Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Norway's grandeur is unforgettable

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ABOARD THE MIDNATSOL, NORWAY:

The most intrusive noises on this cruise are the gentle flipping of book pages and the murmur of polite conversation. There are no casinos, no Broadway-inspired shows and no raucous drunks belly-flopping into the pools.

In fact, there are no swimming pools.

The entertainment is outside the ship, in the cerulean and emerald of the sea, the views of majestic mountains and, for the lucky, the sight of whales and reindeer. This is a fantasy come true, a seven-day cruise from southern Norway up the western coast up to the North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe. Along the way, the ship crosses the arctic circle. Warm jackets are pulled on, gloves appear and lap blankets are wrapped around those brave enough to sit on the deck, binoculars in hand.

The trip begins in Bergen, a postcard-pretty town filled with brightly coloured wooden houses and known for its fish market. There, giant crab legs on ice sit near jars of king crab meat. Dried fish hangs in flattened shapes and the smell of the sea hangs in the air. Bergen is one of the busiest harbours in Europe.

It's known as the home of composer Edvard Grieg, the man responsible for the music for Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt. His former home and studio, now a museum, is a perfect spot to begin falling in love with Norway's landscape.

Bergen is also home to the Leprosy Museum, a former hospital for lepers, active until the middle of the 20th century. The buildings date back to the 18th century. There's a chill in the air of these old buildings and a sadness that may be imaginary but is still deeply felt. The last patients died there in 1946.

In a much more uplifting tour, tourists and locals can take the Floibanen funicular ride up to the top of Mount Floyen. It's only six or seven minutes to the top (athletes can climb but most of us would be found dead in the woods in the spring) and provides breathtaking views of Bergen.

From Bergen, the cruise begins. The Hurtigruten company offers several options, ranging from seven- to 12-day spring, summer and fall cruises up the coast to voyages to Antarctica. The winter cruises vary in length. What they have in common are comfortable ships with all the amenities one would expect. (Small, attractive cabin? Check. Terrific meals? Check. Comfortable lounges and libraries? Check.)

An inside cabin during the seven-day cruise costs approximately $2,500. The Midnatsol holds 644 passengers.

The differences between this cruise and the raucous Love Boat type are what's not there and not missed. There are no midnight chocolate extravaganzas, just three multi-choice meals a day. Those meals offer, in addition to other choices, the freshest fish you'll ever eat.

As mentioned, there are no swimming pools. For the brave, there are two Jacuzzis on the upper deck. Try sitting in one of those with ice pellets floating down into your hair and you'll know what you're made of. The sauna is a brisk sprint from the warm water.

The ships are still working vessels, hauling cargo as well as transporting residents from one port to the next. For tourists, though, this is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There are numerous ports of call, many of them during the night when the travellers are snug in their cabins. While every onshore excursion is optional, it would be a mistake to travel this far and not take the chance to see a glacier up close, gambol near reindeer and stand, close to tears, looking at fjords that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Possibly the most memorable excursion is the Geiranger panorama, a bus trip through 11 terrifying switchbacks up a mountain. Two buses pass within a centimetre of each other. A guide helpfully points out that this passage is on a list of the 10 most terrifying roads in the world.

At the top, you stand on a viewing platform overlooking what seems to be a postcard brought to life. The mountains are covered with trees with jumbles of tidy houses dotting the shores. This is the image you see on the cover of guidebooks, the one you'll see when you close your eyes and dream of Norway.

The excursion costs roughly $185.

The next morning the ship docks in Trondheim, a student town that's the third-largest in Norway. It burned to the ground in 1681 (and a couple of times after that). Its claim to fame? Actress Liv Ullman grew up here. There are charming little houses and calf-stretching hills. A smart resident designed a bike lift (akin to a ski lift) to transport bicycles and passengers uphill.

St. Olaf's church is a required stop. It's the most photographed site in the city, with a rose window made of 16,000 small pieces of stained glass held together by lead. The church has 10,000 parishioners.

But the coolest detail is that the statue of St. Michael on the church's roof, carved in the 1960s, has Bob Dylan's head. The sculptor was protesting the Vietnam War and thought this was a sneaky way to get his feelings across.

A guided tour of Trondheim is roughly $30.

Back on board, it's a grey and rainy afternoon. The weather is still warm but the fleeces and weatherproof jackets are beginning to appear. The ship soon resembles an Eddie Bauer stockholders' meeting.

The Hurtigruten line appeals to a specific market, says marketing director Jennifer Rosen. They tend to be 55-plus, experienced travellers, well-educated and interested in soft adventure. On this cruise line, that may include excursions for snowmobiling, dogsledding or bobbing in the sea wearing a survival suit.

Only nine per cent of passengers are North American. Half are German.

The following day there's an optional glacier tour. It involves a lengthy boat ride, a bus ride and a gawk across a lake at a glacier. At $160 you'd be better off catching up with your reading on board.

The ship crosses the Arctic Circle early one morning. Passengers have been invited to submit guesses of the actual time. The next morning, King Neptune "baptizes" the two winners by ladling ice water down their backs. Inexplicably, other passengers line up for the ritual, soaking their woollies in the process.

In Tromso, New Zealand guide Josh Bayes offers insights into what has been called "The Paris of the North." It, too, is picture-perfect, with sailboats dotting the harbour. In the 1820s this was a base for hunting polar animals. There are some 155 nationalities represented in Tromso, including a significant number of Sami, the indigenous people of Norway.

Bayes' father-in-law is a sea hunter, capturing whales and seals. He takes visitors to what Lonely Planet once voted the Most Bad Taste Museum, filled with walrus hides, sea teeth and all manner of bric-a-brac designed to drive a PETA member to the brink. It's a $65 tour.

The final tour of note is to the North Cape. Even the most jaded will consider buying a T-shirt with the latitude printed on it. You're at the top of the (European) world here, above the tree line and in a place relatively few people visit.

Reindeer run freely alongside the road. The Gulf Stream current prevents the water from freezing and, even as hats are pulled on, it runs clear. The northernmost beach in Europe, a tiny spit of sand, has been dubbed the Copacabana by locals. The water is a fairly consistent six degrees.

(A historical note: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was female. Male reindeer don't have antlers in winter).

It's barren but so beautiful. The roads are closed in the winter but buses, following a snowplow, can still get through. From roughly mid-November to the end on January the sun doesn't shine here.

There is a silence and a stillness here that will comfort the most harried soul.

The trip ends in Oslo, the capital. Most people book a couple of days before flying home. That's not enough time to do anything but sample the city.

An essential is a trip to the Nobel Peace Centre, a tremendously moving collection of artwork and displays of previous winners of the prestigious international prize, their beliefs and the continued need to fight against injustice.

It's almost required you visit either the Munch Museum or the National Museum for a first-hand look at The Scream. The purchase of a keychain is optional.

You'd probably be as content sitting in a café, looking at the water and sitting with a glass of wine. You can shop, but the prices in Norway are so high (the minimum wage there is roughly $24 an hour) that you'll have to content yourself with the smallest of souvenirs.

Mostly, you'll bring home photographs and memories of a country with such beauty and grandeur it seems impossible to believe.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 25, 2010 E1

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