I have long expressed my disdain for cruises and cruise ships, monstrosities which dump thousands of photo seeking tourists in money hungry ports for a few hours, or usher them onto specially chartered buses to take them to swim with the dolphins or get their hair braided or race through the highlights of a city in only 3 hours, thus allowing the cruisers to claim they have had an authentic foreign experience.
My stance against cruises softened a bit during a week long stay in the Caribbean island of Curaco last year. After doing nothing but read, sunbathe and drink for a few days, I joined a Highlights of Curaco tour, where the guide tried her best to make Curaco interesting for 3 hours. This involved visiting a Curaco liqueur “factory” which was nothing more than a front for a store selling different types of Curaco, a drive to a viewpoint of a bay with turquoise blue waters and an extended stop at a beach requiring payment to use, except for the overpriced restaurants. At the end of the tour, I understood why people didn’t spend more than a few hours on Curaco. Unless you want to scuba dive or sunbathe or live there, the place is not worth more than a cruise ship stop.
Ditto for Dubrovnik, my latest love-to-hate destination and a star on the cruise ship circuit. After spending a night there, I was envious of those cruise ship passengers who could leave after a few hours, having seen the highlights and presumably not spent a minor fortune eating a crappy meal. A plate of fried octopus cost in excess of $30 and a mediocre pizza could not be found for under $20. Maybe those cruisers who went back to the ship for lunch and dinner had it right after all.
Thus, I found myself booking a 7 day, 6 night cruise on the Trollfjord, a ship in the Hurtigruten line that traverses the fjords of Norway. In defence of my hypocrisy, the Trollfjord is a working ferry, transporting cars, freight, the mail and about 300 passengers, both tourists and locals, along the Norwegian coast, a lifeline for the numerous towns and villages there. A different Hurtigruten ferry leaves Bergen every day for the north, ensuring transport for goods and people living in Norway’s north. It is also, without doubt, the only way to truly appreciate the beauty of the fjords.
As a working ferry, the Trollfjord doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a gigantic cruise ship – no swimming pool (there is a jacuzzi), no evening shows featuring Broadway caliber dancers or Cirque de Soleil acrobats but rather expedition leaders talking about the lifestyle of the Sami natives, a film about Russian trade with its northern neighbor and no late evening chocolate buffet – but the rooms are decent, there is a walking deck, a few bars where a glass of wine cost $20 and the food local, meaning lots of salmon, Arctic char and lingonberries.
We departed from Bergen in the evening, toasting (after paying another $20 for a glass of champagne) a good trip and marvelling at the lovely vista that is Bergen at night.
I looked around at the other passengers. A few people with babies, a pair of well behaved teenagers and lots of elderly people being pushed in wheelchairs. My guess is there were more wheelchairs than people under 30. The average age seemed to be over 75, lots of people used walkers or canes and I felt young. Numerous languages were spoken and all announcements were in English, Norwegian and German. I met one other couple from Canada, along with a few Norwegians and Swedes.
An expedition team was aboard, offering on-boat talks and off-boat excursions at many of the stops, sometimes with the tour bus catching up to the ship at the next stop. The excursions were expensive- $200 each for a group walking tour of a city and going much higher for the likes of Mountain Hike in the Hjorundfjord or Farm Visit in Lofoten or Meet the Vikings. Exploring the cities by myself was free so I passed on the excursions. Besides, in many ports, the tourist office was conveniently located at the dock.
Stops along the coast:
Each ferry schedule differs, depending on where people or freight needs to be dropped off/picked up and, of course, the weather. Our first stop was at a tiny hamlet called Floro where we tendered to the land and walked along the only road a few hundred metres to the single store in town. The selection wasn’t great but no one was here for the shopping. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of small communities line the coast, protected from the sea by the fjords and mountains, where fishermen have made a living since time immemorial.
Today, the region has diversified with oil services and tourism is big business. But Trondheim, a city of 190,000, and the 4th largest in Norway was an old city. The former capital under the Vikings, its Nidaros Cathedral dates from 1070 and is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Scandinavia.
Another stop, Alesund is known for its turrets. In 1904, its mostly wooden buildings were destroyed by fire. In order to rebuild, the city imported architects from Germany who favoured neoclassical styles heavy with turrets. Their preference is visible in the cityscape today, along with ornate decorations.
On our 3rd day, we passed the 66.33 degree parallel, the start of the Arctic Circle. A few hours later we stopped at our first Arctic town, Bodø. Years ago, when I first stepped onto the Antarctic peninsula, we were greeted by snow, penguins and seals, so I was expecting something similar – not the penguins – but maybe a reindeer or two and a glacier. No such luck. The Bodø pier looked like any working pier, with roads leading to it and warehouses all around. No animals or snow greeted us, just a harsh wind and a threatening grey sky.
The lousy weather followed us up the coast, into the Lofoten Islands famous for its codfish. Not even the dark clouds masked the beauty of the fjords, deep, blue water with mountains lush with trees and houses, in the ubiquitous barnyard red and golden yellows, sitting on yards of light green grass neatly mowed. A boat or two were always moored nearby.
Tromsø is the jumping off point for Arctic adventurers and thrill seekers, its main streets lined with stores selling outdoor apparel and tour companies offering adventure experiences. Our stop was 4 hours long here, so I walked over a concrete arch bridge to the Arctic Cathedral, took a few photos and walked back. I preferred the wooden Tromso Domkirke with its carefully tended surrounding garden, but other than the churches, the town was rather bland.
The ferry continued to sail to the Northern Cape, to Honningsvåg, at 71 degrees north and only 34 kilometers to the Russian border. Many of my fellow passengers took excursions to the Russian border, but as I had been to Russia previously, felt no desire to repeat. I could only speculate that any Russian town near the border might lack the reliable electricity, good wifi, free public toilets, paved roads and general prosperity that Honningsvåg displayed. Plus, it probably didn’t have trolls.
Interesting as the towns were, the star of the cruise was the scenery and it did not disappoint. Norway’s coast, as the crow flies, is 2,650 kilometers long, but add the fjords and the real coastline is closer to 100,000 kilometers. The fjords are beautiful – think deep blue waters, green mountains, pale blue skies (except for two rainy days) with little settlements providing bursts of red or yellow. It was mid-September, but the trees had already started to turn amber and yellow in places. Further north, trees were absent, replaced by lichen then barren browny grey mountain peaks. It was mostly too early for snow, but the temperature barely reached 0 after Tromsø.
On some cruises, depending on the time of year, whales are seen. September was not a good time for animal sightings, but on the last night of the cruise, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the northern lights were visible. I raced outside and was lucky to briefly glimpse the effervescent green lights dancing across the sky. It was not the spectacular, light-up-the-sky display with green flashes seen in Instagram photos, but given how early we were in the season (prime viewing is November to February) and my disappointment in failing to see them in Iceland, I was thrilled.
The Norwegian fjords are captivating and the Hurtigruten ferry offers plenty of spectacular viewing options in comfortable surroundings. Seven days aboard it didn’t convert me into a cruise fan, but it is definitely the best way to see the fjords. I’m glad I splurged for the experience.
Afjording Norway: Oslo