Next year Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ flagship vessel, the Marco Polo, will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. There is something undeniably comforting about this. In an era when cruise lines boast of their younger fleets, it’s refreshing to highlight such vintage. Given that the ship’s operator is at record capacity for next year’s sailings, it’s a strategy that is paying off.
The ship, which holds a maximum of 800 passengers, sailed under the name Alexandr Pushkin in a previous life, servicing clientele from the USSR. It’s this connection with the so-called golden age of cruising that makes it so popular amongst cruise lovers today: you’ll often hear it said that the Marco Polo is a real ship.
For our cruise, we sail north from London Tilbury to the Norwegian fjords. The voyage is heralded as an iconic sailing for a number of reasons, primarily because of the stunning scenery for which the fjords are renowned but also because passengers can do exactly what we’re doing and board the ship without leaving the UK.
The lure of the Norway – and northern Europe in general – has proved popular across the UK cruise market. According to statistics from CLIA UK and Ireland, cruises to the region will overtake the Mediterranean if the trend continues. Considering the history of the Mediterranean, and the ports that lie on its waters, that’s a startling statistic.
The voyage departs Tilbury in blazing sunshine and we toast the forthcoming journey with a cold beer out on deck. If there is a better feeling than this then I am yet to experience it.
The eight-night itinerary will see the Marco Polo travel to distant sounding lands with names like Fjaerland and Balestrand. It sounds more like travelling back to the land of the Vikings than hopping across the North Sea. The feeling is helped by the whole day and night we spend on the ocean before arriving at our first destination. When we wake up we are in a scene taken straight from a film. Eidfjord is breathtaking. Google it and you will see why. But be warned, no images can possibly compare to seeing it in person. The colossal green landscape dwarfs everything in sight. Our ship looks like a child’s model in a giant bathtub. You can see why myths about trolls are prevalent in the area.
While there we visit the Fossli hotel, which was built over 100 years ago and is still ran by the same family today. Sitting precariously on the edge of Hardangerfjord, the views from the window are stunning: crashing waterfalls, dramatic gorges and deep valleys.
Until relatively recently, these areas were only accessible by ship. While there are now roads connecting the small settlements that are dotted along the side of the fjord, the water is still the lifeblood of the country.
The fjords are without crowded cities, stifling commutes and suffocating congestion: you can almost feel yourself growing healthier with every intake of Norwegian air. And it persists throughout our journey as the Marco Polo weaves delicately through the meandering fjords.
We are treated to a steep mountain train ride in Flåm, our second stop, which is capped off with a visit to Aegir brewery where we meet Chris, the manager. He serves us a selection of the company’s award-winning beers (including a delicious IPA) that are so good we decide to stay behind for a couple.
The prices are almost as steep as the mountain we’ve just scaled. We had been warned about the high prices beforehand, but had been sheltered by the prices onboard the Marco Polo. Of course, it’s another of the major selling points of a Norwegian cruise – enjoy the beautiful country without paying £10 for a pint of beer.
The next day was something truly special: the Bøyabreen glacier at Fjaerland. The area hosts one of only two glacier museums in the world – the other being in Switzerland. The frozen river of ice that looms over the mountain is a majestic sight, but the message at the Glacier Museum is a stark one: if environmental concerns are not properly addressed, the glaciers will eventually melt completely.
Our final stop in the fjords is also our farthest northerly port: Olden. The scenery for our entire journey has been consistently spectacular. In just a few days we’ve taken in some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world, travelling hundreds of miles. It’s perhaps the key attraction of cruises: the Marco Polo has delivered us to these most inaccessible Norwegian towns. We have essentially checked into a hotel that has taken us to where we want to be.
Olden is arguably the most stunning location on our whole itinerary. The Briksdal glacier is often cited as one of the most reachable plains of ice in the world. We take a tour of the surrounding national park in a golf buggy that whizzes past cascading waterfalls and dizzying drops. When we eventually reach a lagoon, the ice itself – an arm of Jostedalsbreen glacier – is just a few metres away. Unsurprisingly, the water itself is ice cold and we decline our guide’s invitation to take a swim. We are told that some of the fjords are as deep as the mountains are high.
Bergen, our next and final stop in Norway, is the visit that I have been most looking forward to. Known colloquially as the gateway to the fjords, the city is much more than that. Considering it’s the second biggest city in Norway, Bergen is still remarkably small with a population of around 250,000. However, given that for the last week we’ve been used to tiny villages and settlements on the side of vast hillsides, it feels bigger than London.
Bergen has a thriving tourism economy yet step one or two streets away from the throngs of the crowds and it feels like a totally different place. Cafes, record stores and trendy boutiques tell of a city that boasts Norwegian cool. It’s small enough to explore by foot, too, which is how we managed to get our bearings.
A visit up the mountain is a must and takes a matter of minutes with the Bergen funicular. The views from the top are unbelievable and give a great perspective of the entire city.
And, with that, it’s time to head home. No expensive transfers or airport check-in queues – just another day at sea, a good book and a cold beer. Not a bad way to end a holiday.