By now embraced amidst the stunning scenic sprawl of the Norwegian fjords, the Marco Polo sailed slowly through the night toward our next rendezvous with Mother Nature. Sometime in the early hours, while most of us were still sleeping, the anchor went down just off the small town of Flam, located deep in a branch of Aurlandfjord.
Brilliant sunshine greeted me as I padded up on deck for an alfresco breakfast with a side order of sublime visual splendour on all sides. Plump, fluffy clouds hung like becalmed, ghostly galleons in a powder blue sky. Ranks of pine tress marched down to the still, silent edge of the fjord like ranks of Grenadier guards. Ashore, coaches sat at the edge of a vast, rolling meadow carpeted with a riot of multi coloured fauna, waiting to take the passengers on their day’s adventure.
I have always considered Flam to be one of the true highlights of any Norway cruise. It has an air of surreal, unhurried calm that seems to affect everything and everyone around it; a Norwegian Brigadoon, writ large in glowering granite, gushing waterfalls, and a dozen different shades of dazzling greenery. It never fails to grab the heart like a vice.
But if Flam has one highlight- quite literally- then it is unquestionably the amazing, twelve and a half mile scenic railway. Ironically, this was inaugurated by the occupying German army in 1940, after years of construction.
Twelve and a half miles of railway runs from the small station at Flam, up to the peak of Myrdal station, some 2,845 feet above the glassy expanse of the fjord. No less than twenty tunnels were hewn out of the unforgiving local granite for a full third of its length. The upward gradient climb ratio is one in eighteen.
Yet these statistics are mere drum rolls. The train journey you can embark on these days is one of the most enduring scenic rail journeys anywhere on earth, and little wonder. At the height of the tourist season, ten trains a day will make the journey in either direction between Flam and Myrdal. The track is only a single stretch for most of the ride, so the passage of north and southbound trains has to be carefully staggered.
Going upwards, the journey takes around forty minutes. Descending, you can add another ten or so minutes to that- the train needs to break at several places. But, statistics aside, the cumulative sights of the journey are, quite simply, magnificent.
The train- an immaculate, deep green conga line of steel carriages and polished wood interiors, rattles, groans and shudders through a hinterland of rolling meadows dotted with bales of harvested hay, before beginning the sharp, exhilarating haul up toward Myrdal.
Framed by huge picture windows, a vast, visual smorgasbord of gushing streams and vaulting bridges runs parallel to the track. Small houses by railway cuttings are flanked by vast, jagged pine forests that disappear in a flash as the train thunders through some darkened tunnel, only to emerge into a skittish rain squall that splatters the windows like shrapnel.
Low, rolling grey clouds hang literally at window level, almost close enough to touch. A vast granite edifice looms above you, bisected by streams that look like the strands of a spider’s web. Rain thumps in vengeful torrents on one of the platforms en route. A gaggle of commuters rush the train as it shudders to a brief halt. Seconds later, the sun comes out again.
From my seat, I can see the gravity defying series of twenty one hairpin bends of the road built back in 1896, with the sun casting long, spectral shadows across the hinterland beyond it. There is a a brief, photographic stop at the vast, thunderous Kjollfossen waterfall; a vista made even more improbable by the sudden appearance from behind a rock of a local singer, dressed as a legendary maiden, who then serenades the stunned passengers from behind the cover of a cluster of rain sodden rocks.
The run back down allows me to capture some- but by no means all- of the sights I have missed on that giddy, mercurial ascent. As the train shudders and slows to a halt back in the flower carpeted fastness of Flam valley, I scrape my jaw up from the top of my shoe. In a state of awed, stunned disbelief, I contemplate the sight of tiny, tidy Flam, and the rest of our day ahead.
By now the rain is back; splattering the platform and the pretty little railway museum that adjoins it. So the idea of a beer tasting in a local pub- a kind of disney-esque recreation of an ancient Norwegian dwelling- seems like a great idea. Wet outside, it is high time for the inner man to get wet as well.
The building is called the Aegir Brewery- it’s all reindeer rugs and carved, implausibly high wooden seats. It might not be original, but the six different beer samples, each served on a wooden platter, are wonderfully authentic stuff; fantastic micro brews, crafted on site. The provenance of each is explained to us in turn, allowing each to be sampled and enjoyed. And, make no mistake, enjoy them I most certainly did.
The outdoor drizzle did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for Flam itself; small, and as perfectly crafted as a charm bracelet, it is almost chocolate box pretty. Even through a curtain of grey, misty drizzle, the whole place looks just too good to be true.
As our tender bumbled back across the inscrutable calm of the fjord, the rain stopped as abruptly as it started. A wave of sunlight bathed the whole, surreal spread of looming mountains and waterfront cafes in a clean, vibrant light. Ragged, black ranks of pine forests suddenly assumed a gorgeous, deep green patina as the sun flitted through the trees to glint on the cool blue surface of the fjord.
It turned warm, too. The skies cleared completely as the late afternoon turned gloriously bright, showcasing the staggering natural beauty surrounding us to perfection. Back on the teak lined terrace of Scott’s, I nursed a tequila sunrise as the Marco Polo swung idly at anchor in this surreal summer playground. It was all nothing less than five star soul food.
What a place. What a day. What’s next?
Check in later to find out!