Exploring the country’s breathtaking sights the way the locals do.
By Suzanne Bopp
Pristine waterfalls spilling over jagged cliffs, narrow fjords winding through soaring mountains, glaciers glowing in the pale rays of the midnight sun, tiny fishing villages clinging to rocky islands — all these lay before you as you stand on the deck of a small Norwegian cruise ship. Norway regularly ranks among the planet’s most beautiful places, and cruising its coast makes the reasons clear.
On a map, Norway resembles a long, narrow finger of land along the North Atlantic Ocean. With its many fjords and islands included, the coast stretches 63,000 miles: one of the world’s longest coastlines, and where many of Norway’s wonders are found.
Getting out on the water is the best way to explore the coastline’s marvels, and Norway’s own Hurtigruten ships do that in a unique way. Their trips are no ordinary cruises. Since 1893, Hurtigruten’s distinctive white and blue vessels, striped with red, have been a familiar sight in all the small coastal villages that still depend on them to bring mail, cargo and people. Onboard, you’re as likely to meet Norwegians as tourists. The food served onboard is locally inspired — you might see cured salmon, brown cheese, reindeer soup — and Hurtigruten vessels are small, carrying about 500 passengers on average. They can travel close to the coastline, providing the most gasp-inducing views of the fjords and small islands and all kinds of wildlife — Arctic foxes, puffins, polar bears and walruses.
Nature is the main attraction here, so your evening entertainment is likely to be a presentation about the whales spotted earlier, or just sitting back and watching the stunning scenery go by. It’s hard to tear yourself away from it each night — you might miss the midnight sun casting its pastel hues across the tundra in summer or the northern lights painting colorful arcs across a dark winter sky.
Up and Down the Coast
Traveling between Bergen in the south and Kirkenes in the north, above the Arctic Circle, Hurtigruten passengers can choose a seven-day northbound or a six-day southbound trip — or stay onboard for the 12-day round trip — each calling at 34 ports, where you might further explore by sea kayak, dog sled, snowshoe, horseback or bike.
Whether you start or end in Bergen, you’ll want to take time to explore the small, charming city tucked in among seven mountains. Its historic, UNESCO-listed Bryggen district graces many postcards: a row of colorful, wharf-side 14-century wooden buildings, reflected in the sparkling harbor waters and creating a storybook scene. Stroll the centuries-old fish market to check out the day’s catch and snack on some just-boiled shrimp, still steaming. Board the Floibanen funicular along with locals who live on the mountain and ride to the top for a stunning overview of the city and the ships as they come and go.
Sailing north from Bergen, you’ll eventually spy the towers and spires of Alesund. The town is famous for its art nouveau architecture; following a fire, the entire city was rebuilt in 1904. It’s also home to one of northern Europe’s largest saltwater aquariums; here, excursions include an art nouveau walk and a visit to the aquarium, where penguins dart around in their open-air pool.
More excursions await when the ship docks at Trondheim, a medieval city founded in 997. Here Nidaros Cathedral, the country’s only Gothic-style church, stands over the burial place of Norway’s patron saint, St. Olav. Learn more about him on a guided tour, ride the world’s northernmost cable car or join a bicycle tour and check out the world’s first bicycle lift.
Into the Arctic Circle
An onboard ceremony marks your crossing into the magical environment of the Arctic Circle. This is where the midnight sun shines all summer and there is the best chance of seeing the colorful bursts of the northern lights illuminating the darkness in the winter.
The country’s second largest glacier — 230 square miles — and the Lofoten Islands await. Lonely Planet writes, “You’ll never forget your first approach to the Lofoten Islands”: the five largest islands form a 3,000-foot-tall jagged outline against the sky, a sight known as the Lofoten Wall. Scattered throughout the islands are tiny fishing villages on sheltered bays where you can stroll among stockfish racks and traditional fisherman’s huts called “rorbuer” while sea eagles wheel overhead.
The largest Viking building ever found was discovered nearby, and it’s been reconstructed and turned into the Lofotr Viking Museum. Here the chieftain welcomes you to his house, where you’ll join him in the banquet hall for a real Viking meal: there’s singing and dancing and traditional food, and the mead will flow.
The history lessons continue in Tromso, considered the capital of the Arctic and the starting point for many an epic Arctic expedition. A polar history walk offers details about the explorers, or you might choose to go on your own Arctic expedition and strike out by cross-country ski, snowshoe or dog sled. As the huskies race across the frozen landscape, marvel at the breathtaking views of the vast open tundra and the sea — and maybe the northern lights.
To the Russian Border
Further north, sail into the heartland of Norway’s indigenous Sami people. Near the tiny fishing village of Kjollefjord, Sami families still graze their reindeer each summer, making this an ideal place to learn more about the Sami and their way of life. Listen for their “joik,” a song tradition that’s among the oldest in Europe.
The final destination of the northbound voyage, and Hurtigruten’s turning point for the return trip south, is Kirkenes. Here you’re farther east than St. Petersburg, and the Russian border is a just few miles away.
You can visit that border by bus, riverboat or ATV, depending on the season. Or maybe you’d rather go fishing for king crab or wander through Kirkenes’ snow hotel (in winter and spring, after which it melts): a dreamy winter wonderland. Whether you’re starting or ending your cruise — or just at the halfway point — you’ll want to stop by its ice bar and raise a cold shot of crowberry juice to Norway’s many wonders.
Epic Norwegian adventures await! Call 800-750-5386 today, or visit AAA.com/Travel for more information.