FARSUND; A NORWEGIAN IDYLL

Gorgeous Farsund waterfront

Gorgeous Farsund waterfront

I had never heard of Farsund before. It was an unknown port of call tacked on to the end of an eight day cruise. I wasn’t expecting much from it, to be honest.

It is a port that most cruise ships never visit. Low profile and obviously off the mainstream cruising radar. Hence my low expectations.

Boy, was I wrong.

Check out these pictures of this compact, beautiful little port of call. Farsund is chocolate box pretty, compact and uncrowded. In fact, I found it one of the highlights of the cruise. A rare, undiscovered gem, with all of the charm, but none of the crowds.

Of course, the fact that we had a picture perfect day weather wise did not exactly hurt, either. But, in any event, Farsund is worth a few hours of anybody’s life.

Cruise lines, please take note. It really is far out in Farsund.

 

The harbour is made for strolling

The harbour is made for strolling

Talk about a town on the water

Talk about a town on the water

Farsund town hall

Farsund town hall

Clapboard houses are typical of Norway

Clapboard houses are typical of Norway

Across the harbour panorama

Across the harbour panorama

Water and walkways

Water and walkways

Beautiful rolling greenery surrounds Farsund

Beautiful rolling greenery surrounds Farsund

Gabled houses on the waterfront

Gabled houses on the waterfront

Just outside the town

Just outside the town

The weather was perfect for strolling

The weather was perfect for strolling

Close up of the town hall

Close up of the town hall

Some people have cars to get around...

Some people have cars to get around…

Probably not so appealing in winter

Probably not so appealing in winter

Looking back at the Farsund marina

Looking back at the Farsund marina

SOMETHING REALLY DIFFERENT; CRUISING NORWAY

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!

HURTIGRUTEN- SEE NORWAY LIKE A LOCAL

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.

WINTER CRUISES TO NORWAY- BREAKING THE ICE ON NEW BUSINESS

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.