Empire of the Sun: Why a Norwegian Fjords Cruise is a Bucket-List Must
On a bucket-list adventure to Norway in search of the Midnight Sun, Olivia Sharpe enjoys five days of fun and outdoor adventures aboard Viking Sea
Promising spectacular scenery, historic sites and delicious cuisine, a Norwegian fjords cruise into the Land of the Midnight Sun has long been at the top of my bucket list.
So I’m thrilled to be joining Viking Sea for the first part of her 15-day northward voyage from Bergen to Tromso and beyond, via some of the most famous and beautiful landscapes on earth.
Unlike many Norwegian fjords cruises that sail from Southampton – hence their popularity with so many British cruisers – this one commences in the heart of Norway. And having landed in that country’s second city, following a two-hour flight from the UK, I make my way straight to my floating home for the next few nights.
All six of Viking’s 930-guest ocean ships are built to the same design, and having previously sailed on one of her sister vessels, I immediately feel at home aboard Viking Sea. Decorated in the line’s trademark Scandi-chic style, all staterooms come with a private veranda, so you can enjoy the views in seclusion, should you prefer, and mine features a generous bathroom and king-sized bed.
We spend our first night in port, and next day, after a good night’s sleep and a fortifying breakfast of scrambled eggs, lox, bagels and cream cheese, there’s ample time to explore Bergen.
There has been a settlement here for nearly a thousand years, but this former Hanseatic trading port still looks like a quaint fishing village. You could easily spend the whole day strolling around the cobbled lanes, admiring the brightly-coloured wooden houses and enticing shops selling Norwegian knitwear and souvenirs.
But if you’re feeling lazy, Viking offers a panoramic bus tour of the city, stopping off at historic sites including the medieval King Haakon’s Hall, the Rosenkrantz Tower, the historic Bryggen wharf (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Nordnes Peninsula, with its 19th-century white-painted wooden houses.
A feast of Nordic flavours
After a delightful day’s exploring, it’s time to set sail in search of the midnight sun – and the Explorers Lounge on Viking Sea offers the perfect vantage point to admire majestic mountains, fjords and glaciers (pre-dinner cocktail in hand) as we slip out of Bergen and head for deeper waters.
As you would expect of a Norwegian-owned cruise line, Viking takes full advantage of the country’s plentiful produce, and on our first night, we enjoy an authentic Nordic feast at The Chef’s Table. Classics including reindeer consommé and lamb wrapped in cabbage are served to us in a sensational five-course tasting experience.
Later in the cruise, we’ll enjoy a spectacular seafood buffet of mussels, lobster, crab and salmon, grilled and steamed on the aft deck, but if you prefer not to spend your holiday eating fish, fish and, well, more fish (though it’s all utterly delicious), you can go for something more carnivorous at Manfredi’s, Viking’s celebrated Italian restaurant.
Into the fabulous fjords
Arrival at our second port of call, early the next day, proves to be a truly memorable experience.
As the ship sails past the spectacular steep-sided walls of Geirangerfjord, laced with crisscrossing waterfalls, I fully understand why this canyon-like wonder is considered one of nature’s great masterpieces. As we glide through, I spy the famous Seven Sisters waterfall, more than 100ft tall (legend has it that the sisters dance playfully down the mountain, while across the fjord, the Suitor – a single waterfall – flirts with them from afar).
To fully appreciate the beauty of Geiranger, you really need a guided tour – and fortunately, Viking offers a panoramic drive round the town. This winds its way up, via 11 hairpin turns, to the famous Eagle’s Nest viewpoint, 2,000 feet above the fjord. It’s perhaps not the ideal excursion for those who suffer from vertigo or motion sickness (guilty on both counts) but the view from the top is definitely worth it.
Our guide tells us that Geiranger is always busy during the summer, welcoming up to a million visitors between May and September, but it’s quite different during the off-peak winter season, with a population of just 200 residents and one doctor who visits every Wednesday (the joke is that locals must schedule their sick days accordingly).
After a quick lunch back on board, we spend our afternoon walking round the picturesque town – a hiker’s delight, with plenty of pathways lined with cascading falls. And back at the waterfront, I can’t resist purchasing a troll from a souvenir shop (a classic emblem of Nordic folklore, you’ll find these everywhere, in varying shapes and sizes).
Our next day is spent at sea, but that just means more opportunities to enjoy what our ship has to offer. I choose to take advantage of the free app that provides a self-guided tour of Viking Sea’s impressive art collection, including many pieces by Edvard Munch, Norway’s most famous painter.
To the Arctic Circle and beyond
The real highlight of this sea day is yet to come, however. This afternoon we will be crossing the Arctic Circle, and to mark the occasion Viking is putting on a ceremony – an initiation rite for the Order of the Blue Nose.
There isn’t much call for swimsuits on a Norwegian fjords cruise – but somehow I find myself shivering in mine, as my turn approaches to jump into the ship’s outdoor hot tub – filled with ice for the occasion.
I can’t tell you much about the experience itself, except that it was mercifully quick. But after taking the plunge, we are each given a dollop of Braveheart-style blue frosting on our noses, and a warming glass of aquavit – a Nordic spirit that brings roses back to our cheeks and warmth to our frozen bones.
The whole experience is definitely on the bracing side, it must be said, but a more luxurious treatment awaits that evening, in the form of a classic Nordic Ritual at the ship’s spa.
Arriving in our bathrobes, we are each given a bucket of beauty products and asked to begin by exfoliating with a complimentary soft brush. Then it’s into the sauna to get as hot as possible – before braving the Snow Grotto.
Here, in the eerie blue light of a tiny room, lined with snow and ice on the floor and walls, we are instructed to rub snowballs all over our skin, even under our eyes (it’s said to reduce puffiness).
Next, once we’re sufficiently chilled, it’s back to the sauna – but this time we’re given handfuls of leafy birch branches and invited to beat one another (it’s meant to improve the circulation). While this may sound like corporal punishment, it’s surprisingly painless, even when the branches are wielded with vigour.
Following this, we all troop back to the Snow Grotto for another chillout session – and then the whole process is repeated several more times. I’m surprised to find how quickly my body adjusts to the extreme temperatures, and by the end, I find myself neither too cold nor too hot in either environment.
To complete the ritual, we each have a bucket of icy water thrown over us (we’re ready for anything by now), before retiring to loungers to cleanse our faces with a cloudberry mask and blueberry moisturiser, followed by a relaxing foot and scalp massage.
That night, I sleep better than I think I ever have before – though whether from the effects of from the day’s many rituals or from sheer exhaustion, I couldn’t say.
Where sea eagles dare
Arriving next day in Lofoten, north Norway’s dramatically mountainous archipelago, we take a speedboat trip in search of the sea eagles that reside here. Sightings can never be guaranteed but we’re in luck, despite foggy weather, and the majestic birds are out in force – an amazing sight.
That afternoon we venture ashore to explore by bus. With a landscape of jagged peaks overlooking sheltered bays and sandy coves, Lofoten proves to be stunningly scenic – and an unsurprisingly popular spot for campers.
We’ve also been told this is one of our best opportunities to view the midnight sun, and we are not disappointed. After dinner, we all crowd on to the aft deck, and as I watch the sun kiss the horizon but never dip below it, I can’t help feeling a twinge of envy towards my fellow guests, who will be sailing on.
But as the ship docks at Tromso next day and it’s time for me to disembark, I can reflect on five days’ worth of memories that will last a lifetime.
Get on Board
14-night ‘Into the Midnight Sun’ cruise from Bergen to London, via Geiranger, Lofoten, Tromso, Shetlands, Orkneys and Edinburgh, departing 8 June 2020, from £5,490, vikingcruises.co.uk
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