SUMMERTIME IN THE STUNNING NORWEGIAN FJORDS

It was still light not long before midnight in August. The only sound was the water sloshing alongside the hull of the Balmoral as she sliced through a subdued gunmetal swell. On either side, rows of low, black rolling hills loomed out stark against the blush crimson flare of a deep, reddening Norwegian sunset. Though there were perhaps a hundred or more people around me, it seemed as if nobody uttered so much as a sound.

Norway can have that effect on people. And little real wonder. The long, rugged coastline curves for a total of twelve thousand miles in all, from the fringes of the bustling Baltic to the soaring, remote grandeur of the North Cape.

Here, at the highest point in northern Europe, you might see herds of reindeer thundering across the sparse, ragged tundra, while butterflies and wasps flit around in the endless summer days. Native Lapps tend their livestock in the full glare of a sun that shines 24/7 a day for months on end in those remote northern latitudes. That, alone, is reason enough to make Norway compelling. But the country is far, far more than just its almost ethereal northern crown.

Along that craggy, undulating expanse of coast lies a series of stunning photogenic treasures. Sometimes located many miles deep within some silent, winding fjord, they emerge suddenly to fill you with a profound sense of wonder and awe.

Lines of jagged, soaring mountain peaks stand ranged like sentinels, black and solid against a duck egg blue sky. Even in the height of the long Norwegian summer, their peaks are still dusted with layers of snow.

From these often mist wreathed heights, streams and waterfalls tumble down with a sometimes incredible roar into still, silent fjords so perfectly still that everything on them is mirrored to almost duplicate perfection. Small, fussy fishing boats chug in and out, while brightly painted local pleasure boats sit as prettily as exotic insects, frozen in aspic.

Those streams and waterfalls resemble nothing so much as the gossamer strands of spider webs when viewed from the ship. They roll relentlessly through a mesmerising patchwork quilt of flower strewn fields and meadows in a hundred different shades of lush green.

Cows graze in indifferent herds by the water’s edge, totally unmoved by what many consider to be the most amazing visual scenic smorgasbord anywhere on the planet. The whole of Norway could have been created as one vast, incredible theme park for lovers of photography. There is quite literally nowhere else like it on the face of the planet.

Any mention of Norway brings the often changeable weather into focus. The old joke is that ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes and it will change’. That is largely the truth of it. Even in mid summer, the fjords can be shrouded in fog so thick that a chainsaw couldn’t cut it. Rain squalls can descend like malevolent spectres at any time. No country is harder to pack for to cover all the whimsical potential bases that Mother Nature can load against the intrepid explorer than Norway.

  • And yet…. the most incredible vistas can suddenly unfurl from behind those misty veils. You might suddenly find your ship ghosting past a series of stunning waterfalls, hundreds of feet high, at almost touching distance. Small groups of stout, grass roofed houses cluster for succour around gaunt stave churches that have stood in place for centuries. And, just as quickly, the sun can appear right when you least expect it. When that happens, the temperatures can soar like an eagle, and Norway can become as hot as anywhere in summertime Europe. People are often surprised to find themselves coming back from their Norway cruise with more than a bit of sun tan on them.

When the sun does come out, it floods the whole scenic Norwegian tableau with light, warmth and shade. Dark, pine crested valleys suddenly dazzle with their colours as the mist vanishes completely. The still fjord waters sparkle, and the whole region takes on a more vibrant tempo.

You might see lovers strolling along the waterside trails as you sail quietly past. Ducks bob gently on the swell, waiting for scraps to be thrown by the locals. Traffic rolls along the coastline, disappearing in and out of the literally thousands of tunnels hewn and blasted through Norway’s mountainous skeleton. Coastal steamers chug past as you sail under power cables and the odd, vaulting bridge that rises above you.

The entire experience seems to become more spellbinding as you progress; it really feels as if you have somehow fallen thorough the looking glass and into another world. A half believable realm of ancient Norse fables; a land where witches, dragons and trolls lurk unseen in the undergrowth, waiting for their chance to capture the unwary and the disbelieving. Whatever your take on such things, there is no denying that this sinuous, sumptuously beautiful land casts a spell on all who visit her.

But Norway is far more than simply rural romance and natural magnificence. Further to the south, bustling cities such as Bergen present a stance and a style that mixes old world heritage with cutting edge flair and innovation. The result is a city every bit as alluring and compelling as anywhere on earth,

The setting is magnificent, with seven slowly rolling hills cradling Bergen in what is, in effect, a stunning natural amphitheatre.

The area around the bustling harbour is fronted by the Bryggen, a ramshackle confection of ancient Hanseatic houses and shops that form a backdrop to a long, cobbled boulevard awash with bars, shops and restaurants selling freshly caught, delicious local sea food at eye watering prices. Which leads me neatly into Norway’s principal bugbear.

Quite simply, the entire country is jaw dropping expensive, even compared to most of famously pricey Scandinavia. The bill for your coffee and croissant might make you imagine that you’ve somehow detoured to Monaco, and definitely has the ability to induce a coronary on the unwary or complacent. Also, remember that Norway is not tied to the Euro; everything is priced in the local Kroner.

Against that, the quality of almost everything- from Reindeer rugs to local beer- is usually superlative, and the sheer excellence of Norwegian fare is legendary. Bergen itself is an almost fanatically clean modern metropolis, thoughtfully built around such treasures as the aforementioned Bryggen and the nearby, thirteenth century Bergenhuis fortress and King Haakon’s stark, adjacent banqueting hall. For anyone who wants a fix of medieval, Hansel and Gretel style Norway, both of these are an absolute must see.

if you are going to cruise Norway, then it makes far more sense to do so on a low density ship, without vast numbers of passengers to get around and past. Additionally, the smaller ships come with the inherent, built in advantage of being able to get up close and personal to the sweeter, less accessible views of ‘chocolate- box’ Norway that the bigger ships simply cannot gift you.

But however you go to Norway, just allow yourself a little time to lose yourself here. because the one thing I would guarantee is  that, sun, fog or whatever, you will almost certainly lose part of your heart to this beguiling, bewitching scenic tour de force. No other country on earth so perfectly presents such a stunning, rugged and wondrous variety of sights and sensations. Certainly, once you visit her, Norway is never to be forgotten.

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THE HAPPY RETURN- SS.NORWAY IN LE HAVRE, SEPTEMBER 1997

The crowds were unbelievable. They surged forward in a human tidal wave that blackened every practical vantage point along the Le Havre waterfront. They filled the beaches and swamped the nearby streets. Hundreds poured out onto the balconies of small houses that lined the approaches to the old port.

Traffic snarled up, hopelessly inert in the face of this immense outpouring. Factories, shops and offices emptied at warp speed as their occupants joined in this communal march to the sea. Old women still clutching shopping baskets. Young families with pushchairs and grizzled old dockyard hands, limping unsteadily. Many exhibited traces of the warm trickle of tears. But they were tears of joy.

Out on the river, an armada of small boats dotted in and out of the fret. Bright red and green fishing trawlers and fussy little excursion boats, seemingly full to bursting.Yachts, tugs and even wave skimming zodiacs that thumped across the rolling swell. All of them dressed in brightly coloured bunting that hung limp in the damp, early morning breeze.

And suddenly she was there, in their midst…

A brusque, no nonsense fire boat nosed though the murk, throwing shimmering, silvery grey plumes of water on all sides in a series of graceful arcs. And then, through the rainbow prism of fire boat spray, two enormous, winged funnels ghosted out of the gloom to stand out like sentinels against the Le Havre skyline. The deep, gut shaking boom of her siren roared out in salute, seeming to shake the very buildings with its power and intensity. And from crowded shore and curious, bobbing flotilla alike, one enormous, ragged cheer rent the grey sky like a thunderclap on a day nobody would ever forget.

The Norway had come home.

For twelve memorable years, the Norway ex-France had been a constant in the life of the people of Le Havre. The huge, sumptuous ocean liner was a world class symbol of French seagoing excellence and style. World famous and wonderfully over the top, she was a final, magnificent burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering jets, She stood for the very best in exalted, luxury travel. Not for nothing did her owners call her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

But it went way beyond even that for the Havrois. The ship provided a huge amount of local work for dockers, railwaymen, victuallers, taxi drivers and countless others. The local economy benefited hugely from the spending power of the crew. The France dominated the town in far more ways than one.

Her loss verged on the heartbreaking. After five years of soul destroying limbo, the pride of France was towed out of Le Havre to begin her miraculous transformation into the show stopping Norway. The locals were far from happy.

Her new Norwegian captain, Torbjorn Hauge, was provided with bodyguards on the bridge as she was towed down stream, presumably forever. Hundreds watched her disappear in stunned, sullen silence. The sense of loss and humiliation for the locals was almost apocalyptic as a huge part of their lives and history was swallowed up in the fog.

But now, she had come home. The prodigal child- loved and mourned, but always proud and never forgotten- was once more threading her way through those old, familiar waters. Any residual enmity in French hearts was soon overwhelmed by a tidal wave of affection, nostalgia and sheer awe as the homecoming queen made fast to her old pier, and the crowds surged forward just to be near her again.

I know all this because I was there, standing on the upper deck of the Norway as we swept past the breakwater and into the port. All of us on deck were stunned by the warmth and extent of our welcome, And yet far more was to come. There was a lump in my throat big enough to play football with. And what I thought was simply condensation on my face was the salt of my own tears. On that day, the seemingly impossible had truly come to pass.

Ashore, I talked to a young man who had travelled five hundred miles to be here. He told me that, as a child, his father had brought him here to see the France sail in and out quite often in the seventies. Now he held up his own son in the shadow of those graceful, flaring stacks. The child’s eyes were as wide as saucers.

Even for those of us who knew the history of the France/Norway, it was something of a revelation to see just how much the French still obviously adored the ship. A gendarme on duty said that they estimated the crowd at well over a hundred thousand people. They surged and gazed at her in awe as a searing summer sun smote the gloom and smiled on her towering upperworks.

A band played for most of the day under her shadow; some spectators literally fainted in the heat as they stood there, and had to be rescued by the French Red Cross. That night, old French Line black and white movie reels featuring Ile De France, Normandie, Liberte and, of course, France herself were shown on a giant, implausibly pink blow-up movie screen, with the illuminated ship as a stunning backdrop. Even at three in the morning, there were still hundreds just sitting there.

Our departure the next evening was pure theatre. Thousands thronged the quayside at ten in the evening as Norway shrugged off her shackles to glide effortlessly into mid stream. Astern of her, fleet mate Norwegian Crown was also undocking.

In a gesture of pure homage, the Crown blew her whistle in salute to the Norway like a courtier bowing to a queen, and then held respectfully back to let the Norway make her grand exit. From on shore, hundreds of torches lit the warm night air. Car headlights blinked and horns beeped as the great liner stood on into the stream.

On board, the sounds of a big band flooded the lido deck as the champagne came out in waves. And then, as Norway began to move forward, the night sky was rent by the most staggering pyrotechnic display I have ever seen.

From the black rolling hills right down to the breakwaters extending out into the harbour, the night sky erupted into a sizzling, spectacular, technicolor palette on an epic scale. For a full thirty minutes it rolled on and on, a thrilling, exhilarating torrent of light, colour and muffled booms, interspersed with the slowly fading cheers and ‘bon voyages’ of the crowds on shore. And, like the graceful, ageing diva that she was, the Norway acknowledged the adulation of her besotted fans with a series of loud, imperious booms on her whistle that made the very soul shiver with delight. And then we were off, into the pages of history and legend.

“I know I just saw all that, but I still don’t believe it…” The guy standing next to me fondled his champagne glass without really seeing it. His eyes were wide, and wet with tears. There were a lot of those about that night. The adrenaline out on those open decks was flowing like tap water.

We know the rest. It is all too sad and familiar. But nothing will ever rend, rape or rip apart the memories of that incredible time and place, when the homecoming queen and her cargo of daydream believers went home, mended fences, and made new friends. Only something truly epic, monumental and legendary could pull off such a stunning coup. But Norway did it. I know. Because I was there.

CRYSTAL CLEAR- CRUISING AT ITS FINEST….

Crystal is a line defined by a simple logic. Offer the best of everything, in an environment that puts the emphasis on space, style and ease, with a range of world class dining, accommodation and entertainment. Top it up with a diverse, well travelled and amenable passenger mix, and then set it afloat around the world on a yearly basis. Sounds peachy, no?

The thing that Crystal does so well is to make it all look so effortless. The vibe on board both the line’s superlative ships-Crystal Serenity and Crystal  Symphony- can be equated to a subtle, slowly rolling river. Everything appears calm on the surface but, just out of sight, things are evolving, moving and morphing to suit the mood of the moment, and to heighten the experience of being on board one of the finest ships at sea anywhere.

Take a transatlantic crossing a few years back on Serenity. Not content with merely having their own excellent, in house orchestra on board, the line arranged for no less than twenty different jazz musicians to come aboard. Rather than having all structured sessions, they formed up as impromptu duos and trios to perform as the mood took. For ten days, Serenity was suffused with the sounds of swing, dixieland, ragtime and big band as she took on the surging Atlantic rollers en route to America. It was a brilliant example of bravado on the hoof, and it made for an unforgettable adventure.

Fast forward to the same ship, four years later. This time, we were sailing the kinder waters of the Mediterranean, from Istanbul right through to Barcelona. Crystal designated this as a ‘food and wine festival’ cruise.

Anyone who has sailed on Crystal will vouch for the line’s superlative quality of food. It is arguably the best at sea. But on this cruise, the veteran epicurean chefs were joined by a conga line of renowned food and wine experts, as well as a master cocktail mixologist whose displays and sessions were- as intended- pure theatre as much as enlightenment..

But nothing beat the chef’s special galley spread, laid out one day in Serenity’s gorgeous atrium. Words alone are inadequate to do justice to the scale, variety and sheer style of this incredible feast, but hopefully these pictures will give you some idea of the glut of culinary artwork that we enjoyed.

And sister ship Crystal Symphony can also lay on the panache with effortless ease. Boarding her last year, I ordered my usual bottle of Grey Goose vodka for the suite.  But even I was awed when my stewardess asked me if I would like a daily jug of cranberry juice to go with it.

That was a routine I had established on the same ship a couple of years earlier; a couple of late afternoon Cape Cods on the balcony, with some cold lobster to pick at. After a hard day wandering the hot spots of the summertime Aegean, it was pure bliss to just kick back on the balcony for an hour or so in a cool kimono

Crystal realised some time ago that ordinary, fluffy bathrobes can weigh too heavily on some. So they added kimonos for the really hot days. That’s an amazing bit of forward thinking. It seems a small detail- and indeed it is. But it is also hugely indicative of the mindset at work behind the scenes.

Both ships are now all inclusive, but even back in the old days, the amount of free goodies was quite something. One thing Symphony did particularly well was an amazing jazz brunch, held at noon on a sea day, and always in the main dining room.

It was all there; Chateaubriand with asparagus, cold cuts, diet defying desserts and low calorie, guilt assuaging options. Music was subtle and wonderful, with a talented trio filling the room with just the right ambient sound. And even the mimosas were complimentary.

This was not just one or two drinks; the champagne flowed- freely and free- for the full, two hour duration of this double edged feast of food and sound. At no stage was anyone approached with a bar check to sign. These brunches were very popular, which is no big surprise.

Both ships also serve late riser’s breakfast until 11.30, another savvy, appreciated little touch. There is a free ice cream bar that offers up a slew of Ben and Jerry’s finest- again at no charge- with a whole raft of tempting toppings that allow you to create your own ice cream masterpiece.

The ships also each boast a beautiful little upper deck bistro, with huge windows overlooking the sea on one side, and specially commissioned crockery made by Guy Buffet. A plethora of exotic teas are on offer- everything from Darjeeling to Green Tea, via Earl Grey. Naturally, this is complemented by a vast range of coffees and wines. A central food buffet features croissants, fresh fruit and cold cuts for breakfast, and is subtly altered to suit lunchtime and early evening whims. Again, all of this is complimentary.

It’s a spellbinding little place to spend an hour or so. There are current, high end magazines in the racks to browse over a cappuccino or a latte, or you could bring a book from one of the biggest and most extensive libraries afloat. And, if many of the teas are new to you, there is the time to experiment to your heart’s content. On my cruises, one visit a day seems to have become all but mandatory.

But all of this expansive largesse would be a waste of everybody’s time and effort, if not for the Crystal staff. From room service to department heads, the company exemplifies the very best of attentive, discreet hospitality. It is personable, yet never intrusive. Crystal hire staff based on attitude; the line believes (correctly) that a ‘can-do’ attitude can be trained up to do an excellent job. This simple, enlightened policy achieves amazing results in terms of flawless, polished presentation and service. The Crystal staff are proud of their ships and the flair they encapsulate. It goes almost without saying that the real beneficiaries of this policy are Crystal’s passengers. And that goes a long way towards explaining the company’s very high repeat rate of guests.

These are only a few of the salient points that mark out a Crystal voyage as such a fantastic and memorable experience. Within the warm, welcoming cocoon of space and style that is a Crystal ship, you will no doubt find, indeed keep on finding, your very own. In the words of the company’s own theme song from the immortal ‘Satchmo’- it really is very much a wonderful world. Enjoy!