'll find in most ports on a Norwegian Fjords cruise. To be fair, however, the ports themselves are not the main attractions on these types of itineraries. The beautiful scenery and the experience of cruising through northern waters are what appeal to most cruisers heading along Norway's coastline.
As the rain eased off to a drizzle, we stumbled upon the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, which takes a look back at Norway's role in the oil industry. It wasn't on my list of "must-see" places, but it was dry, so we ventured in and paid the 80 Kroner (about £8 or $13 U.S.) admission fee. In fact, this high-tech waterfront museum, located just a few minutes from the port, was well worth the entry charge. It's really interactive -- visitors can take part in a quiz on the history of oil and climb down escape nets used on the oil rigs. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the museum. If it hadn't been raining, we would have missed this entertaining and informative attraction!
Princess is clearly courting the British market, with Grand Princess taking the helm as the U.K. flagship sailing out of Southampton. Before we had even boarded, there was a clear Brit vibe in the air -- our security photos were taken against a backdrop of the Union Jack. Once onboard, we headed for a lift up to our cabin. There were four other couples inside, as well -- all British. It turned out that, of the 2,661 passengers, 1,500 were British, 637 were American, and 120 were Spanish.
Most people who travel like to try new things by sampling local cultures and such. But, rather stereotypically, there are a few things we U.K. folks like to see in our diets: good beer, a nice cup of tea and bacon that isn't of the crispy variety. And, I am pleased to report that, during my sailing, Grand Princess' crew delivered on all three counts. Although there are no in-cabin tea- or coffee-making facilities (something that Royal Caribbean added to its U.K. ship, Independence of the Seas, in 2008), passengers can still get tea throughout the ship. The main dining room was always buzzing during afternoon tea. Boddingtons was readily served at the bar, and the breakfast room kept all guests happy with two kinds of bacon.
The localisation continued with entertainment, too. Welsh comedian Kenny Smiles (an apt name!) made crowds laugh with his jokes about the different nationalities in the room -- and there were a few, including British, American, Spanish and Polish. He performed the show twice during our cruise.
Early Rising Pays Off in Geiranger
Cruise Critic member Matherwood had suggested we rise early (yes, we are talking 5:30 a.m.) to witness the stunning approach into Geirangerfjord. If you don't want to miss the stunning scenery of Geirangerfjord, here are a few tips for planning your morning:
Set Your Alarm: So as not to miss a second of scenic cruising, I checked port arrival times and then subtracted about 45 minutes. I set my alarm clock for that time, so I was up and ready when the ship made its big entrance.
Get Outside: If you are lucky enough to have a balcony cabin on your cruise, make the most of it! As I eagerly drew back my curtains and stepped outside, the first thing I saw was another cruise ship, the Delphin Voyager. But, beyond that, the landscape was beautiful -- lush green mountains and gushing waterfalls formed by the melting, snow-capped mountains. If you want close-up views of the fjord walls, keep to your balcony. But, if you want 360-degree views of fjords on either side of the ship, you'd do better to make your way up to the ship's top decks or viewing lounges.
It's OK to Sleep In: If you are not a morning person, or you sleep through your alarm, don't worry. You can see the fjord as you depart. But, for me, there was something tranquil and calming about the early-morning views. You can't beat them!
The ship anchors right in the fjord in the town of Geiranger, so after a quick tender to shore, you are free to explore. Many choose walking tours, kayaking in the fjord or taking short, scenic cruises to keep those views coming.
In the Arctic
Crossing over into the Arctic Circle on our second sea day as we headed farther north to Honningsvag, I could really feel a change in the atmosphere. The sea became calmer and darker, the air was crisp and clean, and a feeling of peace settled over Grand Princess guests as they watched the land slide by.
The second sea day was much chillier than the first, and the public areas became very quiet. We took to reading in our cabin and sitting, wrapped up, on our balcony to watch the Norwegian Sea go by. Amazingly, on this sea day, I also saw a whale. Apparently, the best time to see whales is in the winter, so seeing one during our summer cruise was a rare spot.
Remote Honningsvag lies 71 degrees north on Mageroya Island and is pretty much as far as you can go before heading to the icy seas bound for the North Pole. On our trip, it was also the most popular port for booking shore excursions, and nearly all tours were sold out by embarkation day. Most guests want to visit the North Cape, home to the headland cliffs that mark the northernmost point of Europe and the spot where the Atlantic and Arctic oceans meet. We tried to book onto a tour up to the Cape, but unfortunately, it was sold out. Learn from our mistake, and pre-book your excursion if you want to visit the North Cape. With little public transportation in this remote area, tourists really are dependent on ship's excursions to see the sights.
Surprisingly, on our visit, we were blessed with warm, sunny skies and temperatures in the high 60's -- the warmest of our whole trip. It was funny to have the best weather in the northernmost port on our itinerary. Luckily, we had packed clothes for all weather -- come rain or shine, we were prepared. Definitely take as varied a wardrobe as possible, and pack layers for unexpected changes in the weather.
Our second-choice tour took us to the fishing village of Skarsvag (the northernmost fishing village in the world). En route, we encountered some other residents of the island -- reindeer! The herd of reindeer is the property of the traditional Sami people, and each summer, the reindeer migrate to the north. Surrounded in this way by Santa's sleigh-pullers, Skarsvag is a fitting place to find a Christmas shop -- though in the middle of July, it felt a little strange walking into a festive grotto. The alluring smell of cinnamon (or perhaps it was the homemade cake) pulled me in anyway. The store was packed full of people searching for Christmas goodies way ahead of schedule. Gifts on offer included cinnamon cakes, Santa Claus statues and some more traditional Norwegian gifts, such as knitted jumpers and tops.
Back in port, we were lured into the touristy Arctico Ice Bar, which is right by the tender boat docking area. There are plenty of "ice bars" around the world, but we thought it somehow seemed more fitting to visit one in the Arctic. The cover charge was 120 Kroner per person (£12 or about $20) and included a free, non-alcoholic shot and a chance to sit in an igloo or sled while getting rather chilly. We had a good time, but the Ice Bar was over-priced and didn't quite live up to our expectations.
As we returned to the ship, the sun was still beaming down on us, so we took the opportunity to have an al fresco lunch on our balcony.
Reflections of the Ship and Trip
Grand Princess may not be the newest or flashiest ship geared to U.K. cruisers right now, but it still has big-ship facilities with an understated elegance and a relaxed vibe. The line is clearly making every effort possible to attract a growing number of British cruise passengers -- whether by adding crate loads of tea bags and beer or by offering longer Mediterranean and Northern Europe itineraries to suit Brits' holiday patterns.
As for the destination, on some mornings, afternoons and evenings, it was hard to leave the balcony, as the view was so amazing and transfixing. Of course, a long-haul trip to Alaska might be even more breathtaking for some, but with Norway's fjords so close and accessible to the U.K., it's one not to be missed.
If you are looking for a "get away from it all" type of cruise without too much hustle and bustle onboard or ashore, then this trip, with its tranquil and quaint ports, will offer just that.
Did You Know?
Norway has a population of about 4.8 million and covers an area of 385,155 square kilometres.
In the North Cape, the Midnight Sun shines from 14 May to 29 July. On our mid-July cruise, we actually had 24-hour sunlight. The Northern Lights tend to be seen during the darkest days, from November to February.
Being so far north, Honningsvag likes to pride itself on a few things -- that it has the most northerly church, the most northerly school, the most northerly football pitch... I think you can see where this is going!
Norway has the highest concentration of fjords in the world, and UNESCO has included Geirangerfjord and Naeroyfjord on its World Heritage List.
--by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Editor