The ultimate natural cruise destination?

Jon Ingleton reflects on his recent cruise trip to Norway, which was organised by Cruise Norway. Here he shares some of the main highlights

The ultimate natural cruise destination?
Big views of Bergen are accessible from Mount Fløyen, which is reached via the Floibanen Funicular

With bookings for the 2017 cruise season performing strongly and cruise passengers looking forward to new and imaginative shore excursion options, I found some time to reflect on my own tour experiences during a recent visit to Norway.

Ostensibly set up as a preview opportunity for my itinerary planning and shorex travelling companions, the trip provided our affable Norwegian hosts with some instant feedback about the quality and range of tour options available to future cruise passengers. This jog through our journey catalogues the highlights I’d noted at the time and is intended to provide some encouragement for other shorex planners to explore for themselves the noteworthy features of our trip.

Bergen, gateway to the fjords
The Hanseatic commercial dock buildings on the Vågen harbour, collectively known as Tyskebryggen, are one of the most photographed panoramas in the city – every walking tour will incorporate historic tales about this not to be missed UNESCO World Heritage site. But don’t let your guides just walk past the frontage, a wander into the labyrinth of inner streets and passages reveals a much richer passenger experience.

Bergen Aquarium is an established attraction in Bergen comprising more than 60 tanks and three outdoor pools. I anticipated an opportunity to connect with native wildlife and while the space required for porpoises and sea otters prevents this wish from ever being fulfilled, the aquarium has been a popular tour for almost 60 years. Further facility improvements and a more polished conservation story will assure its future success.

The Old Bergen Museum is a cleverly reconstructed town with buildings dating back to the 18th century. A charming street performance brings fictional characters to life, acting out a comical play before inviting you to step inside their character’s re-created store or home. The steep cobbled roads will make access difficult for some passengers who may prefer to get their cultural boost at the Hanseatic or Fisheries museums. For those whose cultural tendencies are enriched by the arts, one or more of the four KODE buildings will feed their passion – Edvard Munch in KODE 3 worked for me.

Big views of Bergen are accessible at either Mount Fløyen, via the Floibanen Funicular or Ulriken on the cable car. Ulriken edges Fløyen in height, but both provide similarly compelling summit activities for all ages and fitness levels, including serene trail walks that belie your proximity to the city centre hustle. The perfect cool down for a tour combination is available back at sea level in the enchanting Magic Ice bar. Groups of up to 100 passengers in thermal suits can marvel at the intricate ice sculptures while supping from an ice glass.

Flåm and Gudvangen
It’s hard to imagine a better way to while away a day in port than sitting outside the Fretheim Historic Hotel supping chilled Vetlebror from the local Ægir Brewery and marvelling at the majestic natural scene in front of you. Unless you’ve arrived via The Flam Railway from Myrdal. Flåm is a magical small port town, small wonder cruise calls have grown exponentially in recent years, and journeying here by Flamsbana is a breathtaking spectacle.

A short coach ride away is Stegastein– one of too-many-to-count staggering viewpoints. Combining this stop with a walk through the bewitching Magic White Caves of Gudvangen will leave cruise passengers in a meditative mood, primed for a trip on Vision of the Fjords – the futuristic winner of the 2016 Ship of the Year at SMM in September. Alternatively you can navigate the fjords under your own power (Gudvangen is also home to a developing Nordic Ventures kayaking base) for a chance encounter with the porpoises and sea otters that you may have missed in Bergen.

Countless other scenic tours can be developed in and around Flåm and there are a number of hotels that can accommodate big groups for lunch or light refreshments including Myrkdalen or the particularly impressive 200-year old Stalheim Hotel that sits in the mountains at the top of the Nærøy Valley. It may have been this valley that later inspired one of our group, David Huidobro from Pullmantur, to remark that “anywhere you go in Norway you will find storied landscapes where it is not difficult to imagine the trolls behind the trees."

Ulvik and Eidfjord
The district of Hardanger, dominated by the Hardangerfjord, boasts a brace of small ports with big characters. Starting out from the Brakanes Hotel, my notes on Ulvik highlighted the fruit and cider route that ended for us at the Hardanger Juice & Cider Factory where large groups can tour and taste the fruits of the fjords. A hectic schedule gave little time to lament our too brief encounter with Ulvik and we set off on the short journey around the Osafjorden to Eidfjord.

Eidfjord packs a really big punch for a village port. Sat at the end of the Eidfjorden the port provides easy access to natural and man-made wonders. Europe’s biggest mountain plateau, Hardangervidda will be a popular tour. This natural wonder contrasts well with stops at two significant man-made structures – the Sysen Dam and the Sima Power Plant which extends over 700 metres into the mountain. An educational visit to the Norwegian Nature Center is an easy local option or a kayak round the end of the fjord isn’t too taxing but delivers a rewarding experience.

We overnighted at the Fossli Hotel, where Edvard Grieg stayed to write Opus 6, the gateway to Vøringfossen and enjoyed another silent wow-moment. Currently under-utilised for shore excursions the hotel is a willing host for big groups and having seen the views and sampled their fresh fjord fare I’m certain of high passenger ratings.

Akrafjorden and Haugesund
The last leg of this Norwegian adventure took us along the Akrafjorden and on to Haugesund. Langfoss waterfall provided the backdrop to another feast, this time at Eljarvik Farm. Tours for small groups can include a history talk about the farm and countryside or a hike to the summit of the falls.

The drama of the landscape recedes as you near Haugesund, but Steinfjellet viewpoint still delivers a compelling vista of the archipelago that skirts the city. Flying visits followed to Arquebus War Museum, Haraldshaugen national monument, Kyvik herring factory and Avaldsnes, a Viking village and visitor centre. Haugesund is a charming location and the variety of attractions and tour combinations available and still to be discovered make this an intriguing and likely profitable port of call. But what is particularly striking here is that you feel immediately welcome and at ease. The city has an easy swagger and we were greeted with warmth and sincerity everywhere we went. Also close by is the traditional municipality of Karmøy which for us featured a stroll around Skudeneshavn – popping into the eccentric Maelandsgarden museum and lunching.

Before settling into our beds for a last night at the Scandic Maritime Hotel it was off for a very special dinner engagement at Røværholmen lighthouse. The journey through islands and reefs by rib boat will thrill adventurous types and the dramatic location for dinner provides the perfect location to end our journey.

Jessica Ashe, product manager shore excursions for Holland America, Seabourn Cruise Line and Princess Cruises summed up our week perfectly. “The Norwegian coast is unsurpassed in its natural beauty,” she said. “The fjords, waterfalls and mountains are jaw dropping and sitting among it all are small idyllic towns and local people who are eager and proud to show visitors the best that their country has to offer.”

Maite Casas Pombo, ground operations manager at Pullmantur, agreed, "an amazing week, with new and great experiences everyday.”

On behalf of the entire group, I would like to thank our Cruise Norway hosts, Sandra Diana Bratland and Marit Karlsen, you put on a great show! Thanks also to the many others tourism professionals who we met on our travels and whose good company enriched our journey.

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By Rebecca
Friday, November 4, 2016