Have You Cruised in a Fjord Lately?
On Norway's coastal steamer, the raw landscapes and the pace of the ship can be described with the same word: glacial. All the better to savor the majestic fjords and the mystical northern lights.
Neptune, god of the sea, is a lot younger than I'd imagined. He's draped in a fishing net that's covered with seaweed, plastic crabs, and toy fish. Beneath his fake gray beard I see soft, unwrinkled skin, which is surprising, what with his living in saltwater for all those years. Our cruise ship, heading north along the Norwegian coast, has just crossed into the Arctic Circle, and to mark the occasion Neptune is ladling ice water down the backs of eager volunteers.
It's tradition, we're told, and even though it's 10 in the morning and cold enough to see your breath, tourists from Germany, England, and the U.S. line up in front of the sea god (a crew member playing dress-up, in case you hadn't figured it out). After dousing each person, Neptune hands over a shot of warm red wine. "Skål!" everyone says, Norwegian for "Cheers!"
We're just past midway on our weeklong journey called the Norwegian Coastal Voyage, known locally as Hurtigruten (pronounce it like Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show would). Our vessel, the 674-passenger Midnatsol (meaning "midnight sun"), is one of the biggest and, at a little over a year old, newest of the 13 ships making up the Hurtigruten fleet. It's not a cushy cruise laden with amenities and amusements, but it's not exactly a no-frills freighter. The ship is outfitted with a dining room, a small gym, a sauna, Internet stations, and sleek, angular furnishings, but no rock-climbing wall, miniature golf, casino, or other luxuries associated with Caribbean cruise ships. There isn't much onboard in terms of activities either, which may explain why Neptune's Arctic Circle ceremony is such a hit.
The Hurtigruten has been transporting cargo along Norway's spectacular coastline since 1893, and it's no wonder that paying passengers have always gone along for the ride. The 1,250-mile cruise sails through magnificent fjords and passes within view of waterfalls, glaciers, mountain peaks, and barren islands. It also serves as the lifeblood of 35 ports along the way, dropping off forklifts full of food and supplies. Some of Norway's isolated ports would probably wither into ghost towns if the Hurtigruten ever stopped sailing.
Each autumn, a drop in Hurtigruten prices parallels the drop in temperature (see "What the Cruise Costs," below), but my cousin Jeff and I haven't come to the Arctic Circle because of cheap rates. Fall through early spring is when the northern lights appear. It's a natural phenomenon created by electrically charged solar particles that make the northerly night skies glimmer in dull to brilliant shades of green, red, and yellow. We set sail at the end of September--the beginning of aurora borealis season--but so far, no luck with the lights.
The quest began a few days earlier in Bergen, home base of the Hurtigruten. A city that dates back at least to the Viking era, Bergen became a major trading post in the Middle Ages for Germany's Hanseatic League of merchants. The salty old town is on UNESCO's World Heritage List, and dozens of ramshackle warehouses look much as they did three or four centuries ago. Only now, the old trading warehouses, polished up and painted in Crayola-bright colors, are home to restaurants, pubs, bakeries, and sweater shops.
We spent most of our time in Bergen zigzagging the cobblestone alleys. It was drizzly a lot of the time--typical of Bergen's Seattle-like climate--but blue skies peeked out now and again. In late afternoon, the sun shone directly on the main wharf district, making it easy to see why its glowing row of red, orange, and white A-frames is featured on half the postcards in town. Just as impressive were the people, uniformly tall, trim, fair-skinned, and blond. The kids were especially cute, with big sea-blue eyes and shocks of straight white hair.
Crowds gathered daily underneath fluorescent orange tents at the Bergen fish market, where scruffy men in waterproof overalls offered free samples of salmon or whale meat to curious tourists. Live lobsters with rubber-banded claws swam lazily around in tanks. Fish in various states of dismemberment were laid out on ice next to giant crab legs. A vendor shoveled a couple dozen shrimp into a brown paper bag, which Jeff and I ate raw with fresh bread and crabmeat for dinner one night. The meal was delicious, filling, and cost roughly $17 for both of us.
It was a Friday, and since our cruise didn't depart until Saturday at 8 p.m., the night was wide open. Several people tipped us off to Rick's, a club with three floors of lounges, pubs, and discos. On the top floor, a DJ spinning Eminem and European power ballads looked up occasionally and nodded at the packed blond blur on the dance floor. After-hours, Jeff and I followed local protocol and headed to the nearest convenience store for hot dogs. Norway is nuts for hot dogs. Everywhere we went there were stores selling them. My favorite had a slice of bacon twirled around it. Topped with mustard and a little onion, it's the perfect ending to a night of too many stouts.