James Litston joins Viking in search of the midnight sun on a sailing to the Norwegian fjords
Not for nothing are Norway’s fjords a bucket-list cruise destination. The country’s indented coastline, deeply scarred by ice-carved inlets, is unspoiled, thinly populated and best discovered by ship – so it’s just as well that I’m here to embark on an epic at-sea adventure. I’m in the celebrated Hanseatic port city of Bergen where, rather appropriately, I’m just about to step aboard Viking Sea.
With its Scandinavian styling and homegrown Norwegian heritage, Viking Cruises is the most fitting choice for clients keen to discover the fjords. The company has six ocean ships, all of which offer the same layout, facilities and number of staterooms. I’ve chosen this sailing on Viking Sea as it combines the fjords with Scotland, which means I only need a one-way flight from the UK. Itinerary highlights include the Orkney, Shetland and Lofoten Islands, plus a foray into the Arctic Circle – all hard-to-reach places that promise to make this a genuine voyage of discovery.
First up, though, the ship is spending a night docked right here in Bergen, so once I’ve settled into my stateroom there’s plenty of time to explore the town. Shuttle buses are provided, but I opt for the easy, 10-minute stroll down the harbour to the colourful Bryggen neighbourhood. This colourful district of wooden warehouses is filled with shops selling artworks, crafts, Scandi design and patterned Norwegian knitwear.
I wander Bryggen’s cobbled lanes of prettily painted clapboard homes, then find my way back to the waterfront for a browse of the farmers’ market. The stalls of local delicacies include seasonal berries and reindeer sausage, although I’m not sure how I feel about the platters of fresh whale steak.
Bergen is a popular departure point for Norwegian cruises as it’s a convenient gateway to the region’s Viking history, gorgeous scenery and charming ports of call that mesmerise both under the midnight sun or dancing northern lights. Though Hurtigruten sails year-round, Viking (like most other lines) offers Norway itineraries in the summer, when round-the-clock daylight and gentler temperatures lend themselves to exploring.
We set sail on our Into the Midnight Sun itinerary next evening, soon leaving the city behind and heading out among scattered isles. A pod of porpoises surfacing alongside the ship seems a good omen for the coming days and certainly provides a talking point for those lucky enough to have spied them.
After supper, I relocate to the Explorers’ Lounge high above the ship’s prow to enjoy a bird’s-eye panorama of the surrounding scenery. It’s an extraordinary experience. We sail through a long, narrow passage that seems barely wide enough to accommodate the ship, passing almost within touching distance of sheer, smooth rock faces dotted with patches of moss. Scattered here and there are summer cabins and isolated farms. It’s 10pm and the sun is still some way from the horizon; the evenings will get brighter still as we journey steadily north.
Following advice provided in the onboard Viking Daily newsletter, I get up super-early next morning to catch the scenic sailing into Geirangerfjord. It’s certainly worth the 6am alarm call. This Unesco-listed landscape – carved by the unstoppable power of moving ice – is all towering cliffs decorated with waterfalls and topped with forests of pine.
We drop anchor at the head of the fjord and walk ashore via a floating pontoon. As with most ports of call, Viking operates complementary sightseeing excursions that tick off the signature sights from the comfort of a coach. Seeking something more active, I sign up for a Nordic hiking excursion and join a group for the trek up through meadows to a mountain viewpoint. The view is spectacular and I note that Viking Sea – all 47,800 tonnes of it – is dwarfed by the magnificent scenery. No wonder this is considered among Norway’s most beautiful fjords.
Back on board later on, I compensate for the early start by treating myself to an afternoon nap in the comfort of my stateroom. Its restful palette of blues, browns and greys reflects the colours of earth and ocean, while blackout blinds ensure a decent sleep whatever the hour. The décor throughout Viking’s fleet is identical, so clients can expect the same Scandi style and only outward-facing rooms on each of Viking’s ocean-going ships.
There’s more good design in the public areas, especially in the Explorers’ Lounge where reindeer hides are complemented by cushions in warm tones of berries and bracken. Both here and downstairs in the Living Room are reproduction artefacts that celebrate Viking heritage, while original art (mostly by Norwegian artists), woven blankets in the Wintergarden and smart tableware from quality German and Scandinavian brands add a contemporary air.
The brand’s Scandinavian heritage is also evident in Mamsen’s, a Norwegian deli serving pickled herring and freshly baked cinnamon buns. Elsewhere onboard, I snack on Swedish shrimp and smoked salmon sandwiches, or take long, al-fresco lunches on the Aquavit Terrace extension of the buffet restaurant. According to Neil Barclay, Viking UK’s head of sales, this is one of the brand’s key selling points. “Our ocean ships are rich in outside spaces and open-air dining, and the light and airy lounges lend a Scandi-style, home-from-home feel,” he says.
“Our Into the Midnight Sun itinerary ticks many boxes on customers’ wish-lists, from rugged mountains and magnificent fjords to some interesting towns and cities. It’s a good switch-sell for customers who have already sailed to the Baltic or Alaska, or who have seen the northern lights and want to experience these landscapes at a different time of year.”
Continuing north, we reach the Lofoten Islands – an archipelago linked by bridges – and spend a morning spotting sea eagles soaring above their domain. Here, well into the Arctic Circle, the daylight is perpetual. Even at night, the world is fixed in permanent sunset with flaming skies that refuse to dim, making the scenery magically ethereal. It’s incredibly special to behold – a genuine bucket-list moment. Other guests are equally enthralled. Many of us stay up late, walking the decks and taking photographs… although I sure am glad of those blackout blinds when it’s finally time for bed!
There’s more of an Arctic feel when we arrive next morning in Tromsø, a lively city surrounded by snowy mountains that are clearly yet to feel summer’s embrace. Considered the gateway to the Arctic, central Tromsø feels like a frontier town with an edge-of-the-world, polar atmosphere. Its old, wooden houses and peak-roofed cathedral make for interesting exploring, but I’m glad to get back to cosy Viking Sea to escape the chill.
From here, the ship will sail further north and into the Barents Sea before making the crossing to the Shetlands and Orkneys and on towards Edinburgh and London. I’m looking forward to the next part of the journey for its promise of spotting puffins, whales and ever more gorgeous scenery. It’s the perfect combination of wildlife and wonder – and all the more enjoyable for being experienced in Nordic style.