A few years ago I was hired to be a guest lecturer aboard one of the many cruise ships that explore the Norwegian fjords in summer. Are the Norwegian fjords as beautiful as they are rumoured to be? In a word, yes. National Geographic Traveler has twice named the fjords as the world’s best travel destination. Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera.
Most cruises start in Oslo, in itself a very charming city well worth a few days of exploring. Rent a bike and ask for a map of the bike trail that wanders from downtown to the sculpture gardens of Vigeland Park in the west of the city, the top attraction in the city. If you like sculpture, this is the place for you. Google the destination before going so you have some idea of what to expect. You can cycle back via the waterfront for a lovely 2-hour excursion.
Ships cruise up the west coast of Norway, many stopping for a day in Stavanger, also a very interesting destination. It’s no more than a few minutes’ walk from the ship to the older parts of town. Don’t plan on buying anything until you’ve seen the prices. Oil rich Norway is one of the most expensive countries in the world. Prices can be triple that of Canada. Eat your lunch on the ship. A family lunch at Burger King will set you back $100 Cdn.
The Norwegian coastline is a drowned landscape of a million islands and endless inlets. You need to do your homework in advance to choose which fjord or cruise you want to explore. There are dozens of interesting fjords found all the way up the coast and even past the Arctic Circle and hundreds of cruises from which to choose. Sognefjord is the longest and most well-known fjord in Norway and the third longest in the world, stretching 205 kilometres (127 miles) inland from the ocean to the small village of Flaam, a most interesting little village found at the far end.
The first three-quarters of the cruise up the fjord are along a wide generous channel with little villages amid rolling hills sighted in the distance. It is only when the ship turns south and enters the Aurlands fjord that the scenery becomes truly spectacular. BecauseNorway is so far north, in the summer it doesn`t really get dark. Nonetheless, most tourists adhere to the same schedule as at home; up for breakfast and to bed before midnight. Should you do that on the Sognefjord cruise, chances are you will be asleep when the most spectacular scenery is on show.
You want to be up and awake on deck around 5 a.m., or the time when most passengers are deeply asleep. I told all attendees to my lectures to set their alarms early. Why cruise to the most spectacular scenery in the world and miss it? Cruising south for two hours down the Aurlands fjord, the topography changes dramatically. Suddenly you are surrounded on both sides by towering cliffs, where peaks rise to a snow-capped 2,000 metres. The cliffs are steep and dramatic, and you wonder how anyone could drive the narrow roads that have somehow been built along them to arrive at the little fishing villages that huddle down at the base of the mountains.
Red appears to be the national colour of Norway. Red roofs and barn-red painted houses and cottages dominate, somewhat like the landscape of Newfoundland but with mountains. The dams built in this region for hydro-electricity have led to arise in the fjords and the water temperature with a subsequent disappearance of the fish. Nowadays tourism is the mainstay of the region. All of these little villages are also accessible either by road or ferry. Viewed from the deck of a cruise ship, the villages look like something from a Hansel and Gretel fairytale, always a little red church with a white cross in the middle of the village, a pier, cows grazing on pastures on steep hills.
Flaam, your ultimate destination, is one of the most picturesque villages in the entire world. Nothing in the world is truly perfect, but this fantasy village comes close. Actually, it’s the lush valley running south from the mountains behind the village that is so spectacular, a brisk little river running through it, waterfalls cascading hundreds of metres down from the peaks, a 16th century church at the end of a 4-kilometre bike ride (rentals available in the village), cows in the pastures.
Flaam is best known n for its mind-boggling railway, an engineering feat that produced the steepest rail ascent in the world. The Flåm Line is a 20.2-kilometer (12.6 mi) long railway with an elevation difference is 863 meters (2,831 ft.) with ten stations, twenty tunnels and one bridge. The maximum gradient is 5.5 percent (1:18), the steepest standard-gauge railway in Europe. It has become the third-most visited tourist attraction in Norway.
Be forewarned that any activity booked on a cruise ship will cost you a bundle. Should you wish to experience the Flaam Railway, you can rent a car in Oslo and drive there. However, renting a car and buying gas will also cost you three times more than it would in Vancouver.
For those who slept in and missed the scenery on the waydown, the ship takes the same route back. Since, at this northern elevation, it barely gets dark, those who like to stay up late will get to see the sights in the soft northern light, until you finally reach the open ocean and head back south again.
Michael McCarthy is a freelance travel writer whose articles have appeared in many Canadian newspapers, including a different version of this one. For more stories, log on to www.transformative-travel.ca