How do you travel to Scandinavia to see the majesty of the fjords on a budget? Mark Douglas has the answer.
With its breathtaking scenery, chocolate-box cities and spectacular fjords, Norway should be near the top of any intrepid traveller’s bucket list.
It’s close enough to the UK to make it eminently do-able, and an antidote for those tired of the beaches and bars of Spain or Portgual – yet the fjords’ very geography make them an expensive train or car trip from the cities served by most British airports.
Better by far to go by sea. But not on one of the mammoth ships that look more like apartment blocks and dwarf their ports of call.
A British cruising company Cruise & Maritime Voyages, which sails from Newcastle and Tilbury, the intent is to make the fjords more affordable and breathe fresh life into the cruise ship holiday by conjuring up itineraries that will tempt the first-time sailor.
As I contemplate the majesty of the Voringfossen waterfall – the first stop on day three of CMV’s Summertime Fjordland cruise – you can’t help but think they might be on to something.
You eat and drink at UK prices on board while sampling the best of what Norway has to offer in a variety of daytime excursions that ensure you never get cabin fever.
Norway really is everything it’s cracked up to be. The fjords are an extraordinary sight to behold, especially when you’re gaping at them from a 726-foot long ship dissecting the deep blue coastline. They sweep down into the sea, impossibly steep with rocks, lush grass and alpine trees perching on them.
There’s an unspoiled charm to fjordland, especially when the sun sets and both the peaks and still water below are bathed in moonlight.
That this all arrives after a chilled out day afloat is a bonus. In late August you don’t expect to spend a day in the North Sea sunbathing but on the decks of the Magellan there was barely a sun lounger free.
I’d been worried, by the way, about what we’d be able to do for 24 hours on a ship with nothing but blue sky and sea to look at. My mistake. The calendar boasted comedy, karaoke, a spa, a gym, fitness classes, history lectures and more besides. Or, of course, you could just sit and watch the world go by.
CMV is the new kid on the block and determined to find a niche in the market. It’s not quite cruising for people who don’t do cruising – all of the extras seasoned cruisers would expect are included, from the traditional Broadway shows to the afternoon teas, a quiet, contemplative library, spa and two nightclubs – but it’s certainly pitched at travellers who might not immediately think of setting sail.
This isn’t a mega-liner with a huge cinema and indoor water park, and row upon row of fast-food eateries. Instead, its big selling points are the charm of the staff on board and tours that should appeal to a younger couples market who might otherwise have pieced together a trip like this on the internet with budget flights and Airbnb.
A CMV cruise takes away the expensive, time-consuming hassle of plotting the least expensive path through the beautiful Fjordland.
Here, there’s the added bonus of your food, too, There are five sittings: breakfast offers full English or something lighter, then there’s a well-stocked buffet for lunch including burgers, chips, pizzas, lasagne, seafood and pretty much everything else you could ask for. Afternoon tea is followed by a more formal offering in the evening. Dress code for two of the nights is evening wear, a couple are formal and the rest are casual.
CMV also offers a £17-a-day ‘all you can drink’ package, although beers start at £2.80 and cocktails come in at under £4. Considering you don’t get that kind of change from a Wetherspoons – and pints retail at £10 in mainland Norway – that’s not bad value at all.
The 46,052-tonne Magellan has 12 decks and when it’s full – as our cruise was – there are more than 1,000 passengers on board for the week-long Fjordland cruise, but few other cruise lines offer such a personal touch and sensational customer service.
The ship is spotlessly clean, the cabins are spacious and it really is something to leave the less-thansalubrious surroundings of Tilbury docks on the first night and wake up on the third morning after a relaxing day at sea to open your cabin window to the splendour of the fjords.
And that’s where the fun really starts. We’re on the Summertime Fjordland cruise, and our first port of call is Eidfjord, a pretty, friendly little tourist village. There are woolly, knitted scarves wrapped around the trees here – a quirk that has its origins in the deep, freezing winters that we don’t see much sign of on a late summer’s day.
We drive up to the Hardangervidda Nature centre, where there are goats grazing on the grass-clad rooftops. It’s well worth a visit to hear more about the country’s wildlife, from the swooping birds of prey to the bears, reindeer and cute puffins.
A drive up the snaking, mountain roads leads you to the Fossli Hotel that has played host to kings and queens, and was where Edvard Grieg wrote his Opus 66, looking over such natural beauty. It’s still a working hotel but the busloads of tourists who visit for a cup of dark coffee or to peer at the Voringsfoss waterfall – the highest in Europe – and the Hardanger mountains are more common.
The second day sees you set sail for Flam, home of the world-famous railway line. In truth, Flam itself is nothing more than a collection of tourist-tat shops and the odd little coffee shop, but the railway’s reputation as one of the best and most scenic trips in the world is well justified. The return journey is less than 2,000 metres but takes a couple of hours.
You’re not disappointed by the leisurely pace. Indeed, you’ll wish your trip is longer. It climbs to the top of Myrdal mountain from the Sognefjord fjord through 20 tunnels, snaking through beautiful countryside and past some of the most incredible, gushing waterfalls. Halfway, there’s a brief stop at Kjosfossen – an epic, powerful waterfall that has a surprise I won’t spoil here.
Throughout the journey there’s a video guide to let you know exactly where you are, and what you’re looking at. A top tip is to spend the journey up on one side of the train and the journey down on the other – the scenery is equally beautiful. And don’t worry too much about your camera – drinking in the scenery is better than any pictures grabbed at speed.
Back on the boat and gliding through the fjords at moonlight, your overnight journey takes you to Bergen. This is the city that supposedly provided the inspiration for Disney mega-hit Frozen and the first thing any visitor has to do is take the funicular to the top of the city for magnificent views. It’s a different feel to the fjord stops but it’s no less entrancing. Up at the top of the city there are woodland walks and jogs that locals do every day. Back down to earth there’s the Bryggen area, protected by Unesco and steeped in history.
This is where the country used to carry out its maritime trade and the unique, colourful buildings are still in use today, although they now house tourist gift shops and quaint little museums. The Bergen Art Museum is recommended: its collection of Munch paintings is the second biggest in the world. You may know him from The Scream but his life and works were fascinating.
With a day set aside for sight-seeing, there’s still time to grab one of those famous £10 pints and amble through the portside market where they unnervingly sell whale salami alongside more palatable and acceptable treats. Back on board, there’s another day at sea to brace ourselves for the return to real life. It’s spent in the spa and relaxing in the bar. We could get used to life on a cruise ship...
Orginal article written by Mark Douglas for the Newcastle Chronicle.