Known for its stunning Norway fjords, rich cultural heritage and jaw-dropping northern lights displays, the country has fully reopened to North American travelers. The requirements to complete entry registrations and produce negative COVID tests have been removed. And, because Norway is one of the best places to experience the Northern Lights, a cruise to this region is back on top of many bucket lists.
That's what lured me and, from my nonscientific chat-and-listen survey, the other 600-plus guests onboard Viking Venus' 13-day aptly named "In Search of the Northern Lights" voyage wrapping up this weekend in Bergen, Norway. This, along with the promise of learning more about the Sami people of Norway, a chance to try out sled-dog racing and opportunities to view the gorgeous landscape.
Viking Venus is Viking's newest ocean-going vessel (its maiden voyage was in 2021). For this itinerary the ship set sail from Tilbury, England, with a scheduled at sea day and planned stops in Lerwick (Shetland Islands), and Norwegian ports Bodo, Tromso, Alta, Narvik, and Bergen. Two days are spent sailing the scenic Norwegian Inside Passage. (The itinerary is also offered in reverse, from Bergen to London).
Despite having to skip two port stops (Lerwick and Bodo) due to rough seas, guests on this sailing got all that was promised along with some and bonuses. Here's what we learned about a Northern Lights cruise with Viking.
Protocols are in Place for Northern Lights Cruise
While many countries and communities have or will soon lift COVID-related mask mandates, for now Viking continues to employ strict safety precautions designed to keep passengers and crew safe. Guests must be vaccinated (and all crew members are) and must take predeparture COVID tests. PCR saliva tests are also conducted prior to embarkation, so expect to be asked to spit into a tube before getting on the ship, then to wait in your cabin for the few hours it will take for the shipboard lab to return your results. To help with the wait, a plate of sandwiches and snacks was thoughtfully placed in our cabins and room service was available.
Some of my cabin neighbors were impatient to begin their cruise adventure and tried to "bust out" before getting the COVID all-clear, and it was impressive to overhear how kindly (but emphatically) the cabin stewards handled the situation.
This cruise coincided with Viking once again permitting guests to explore independently while in ports. But onboard masks, daily PCR saliva and temperature checks and, of course, frequent hand washing is required. In the World Cafe, guests may once again use tongs to serve themselves, but dancing is still not permitted in any public areas. Fitness center reservations are not required, but the spa area (Viking has one of the best thermal spas at sea) is limited to 10 people at a time.
Skipped Ports Bring Bonuses
Because of rough seas, this cruise had to skip the two ports (Lerwick and Bodo) and spent the first four, instead of two, days at sea. While that was, of course, out of the crew's control, it was great to witness the way the cruise director Katie Healy and the whole Viking team pivoted, scheduling bonus film showings, eliciting surprise programs from the crack team of onboard enrichment lecturers, and lining up bridge and hotel officers for a hilarious Liars Club event. Most informative and entertaining, though, was a Q&A session with Rune Loekling, the very capable and captivating Norwegian captain of the Viking Venus.
The extra sea days built up anticipation for the ship's arrival in Tromso, and our first sightings of the Northern Lights which, thankfully, were spotted that evening on the various late-night excursions and even from the decks (and some cabin balconies) of the ship. Thanks to the scheduled and bonus lectures from our astronomer, John Maclean, and photographer, James Fraser, we knew where to look, what we were looking at and how to get the best pictures with everything from smart phones to professional cameras.
Fraser took some extra time with me to patiently explain how my specific smart phone could capture the Northern Lights. But his best advice to everyone for truly enjoying the Northern Lights experience was to be sure to dress warmly and in layers; to study and set your camera's settings ahead of time; take a lot of photos; but then put the camera away and just enjoy nature's show.
Exceptional Excursions Through Norway Fjords
While I, of course, couldn't partake of all excursions, it's evident that in addition to every shore excursion with "Northern Lights" in the title, the best-enjoyed and most rewarding adventures on this itinerary are the only-in-Norway offerings such as sled dog rides with huskies, snowmobile rides and snowshoeing, an overnight in an ice hotel, visits with wolves, helicopter rides, and the special opportunities to meet and learn from indigenous Sami people of Norway, who are the only people under Norwegian law that are allowed to own reindeer.
The included and in-city excursions also offered some special treats. At the Polar Museum in Tromso, for example, among the artifacts related to Roald Amundsen is the personal razor he traveled with and a fierce looking (taxidermy) dog that accompanied the famed polar explorer on the first navigation through the Northwest Passage in 1903-1906.
Special Onboard Experiences and Amenities
On an amenity-rich ship, it's impossible to call out all the highlights, but here two I've especially enjoyed:
Northern Lights Cruise Wake-Up Call
The Northern Lights don't appear on cue nor on schedule. So because passengers might want to get some sleep without risking missing out on what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the ship offers an opt-in Northern Lights wake-up call. If the Northern Lights are spotted after 10 p.m. and before 8 a.m., guest services will call your room and let you know to head to the top decks or to open your curtains for a view. Even though I'd seen the Northing Lights on off-the-ship excursions, I slept in my long johns anticipating each night's call.
Artic Circle Celebration
Viking's "In Search of the Northern Lights" itinerary spends a lot of time in the Arctic Circle. And because joining the rarified number of world travelers who have ventured this far north is another bucket-list check-off item, Viking marks the ship's crossing into the Arctic Circle with its own COVID-Safe Blue Nose Ceremony. "We drain a hot tub on the pool deck, and then filled it with ice," Healy said. "Then passengers line up in a one-way line to take the plunge." In a nod to COVID precautions the traditional step of kissing a fish is currently skipped, but each plunger receives a dab of blue on their nose (edible blue icing instead of the traditional blue paint sailors receive), a fresh mask and towel, and a flute of aquavit.
While perhaps half of the ship's 600 passengers stripped down to their swimsuits and took the icy plunge. every passenger received a personalized "Sailed Above the Arctic Circle" certificate to take home.