Norway, with its fjords and glaciers, is a mystical place. Not only is the country's western coastline full of scenic and, in summer, green and lush forested fjords but it's also known for its quaint, colorfully painted coastal houses. The sailing route along the coast and into the fjords is one of the prettiest in the world -- a great reason to take a Norwegian Fjords cruise. Plus, UNESCO has included Geirangerfjord and Naeroyfjord on its World Heritage List.
If you're 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. To help you make the most of your first cruise to this northern destination, we share the lessons learned from our first cruise to the Norwegian Fjords.
1. Choose the right fjords itinerary for you.
Norwegian Fjords itineraries vary widely, so be sure to compare several options. Some set sail from Scandinavian cities like Copenhagen and Stockholm, others leave from the U.K. and a few actually depart from Norway itself (often Bergen). You might prefer a country-specific, Norway-focused cruise or one that combines a visit to Baltic capitals with the smaller Norwegian ports.
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, 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.
Even if you're looking exclusively at fjord cruises, some itineraries stick to the more southern ports, such as Stavanger and Geiranger, while others go as far north as possible into the Arctic, with stops in Honningsvag (The North Cape) and Tromso. Whichever you choose, you'll find it's a real treat sailing in and out of the fjords -- instead of the endless stretches of water on both sides of the ship, you'll have plenty of scenic views.
2. Be prepared for the midnight sun.
Most Northern Europe cruises take place in the summer, when magical, never-ending days are pretty much guaranteed. For example, when we reached our first port, Stavanger, at about 10:30 p.m., the sun was setting. But, by midnight, we had bright, blue skies again. It's a little eerie, but you soon get used to it. If your cruise travels as far as the North Cape, you're likely to experience 24-hour sunlight as the midnight sun shines from mid-May to late July.
Cruise ships anticipate the problems of sleeping when it's still light out by fitting cabins with blackout curtains. If you're still struggling, an eye mask can help. However, often harder than falling asleep once you're in bed is remembering to go to bed. It's easy to be fooled into thinking it's earlier than it is when the sky is still bright at 11 p.m.
Though it should go without saying, we feel compelled to add that the northern lights can only be seen when the sky is dark. You have basically zero chance of seeing them if you cruise to Norway in June or July.
3. The weather is changeable -- pack appropriately.
On our cruise, we woke up in Stavanger to dark skies and pouring rain, but much farther north in Honningsvag, we experienced warm, sunny skies and temperatures in the high 60s -- the warmest of our whole trip. And that's typical of Norway in the summer; not only is the weather highly variable but it can also change dramatically from morning to afternoon.
If you're wondering what to wear on a fjords cruise, we recommend packing clothes for all weather, including layers for unexpected changes in the weather. You'll wear it all. If you're setting out for a long day in port, throw sunglasses and a hat in your day pack even if it's raining, or an umbrella and extra jacket if it's sunny and warm. The weather can always turn midtour, and you don't want to be caught unprepared.
4. The ports are small but the scenery packs a big punch.
Stavanger might be Norway's fourth-largest city, but it seemed like a small town to us. 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. You'll find that some days it's hard to leave your balcony, as the view is so amazing and transfixing.
However, don't write off the ports because there are some hidden gems. For example, in Stavanger, we stumbled upon the Norwegian Petroleum Museum, which takes a look back at Norway's role in the oil industry. It wasn't on our list of "must-see" places, but 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. We were surprised by how much we enjoyed it.
5. Set your alarm for the Geirangerfjord sail-in.
It is well worth waking up early to witness the stunning approach into Geirangerfjord. When we say early, we mean like 5:30 a.m., possibly earlier -- ask onboard for the exact timing for your ship -- but you'll want to wake up at least an hour before the port arrival time.
If you have a balcony cabin on your cruise, make the most of it. Draw back the curtains, and you'll be greeted by lush green mountains and gushing waterfalls. If you want close-up views of the fjord walls, keep to your balcony. But, if you want 360-degree views of fjords on each side of the ship, you'd do better to make your way up to the ship's top decks.
If you're not a morning person, or you sleep through your alarm, don't worry. You can see the fjord as you depart -- with everyone else onboard jockeying for viewing space. We found there was something tranquil and calming about the early-morning views, and the morning light is usually best for photos. Also, given Norway's finicky weather, you don't want to risk missing the views if the fog or rain closes in during sail-away. Get up early and you've got two chances to enjoy the scenery.
6. Book must-do excursions early.
On our trip, remote Honningsvag -- which lies at 71 degrees north and is pretty much as far as you can go before heading to the icy seas bound for the North Pole -- was the most popular port for booking shore excursions. Nearly all tours were sold out by embarkation day. Most passengers 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 -- and the excursions sell out quickly.
We tried to book onto a tour up to the Cape, but unfortunately, it was sold out. Learn from our mistake, and prebook your excursion if you want to visit the North Cape. With little public transportation in this remote area, tourists really are dependent on ship excursions to see the sights. This advice applies to other ports as well. If you've got your heart set on a particular trip, book the excursion online as soon as reservations open for your sailing.