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.

ENCORE FOR EUROPA 2- 2014-15 SEASON HIGHLIGHTS updated

Taking wining and dining to Olympian heights- the new Europa 2

Taking wining and dining to Olympian heights- the new Europa 2

Following on from a critically acclaimed first season in the Mediterranean, Hapag Lloyd Cruises has just launched the 2014-15 brochure for its stunning new Europa 2.

The 42,000 ton wunderschiff has been winning rave reviews from passengers and industry experts alike for her unique take on family friendly, upscale cruising. With eight open seating restaurants, a maximum capacity of 516 guests carried in all balcony accommodation, many interconnecting suites and a smart casual dress code, Europa 2 has massively upped the ante in terms of the premium luxury experience.

Top billing in the 2014 roster goes to a pair of transatlantic crossings, which will see the Europa 2 make spectacular entries into both New York, and her home port of Hamburg on June 7th 2014.

The company is also running a short season of four day, introductory cruises for the ship. Some of these serve up both Oslo and Copenhagen, while others take in the idyllic, little known Baltic islands of Usedom, Bornholm, and the city of Wismar.

In all, the Europa 2 will premiere some 167 different ports of call, spread across five different regions as geographically diverse as Scandinavia to South America, as well as a first season of headlining, seven day Caribbean cruises out of Miami. Ports on offer on the Caribbean roster include Barbuda, Grand Turk and the yachting haven of Jost Van Dyke, in the British Virgin Islands.

La Serenissima restaurant, Europa 2

La Serenissima restaurant, Europa 2

Thirty two different routes- one for every different kind of gin carried by the ship- will offer up a wealth of smaller, off the beaten track destinations, often far away from the madding crowds of contemporary cruise ship scheduling.

There is also a mind blowing, 76 day complete circumnavigation of the entire South American continent for seriously determined- and rich- sybarites

Key to the ship’s 2014 season will be a second series of cruises in the summertime Mediterranean. There, the Europa 2 will once again operate a series of seven night cruises that can be interconnected to form a string of fabulous long voyages.

Golf fans will be in nineteenth hole Heaven, with a series of four specially themed cruises that offer the chance to play the best courses in ports such as Bilbao, Malaga and Casablanca amongst others.

As well as a string of clubs and activities for children and teens of all ages, Europa 2 has a staff of six trained nannies, meaning that parents of young children can really take the weight off their feet, and truly relax on board. Typical, seven day family accented cruises will run between Civitavecchia (Rome) and Barcelona, as well as between Malta and Piraeus.

Europa 2 will serve up the best of the Caribbean in 2014

Europa 2 will serve up the best of the Caribbean in 2014

On her first, full year round deployment, it will be interesting to see how this uniquely different vessel- she operates in both English and German languages- actually stacks up against the established, de- luxe ships that have been in service for a number of years now. But with both the highest prices- and the highest passenger space ratio- in the luxury cruise ship industry, the Europa 2 is certainly going to be a formidable competitor for the top end of the travel trade.

The brochure covers all sailings from April 2014 to April, 2015. It is released with all UK pricing this month.

Update: Berlitz has just announced it’s confirmation of the Europa 2 as the highest rated cruise ship in history, with an unparallelled 1,860 points scored from a possible maximum of 2,000.

AKERSHUS FORTRESS-OSLO’S BLOODY TOWER

Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

The sixty mile passage upstream to Norway’s capital of Oslo is a fantastic procession. You glide past fussing little steamboats and rolling, patchwork meadows studded with grass roofed houses, many of them proudly flying the Norwegian flag. There are cows grazing nonchalantly by the water’s edge, and streams that resemble the strands of a spider’s web as they thread through deep, lush valleys down to the still, silent fjord below.

It is almost chocolate box pretty; a fable set in stone, water and sky. And, at the end of the journey, most ships tie up beneath the brooding, gothic ramparts of what looks like a vast, fairy tale castle straight out of the pages of Sleeping Beauty.

Akershus Fortress.

Akershus is Oslo’s equivalent to the Tower of London, and in certain light it is every bit as gaunt, awe inspiring, and forbidding. A vast expanse of grim grey battlements, it is festooned with towers sporting red tiled roofs. It looms above the entrance to the old town like some petrified, old stone guard dog. Huge and forbidding, it has cast a long shadow across the sparkling waters of the fjord since it was first built in the late thirteenth century.

The whole reason for its construction was to protect the city of Oslo from attack, primarily from neighbouring Sweden. In those days, Norway and Sweden were often at war, and the city of Oslo was the strategic lynch pin to the whole of Norway. And, to capture Oslo, you first had to nullify it’s grim gatekeeper, Akershus.

It was besieged several times between 1308 and 1716; but no one ever actually succeeded in conquering the fortress. In the seventeenth century, Akershus was remodelled extensively, giving it the scale, scope and stance of a gigantic renaissance castle. The attached Royal Mausoleum is also the burial site of several of Norway’s former kings and queens.

Courtyard memorial wall at Akershus

Courtyard memorial wall at Akershus

Akershus surrendered to the Germans without a fight on April 9th, 1940, after their sudden, stunning invasion of Norway. The occupying power behaved with unyielding brutality; during the war, several members of the Norwegian Resistance were shot by German firing squads in the courtyard of the fortress. The exact spot is marked today by a silent, hugely poignant memorial.

The Norwegians neither forgave, nor forgot.

On May 11th, 1945, the Germans surrendered Akershus to members of the Norwegian Resistance. After his trial, Vidkun Quisling, the former Nazi collaborator in chief, and several of his associates, were brought back to Akershus, and shot on the same spot as the executed resistance members.

A museum within the fortress walls commemorates the war years. Opened in 1970, it makes for sombre, compelling viewing.

Today, Akershus is still a military base. The fortress is also the focal point for state occasions, and a central point for entertaining any visiting foreign dignitaries. As well as the Resistance Museum, Akershus also houses the museum of the Norwegian armed forces.

The grim, unyielding fortress

The grim, unyielding fortress

Today, the old stone walls and ramparts of Akershus offer scintillating summertime views of the breathtakingly beautiful fjord that it commands so completely. But, while life and the world all around it has evolved with each new decade, Akershus itself remains like something frozen in time. A tangible link down through the centuries that is worth a few hours of anybody’s time.

Akershus is open to visitors until 21.00 daily.