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See the fantastic fjords and learn about victorious vikings in Norway
5:02pm Tuesday 13th August 2013 in Travel
IT was almost like witnessing a conversation in morse code, writes Tony Collins.
The flashes of cameras coming from our ship as we cruised the northern-most part of the Norwegian fjords was matched by the same determined photographers perched on top of the North Cape Plateau more than a thousand feet above us.
But what made this exchange of 'signals' particularly memorable as we passed Europe's most northerly point was that it was still broad daylight at midnight, despite the gloom of the clouds picking out the camera flashes high above our heads.
The visit to the North Cape was just one of the highlights of the two-week Crossing the Arctic Circle cruise which we did with Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines.
Sailing from Southampton, the 43,500 ton MS Balmoral cruised the majestic Norwegian fjords, calling in at the ports of several picturesque towns and cities along the Norway coastline.
And, apart from the obvious attractions of cruising holidays, a visit to this part of the world on board a ship has one added advantage. With average salaries in Norway running at around £48,000, the subsequent cost of living makes buying drinks in the Balmoral's restaurants or bars a much more attractive proposition.
The North Cape Plateau which, for the scientifically minded is at the northern latitude of 71 degrees 10' 21", is accessed from Honningsvag, a small fishing port described as the world's most northerly village.
Discovered by English explorer Richard Chancellor in 1553 while searching for a north East passage to China, it saw its first group of tourists in the 1920s when Thomas Cook chartered a ship with 24 travellers.
They had to scale the 1,000ft cliff by rope, but the journey has been made easier since the first North Cape road was opening in 1956, taking tourists through a reindeer-filled landscape.
This was the roughly halfway point in our Norwegian fjords cruise, having sailed from Southampton six days earlier.
We had seen an end to sunrises and sunsets a day earlier due to how far north we had sailed, crossing the Arctic Circle which is symbolically marked by a globe sculpture erected on one of the many small islands that we passed during our cruise.
And it is indeed a special sight when you step outside onto the deck of the ship to see the sun still shining well after midnight.
It is tempting to spend all your time out on deck as you pass through the magnificent fjords, with the 1,350 passenger Balmoral able to get where larger cruise ships cannot.
Tall mountain ranges, some still topped with snow in late June, are complemented by thick forests, and small communities nestled beneath close to the shore.
As delicious as the food on offer in the restaurants was, it was often a struggle to drag yourself away from such passing views.
It was a little while before we reached such splendid sights, but it turned out to be well worth the wait.
It was two days before we reached our first Norwegian port, which was the scenic port of Molde, renowned for its roses and jazz.
The town also boasts the Romsdal Outdoor Museum, comprising more than 40 buildings that illustrate the community's development from the Viking era to the end of the 19th century.
But the inevitable days at sea also give you an ideal opportunity to sample what the Balmoral, originally built in 1988 and extended 20 years later, has to offer. A splendid entertainments programme is complemented by a raft of mainly daytime activities from carpet bowls and golf putting to bridge and dance classes.
And there are also interesting guest lectures or a visit to either the spa or fitness centre.
After such a day at sea, which also offered the chance to enjoy the sun, we were in Tromso which, thanks to the optional shore excursions available, afforded us the opportunity to visit a native Sami camp and a wilderness centre where 130 Alaskan huskies train as sled dogs.
The Sami, also known as Laplanders, remains a thriving modern culture in modern oil-rich Norway, with their language freely taught in schools.
Tromso is said to be the best place to see the famous Northern Lights, but they are only visible in the winter when this part of Norway remains in total darkness from November 21 to January 21.
On that day, the pitch blackness is broken for just 10 minutes, with the locals - who also have to contend with snow for nine months of the year - celebrating with a party.
Happily, there are more ports to see on the way back from the North Cape during our journey of 3,451 nautical miles.
The stop at Leknes provided another highlight of the whole cruise, with a visit to the amazing Lofotr Viking Museum, an 83 metre long reconstructed chieftain's house built next to the site of an ancient Viking farm dug up in the early 1980s.
From there, it was on to the beautiful art nouveau town of Allesund which has been completely rebuilt following a fire in 1904. Nearby are the island communities of Giske and Godoy, which are connected by sub-sea tunnels nearly 150 metres below the water.
A short cruise then brought us to Bergen, Norway's second largest city and the capital of the Norwegian fjords. A funicular railway offers breath-taking views of the city, from Mount Floien, while the historic Bryggen Wharf has been lovingly restored.
Sadly, our final stop saw the ship arrive at Stavanger, where we transferred to another much smaller vessel for a close-up view of the beautiful Lysefjord, including waterfalls and the dominating Pulpit Rock more than 500 metres above sea level.
FACTBOX: This cruise, L1307, ‘Crossing the Arctic Circle’, was aboard Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ 1,350-guest ship, Balmoral, departing from Southampton on 18th June 2013 for 14 nights, visiting Ǻlesund, Tromsø, Honningsvǻg (North Cape), Leknes (Lofoten Islands), Molde, Bergen, and Stavanger (all Norway), before returning to Southampton.
A similar itinerary in 2014 is Balmoral’s L1410, a cruise of 14 nights, which departs from Southampton on 27th July 2014. This cruise, ‘Journey to the North Cape’, visits Olden, Leknes (Lofoten Islands), Tromsø, Honningsvǻg (North Cape), Ǻlesund and Bergen (all Norway), before returning to Southampton.
Prices for this cruise – with limited availability – start from £1,299 per person, based on two adults sharing an inside, twin-bedded cabin, Grade ‘I’, and include all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.
For further information on Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website at www.fredolsencruises.com.
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