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Norway by cruise

Photos by Bob Hoelscher

Late last July, I made a third visit to Norway by ship, an exceptional sightseeing destination. A few years back, I visited a variety of fascinating small coastal communities and continued all the way to Tromsø and the North Cape, both within the Arctic Circle. This time around, I boarded Holland America Line’s midsize Rotterdam in its namesake Netherlands port city on a Northern Fjords (renamed Norse Legends for 2013) cruise that visited Bergen, Geiranger, Ålesund and Eidfjord.

If you’ve taken a group to Alaska, you may think that a trip to Norway would be simply “more of the same.” But it is not. At the northern ends of their respective continents, both are cool, comfortable and especially scenic places to visit during the hot summer months in the continental United States, but that is where many of the similarities end. Alaska, of course, is known for glaciers, plentiful wildlife and gold mining that brought a rough-and-tumble lifestyle to its early settlers. But although there are some glaciers in Norway, they take a back seat to the incredible fjords, historic cities and charming coastal villages that reflect countless centuries of cultural and seafaring traditions pointing all the way back to the Vikings.

Exploring Norway by ship is easily the most economical method of doing so, as this is a part of the world where land tours reflect the relatively high cost of living and are far from inexpensive. Here is where economics of scale — large, highly efficient cruise vessels, the lower costs of fuel and supplies loaded aboard ship farther south in Europe, and labor from Third World countries — all pay big dividends in overall package pricing. And even though veteran cruisers are sure to find the cost of shore excursions to be higher in Norwegian and Baltic ports than elsewhere, relatively inexpensive hop-on/hop-off tram or bus alternatives seem to be available almost everywhere except Russia.

Norwegian Towns
What did my Rotterdam shipmates think of Norway? Most with whom I spoke seemed to enjoy it immensely. Valerie and Terry Wells from Southampton, England, summed it up nicely: “It’s really lovely, and we’ve been very lucky with the weather. We prefer to get off of the boat and walk around, although we took the hop-on/hop-off bus in Bergen for only 20 euro per person, and it was very, very good.”

Because I had been to Bergen before and knew the layout of the city, I set off on foot right after breakfast and found the streets to be mostly empty — perfect for picture-taking. Shopkeepers and merchants in the colorful fish market were setting out their wares to attract tourists, whose interests would likely turn to shopping after their organized excursions had concluded. This most picturesque, medium-size city boasts a large number of cultural attractions, including major museums devoted to art, history, archaeology and the area’s maritime connections; a historic theater; and a modern concert hall. Also, not far from town, is the home of famed Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Other sites of importance are the small Bergen Cathedral, dating from 1150; the ancient yet well-preserved Bergenhus Fortress; and a funicular railway that offers panoramic views from its upper station. While relaxing on benches in the lovely park that surrounds a lagoon in the heart of town, I particularly enjoyed watching the city gradually coming to life. However, exploring the amazing old wooden homes and commercial buildings of Bryggen, the city’s 15th-century wharf district and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, appears to be the city’s single-most-popular visitor pursuit. Gift shops there seem to specialize in traditional Norwegian sweaters and collections of troll figurines.

Tiny Geiranger, surrounded by the towering cliffs and awe-inspiring waterfalls of Geirangerfjord, is among the world’s most famous and picturesque settings. In 2005, it, too, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many guests were on deck to enjoy the fabulous scenery as we made our way slowly in the ship’s anchorage, despite overcast skies. In Geiranger, to my good fortune, I chose one of the finest shore excursions I have ever taken: to the large, 300-year-old Herdal Mountain Farm, which still produces goat cheese in the traditional manner as a Norwegian cultural heritage project. We were shown around the site by Nailoke Shilunga, a university student from Namibia who is working on her second master’s degree in Oslo and who came to the country as part of a Norwegian Peace Corps program. Stops at the Eagle Bend overlook and a 1782 church in picturesque Norddal were also included.

Our outstanding guide for the tour, Erica Bjäle, told us that “only 250 people live year-round in Geiranger, surrounded by 3,000-meter cliffs, but we get as many as five ships in a day during the summer — 5,000 guests or more — and are expecting 300 ships this year. Three-quarters of the town’s residents make their living from tourism.” Furthermore, she added, “during the winter months when the new highway is closed, it takes twice as long — 14 hours rather than seven — to get to Oslo via the old switchback National Tourist Road.”

Erica was such a charmer that I have to admit I was in love for the entire four-and-a-half-hour tour. But then, falling in love with Norway is pretty easy for almost everyone.