Cruising the Fjords of Norway: A Summer’s Tale
Storybook scenery. Spellbinding history. Stylish cities. Reindeer. Puffins. Trolls. Who knew Norway was so fascinating? I sure didn’t—until last summer when I sailed through the Norwegian fjords and into the Arctic Circle with Hurtigruten Cruises.
Standing on the forward deck of the MS Finnmarken, the ocean cliffs rose 3,000 feet into the darkness—just inches away it seemed—as we sailed into the narrow canyon-like Trollfjorden. It was like a dream—until high-pitched shrieks and yodel-like yells shattered the stillness. The sounds reverberated between the rocky walls, growing louder and louder. “The trolls are out!” announced the activity director over the ship’s loudspeaker. Instantly, the officers snapped on a searchlight. The bright beam swept across the craggy cliffs illuminating patches of rocky crevices, inky water and then—oh my gosh—trolls! Yes. We could see the trolls. They were big as life, splashing in the water and screaming at us from the stony dead-end shoreline far below. Our cameras and cell phones snapped. Then we toasted our troll sighting with tasty Troll Soup, ladled out by the smiling crew.
Seeing Norway’s legendary trolls (I’ll leave it to your imagination as to who the trolls really were) and experiencing the impressive seamanship of the ship’s U-turn in a very narrow channel, was just one of many thrills on my seven-day voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes. It is also a prime example of the advantages of making the voyage with Norwegian-owned and operated Hurtigruten Cruises.
Among the benefits are: 1) Hurtigruten’s vessels are small with no more than 1,000 passengers, so they can go where the bigger ships can’t, such as Trollfjorden. 2) All the officers and staff are Norwegian, so you’re immersed in the fun and efficient Norwegian culture on and off the ship. 3) Each ship, including the elegant modern MS Finnmarken, is a combination cruise ship, car ferry, and mail boat, which makes for intriguing fellow passengers (I met lovely Australians, Germans, Swedes, Finns, and American travelers) and an astonishing itinerary of 34 ports in seven days. Of course, most port calls last only a few minutes, just long enough for mail to be exchanged, motorcycle riders to roar on and off, and Norwegian families to car hop from one coastal city to another. I watched all of it from the balcony of my well-appointed Soroya Suite stateroom No. 615. I could also see the bridge and watch the captain and officers at work.
In the interest of full disclosure: While I’d never been to Norway, I was familiar with the Norski ways from having been for many years the hostess onboard two legendary Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ships, back when all the officers and crew were Norwegian. So being able to experience firsthand the cities I’d heard about for years—Bergen, Trondheim, Tromso—and in my favorite mode of travel was extra special for me. But it was no less impressive than for any passenger.
I also learned it’s not only a cruise, but it’s a tour of the country. Norway has been a seafaring power for more than 1,000 years—think Vikings—so its cities are mostly on the coast. Oslo was the only metropolis we didn’t visit, and it’s easy to add on as a pre- or post-cruise jaunt.
The beautiful city of Bergen, a commercial port since the 11th century, was the beginning of my voyage. A late afternoon sailing provided plenty of time for sightseeing. I rode the Floibanen funicular up the steep residential hillside and marveled at the sweeping views of city, sea, and mountains; explored Bryggen wharf, a UNESCO World heritage site; and shopped.
Massive 18th-century buildings capture the imagination along the Bryggen wharf. Once home to the powerful Hanseatic League merchants, the brightly painted structures now house merchants of a different sort—cafés, boutiques, galleries of prominent Norwegian artists, and museums. With the guidance of a local I bought three uniquely Norwegian souvenirs: sculpted earrings from jewelry designer Regine Juhls’ daughter at Juhls’ Silvergallery; a lithograph by Norwegian cartoonist Audun Hetland at Atelier Hetland; and a whimsical (and humane) white wool “fox stole” complete with stitched legs, tail, and a foxy face with button eyes crafted by Lillunn Design of Norway. Inside the Hanseatic League Museum, I felt transported back in time as I explored the labyrinth of rooms and passageways inside the centuries-old mercantile building. Three-hundred-year-old wallpaper still clings to the walls and cupboard-like bedchambers are built into the walls.
When it came to board the Finnmarken, my accommodations were light years from those of the Hanseatic League. The king bed and a large living area with a couch, chairs, coffee table, credenza, original artwork, and of course, the spacious patio balcony were impressive. I popped a bottle of champagne and toasted to the fjords, as we slipped through the teal-colored waters glistening in the twilight and sailed between endless emerald isles toward the ocean.
“Fasten your seatbelts,” said Peter, our guide, as the motorcoach began the steep climb up Eagle Road, negotiating 11 hairpin turns and several long tunnels on our way to Trollstigen Pass. It was the next morning and we were on the ship’s Trollstigen Pass excursion from Geiranger, a hamlet of 300 souls in beautiful Geiranger Fjord. Exiting the final tunnel, a fairytale-like scene opened before us. Tidy cottages with sod roofs sprouting wild flowers dotted the valley. And, as in most fairytales, villains lurked nearby.
“Can you see the trolls?” Peter asked, pointing toward the rugged mountains that paralleled the valley. Turns out that if a troll doesn’t make it home by sunrise, he or she turns to stone. Here, eons ago, several didn’t make it home in time—and their images are frozen in the cliffs of Trollstigen Pass.
Throughout the day we saw magnificent scenery reminiscent of the American Rockies with forested mountains and deep gorges with gurgling rivers. I even spied an outcropping similar to Yosemite’s Half Dome. After crossing Lake Eidsdalsvtnet on a car ferry, we rejoined the Finnmarken in the “rose city” of Molde. But not before enjoying a salmon dinner (salmon is the local specialty) in one of the city’s premier hotels. Besides flowers, Molde is famous for Europe’s oldest jazz festival, begun in 1965.
I was on my balcony early the next morning watching us sail into Trondheim, Norway’s third-largest city. Tree-lined streets, parks, and historic yet sophisticated neighborhoods greeted us on the ship’s walking tour, which began at the gangway. This is another nice thing about Norway—even its biggest cities are delightfully walkable. Trondheim has been a tourist favorite since 1066. That’s the year Nidaros Cathedral—the largest medieval structure in Scandinavia—was completed and instantly became a must-see on the religious pilgrim circuit. But before we saw the cathedral, we stopped to sample another Trondheim attraction: its stylish food scene. We had homemade waffles and hot chocolate—both smothered in thick cream—and spicy red Jons Fish Soup (which many say is the best in Norway) at Café Baklandet Skydsstation, a cozy chintz-decorated restaurant in a former 18th century inn. It was named Scandinavian “Café of the Year” by National Geographic Traveler magazine in 2012, so needless to say the food was wonderful.
Crossing a cobblestone bridge over the Nidelua River, we strolled through shady lawns dotted with ancient headstones and up to the cathedral. Gargoyles sneered and statues of saints smiled from on high as we followed the pilgrims’ progress through sacred chambers, built as the burial church of King Olav, Norway’s revered king-turned-saint, who ruled from the 960s to 1000. Then it was time for lunch at Ågot Lian, a trendy seafood kitchen on the main square. Open just a year, the sleek space has already won awards for its fish balls “like mother used to make,” haddock, and other traditional seafood handcrafted from the family recipes of its hip young owners.
The foodie fun continued onboard. Aquavit ice cream topped the dessert menu inside the cheery Finnmarken Restaurant, where wrap-around windows guaranteed a gorgeous view with every meal. The delicious house-made concoction using aquavit, Norway’s potent liquor, is part of Hurtigruten’s “Coastal Kitchen” cuisine concept, which uses seasonal foods taken from the sea and the local farms as it sails along. “Since Trondheim is considered the first city to make aquavit, we developed this unique dessert as a finale to our Trondheim day,” Hurtigruten executive chef Eirik Larsen told me later, as we sat in the sleek Brotoppen Panorama Lounge sipping aquavit cocktails. A special cocktail is created nightly in the lounge.
“Our menu gives passengers the best of true Norwegian food. In the far north above the Arctic Circle, we’ll serve fresh local Arctic char, Aurora fish, king crab, reindeer meat and Norway’s prized cloudberries, which are not grown commercially and must be picked by hand,” said chef Larsen, who is also coordinating with local providers to create unique offerings, such as the delicious locally made chorizo and prosciutto. “You’ll experience the taste difference,” he predicted. “The long summer nights give our fruits and veggies a special flavor, and the lamb is tastier from our free-ranging sheep in the salty Nordic air.” I spotted free-ranging sheep grazing in a sunny seaside meadow the next day, as I walked along a country road after admiring Svartisen Glacier, Norway’s second largest, on the ship’s Svartisen Glacier tour.
We crossed the Arctic Circle at 7 a.m. The skies were blue, the ocean was clear, and the rolling brown hills of nearby islands were dotted with tidy holiday cabins. No ice here, thanks to the warm Atlantic Current. No fixer-uppers either, thanks to the Norwegian’s penchant for perfection. And no nighttime. This was August and the sky was blue and light by 4:28 a.m. Twilight settled in around midnight and kept its dreamy glow until 2:30 a.m. It was dark from maybe 3 to 4 a.m. This is truly the land of the midnight sun.
“Welcome Lords and Ladies!” The young Viking Chieftain’s salutation rang out across the cavernous hall, sending us 1,000 years back in time. We were on the ship’s Lofotr Viking Feast, an authentic remake of a Viking banquet held inside the recreated Viking longhouse at the Lofotr Viking Museum in the Lofoten Islands. Just feet away were the foundations of its 1000-year-old counterpart, the largest Viking building ever found. We drank home-brewed mead, the Viking’s alcoholic drink of choice (it tasted light and sweet), dined on Viking fare, and learned the Viking ways from entertaining costumed players portraying the Chieftain, his Lady, his daughter (who wanted one of our men as a husband), and their slaves and neighbors.
I was shocked to learn that—OMG—the Vikings did not wear horned helmets! Helmets, yes. Horns, no. The costume designer of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera added the horns for visual effect in 1876—and the idea stuck. And I was pleased to learn that Viking women had equal rights; at least the upper crust did. As soon as the boys were able, they went off with their fathers and uncles to trade with the English and pillage everyone else—leaving the Lady of the longhouse in total control. I also learned dragon heads not only protected the Viking ships but also were carved on the bedposts to protect the sleeping royals. I bought a pair of small dragon heads in the museum gift shop.
More surprises awaited us as we sailed to the North Cape and the top of the world. Puffins by the thousands floated and flitted around our small boat on the Birdwatching Safari cruise to the Gjesvaerstappan island nature preserve, as if daring us to snap the perfect picture of their big-beaked cuteness. Native to the Arctic, the puffins were darling, but much smaller than I expected, about the size of pigeons. Then, the white-tailed sea eagles appeared. With a wingspan of up to eight feet, these cousins of our bald eagles are Europe’s largest predatory bird. We marveled as they sailed overhead, their magnificence inspiring the same awe as bald eagles, only their heads are brownish. The rocky islets teemed with other birds, too—gannets, kittiwakes, cormorants, guillemots—proving their reputation as the largest and most accessible birding cliffs in Norway. Even a black sea lion popped its head out of the water.
“This looks like a Native American teepee!” I thought, later that night on the ship’s Taste of Lapland excursion. I was sitting on reindeer skins inside a lavvo, the traditional camp lodging of the Sami people (formerly called Laplanders) and was awestruck by its teepee look. And that wasn’t the only similarity. Our Sami host, the head of the Utsis family, played traditional music on a reindeer-skin drum, which looked like a Native American instrument and with a cadence similar to that of the Southwest Indians’ music.
Outside the lavvo, he showed us how the Sami lasso reindeer and let us give it a try. (Not very well, in my case.) And we saw reindeer up close. We’d driven through miles of barren hills under a bright blue sky to reach the Utsis family’s lavvo and had been thrilled to see reindeer grazing in the distance. Now, seeing the storied animals up close with their legendary handlers at the top of the world, was a fitting finale for a truly a magical cruise.