I took my first cruise 'way back in 1966 and discovered I much preferred sea days to days in port. After several other trips, I still prefer to be at sea in motion rather than exploring exotic ports. So, what on earth possessed me to go to the other side of the world to do a 12-day cruise stopping at 64 ports? In short, I had visited Norway briefly in 1976 and had always intended to return and explore the fjords. But it took until now for domestic and career responsibilities to slack off enough to contemplate it, and the desire to visit my daughter in England provided the spur. So, here is my take on "The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage."
Australia to Scandinavia is a long haul, no matter what route you choose. I took advantage of a special deal from Scandinavian Airlines and flew Melbourne/Bangkok with Thai International, and then switched to SAS for the Bangkok/Copenhagen leg (in Business Class). It was 9 hours to Bangkok, a 2½ hour wait there, and then 11 hours to Copenhagen. The investment in Business Class was worth it -- the lounge at Bangkok was an oasis in a hot sweaty airport, and up front in an Airbus 340 was superb: plenty of leg room, real food and a seat comfortable enough to sleep in.
I arrived in Copenhagen at 6:30am local time surprisingly fit. There were no issues with baggage or Customs, and I got a train at the airport station and was in central Copenhagen by 7:30. I had only the one day in Copenhagen so I contented myself with a stroll through Stroget (the long pedestrian mall) with it's unique mix of historic buildings and very upmarket shops. I resisted the temptation of a wonderful pipe and tobacco store which had some beautiful Meerschaum pipes, but did have the famous hotdog and coffee. I don't know what has happened to the traditional Danish Open Sandwiches, though -- all I could find were bagels and rolls. But I did find the latest book from my favourite author in a bookstore, which was funny as it had not yet been released back home. Eventually I wandered back to the Central Station and validated my Eurail Pass for the next day's travelling. Then it was back to the hotel for a quiet dinner and an early night.
I slept well and had a leisurely breakfast -- lots of juice, Danish bread, and ham and cheese, with a thermos of coffee in a smoking area to finish up with. Then it was off to the station to get the train (a high speed Linx) to Oslo. The new train technology has really altered European travel. The last time I did this trip it took 12 hours and involved an hour on a train ferry and was very tiring. Now it takes 8 hours, including a 30-minute stop at Gøteborg, and the ferry has been replaced by a long bridge. Plus, they include a meal (lots of smoked salmon) if you are travelling First Class. Then a 90-minute wait in Oslo to board the night train to Bergen and hey presto -- Saturday morning (6:50am) and there I was.
I had a really good hotel in Bergen, the Hotel Rozenkrantz. They have a magnificent breakfast (huge choice of both hot and cold items), cable TV in rooms, free Internet and a wonderful location 50 metres from Bryggen (the historic Hanseatic wharf) and the Fish Market.
I had four days in Bergen and did the proper tourist thing: the Flam/Myrdal rail trip (probably one of the top three in the world); the tram to the top of Mt Floyen with its spectacular views of the city and harbour; and the obligatory cruise around the harbour and adjacent fjord. It's a picturesque city with friendly inhabitants and historic buildings everywhere. I could have easily spent another week there but the Nordlys was calling. But in passing . . . Norway is expensive, food- and drink-wise these days. So a big hotel breakfast (which always seems to be included with the room rate) is sound practice.
This was a breeze. Boarding time had been stated as 6:00pm and I was a bit concerned when I was told that pickup time from the hotel was 4:15. The bus was punctual, and at 4:30 ten of us were deposited at the wharf (quite a distance from the main harbour -- don't think of walking to it), and there was the Nordlys with gangway down waiting for us. We simply walked on board, handed over tickets in exchange for magnetic room key and separate AMEX-sized boarding pass, and that was it. I grabbed a lift, went up two decks, and two doors down a corridor was my cabin.
So easy!! However, it should be noted that you handle your baggage yourself; this is a working cargo ship, not a cruise liner, so most services we take for granted on other lines just do not exist. Typically, this means the cabin is made up in the morning, towels changed if necessary, but that’s it.
The Ship and Cabin
The Nordlys (Norwegian for "Northern Lights") is one of six Contemporary vessels built between 1993 and 1998. Others in the fleet include the Millennium ships (of 15,000 tons AND totally up-to-date, to the point of some balcony cabins); the Mid-Generation ships (of 6,200 tons, built in the 1980's and refurbished in 1995); and one surviving Traditional ship (the Lofoten, built in 1964 and a mere 2,600 tons).
I had a standard double cabin on Deck Five, which was adequate for a person travelling alone, but would be rather cramped for a couple. There is a couch which converted to a bed, a Pullman-style bunk on the opposite wall, a compact bathroom, a wardrobe (again, enough for one) and a writing desk. There is a telephone which also broadcasts announcements, but no TV. Opposite my cabin was what is described as a large double cabin and I would regard it as the minimum needed for a couple. But on a serious note, you don't take this trip for the luxurious accommodation or the room service.
Deck Layout and Public Areas
Nordlys is essentially a cargo ship with six decks of passenger cabins and amenities plonked on top of the cargo facilities. Deck Two has a few cheap cabins, but is really the car deck. Deck Three has reception, the laundry and the cheaper passenger cabins. Deck Four (working forward from the stern) has the restaurant, a wintergarden-style passageway with windows and clusters of tables and armchairs, the cafeteria, tour desk, souvenir shop, bar and library (multi-lingual with a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction).
Deck Five is the Promenade Deck with full walk-around and a fair-sized open area with deck chairs at the stern. It has no public rooms, only cabins and four of the six suites available. Ironically, the two top suites are forward-facing on this deck and any view the passengers had through their windows would be constantly blocked by the keen photographers who used the promenade there as the best photo stop when entering port. Deck Six is all cabins and a small deck area at the stern. Deck Seven has the indoor viewing areas. Forward is the "Panorama Lounge" with picture windows looking ahead and to the sides. This is also used for meetings and ceremonies, and is non smoking. Midships is another lounge which does permit smoking and has a bar, though on my trip it was never open. Astern is another outdoor deck area.
Here are photos of these public areas:
Dining & Other Services
Passengers booked on the round trip (Bergen/Kirkenes/Bergen) or the full one-way (Bergen/Kirkenes or vice versa) have their meals included in the fare. All other passengers must either purchase meal tickets or patronise the cafeteria. At Bergen, the table allocation is done when the dining room opens for the evening meal and this is NOT publicised -- you may find you are at the end of a large queue if you don't come early. Tables are basically for either 4 or 6 people, and window seats are highly prized. Once allocated, you retain them for lunch and dinner for the whole trip. At breakfast, you sit where you like.
My table of 4 was comprised of three non-drinkers (including me), so my observations may be a bit limited. Prices appeared to match those on shore, which probably disappointed some people. Beer was about $US12 for a 450ml (15oz) glass, and wine was available by the bottle or glass. I gathered a glass of Chilean white was about $US15 -- I shudder to think what a French vin ordinaire would cost!! Most people drank water!! In passing, it must be said that there was very little drinking done on the whole trip, unless the truly desperate retired to their cabins and drank their Duty Free (which was permitted, I believe). During the day, only the cafeteria was open to purchase drinks (both top deck bars were closed) and in the evenings the front bar served coffee and drinks, and doubled as a smoking lounge.
Not required, not solicited and as far as I could see, not wanted!! The staff can't drink on board, but if you can catch up with Wilma ashore she might accept some Schnapps!!
A self-service laundry is located on Deck 3 -- the cost covers detergent as well. It is a typical European cycle (the machine heats the water) of 60 to 70 minutes. There are separate dryers. Part of the welcome kit in the cabins is a book describing the voyage. This a free souvenir to all passengers and is worth its weight in gold! It covers each port (usually with pictures) and is compulsory reading each night to prepare for the next day. There is a tour desk which also produces a fact sheet on each major port, a "complete list of all ports of call," and generally serves as a haven for confused passengers, as well as the source of various practical jokes. Wilma, the Dutch Tour Director, was/is a gem and what ever they pay her isn't enough!! There is a small gift/souvenir shop on board, but you will get more choice and better prices ashore. As noted elsewhere here, there is a decent library (which, by the way, works on an honour system and encourages passengers to donate books they don't want to reread).
There was no Internet facilities on the Nordlys (I think there may be on the newest Millennium ships). However, if you need to keep in touch, the main hotels in the big ports either have Internet cafés or will let you use their PCs -- very friendly. Similarly, there are no facilities for burning digital images to CD on board. So if your memory card is filling up, you will need to allow time in major towns to find a photo shop to get it done. You should expect to take literally hundreds of pictures.
The northbound voyage leaves Bergen at 8:00pm in summer to permit an 8-hour cruise from Alesund into the Geiranger Fjord. Reportedly, this is one of the highlights of the trip, but is not done during shoulder or winter sailings. Other than that deviation there is no difference in the itinerary between summer and winter. The actual route followed is mainly "inland passage" between the mainland and chains of islands, with only a few stretches of open ocean. There is quite a deal of motion when the sea gets up and I would warn against taking the older, smaller ships if you are not a good sailor.
Typically, each day will feature calls at about five ports (with others during the night), with stops ranging from 15 minutes to 5½ hours. During these stops, a large section of the ship's side is hydraulically lowered to provide access to the car deck, and for forklifts to load and unload cargo. Passengers can go ashore at all but the briefest calls, but need to keep an eye on the time: there are no checks to see if everyone is back on board! There were passengers leaving and boarding at most ports of call.
Shore ExcursionsShore excursions are offered at most ports where the scheduled stop is for two hours or more, but are weather-dependant and do vary between winter and summer. Major excursions were:
Of these, North Cape is the most famous but is better done is good weather. Trondheim and Trømso are essentially weather-proof, as the most interesting features are cathedrals (both spectacular) and the Trømso Museum. The Russian border at Kirkenes is a bit "been there, done that."
Alesund, Molde and Stokmarknes should be explored on foot. Stokmarknes has the Hurtigruten Museum showing the history of the Coastal Voyage, AND a preserved ship up on blocks that can be explored. Alesund and Molde are simply two of the most beautiful places in Norway (and the sunset at Molde on the return trip was magic).
But the real highlight is indeed the scenery which lives up to the publicity. And it seems even more special because it is available 365 days of the year as part of the life of a working ship.
A breeze. We arrived in Bergen on time to be met by a range of buses clearly labeled by destination (Airport, Hotels, Railway Station). The luggage was delivered on shore within 15 minutes. I made my train to Oslo with over an hour to spare and was on my way to the UK to see my daughter.
Some Final Remarks
Although the ship is well heated, it gets very cold on deck if you do not dress for it. Parka, hat and gloves are a must. We had snow-covered decks several mornings and on one day there were still icicles on the bottom of the life boats at 3:00pm in the afternoon. You make your own entertainment aboard, with the single exception of a Crossing the Arctic Circle ceremony, complete with a visit from King Neptune and vast quantities of ice cubes and ice water.
Would I go again?? You bet!!
Dave is a Computer Consultant who specializes in Software Testing, and has loved ships since his first cruise in 1966. He fondly remembers the joys of sailing First Class on the Royal Viking Line, and point to point voyages. He has vowed to do a decent-length trip with Silversea within the next two years. He hates compulsory tipping, nickel-and-diming by cruise lines and the floating mega-hotels they call ships these days. He thoroughly recommends the Norwegian Coastal Voyage as a unique way to see the coastline of Norway and get some idea of life in a very special part of the world.
Dave may be reached for questions or comment at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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