Sponsored by Viking Ocean Cruises
Perched at the top of Europe and protruding well into the Arctic, Norway is a dazzler. The country's westward profile is riddled with fjords that plunge into the Norwegian Sea, its mountains are slick and sharp and riven by glaciers. The Nordic culture recalls with fondness Scandinavia's Viking heritage and an era of conquest and navigational prowess.
With its rugged, handsome coastline and innumerable remote hamlets, and land costs that can make a sailor reach for smelling salts, Norway is one place that is perhaps best, most easily seen on a cruise. And a 14-day itinerary aboard Viking Sea may well be the best route to experience this magnificent country. Called Into the Midnight Sun, our journey will follow the coastline north from Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, across the Arctic Circle and on to the northernmost point of Europe, before returning south and making three stops in Scotland -- also former Norse seafarers' turf -- and landing at what we think is one of Europe's most special ports, London's Greenwich.
Come with us on this journey (it's also offered in the reverse direction), as we provide a day-by-day report on the experience, and find out why we think Viking Ocean Cruises has this destination nailed. And yes: In the days ahead we're hoping to work on our tan after midnight in the land where the summer sun never sets!
The view alone from the airplane on our flight to Bergen proved why we were here. We descended above a brilliant, gleaming glacier (Folgefanna, I later learned) and followed tongues of ice toward some of the more than a thousand fjords lining Norway's ruffled coastline. Soon, forests were speckled with colorful houses and scalloped islands dotted a blue, blue sea. It wasn't "Frozen," the movie, but it still felt like a scene out of a fantasy.
Bergen's stark and prim airport is served by just a few airlines, primarily Finnair, Icelandair, Norwegian and SAS. We saved money by booking our flight to Amsterdam and then purchasing separately our one-way into Bergen. But, we had not prearranged our transfer to the port with Viking, so we hopped aboard the Flybussen, which landed us in downtown Bergen in 20 minutes, right next to the city's fish market. Viking Sea was within eyesight, just a 10-minute walk, our rollaboards clattering behind us along the cobblestones.
Awash in clean, elegant Scandinavian detail, Viking's ocean ships break the traditional cruise mold in several ways, and I'm looking forward to exploring the ship over the next two weeks. First we've got a cabin to settle in to and the dinner bell would be ringing soon for a pair of lunch-deprived travelers.
We kept it simple, foraging at the World Cafe, the ship's buffet venue, and enjoying the amber rays that started to flood the harbor. As with many Viking itineraries, there was no sail-away following embarkation -- we were in port for this first night, allowing us the entire next day to explore Bergen.
The city reminds me a lot of Seattle -- at least in its topographical character. Bergen is laced with islands and bays, mountains and harbors, all of it blanketed with trees, the wooden houses painted in bright colors. It has another distinction in common with Seattle: Rain, lots of it -- 89 inches annually, on average. But instead, today we were kissed with cloudless skies and temperatures approaching 80 degrees.
We visited Bergen a few years earlier, on another Norway cruise, so we skipped the funicular leading to the scenic viewpoint atop Mount Floyen, and we dodged the hop-on hop-off bus tour. But we did jump aboard the included tour that Viking offers at every port, a two-hour motor coach tour of the city's main sights, including stops at two viewpoints. These free excursions, while not in-depth, encourage a basic, painless introduction to the city and its culture and history. Our guide reminded us how Bergen was Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries, and that composer Edvard Grieg spent each summer here, crafting concertos in a lakeside hut, until his death in 1907 (you can visit Grieg's house Troldhaugen, replete with a concert hall, where you can attend a recital on one of Viking's optional shore excursions).
There's a lot of that history here, and on the way back to Viking Sea we asked to be dropped off at the Bryggen, the city's original wharf, a tight collection of 58 steep-gabled buildings, some leaning, others askew, all brightly painted, each bisected by charming alleys. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a full-on tourist attraction, busy on cruise ship days, but still appealingly atmospheric for its art galleries and craftspeople.
Back on board Viking Sea, a seafood spread is being readied for sail-away at the World Cafe, so we'll head here tonight for the salmon and mussels we can smell being grilled and steamed on the aft deck. We look forward to our sunset passage through the fjords leading into the Norwegian Sea.
Today we slinked through Geirangerfjord, and our return visit to this awesome chasm was no less satisfying than our first, five years ago. This morning, the fjord was filled with low-hanging clouds that blanketed the mountains. From the top deck, shortly after 7 a.m., I spied the waterfall known as the Seven Sisters, more than 1,000 feet tall, laughing its way down the face of the cliff like a chorus of Degas dancers. On the starboard side, the Suitor waterfall strutted for attention. Abandoned, seemingly perilous farmhouses could be seen on both sides of the fjord, hundreds of feet above the water. What an astounding place to live and raise children, is all I could think.
The town of Geiranger is a fine sight -- a community of 250-or-so year-round residents living in an impossibly photogenic setting at the head of the fjord. Today, three ships are in port (not unusual for Norway's third-busiest port), meaning the tiny village is packed with visitors, most of them headed out on tours, which include helicopter flights, fishing excursions, a bike tour that climbs the hillside (fortunately, with electric bikes for steeds) and the one I really want to do, a kayak trip through the fjord. Alas, it was sold out well before embarkation, so I looked on in envy at my fellow cruisers piling into sea kayaks and following the coastline to waterfalls galore.
We poked around Geiranger and found reasons to linger for a bit. There was a hike that would take us to the top of a sheer cliff that seemed to peer over our ship, and a bar where a draft beer came to more than $12 a mug -- gulp! T-shirt and knickknack shops were at a minimum, but that didn't stop one eclectic gift shop from posting a sign outside: "Troll Free Zone -- No Souvenirs"! The clouds never parted above the town or fjord during our day, but in the early afternoon we took Viking's included tour that found our coach winding up the snaking road to the plateau above Geiranger, 3,400 feet above sea level. Only a few hundred feet before reaching the top did wisps of sunlight start to appear overhead and the bus eased off the road to park beside Djupvatn, a lake of baby blue where two families lounged and swam below at a rocky beach, seemingly content to ignore the snow banks trickling into the lake. The whole time we were there, the clouds we had risen above struggled to wash over the brink behind us. It was quite the idyll.
Our coach headed back down into the clouds to a second panoramic viewpoint, but our guide Asta kept expectations in check. As she suspected, the viewpoint known as Eagle's Nest, 2,000 feet above the fjord, was fairly well socked-in, so we contented ourselves with less-than-ideal photos and Asta's perspective on life in a remote village. Though originally from Oslo, her family comes from the area, so she knows what life is like during the harsh, isolated winters in Geiranger.
"The atmosphere is quite different in Geiranger going from summer to winter," Asta explained. "It's so small, there isn't even a doctor, though one comes in once a week. So if you're going to get sick here, it's best to get sick on a Wednesday."
Jokes aside, I can't help but recall that the precarious life in these narrow fjords was illustrated just a few years ago in the Oscar-nominated Norwegian disaster film, "The Wave," a nail-biting look at a massive avalanche careening into the fjord, creating a 100-foot-high tsunami that consumes little Geiranger.
Built on timber and textiles, we're told the coastal town of Molde was a trading port as far back as the Middle Ages. Molde has a nickname, the City of Roses, for the fragrant blooms abundant in spring and summer, especially along the Town Hall roof. Today this city of 26,000 wears a cosmopolitan aura, and it is best known for its annual summer jazz festival. Van Morrison and David Sanborn are scheduled to arrive over the weekend, along with a roster of Norwegian jazz acts.
We'll miss them, but it's here we got to head out onto the water in kayaks. While Molde's harbor is definitely not as jaw-dropping as the setting provided to paddlers yesterday in Geiranger, we happily jumped into the two-seat kayaks and glided into the eerily calm passage. It's actually another fjord that fronts the city, separating Molde from the mainland, with little smudges of islands halfway across that look like the glaciers haven't quite finished their deep cleaning of the channel.
Kayaking in Fannefjord was lovely. With no wind and a pleasant morning temperature I wish I'd had my shorts on -- my legs actually worked up a sweat, sealed within the kayak with a skirt designed to keep me afloat should the kayak flip. Our group numbered just seven, plus our two guides, which proved an ideal size. Later we were told the afternoon kayak tour barely made it out of the harbor due to the wide range of kayaking abilities and a steady breeze. While the tour was accurately described as suitable for all levels, it's probably more enjoyable if you have a little paddling experience (correspondingly, advanced kayakers might be frustrated by the amount of attention guides have to focus on beginners).
While out in the fjord, we encountered a procession of Molde's brand-new electric ferries plying the waters that cut across the harbor, shaving an hour or more off drive time to points south such as Bergen and Oslo. They created little wake for us to deal with in the kayaks, but more importantly, they're stunningly quiet and smoke-free. With so many islands and long fjords along Norway's coast, ferries are a vital transportation link.
Viking's included tour visited Molde Cathedral, a modest and austere place of worship, and ascended the hillside behind the city to Varden, a viewpoint 1,300 feet up, surrounded by fjords and the Romsdal Alps. We also visited Romsdal Museum, an open-air cultural park centered around 50 historic buildings that trace the development of the community, spiced up with dancing lessons from performers and musicians in costume.
Back onboard Viking Sea, we had our meal tonight at The Restaurant, the ship's main dining room. There are no set mealtimes for the restaurants onboard, and somehow we managed to land what we concluded is the best seat in the house: table 5. Located in the aft, starboard corner of the dining room, this two-top offered views to the side and into the roiled sea behind us, just enough to keep our eyes pert as our meal rolled out of the kitchen. Pea and leek risotto, seared sea bass with lemon-caper butter, lamb curry served with naan -- we were well sated tonight. We're not sure there's a bad table in the house at The Restaurant, but we'll be asking for table 5 again, for sure.
Today we are following the coast of Norway north, wending between highlands and islands and headed to the furthest reaches of Europe. The captain seems to be choosing the most scenic route possible and all day we delighted in a steady backdrop of sheer granite and a procession of tiny coastal villages, each more remote than the last. But today will be a sea day unlike any other, as we'll be crossing the Arctic Circle this afternoon, and the ship's newsletter promises an unusual participatory ceremony today at 2 p.m. -- an initiation rite for the Order of the Blue Nose.
Now, I'd never heard of a line-crossing ceremony, but I Googled the term this morning and found descriptions of various kinds of these events held on ships dating back at least two centuries. Crossing the equator on Lake Victoria marks one as a member of the Order of the Ebony Shellback; crossing the international date line is the Golden Shellback. The Order of Purple Porpoises is for maritime personnel who cross the junction of the equator and the international date line at the Sacred Hour of the Vernal Equinox. Phew! These fraternities became fairly standard during WWII, I read, and sometimes involved undesirable initiations. Fortunately, the Order of the Blue Nose, Domain of the Polar Bear -- for maritime personnel who have crossed the Arctic Circle -- is less challenging, a little less onerous and our captain Johan Malmberg was eager to give passengers an opportunity for initiation.
To facilitate this absurd rite of passage, the ship's hot tub was turned off last night to let it cool. Then, at 2 p.m. and in front of a couple of hundred passengers, most of us in bathing suits and clad in bathrobes, two dozen bags of ice were unloaded into the pool. Our cruise director, Drew Raitch, wearing a tinfoil horned helmet, summoned a deep, monotone voice and the personae of Neptune to underscore the gravity of this momentous occasion.
One by one, passengers lined up to jump into the icy water, and after taking the plunge, we were each gifted with a dollop of blue frosting on our noses and a glass of aquavit, that ouzo-like wannabe (Viking stocks an estimable collection of Scandinavian aquavits to try). It was quite a hoot, and soon, before the blue froth had dried, the captain was back on the PA system to tell us that we were about to cross the actual Arctic Circle. Off to the port side, a giant globe perched on a pedestal on a tiny islet in the channel marked the imaginary line.
Being a sea day, the ship's schedule had been augmented a bit. There was a cooking demo in the theater by the charismatic executive chef Pierpaolo Fadda (gnocchi alla Sorrentina and tiramisu), and a session apiece by the ship's quartet of guest lecturers. We sat in for one of these with Michael Scott, a Scottish conservationist who extolled the flora and fauna we'd see in the northern Norway ports to come. He explained that because the summer growing season is so short, flowers have to work extra hard to attract the insects for pollinating, making their blooms all the more extraordinary.
"There are plants in Tromso that you'd have to walk right up to the top of a mountain in North America to see," said Scott. "Here, they're often found right next to the road. There's even an orchid, the coral root orchid, that manages to grow here."
This "enrichment," in industry parlance, is not extensive, but it carries a modicum of sophistication, designed to appeal to grown-ups. Viking Ocean Cruises has quickly established itself as a major player in the cruise industry, shaking up some of the threadbare conventions of the mass-market lines. The minimum age is 18 and the target audience is age 55-plus. That sounds like a snooze. It's not. Our fellow passengers are well-traveled and curious to explore, which means we're in good company. The food is excellent, the crew is cheerful and kind, and there is no casino, no constant push for shopping, no ship photographers relentless asking for a pose -- distractions I find annoying when sailing on some other lines.
And yet, on our first sea day, when other cruise lines would be pulling out all the stops to pad the check-out bill, we were engaged, anointed with blue frosting and the captain was sailing us through the scenery, not around it. What more did we need?
Well, one thing: the Midnight Sun. It didn't appear tonight as expected. But, we've got three more nights above the Arctic Circle for the clouds to part and the sun to shine. No one seems worried.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the cool things about Viking Ocean Cruises is that a complimentary shore excursion is included for every port. There are other tours you can add on, for a fee, but it's nice not getting slammed on shore excursion costs at every landing. On most other cruise lines, we watch people wandering aimlessly around the port, navigating one trinket shop after another for lack of any other focus.
In our next port, Tromso, we were fortunate to have charming Benoit Tamba, originally of Senegal, for a short exploration of the city by coach.
"You have the privilege today of being guided by the black Viking," Benoit said at the outset, to much laughter.
By now, our position was well north, latitudinally, of Iceland. Tromso is a city of 75,000, Norway's ninth largest, and Benoit may not have been far off in calling it the "Paris of the North." His cheerful presence alone illuminated the city's welcoming international and multicultural fabric, in part due to the large Arctic University of Norway that draws students from around the world. But in winter, as the northern lights come out to play, Tromso goes 54 days without sun. There's also a lot of snow, the record snowfall being 7 feet 10 inches, in April 1997. No wonder that one of the few international flights accessing Tromso is a winter route that darts straight to the Canary Islands!
Most of Tromso's population lives on a smallish island in the middle of the fjord, and even in July, snow still inhabited the upper reaches of the mountains surrounding the city. On a clear day, the view from Storsteinen Mountain, reached by cable car, would probably be pretty terrific. Instead, we opted for an afternoon excursion today to visit the Tromso Wilderness Centre, home to more than 300 Alaskan sled dogs, and where winter tours explore the snowy countryside. Of course, in summer, the high-energy huskies need to be walked, so the owners offer hiking trips -- we signed up.
Initially, we were disappointed that our group of 23 would be sharing just eight of the dogs, but as soon as we saw just how excited the huskies were, we understood there was no way the three guides could ever have managed one dog per untrained guest! We took turns with the huskies, each attached to a harness around our waist but, in fact, the dogs were so enthusiastic for their walk that a few guests opted out entirely. We had Brie and Snork for most of the hike -- Brie loved to be out in front, pulling me this way and that, while Snork spent much of the time running in circles. It was loads of fun, capped only by then visiting the entire crew of huskies at their kennels, along with a litter of six darling pups that had been born just a few weeks previous.
Back on the ship, we dined at Manfredi's, Viking Sea's Italian restaurant. There's no surcharge for a meal here, though reservations are required, and following a series of delicious pastas and vegetable dishes, I dived into the amazing bistecca Fiorentina. The rib-eye is marinated for 72 hours, we were told, in olive oil, porcini mushroom, brown sugar and spices, and served with a garnish of arugula and a wedge of grilled lemon. When we go back to Manfredi's next week I don't know if I'll be able to resist ordering it a second time.
Last night the skies were still socked in as we sailed to the northernmost point of our itinerary, so we still didn't take in the proverbial Midnight Sun. But arriving into Honningsvag, a fishing community of 2,500 residents, was still pretty exciting. We've long wondered what life in a really remote arctic place might be like, but this wasn't quite what we expected. The island of Mageroya is 1,500 miles north of Bergen (much further north than the Aleutians), but it's connected to the mainland by a road tunnel, meaning people drive up here from Oslo and Stockholm and can say they've set foot on Europe's northernmost point. So, although some of the tours for sale today include a king crab safari or bird-watching tours (puffins!), the prime objective for most of us is North Cape.
Fortunately, North Cape is the included tour Viking is offering today, and we climbed into motor coaches for the 22-mile trip across the island. The driver navigated a winding, undulating road that passed a pretty little beach -- "we call it Little Copacabana," the driver joked. Sun pierced the clouds on occasion, but mostly the view was fairly socked-in through a desolate, treeless landscape inhabited by reindeer and herded by local Sami families. Our driver explained how the name Mageroya translates to "island of almost nothing," and yet the island has been on the tourist map for a surprisingly long time, starting in 1553, when the ship Edward Bonaventure visited this place while in search of the Northeast Passage. Even the King of Thailand (then Siam), King Chulalongkorn, visited in 1907 while on his European adventure. What they and others come for is to check off the island's certifiable tourist trap, North Cape, a striking 1,007-foot-high perch overlooking the Barents Sea.
Now, I can't argue with anyone wanting to visit this extreme location, 1,306 miles from the North Pole -- I'm glad Viking Ocean Cruises includes the 30-minute bus ride and admission as part of its cruise fare. But the North Cape facility itself is one big souvenir shop with a restaurant and bar attached. On the day we visited, the site was shrouded in clouds and wind. We didn't stay long or buy anything, but I'm certainly glad I made the trip to this oddly unforgettable outpost.
We had a quick walk around Honningsvag's harbor, brimming with fishing boats that take advantage of the rich fisheries. The warm Gulf Stream creates ice-free conditions year-round, and the prized local catch is king crab, related to the Alaskan variety we were told.
Back aboard Viking Sea for the route back down south, our itinerary allowed for the possibility of four nights of Midnight Sun, where the sun would not set, but our first two had been cloudy through and through. So earlier this evening our captain told us that he had chosen a route well out to sea where clear skies were possible. Following dinner and the evening show we trundled up to the Explorer's Lounge, located above the bridge, where upward of 100 passengers had gathered in hopes of the big reveal. The skies overhead were fairly clear, but the horizon to the west was patchy. But, literally at midnight, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds while it hovered well above the horizon and the ship's starboard side was flooded with amber hues.
Needless to say, cheers and applause rang through the Explorer's Lounge.
Arrival to the Lofoten Islands the next morning was glorious. There was not a cloud in the sky, the wind a bare whisper, and seabirds accompanied our slow, delicious crawl into the harbor. Reaching southwest into the Atlantic, the Lofoten archipelago is like a fantasy straight out of the South Pacific -- sharp peaks blanketed in green, white sand curling into coves and hamlets with houses painted in deep bright colors. We didn't have long here -- just six hours in the port of Leknes -- but it was enough to tempt us to come back some time, with a camera at the ready for the fabulous play of light and shadow and color Lofoten exhibited for us.
"Welcome to the island of Vestvagoy, the land of stick mountains," said our guide, Joshua. As we headed out on the included tour, he told us how Lofoten's primary economy has always been fishing, but farming is also big and now tourism. What visitors come for is hiking, rock climbing, cycling or just enjoying the resplendent Arctic light that inspires artists and photographers. Oh, and beachgoing. Yes, Lofoten has beaches where campers and tents were parked to enjoy the pearlescent sands, and Joshua took us to what he called the most romantic beach in Lofoten, Uttakleiv, where sheep grazed. It was magical. We also stopped at the fishing village of Ballstad, tucked into a bay at the base of a peak. Amazingly most of the islands are connected by tunnels and bridges so you can get almost anywhere in Lofoten easily -- all reason to return someday.
The night stayed clear for hours and we watched the Midnight Sun tease the horizon with a kiss before rising again. The next day, during his noon announcement, the captain said we had crossed over the Arctic Circle again during in the morning, that would be the last of the Midnight Sun. "Glad to hear it," shouted one cruiser, to much laughter, and we now had a sea day to enjoy the ship and its amenities. For us, a couple of quick naps on a lazy sea day helped restore our senses.
Interestingly, the Midnight Sun has been disorienting for equator huggers like us. On the journey north, with the ship threading a passage through islands and byways, we were kept awake by the passing scenery -- endless permutations of granite, mossy hills and spiky crags, pockmarked by pockets of snow. Yes, we could close the blackout curtains in our cabin but there was always the notion of missing something. Now, well out at sea, there were no scenic distractions. Yet, the ever-present light beyond the curtain still seems to fill our dreams, almost keeping us on edge.
This morning, Viking Sea landed in Shetland, one of two archipelagos situated just north of Scotland, places that always looked cold, distant and remote on a map. Now, compared to the far reaches of Norway, these Northern Isles seem quite accessible. Of course, they are still not the warmest, sunniest places -- measurable rainfall comes 243 days a year in Shetland, we were told, but there's a pleasant maritime climate so the temperature in mid-July is pretty agreeable. There are actually about 100 islands that are part of Shetland, only 16 of which are inhabited, and we landed at Lerwick, the main town on Mainland, the main island of Shetland.
The first thing I think of when I hear "Shetland" is ponies, so we had to sign up for the included tour called Shetland Panorama and Ponies. The horses are surprisingly small in height, about 3 feet from ear to toe, but they're hefty and quite muscular -- they all look pregnant! The host at the farm we visited assured us that it was muscle, not fat or babies in their bellies, and explained how the ponies had been initially bred to haul coal in mines. We mingled with a few of them at a farm, then continued on for panoramas portion of the tour, which included rolling carpets of green and treeless horizons under dank skies.
More interesting to us was wandering about the small, appealing port of Lerwick, where about a third of Shetland's total population of 23,000 lives. A gardener at the beautiful Jubilee Flower Garden, smack in the middle of Lerwick, said that the island's vegetation was suffering from a lack of rain. But the color and textures we saw on display had us gob-smacked -- we do love an English garden, even in Scotland.
Near the port we also enjoyed meeting Mary Macgregor, who passionately promotes and sells lovely Fair Isle knitwear from a makeshift tent, under the name Bakka. These Shetland Islands designs have been passed down through the centuries, and knitted using merino wool to provide a soft and durable garment.
For our day in Orkney, we had an early wake-up to make our included shore excursion. There wasn't quite time for a full breakfast in The Restaurant, and we wanted a quieter scene than the World Cafe offered. Solution: Mamsen's, the deli-style hideaway in the Explorer's Lounge. Though there are only a half-dozen tables for dining, we found most passengers overlooked this spot. The counter has a small selection of breakfast items, led by waffles, hot off a griddle and topped with fruit, cream and this strange brown Norwegian cheese. The cheese, brunost, looks slightly vile, but we found it surprisingly tasty, almost buttery in texture and with a slightly caramelized flavor.
One interesting note: Mamsen's was created in honor of the mother of Viking's chairman Torstein Hagen and replicates her culinary creations (which include, later in the day, lush cream cakes and a divine pea soup) right down to the dishware she used. It was recreated by the manufacturer at Viking's behest. You can't get more Norwegian than Mamsen's.
While Shetland is about 100 miles north of the mainland of Scotland, the Orkney Isles lie halfway between, an easy overnight sail. And, if it ever seemed curious why a cruise that had Viking heritage so central to its itinerary would stop in Scotland, Orkney was the answer. The port of Kirkwall is prominent in the 13th-century Orkneyinga Saga, a history of the Norse earls who once ruled these islands.
We were eager to explore an even-more ancient history, the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. So early this morning, we joined the very first included tour, Highlights of Orkney, and were lucky to have the island illuminated by a terrific guide, Jo James. She's a former schoolteacher and we loved her balance of careful enunciation and wide-eyed engagement -- the kind that keeps school kids enthralled. We were happy to be led and tutored by her for a few hours.
The neolithic rocks of Orkney wowed us. We knew of the Standing Stones of Stenness, primarily just through the eerie images we've been exposed to through the years, but their history and importance really struck us. The Standing Stones are a thousand years older than Stonehenge, and their position on a narrow promontory between two lochs is quite striking. Nearby is Maeshowe, a gravesite that is aligned so that its main chamber is illuminated on the winter solstice, Jo explained. We saw these only from inside the passing coach, including the 5-meter-high Watch Stone, which was positioned so close to the road we could have reached out to touch it from inside the bus. Although Jo said archaeologists know the stones comprised a ceremonial or ritual site, no one knows what that ceremony was. These exquisite rocks remain the site of pagan ceremonies even today.
Even better was the nearby Ring of Brodgar, a circle of stone slabs measuring 104 metres in diameter. As the earliest tour to arrive, we had the site almost to ourselves. There is still much unknown about the Ring's function -- was this a site of ritual sacrifice? Burial? A place of worship? Like Easter Island or Angkor Wat, and under moody skies, this place of ceremony and ritual was mystical and alluring, as many of the world's most fascinating monuments can be. We followed a short path that circled the sandstone slabs, which may originally have numbered as many as 60. Today, 27 stand, the missing stones most likely felled by lightning strikes over the ages.
"None of these stones match -- each came from a different area of Orkney," Jo said. "It was a massive community effort, so you can hardly call these folks primitive."
We had 45 minutes at the Ring of Brodgar and I could have stayed longer, but we had a schedule to keep on our 2.5-hour tour. Alas, the archaeological site of Skara Brae, Europe's best-preserved neolithic settlement, inhabited 5,000 years ago, was not on the agenda -- it was a paid tour. In retrospect, I regretted not signing up for it. Instead, next on the agenda was the village of Stromness, where flagstone streets were worth a short wander, and then the tour concluded back at the port. As we made our way off the coach, the skies made a feeble attempt at rain.
"Oh, dear, the weather's coming in," said Jo, glancing out the coach doors. "Well, today's rain is tomorrow's whiskey."
Back onboard Viking Sea we grabbed a quick lunch at the pool grill but then headed to Kirkwall for some exploration and shopping. St. Magnus Cathedral is the town's centrepiece, and it's a quite impressive building, founded in 1137 and constructed from the local red sandstone. Built by the Norse earls of Orkney, the structure oozes Romanesque style -- massive walls, sturdy pillars, and careful symmetry adding up to an imposing place of worship. Just beyond the graveyard, we found the ruins of the Bishop's Palace, built in the same period as the cathedral, and the Renaissance-style Earl's Palace -- both were fun for a quick romp.
We haven't bought much in the way of souvenirs so far and we need something for the cat-sitters at home. Fortunately, Orkney is home to Scotland's farthest north distillery, Highland Park, and the local cheese, a cheddar imbued with whiskey or smoke flavor and sealed in wax, looks tasty. We stocked up before sail-away.
After a succession of calls at smaller ports in Norway and Scotland, we arrived into magnificent Edinburgh this morning, albeit accompanied by other cruise ships. How many, we do not know, but there were at least four ships in port, and it appeared that every single cruiser wanted to beeline straight to the Royal Mile, the splendid street leading to Edinburgh Castle, probably the city's leading attraction. This compact city was simply not prepared for the congestion, with dozens of tour buses dropping off, picking up or passing through the Royal Mile.
We contented ourselves with a wander through these storied streets and recalled previous visits that took us to the splendid collection at the Scottish National Gallery; to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, where Mary Queen of Scots lived and the British monarch still stays; and to explore the Royal Yacht Britannia, the royal family's former private yacht, docked at Leith.
Back aboard we got word that another crisis had been conquered -- that Viking Sea had been re-provisioned earlier today. There had been no food shortages, of course, but apparently we (along with our fellow passengers) had done our level best to deplete the ship of its entire stock of quality Norwegian beer! This included the Ringnes Pilsner, Ægir Boyla Blonde Ale, Ægir Rallar Amber Ale and, most importantly, the Ægir India Pale Ale, which we'd been suckling for the first half of our journey until, one by one, each of the ship's bars had been wiped out. The beers are a definite cut above the Corona and Heineken that fills the stores of most ships.
The Norwegian beers were quickly chilled and IPAs were made available to us by sail-away, so any loss in girth we have suffered due to missing our usual diet of hops and grains will quickly be restored. Of course, beer isn't the only thing we swill, and our go-to preprandial cocktail has been the Negroni, the elixir aptly celebrated by the late, great Anthony Bourdain as "a satanic, delicious Hell broth." The classic Negroni recipe couldn't be simpler -- equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari, served over ice with slice of orange for garnish. But so many bartenders get it wrong, either reducing the amount of Campari for lily-livered types with an aversion to bitters, or they add a dose of soda water, presumably with the same intent. Following such abuses, why bother? Fortunately, Rodge, bartender for The Restaurant on Viking Sea, knew what we wanted from the start and could manufacture our Negronis without measuring.
That sail-away from Rosyth was special in another way, and that was this channel, located inland from Edinburgh in the Forth of Firth (an estuary of several rivers, including River Forth) is crossed by a fabulous cantilever railway bridge. The Forth Bridge, completed in 1890, remains today the world's second-longest single-cantilever span, just over 1.2 kilometres in length (the east side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is a famous, shorter example of a cantilever bridge). Perhaps Scotland's greatest man-made creation, the Forth Bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as "an extraordinary and impressive milestone in bridge design and construction during the period when railways came to dominate long-distance land travel."
Our journey south through the North Sea took us into a seascape of offshore platforms and drilling rigs, all mining the sea's bounty of oil and gas reserves. But at lunch in The Restaurant on this sunny sea day, we were just about to bite into linguine al pesto Genovese when a black shape appeared in the calm sea off the starboard side.
Could it be a whale? Our answer came quickly enough as, well off in the distance, another shape appeared on the horizon and plunged back into the sea with an enormous splash. They were whales indeed, breaching cheerfully, and over the course of the next 20 minutes we watched them come up repeatedly at various distances, indicating perhaps a half-dozen or more of the creatures nearby. Alas, by the time we settled back into our seats, the linguine was cold, the Ægir IPA warm. Our server, equally distracted by the show, happily brought new supplies.
The final journey was one we were most excited about, one that will bring Viking Sea up the Thames River to a position at Greenwich, London. Our ship is the largest that can make it to Greenwich, and it can only sail these waters at high tide, so the timing is critical for the four-hour trip up-river. Shortly before 6 a.m., a local pilot hopped aboard Viking Sea to assist with the precise navigation required as we entered the mouth of the river. We stayed close to the top deck the entire way where mimosas were being served, getting our unique view of the eastern suburbs, where London's 2012 Olympic Park was built. Single-deck Thames River cruisers are common, but seeing the city eight decks up aboard Viking Sea was a treat. Eventually Canary Wharf is beside us and Captain Malmberg made a sharp turn to allow the ship to back into position in front of the Royal Observatory, the official demarcation for the Prime Meridian Line and Greenwich Mean Time.
We were off the ship soon enough, and because we have one more night aboard the ship, there's no hurry to conquer the Royal Borough of Greenwich, an area of greater London we've managed to miss after umpteen trips to the city. On Viking's included walking tour we saw Cutty Sark, the only surviving tea clipper; explored Greenwich Market, fragrant with food stalls; stopped at St. Alfege Church, where King Henry VIII was baptized; and had an abbreviated tour of the National Maritime Museum. But soon enough we were hankering to re-board Viking Sea, a ship that -- even after 14 days, even before we disembarked -- we were already starting to miss.
Our last dinner aboard Viking Sea was, fittingly, our best. It was at The Chef's Table, the ship's culinary jewel. A set, five-course menu is the rule, but it changed every other day on our journey, so we had a chance to try three different menus. The first was focused on Venetian gastronomy, the main course a cod fillet sitting atop a mound of creamy risotto plumped with Jerusalem artichoke. The second menu we took in, Xiang, featured Chinese dishes, including a hearty wok-fried beef in black pepper sauce. Our favorite was tonight's La Route des Indes, a celebration of exotic spices that encompassed a carrot and cardamom mousse, followed by tuna tataki spiced with Sichuan peppercorns and coriander, and then a delectable beef tenderloin warmed by paprika, cumin, coriander and cinnamon. Delicious wines were paired with each course.
A menu we didn't get to try at The Chef's Table was Erling's Scandinavian Bistro, named for Viking's legendary hospitality guru; he's also a Norway native. It featured such items as reindeer consomme and lamb wrapped in cabbage, with cloudberry soup for dessert. And that menu pointed up a core reason that Viking Ocean Cruises was ideal for our journey along Norway's coast, into the seas of the Midnight Sun. Fittingly, Viking Sea never obscured the Norwegian experience. The ship always seemed to effortlessly enhance it. For 14 days we've been marinating in a Scandinavian environment (yes, even our British ports all touched on Viking heritage). From the ship's tiny accents, like the vivid green moss overflowing decorative planters, to grander ones, like the original artwork by Edvard Munch lining hallways, Viking Sea amplified the region.
Sure, there was a stage show tribute to Elvis one night and the hearty and satisfying restaurant Manfredi's satisfied our Italian hankerings. But there was also a classical trio that played music by Norwegian composers and on the menu in the Restaurant every night, poached salmon with pickled cucumber and boiled potatoes -- as pure an expression of Norwegian cuisine as there could be.
Sometimes, cruise journeys are less about the destination than they are about the ship and all its bells and whistles. Aboard Viking Sea, we truly felt like we'd been to Norway. The beautiful ship we rode was an integral part of that journey.
**Intrigued by cruises in Northern Europe and Scandinavia? Read more on Cruise Critic:
Rock Star Ports of Northern Europe: Where to Visit from Bergen to Berlin
*A native of San Diego, David Swanson has sailed on all of the big-ship cruise lines, but most enjoys the undiscovered ports and offbeat journeys of smaller cruise vessels. His writing and photography has been featured in the pages of National Geographic Traveler, American Way and the Los Angeles Times for more than 20 years, and he has served on the board of directors for the Society of American Travel Writers since 2009.
Updated October 10, 2019