Summer in northern Norway reveals a landscape of serene fjords, soaring cliffs and cascading waterfalls, all bathed in perpetual light. Cathy Wagstaff sails into the land of a neversetting sun with Viking Cruises.
It’s midnight and the sun is still shining as Viking Sea glides through the millpond waters of Norway’s Inside Passage. From my reindeer-backed armchair in the Explorers’ Lounge, I have a prime view of the majestic scenery: snow-capped mountains rising to the clouds, lake-dotted fields rolling across the horizon and slick, black cliffs plunging into the water. Occasionally, I catch sight of a red fishing cottage or a white timber home, a rare sign of human presence in this landscape seemingly carved by gods.
Our 15-day voyage takes us through seas once conquered by the original Vikings, from London via Scotland to the Arctic Circle and then south to Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, with its colourful houses and charming old port, Bryggen, huddled at the water’s edge. The midnight sun is our companion for four full days, guiding us through Norway’s most awe-inspiring scenery and leading us to its remote cities, each one an outpost of beauty or innovation.
The design of Viking Cruises’ five oceangoing ships maximises this experience with floor-to-ceiling glass, one of the hallmarks of the line’s sleek, Scandinavian-chic aesthetic. Blue and white dominates, complemented by plenty of light wood for a contemporary take on the nautical theme. The finishes and attention to detail are exceptional, particularly for a ship that eschews the luxury moniker.
With a 930-passenger capacity, Viking Sea is classified as a small ship, nimble enough to navigate the endless fjords of Norway’s coastline, and small enough to pass under London’s Tower Bridge. Captain Johan Malmberg announces some of the key sights as we sail: here, Vikingen, a barren island marking our departure from the Arctic Circle; there, Torghatten, or the Hole in the Mountain. I soak it all up from one of my favourite spots, a sea-facing sun lounger at the Main Pool on Deck 7, where nothing seems to exist but the view before me.
The Viking way
Our voyage begins in the Thames, where an overnight stay allows us to meander through one of the world’s great cities and settle into our floating home. I quickly identify those pockets of Viking Sea that I will come to call ‘mine’: that poolside lounger, the golden warmth of the Wintergarden and the Aquavit Terrace at the ship’s stern. I could while away hours here, watching the wash stretching behind us in a soporific ritual.
We pause in Edinburgh to make our way up the Royal Mile and visit The Elephant House, the cosy cafe where JK Rowling began writing the first books in her Harry Potter series. In the tree-less Orkney and Shetland islands, winds howl across a landscape of wild, rugged beauty. The Orkneys are home to a Neolithic henge site that may be the oldest in the British Isles, while Lerwick, the Shetland capital, feels more Scandinavian than Scottish.
On Day 7, we pass into the Arctic Circle. Those new to the latitude are invited to the Main Pool to take part in the Blue Nose Initiation Ceremony. The Jacuzzi is filled with ice for a ‘polar bear plunge’. Those game enough to participate squeal as they jump into the near-frozen water, scrambling out as quickly as possible, to be met with a flute of aquavit – Norway’s traditional spirit, which, according to some initiates, is worse than the Arctic plunge – and blue icing, smeared on the nose.
The rest of the day is spent in far greater tranquillity, reclining beside the infinity pool cantilevered over the rear of the ship; sampling the treatment menu at LivNordic Spa by Raison d’Être (and its complimentary facilities, including a steam room, thalassotherapy pool and ‘snow grotto’); and taking afternoon tea in the Wintergarden, while a classical trio serenades us.
For dinner, we go Nordic at The Chef’s Table, turned into Erling’s Scandinavian Bistro for the night. Norwegian specialties are on the menu: reindeer consommé, salmon, fårikål (Norway’s national dish, literally ‘sheep in cabbage’) and cloudberry soup. We’re also delighted by the Italian restaurant, Manfredi’s, with its fresh pasta and traditional seafood. I’m impressed by the attention to detail in The Restaurant, the main dining room, where even the bread basket is arranged to look like a ship. We over-indulge at ‘lobster night’ at the World Café buffet, and get a taste for simple Scandi fare at Mamsen’s deli in the Explorers’ Lounge.
As for entertainment, I am spoilt for choice. TED talks, screenings of the Metropolitan Opera and enriching lectures about Viking culture are all on offer. There are daily ‘Munch Moments’ showcasing the art of expressionist Edvard Munch (he of ‘The Scream’ fame), and a giant outdoor, poolside screen airs new-release movies. You won’t find Vegas-style spectaculars, but you will find the whole Star Theater singing along with Assistant Cruise Director, Ian Young, in his rousing tribute to Elvis.
Fishermen, islands and fjords
In the Lofoten Islands, we get our first taste of life in the Arctic Circle. The stilted, red, wooden cottages – rorbus – circled around bays and watched over by craggy peaks give the archipelago an otherworldly vibe. As I explore the capital of Svolvær, temperatures are nudging 20 degrees Celsius, close to a heatwave in this part of the world.
It’s still warm as we venture to Nordkapp (North Cape) near Honningsvåg. A metal globe at the top of a slate-grey cliff tells us this is the northernmost point of continental Europe, a haunting place to watch the never-setting sun hover over the inky Barents Sea.
From here, our ship journeys back south, docking in Tromsø, home to the northernmost botanical garden and university, and the angular Arctic Cathedral, which draws comparisons to the Sydney Opera House.
This is also the domain of the Sami people, the original inhabitants of Sápmi, which encompasses swathes of Norway and Sweden, northern Finland and Russia’s Murmansk Oblast. Some Sami still live as semi-nomadic reindeer herders, living in teepee-like laavu.
The highlight comes as we sail into Geirangerfjord, the cliffs close enough that I can almost touch them from my stateroom balcony. The water is so calm the mountains are reflected in its sun-dappled surface. We take to the sky to explore the fjords on a heli-tour, mesmerised by the landscape of glacier-carved stone and waterfalls tumbling into luminescent bays. As far as the eye can see, valleys are studded with barns and homesteads, some perched precariously on the edge of the mountains.
“The midnight sun is our companion for four full days, guiding us through Norway’s most awe-inspiring scenery.”
By the time we disembark in Bergen, we have cruised through the finest scenery Scandinavia has to offer, on board a ship designed to showcase the region’s outstanding beauty.
This article originally appeared in volume 31 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.