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.