In what amounts to a historic first, all four cruise ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet will meet up in Bergen on Tuesday, July 28th.

Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch will all arrive in the Norwegian city at around 0800, and depart to a specially arranged fireboat salute at around 1800 that same evening. Between them, the popular quartet are expected to deposit around four thousand passengers ashore to enjoy highlights such as the Fish Market, Mount Floyen, and the historic harbour front warren of the Bryggen.

Clearly inspired by the huge publicity surrounding Cunard’s series of rendezvous featuring the ‘three Queens’, Fred. Olsen has chosen one of its most popular and perennial ports of call as the backdrop to the fleet gathering. The event is collectively being tagged as the ‘4B’s in Bergen’.

It will also mark the first time in many years that Boudicca and Black Watch- still fondly remembered as the Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky respectively- have been seen together in what was once their traditional home waters.

At the end of what is sure to be a momentous and historic day for all concerned, the fleet will put to sea, one at a time, in the following order; Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca, Black Watch.

Flagship Balmoral was originally built in 1988 as the Crown Odyssey for the now defunct Royal Cruise Line, while Braemar started life in 1993 as the Crown Dynasty of Crown Cruise Lines. She came to Fred. Olsen in 2001, after several years sailing for Norwegian Cruise Line as the Norwegian Dynasty.

Interestingly, all four ships have undergone ‘chop and stretch’ operations at some stage, each of which involved the cutting in half of each ship, and the addition of a prebuilt mid section. It’s a distinction that is unique to the Fred. Olsen fleet.

All things considered, this should be quite a special event, and I’m sure it will attract a fair bit of coverage on the day. As always, stay tuned.

All four cruise ships in the FOCL fleet will meet in Bergen this coming July 28th

All four cruise ships in the FOCL fleet will meet in Bergen this coming July 28th


Flam, Norway

Flam, Norway

Something quite miraculous happened up near the Arctic Circle on the third week in January. For the first time in months, the tip of the sun peeped shyly once more over the line of the horizon. After a long and soul destroying winter, daylight is beginning to return to these fabled northern lands. From now on, the days will lengthen dramatically, and soon the nights will vanish altogether.

From the end of May onward, a sublime, permanent daylight will bathe those same waters for months on end. With it comes an explosion of flora and fauna that mushrooms across the quilted patchwork fields of Norway like some unstoppable, Technicolour stain. You might see butterflies flitting skittishly around, even as herds of reindeer thunder across the tundra in the distance, looking for scrub to feed on.

Draped in summertime finery, the twelve thousand miles of fjords that form the stunning Norwegian coastline take on a truly amazing stance. Jagged ranges of slate grey mountains, their peaks still dusted with snow, are reflected to absolute perfection in deep blue water so still and pure that it seems to resemble the surface of a mirror. Streams that look as fine as spider’s webs from a distance evolve into thunderous waterfalls that tumble and roar into the fjords.

Stave church, Olden, Norway,

Stave church, Olden, Norway,

Nearby, random groups of cattle graze among a backdrop of brightly painted clapboard houses with grass roofs, usually clustered around some doughty stave church many centuries old. On the water, swans and small boats glide and fuss upstream past a constant procession of local ferries and looming cruise ships, chock full of passengers in total thrall to the amazing panorama unfolding all around them.

Of course, the great unknown is always the weather. The locals joke that if you don’t like it, just wait ten minutes and it will change. There’s a lot of truth in this; sun can turn to fog in minutes, and vice versa.

Yet even through a veil of mist, Norway is a heart stopping experience. Wreathed in fog, this legendary land of ghosts, witches and trolls assumes a guise that even the Brothers Grimm would have been hard pressed to describe. And the sight of a pine shrouded mountainside, emerging from it’s misty shroud, is almost impossible to take in, still less to forget.

Of course, Norway is not a cheap date. Prices ashore are high, but the overall return on a visit to this stunning, natural scenic smorgasbord approaches the stratospheric. Norway truly is one of nature’s most priceless, peerless gifts to humanity. And all of this is before you start to factor in the almost chocolate box pretty cities such as Bergen and Oslo.

Stunning Norwegian scenery

Stunning Norwegian scenery

Brimming with life, fabulous seafood, bustling waterfront bars and fantastic, almost fairy tale Hanseatic architecture, these fabled cities dot that fantastic coastline like a series of random, eclectic exclamation marks. In fact, they are entire destinations in their own right, especially when seen against the matchless, almost endless glow of a languid Norwegian summer night.

And, of course, the best way to see the highlights of this Scandinavian show stopper is by sea. Only a ship allows you to meander in and out of the sweet spots, past and along the most dramatic scenery on earth, while enjoying the convenience of packing and unpacking only once.

Only a ship can shift so seamlessly through this vast, mesmeric panorama of light, beauty and sheer, heart stopping grandeur. And it should go without saying that no land based tour or hotel can offer anything like the inclusive food, accommodation and facilities of a cruise ship.

Norway. Awe all the way. Get out there and enjoy!


See Scandinavia, Seadream style

See Scandinavia, Seadream style

In something of a departure from it’s normal summer season in the waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean, one of the sumptuous brace of yachts operated by Seadream Yacht Club is coming north, to Scandinavian waters.

For a three month period lasting from the end of May until August 2014, the 4,400 ton, 115 guest Seadream I will be operating a series of nine voyages, varying in length from seven to fourteen nights. Seadream I will showcase the outstanding, high summer highlights of the beautiful Baltic and the stunning Norwegian Fjords in surroundings of casual, unstructured luxury. With all inclusive prices and open seating gourmet dining, both indoors and outside, the Seadream I offers a uniquely intimate vista from which to survey the amazing scenery over the course of the long, almost endless summer Scandinavian nights.

All outside window staterooms and suites feature marble lined, multi-jet showers and luxurious towelling and robes, a complimentary mini bar, exceptional quality bedding, an elegant sitting area. and a plasma screen television. Framed in gorgeous cherry wood veneers, they are the perfect place to relax and unwind. But, truth be told, the real attractions lie outside.

Imagine being able to see amazing Norwegian waterfalls, up close and personal at midnight from a gently bubbling Jacuzzi. Or sleeping on deck at night on gorgeous, private Balinese dream beds as you spend an overnight docked in the centre of epic Saint Petersburg. Seadream I is a subtle brew of casual elegance, invigorating shore adventures, and moments of indolence and individuality that adds a totally new dimension to the idea of exploring cruising’s most fabled inland sea, at exactly the best time of the year.

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening...

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening…

You can  feast outdoors on lamb chops and waffles for breakfast as you sail past Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, or enjoy champagne on deck under the midnight sun as you cruise past the gorgeous coastline of summertime Norway. With a list of options as long as the endless days of a Scandinavian summer, these summertime voyages aboard Seadream I showcase the beauty, style and sheer, historic splendour of Scandinavia in matchless style.

The intimate size and scale of Seadream I means that the yacht can deftly access some of the smaller, lesser known jewels of the region, offering a much more up front and personal experience of these hidden Scandinavian gems than many of the larger ships. Highlights include the stunning Swedish island of Visby, the Danish resort of Bornholm, and the fabled German seaside resort of Sassnitz. In Norway, Seadream I will sail deep into the fabled fjords of Gudvangen, Sognefjord and fabulous Fjaerland.

The yacht embarks guests in ports as varied as Hamburg, Stockholm, Bergen and Copenhagen. There is also a full, fourteen night round trip in August from Dover that goes right up to Saint Petersburg for a two night stay, before another enticing trip from Dover, back down to the highlights of the autumn Mediterranean.

Little Mermaid, Copenhagen harbour

Little Mermaid, Copenhagen harbour

As well as superb cuisine and elegant, attentive service, Seadream I offers the opportunity for many late night stays in some of the more off the beaten track ports, often until midnight or sometimes later. The schedule is nowhere near as rigid and inflexible as that of conventional cruise ships that have to offload, and then reboard literally thousands of passengers at a time.

Definitely one worthy of consideration.


The stunning beauty of Western Norway

The stunning beauty of Western Norway

After months of rumours and stop-start negotiations, start up company Norwegian Seaways has finally announced the oft bruited resumption of a direct ferry service between Newcastle and Western Norway. This will be the first such direct link between the UK and Norway since the 2008 demise of the Bergen Line.

The route, scheduled for two weekly round trips from North Shields to both Bergen and Stavanger, is tentatively scheduled to start from the Tyne on April 14th next year.The trips, which will also be sold as mini cruises, will be of about three days’ duration each.

However, the firm date, as announced in Stavanger last week by Peter Iles, chairman of Norwegian Seaways, has been apparently greeted with astonishment by his own board, according to a Norwegian newspaper. They seem to have concerns that the ship- believed to be a ferry acquired from the Mediterranean- might not be ready for that early start date.

In any event, this seems a relatively minor storm in a teacup. The vessel in question is said to be around 27,000 tons, and with a length of around two hundred metres. With the intention of capturing both the business and holiday market, the as yet unnamed ship will boast a full service spa, several bars and restaurants, a casino and a disco. Cabin configurations are as yet unknown.

She will also be fully stabilised. That’s a key requirement for the often mercurial North Sea, and especially important as the ship is expected to sail year round. A move is afoot to promote Norway as a potentially viable ski-ing destination during the winter. The fact that a ship would have a far more generous baggage allowance than any budget or scheduled flight could be a key marketing advantage for the projected new service.

Street scene in Stavanger

Street scene in Stavanger

Western Norway has huge potential as a ski destination, with runs at least comparable, if not far superior, to those of winter France, Italy and Switzerland. It’s unclear yet what the car carrying capacity of the ship will be, though obviously there will be a full trailer and lorry carrying operation on the ship.

The service should also have considerable appeal as a cruise/ferry option. Both Bergen and Stavanger are extremely attractive ports in their own right, especially in the long Nordic summer nights. It is to be hoped that the new company will also offer a cruise-and-stay option, both for passengers from the UK, and those embarking in Norway to visit the Newcastle/Durham region.

This is definitely one to keep an eye on for 2014. As always, my advice is to stay tuned.

UPDATE: The vessel in question is said to be the Zeus Palace, originally built in 2001. In her current configuration, the ship has some 500 staterooms for around 1300 passengers, and a capacity for some 1,000 cars. She is currently sailing for Italy’s Grimaldi Lines in the Mediterranean.

Another update: A second company source has just said that the company has not purchased any vessel, and that the service might not start in 2014 at all. Bit of a dog’s breakfast……


Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

Every single day of every year, one of the fleet of doughty, redoutable Hurtigruten ferries casts off its mooring ropes and chugs purposefully off into the surreal, early winter Arctic twilight that bathes the twelve thousand miles of rocky, indented Norwegian coastline in a kind of pearly, translucent glow.

The round trip voyages, from the city of Bergen up to the remote, reindeer studded plains of Kirkenes, can take up to fourteen days, and each one encompasses brief stops at anything up to thirty three different destinations in the process.

While these fascinating sorties are sold to passengers as round trip cruises, it has to be emphasised that the ships are working ferries; they can- and do-deliver everything from cars and computers, to croissants and coffee to the often otherwise isolated communities that are strung out along the craggy, often storm lashed coastline of Norway proper.

Each ship will, inevitably, load and disgorge passengers and cargo at each port at all hours of the day and night, and it’s this constantly unfolding human and material tide that gives the service one of it’s most unique selling points; there is literally nothing else quite like it in the world, and certainly not on this scale.

Summer sun off Norway

Summer sun off Norway

And, while emphasising the ferry nature of the service, this is not to say that the ships are spartan. Far from it; they have interiors- including lounges with vast, panoramic windows- that are well up to cruise ship standards. Many have saunas, and a few of the more recent ones have swimming pools and/or hot tubs. All feature a main restaurant, which typically serves an open breakfast and lunch with hot and cold choices, and a more structured, three course evening meal, built around local fayre. It’s basic meat and potato stuff but- like almost everything in Norway- the quality is nothing less than superb.

Cabins range from compact insides to some quite commodious outsides that come with balconies. And if you think you won’t use a balcony in freezing January Norway, I have two words for you- Northern Lights.

This shimmering, scintillating natural show of light and ice in the sky- a manifestation of the aurora borealis- is one of the most singularly thrilling and surreal experiences you can ever have, either on land or sea. And one that I guarantee will certainly make you forget the cold.

There is little in the way of real, structured entertainment at night on the Hurtigruten, and that might be an issue for some. Personally, I’d argue that the stunning natural panorama unfolding all around you outside is all the entertainment you’ll ever need, whatever the time of year.

Norway is a mystical, spellbinding land; a fairy tale place of half glimpsed trolls and towering waterfalls; cows grazing in valleys surrounded by jagged, snow capped peaks. It is the long, endless days of summer and the still, mighty silence of the fjords. Stave churches on an emerald green carpet awash with fresh summer fauna, and the ghosts of cackling old hags flitting past on broomsticks in the ether.

Flam, Norway

Flam, Norway

The ships are floating parts of Norway themselves, and therefore subject to the stratospheric on board prices for drink that you experience ashore. But, unlike conventional cruise lines, Hurtigruten does not mind if you bring your own bottles on board from home; an idea that nixes the expensive nature of the on board trip quite nicely.

The result is a constant panorama that unfolds slowly as you glide from port to port; a cornucopia of colours, sights and sound that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Coupled with the sheer, chocolate box magnificence of Norway itself, it makes for one of the most compelling maritime odysseys- and it is surely that- on offer anywhere in the world today.

If time is tight and you can’t manage all of the full, fourteen day sea and land feast, then Hurtigruten also now offers a range of shorter, fly cruise options from six or seven days, travelling either northbound or south, and again at any season. The company will also tie in hotel stays in cities such as Bergen or Kirkenes as and when necessary.

For nature lovers, Norway is an absolute smorgasbord of hiking and walking trails, and exhilarating encounters with the stark, pristine wilderness of glaciers literally millions of years old. For lovers of history, Oslo has the brooding gothic masterpiece that is Akershus Castle. Further north, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, the port of Alta was the World War Two hiding place of the Tirpitz, the tiger shark of a battleship that was nicknamed ‘The Lonely Queen of The North’ by the Norwegian resistance that monitored her every movement.

Where else but Norway?

Where else but Norway?

The sheer level of interaction with the locals and the communities along the route makes the Hurtigruten a more immediate, vital travel experience than the often glossy, sanitised universe that is the contemporary cruise ship. There are times in the world of travel when less is most definitely more.

I would argue quite strongly that the Hurtigruten is just one such experience. Bon voyage.


Fred. Olsen is a niche operator to winter time Norway

Fred. Olsen is a niche operator to winter time Norway

One of the most surprising developments in recent years has been the surge in winter cruises to the often wild waters off the Norwegian coast, and it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. Winter cruises by lines such as Fred. Olsen and Cruise and Maritime to the region have often been sold out, Booked out, indeed, to such an extent that extra sailings have had to be laid on. More than one line has been wrong footed by under estimating the demand for such cruises.

That’s not so hard to understand. The bracing, near glacial temperatures, potentially stormy waters and long, almost endless hours of darkness are hardly alluring when compared to the Caribbean’s indolent, sun splashed lidos. Also, the prices are far from cheap. So what is the secret of this runway success, then?

Actually, there is more than one. But the prime draw has been without doubt, the shimmering, ethereal natural floor show provided by the Northern Lights, a stunning spectacle than can be appreciated nowhere better than from the deck of a cruise ship. Out at sea, away from land based pollution, the deep, rich lustre and beauty of Mother Nature at her finest can be savoured to an extent impossible to achieve ashore. This is up close and personal stuff, and it’s proving hugely addictive.

The sun breaks the horizon for fleeting minutes in winter Norway

The sun breaks the horizon for fleeting minutes in winter Norway

Many cruises are also offering overnight stays at Alta, on the very periphery of the Arctic Circle itself. It’s a pristine, glacially sublime environment in its own right, but now with the option to offer husky tours to cruise passengers, as well as moonlit snow bike rides through the dense, snow shrouded pine forests. You can even take a sleigh ride pulled by reindeer or horses, should the mood so move you.

And, even in winter, Norway is a jaw dropping beauty. A true ice maiden that seems almost too good to be true. Deep, silent fjords are shrouded by snow wreathed mountain ranges and fields dusted with glistening, fresh frost. And, being such an isolated, largely rural environment, Norway boasts some of the freshest, cleanest air in the world. Cold to be sure, but invigorating to the max as well.

Sailings to winter time Norway also offer the inestimable advantage of sailing round trip from the UK, freezing out any worries about missed flight connections and baggage allowances. These are particular bug bears for British passengers, and eliminating them is always a compelling card up the cruise lines’ finely tailored sleeve..

All of this is nothing new to those doughty souls who have been chugging up and down this coast on the venerable Norwegian Hurtigruten vessels for decades. But these vessels are essentially ferries- albeit quite luxurious ones. Still, they cannot compete in the all inclusive options of the ships now heading for those same choppy waters.

Take a sleigh ride with the friends of Rudolf

Take a sleigh ride with the friends of Rudolf

And Norway is also looking to reinvent itself as a turn around destination in it’s own right for spring, summer and autumn cruises, too. It is hoping to attract round trip cruise sailings from Bergen, Oslo and Stavanger. All of these have excellent air connections- the first two are especially accessible to North American travellers. This might take a few years, but the first signs are encouraging.

So far, the growing trade is mainly in the form of northern Europeans, with Saga Cruises getting in on the act now, too. From Germany, Phoenix Seereisen are also seeing considerable demand to visiting this far northern region during its literally darkest hours.

Our southern European friends seem less inclined to come and share our burgeoning love affair with nature’s freezer; the Italians and the French continue to favour the sunnier, unquestionably more benign waters of the Caribbean. And I, for one, don’t blame them one jot.

But cruising is about diversity, and that is exactly as it should be. It is not a one size fits all product, but a series of evolving, ever more achievable personal dreams and desires. One man’s heaven is very much another’s hell. For sure, the idea of a Caribbean mega ship with five thousand on board would make some shiver in a way that a fortnight’s cruising through Norway’s icy winter fastness never could.

I expect the demand to continue to grow, but sourcing additional, suitable extra tonnage might not be such an easy matter for these winter forays. As ever, stay tuned.


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.