Northern Exposure 9-15-2005

A Norwegian coastal voyage

By: Judy Koutsky

I expected the roof of Europe to be cold. After all, this is the Arctic Circle, and the world’s northernmost city, Hammer-fest, is a stone’s throw away. I was in the North Cape of Norway overlooking the Arctic Ocean. The scenery is beautiful: rolling hills and jagged mountains, polished by glaciers jutting into hundreds of fjords lining Norway’s coast.

Norwegian Coastal Voyage offers trips here year-round. The fleet of 12 ships journey up and down Norway’s coast rain or shine, sun or darkness. My six-day southbound trip aboard the MS Nordkapp took me from Kirkenes to Bergen.

I made the trip during the summer, the season known as the “land of the midnight sun.” The long days of sunlight physically and emotionally warm the scenery, and it’s hard to complain when it’s a bright, sunny day. While the summer is a beautiful time to visit the weather is warm, the wild flowers are in bloom and the reindeer are easy to spot winter offers the special magic of the Northern Lights.

Norway boasts one of the highest standards of living in Europe, and yet this country is not well known to Americans. It is the world’s third top oil-producing nation, which means its unemployment is low (less than 3 percent) and its social services high. It is also an eco-traveler’s dream, with miles of hiking, biking and kayaking opportunities.

Aboard the MS Nordkapp, the scenery is the entertainment. The Panorama Lounge is always packed with travelers Germans, Americans, Norwegians, Italians enjoying a cup of coffee or a glass of wine as the ship slowly passes small hillside towns, Sami villages (the indigenous people of Norway) and coastal fishing areas. Hundreds of islands and fjords of all sizes became a familiar sight.

The unique, authentic Norwegian experience has made Norwegian Coastal Voyage the cruise line of choice for many travelers. All ships are registered in Norway and have a Norwegian crew. The line stays true to its original vision, which was to carry local residents and cargo along Norway’s west coast.

Even today, more than 100 years after the first vessel made its journey, the line is still a popular means of regional transportation. There are 34 ports of call on each itinerary, although the stops vary in length. Sometimes, the port call consisted of a 10-minute layover to collect cargo in the middle of the night.

As an avid people watcher, it wa s nice to see Norwegian families, complete with baby carriages and picnic hampers, onboard for a day excursion. The MS Nordkapp was small enough to navigate many of the fjords in the region, as well as cross some of the narrow straights between the islands and the coasts.

One of the things I enjoyed most: NCLV offers a range of excursions designed to maximize the interaction with nature and Norwegian life. Those excursions included a riverboat safari to the Russian border (we were a stone’s throw from Russian land), visits to the world’s northernmost medieval church, stops at fishing villages and historic towns, boat trips to view the glaciers up close, bird-watching tours, museum and art-gallery tours and visits to the indigenous Sami people.

When we weren’t taking excursions or absorbed in scenery-watching, we had time to explore the rest of the ship. The vessel featured a sauna and gym, conference rooms that hold up to 70 people, a library with books in Norwegian and English, a bar with a broad selection of wines and beers, a cafe for snacks and water, gift shop, nursery and laundromat.

The dining room offered buffets for breakfast and lunch. We had our choice of Norwegian specialties, such as salmon, herring, stews, cold cuts, salads, soup, vegetables and an array of hot dishes. Dinner is a sit-down affair at an assigned table. Guests sign up for the 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. seating. The dinner menu changes each night, and includes soup, entree (such as chicken, venison or salmon) and dessert. Water and coffee are included, but soft drinks and spirits cost extra.

The dining room is where I got to know my fellow passengers. At lunch one day, a German couple explained how they love the beauty of Norway, the fjords, the open wilderness and the stark scenery. Many Germans cruise along the coast for a week, and then spend more time in Oslo and the South.

This was the first cruise I’ve taken where Americans aren’t the majority, and I must say that I enjoyed it. Germans, Norwegians and other nationalities make up a large percentage of the ship’s passengers.

Norway, I discovered, is a popular destination among Europeans, and Americans should take note.

Norwegian Coastal Voyage

Vessel: MS Nordkapp
Year Built: 1996
Passenger Capacity: 490
Itineraries: Three different itineraries: 12-day roundtrip voyage from Bergen to Bergen, seven-day northbound from Bergen to Kirkenes and six-day southbound from Kirkenes to Bergen.
Commission: Starts at 10 percent, but may be increased, depending on the package (cruise and land packages are available).