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By Ute Junker
Soaring mountains plunge down to meet tranquil waters and thundering waterfalls disturb the serenity of verdant forests. Famously lovely fjords have made the west coast of Norway a popular destination for ships of all descriptions. Spectacular scenery is just one of the attractions on a Norwegian cruise, and as Ute Junker reports, tourists are in for a few surprises too.
Honningsvåg is a town at the end of the world. Perched on the island of Magerøya, surrounded by the Arctic Sea, the settlement is Norway’s northernmost town. What it lacks in size it makes up for in the surprise factor.
The first surprise is the weather. Even though it is the height of summer, you might expect the deep north to be swathed in snow and ice. However, thanks to the Gulf Stream, the climate is surprisingly mild. Today it is a ‘balmy’ 13 degrees. During a heatwave, temperatures can reach 20 degrees, at which point locals retreat inside until it cools down.
Then there’s the vegetation. It’s several days since we left the dense forests and blooming meadows of southern Norway; here, above the Arctic Circle, the dominant landscape is flat, largely featureless tundra. Or so we think. On the advice of our guide, we get close to ground level. We then realise that what appears to be uniform ground cover is in fact a miniature forest, dense with purple saxifrage and orange cloudberries, globeflowers and pink fireweed.
Another surprising thing about the end of the world: hairdos matter. That’s the only conclusion I can draw from Honningsvåg’s compact main street having just one grocery store and one clothing store, but five hairdressers.
Cruising through Norway, every day brings fresh surprises. Traditional Hurtigruten ships, which carry both cargo and passengers, ply the route alongside luxury cruise liners and other craft. However, with more than 25,000km of coastline, there’s plenty of room for all of us.
Most cruises start in Bergen, a pretty fishing port known for its colourful medieval warehouses, bustling fish market and impressive cultural calendar, crammed with concerts and performances. Further north, obligatory stops include the gorgeous Geiranger Fjord, the art nouveau town of Ålesund and the lovely Lofoten Islands, a series of spiky crags rising dramatically from the sea. Drawn by the famous light, artists flock here to stay in the area’s characteristic red huts, their roofs insulated with green turf.
Heading into the Arctic Circle, we expect the wilderness to take over, but we never entirely escape signs of human habitation. Some of these coastal communities are thriving, such as the northern hub of Tromsø, 400km above the Arctic Circle, with more pubs per capita than anywhere else in Norway. Other settlements seem to be barely surviving: here, a collection of fishermen’s huts, studded with wooden A-frames laden with drying fish; there, a group of Sami herders and their reindeer.
The cruising experience changes with the seasons. In winter, the days are as dark as the nights, and the northern lights flickering across the sky are simply magical. Shore excursions include adventures such as dog sledding. In summer, you can kayak under the midnight sun and visit breeding colonies of cormorants and puffins.
Surprisingly, Norway’s natural wonders are occasionally overshadowed by its human constructions. In the former Viking capital of Trondheim, we are stunned by the stone bulk of Nidaros Cathedral. As mighty as some of Western Europe’s great cathedrals, this symphony in stone is the largest medieval building in Scandinavia, although it has undergone significant restoration and rebuilding.
The exterior western wall of the cathedral is covered from top to bottom by a tightly packed troop of statues, depicting biblical figures as well as Norwegian kings and bishops. Inside, there are magnificent stained- glass windows and the tomb of St Olav, the Viking king who converted to Christianity.
As we drive higher into the mountains, we leave behind orchards and fertile farmlands and pass into alpine country. Here the roads are covered in snow for half the year and 1,800-metre peaks loom above us. Only when we reach the pass at Trollstigen do we get our first glimpse of Norway’s most famous road.
Trollstigen Road is a feat of engineering so impressive that it has become one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. With their mountainous landscape, the Norwegians have, of necessity, become skilled builders of roads and tunnels. On one excursion, for example, we pass through an extensive network of tunnels with its own roundabouts. However, none of these man-made masterpieces are more jaw-dropping than Trollstigen.
It took eight years to complete the road, which snakes its way through 11 hairpin bends at a gradient of nine degrees. Amazingly, it can even accommodate tour buses. We enjoy the hair-raising downhill ride, and stop for a quick bite to eat before heading back to the ship, ready to set sail for the next surprise.