Every year, hundreds of thousands of visitors come to admire the awesome fjords of Norway. There are hundreds of these steep-walled river valleys along Norway’s madly indented, 22,000 km long coastline, each cutting deep into the mountainous interior.
Cruising down a Norwegian Fjord
If you’re looking around for a cruise to suit your needs, there’s no better place to start than the salty old town of Bergen in the west of Norway. Known as the ‘Fjord Capital of Norway’, Bergen has the good fortune to be surrounded by some of the scenic fjords in the country, including the 204 km long Sognafjorden, the country’s longest fjord. Many cruise lines operate from the town, and most tourists will stop by, if not for a cruise, then at least to admire the charming, centuries old buildings which have made the town a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Once in Bergen, there are dozens of cruises operators to choose from. They range from small independent businesses running tiny family boats, to large companies operating massive ocean going cruise liners. This abundance of choice means that an experience which, in other countries would only be in the reach of the moderately wealthy, is in Norway reasonably affordable.
There are plenty of packages available, to suite every budget and level of excitement desired. The most common packages bundle the voyage, round trip air transportation, hotel accommodations, train transfers and sightseeing into one price, but for the more independent traveller, there are packages where practically everything, from dining to destination to length of journey, can be tailored to suit the individual.
At the most luxurious end are liners offering the whole ‘cruise experience’, complete with posh dining rooms and 24 hour entertainment. Though Norwegian luxury cruises aren’t generally as extravagantly decadent as Caribbean ones, they do a fair job of keeping their patrons entertained! There are also more low-key, casual cruise lines, which are more like real ships than floating resorts, and are popular with the younger crowd.
Fjords of Norway
There are plenty of destinations to choose from, with packages ranging from quick day trips of a nearby fjord to fortnight-long voyages up the coast to the northernmost region of Norway. Of all the day-trips possible, the one that has ‘DO NOT MISS!!” stamped all over it is a trip to the Geirangerfjord (pictured above), a narrow convoluted branch of the larger Storfjord. The Geirangerfjord is rightly considered the most beautiful in the country for its deeply impressive waterfalls, craggy peaks and two tiny mountain villages into the cracks of the steep slopes. The most common way to approach the fjord is by bus or car via the Orneveien, or the Eagle’s Highway, but some cruises also feature the Geirangerfjord as a side trip, and if at all possible, choosing a cruise which offers this side trip is definitely recommended. A popular attraction during the side trip is to take a cruise on the Aurlandfjord, one of the longest fjords coming into the land. You come across sights of unbelievable beauty and majesty as you pass through perpendicular rock faces on both sides, with their shimmering waterfalls.
One very popular, longer cruise is the Hurtigruten Coastal Voyage, offered by the Norwegian Coastal Voyages company (though there are other companies offering similar programs). Often compared to, and frequently considered superior to, the famed Alaska cruises, this cruise traces a beautiful coastal route from Bergen to Kirkenes through narrow straits and over the open sea, past rock islands and cliffs. The 12 day voyage travels over 1,250 miles, with 47 stops at 34 ports of call, and sails through magnificent fjords and passes within view of waterfalls, glaciers, mountain peaks, and barren islands.
Many of longer coastal cruises are interesting not only for the scenery they offer, but also because passengers can get a taste of what life is really like in Norway. For most of the country’s history, the mountainous interior was an almost unsurpassable barrier against transporting goods, forcing the towns of the north to depend on the fjords to keep them in contact with rest of the country. The cruise ships have historically served as the vital link, acting at once as passenger transports, cargo carriers and mail service. In recent years, newfound oil and gas wealth has greatly improved the reach and condition of the country’s highway system, so that the northern towns aren’t quite as dependent on the cruise lines as they once were, but still, even today, passengers on a Norwegian cruise ship can sometimes be treated to the sight of crew members unloading crates and mail bags during a short stop at a port.
A cruise around the Arctic Circle
Another popular cruise is the Arctic & Northern Lights Program offered by Fjord Travel Norway (again, there are other companies offering similar programs), This 7 day cruise makes its way up the coastline, stopping at the northern city of Tromso before heading out to the Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands, right in the Arctic Circle (pictured right). The main attraction during summer is a visit to the Land of the Midnight Sun, or more prosaically, the northernmost region of Norway. At this northerly latitude, the sun never really sinks below the horizon from May to July, and the remote landscape is at its most exotically majestic as it lies bathed under the endless midsummer sunshine.
During winter, the main attraction is the chance to see the elusive Northern Lights, which draw thousands of visitors to the north every. For visitors who would prefer more privacy and elbow room, a cruise in arctic waters offers two significant advantages: in midwinter, the prices for the cruises drop significantly and there are far less people on board. The only drawback is the grey darkness, as the sun refuses to peek above the horizon from November to January. The darkness is a blessing however, as it is the perpetual gloom of midwinter that allows the northern lights (which are too faint to be seen in the summer sunshine) to show off at their best. Also, thanks to the Gulf Stream, winter travel at this latitude is warmer than most people expect. This is one of the few times when you’ll actually want to go on a cruise in arctic waters in the middle of winter!
Another intriguing stop in the area is Nordkapp, the North Cape, the actual northernmost point in Europe. Nordkapp can be toured from the ship as a shore excursion. The North Cape is only 1,200 miles from the North Pole, but the oldest settlement in Scandinavia, carbon dated to 10,300 years ago, existed here. An elaborate visitor center honors this location and the immense psychic attraction it has held for travelers for hundreds of years.
There are many other cruise packages available, showcasing the beauty and majesty of the Norwegian landscape. The majority of cruise passengers in Norway are Europeans, with only a small percentage of patrons made up of the cruise-loving Americans.