Anthony Pearce takes an ex-UK cruise from Tilbury to the spectacular islands and inlets of the west coast of Norway with Cruise & Maritime Voyages as part of our no-fly cruise special
To those who turn their nose up at a cruise, Norway is the answer. The complex, narrow network of 1,200 fjords that weave into the country’s west coast, cannot truly be enjoyed in any other way. Roads may exist where 20 years ago they did not, but exploring this region by car, although technically possible, would take considerably longer and reveal a fraction of the amount.
Just a few days ago, I left London, boarded the 1,250-guest Magellan, sailed down the Thames and crossed the heavy North Sea. Now, outside my window is the most majestic of sights: an empty, silent fjord, its banks, just metres from the ship, reaching into the sky and disappearing into mist.
There’s something special about sailing from the UK. It harks back to a golden age of travel, meaning your holiday feels less like a quick getaway and more like an extended adventure, although one with spa treatments and afternoon tea. It’s something Cruise & Maritime Voyages launched to do and has stuck by, even as it expands to launch Columbus; at 1,400 guests, it is the line’s largest ship yet.
Sailing from 11 regional UK ports, including London Tilbury, where we departed from, Newcastle and Bristol, the line attracts a British audience who, for a range of reasons, want to avoid airports. The company targets and attracts an older crowd, unashamedly chasing the traditional cruise market: the over 60s. Why not? There are now 15 million people aged 60 and above in the UK – and, with early access to pension pots, they have more money than ever. But I would defy anyone, of any age, not to enjoy a cruise to the fjords.
Our first stop is in Bergen, a historic port city and the gateway to the fjords. A quick tour gives us a chance to learn more about the 62 colourful wooden buildings of Bryggen, the city’s old wharf, a Unesco World Heritage site, perhaps best known as the inspiration for Disney’s Frozen. The site dates back to the 14th century, although fires, the latest in 1955, have ravaged the area. The rebuilding has traditionally followed age-old patterns and back-breaking methods, allowing it to retain its charm.
Although this is the most famous part of the city, there’s plenty to see and do: this is a place that defines Nordic cool – there are tons of great record, design and clothes shops – which is fortunate, because before there’s time to linger at the waterfront, the heavens open, and we’re forced to take shelter in a nearby coffee shop, where a bearded barista serves us an (exceedingly expensive) flat white.
The Atlantic Highway
It’s an introduction to two things: just how temperamental Norwegian weather is (if it’s sun you’re after, you’re in the wrong place) and the fact that everything is incredibly pricey (and it was even before the pound took a nose dive). It’s another benefit of taking a cruise to the region: with all meals on board included, and drinks at a very reasonable price (especially if you take advantage of the £17 per person, per day drinks package), you’re sheltered from this – unless you want to eat and drink ashore. In Bergen, we decline, after a little deliberation, to pay £20 for a whale sandwich – as intriguing as it sounds.
The next day, we arrive in Molde and take a coach to the Vardestua Cafe, which overlooks the Romsdalsfjord, and offers some of the best views in the region, a staggering 222 peaks outside its window (although, today, a particularly heavy fog all but obscures them). From there, we head to the Atlantic Road, a highway that connects the archipelago to the north of Molde, leaving the ship behind, which sails onto Åndalsnes.
Taking a viking ship to the island of Håholmen
The area, part of the Fræna municipality in Møre og Romsdal county, is the definition of remote: we take a longship-style boat across to Håholmen, a 10-acre island that faces out to the vast Norwegian sea. It feels like the edge of the world. In a wood-panelled, grass-roofed hut, we enjoy a warming fish broth, that’s as pure and invigorating as the clean coastal air.
That afternoon, we head to Åndalsnes to join the Rauma Line train, taking it up to Dombås, past waterfalls, towering mountains and alpine forests, easily justifying its reputation as one of Europe’s best rail journeys. On the coach journey back, there’s even time to stop at Kylling Bridge and Vermafossen waterfall. It’s beautiful enough to be a major tourist attraction, but we have it to ourselves. Overwhelmed by beauty and a little exhausted, we return to the ship, to continue the now daily ritual of eating all seven courses at dinner. The food, is excellent and plentiful – a mix of wholesome British classics and more exotic cuisines, with Greek night a particular highlight.
The next morning we open our cabin windows to reveal Gerainger, the most recognisable and, perhaps, most beautiful fjord in the world. We’re up early and it’s worth it – for the first time the fog lifts and we’re treated to the most spectacular views. It’s the first time we’ve shared a fjord with another ship, but, after a five-minute drive, we’re virtually alone again, watching the warm morning sun crack through the clouds onto the famous concave banks.
It’s not just the geography of Gerainger and the wider region that astounds: hearing about how these small communities survive, battling harsh and uncompromising terrain, is equally as fascinating. The sense of togetherness is palpable: with fewer than 150 people living here, everyone must chip in. Our tour guide tells us that one day the steep, heavy banks that line the fjord will crash into the water, creating a tidal wave, likely wiping out the village and all those live there. The thought of moving away, however, is beyond the question.
As our host jokes that in Norway they can’t guarantee good weather, but they can guarantee weather (all conditions within a single day), the sun fades and hail begins, as if commanded.
The next day we visit and are told the story of Fossli Hotel, built in 1891, at the end of the Hardangerfjord, which overlooks one of the highest waterfalls in Europe: the stunning Vøringsfoss, the water tumbling over its crest but disappearing into rising mist. The hotel where Edvard Grieg, the Norwegian composer and pianist, wrote his Opus 66, having trekked miles up the mountain in poor health, long before a road was built. At the nearby Hardangervidda Nature Centre, we’re treated to lessons in glaciology and wildlife and a plate of homemade Norwegian waffles.
It’s a reminder that, weather aside, a cruise to Norway has it all: history, culture, cuisine, breathtaking scenery – and the most relaxing journey home.