Cruising Norway and the Arctic - July 2011

Sandy and Mike have sailed the Baltics before (in the summer of 2010 most recently), but haven't ever gone much further north. This cruise on the Crystal Serenity visits some of the Norwegian Fjords and coastal villages, and then heads up towards the North Pole. Barrow is the most northern point in Alaska, and on this trip, Mike and Sandy were over 600 miles farther north than Barrow! This "top of the world looking down" map shows the ship's gneral route in red, with some detail of the Norwegian coastline shown on the second picture.

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We boarded the ship in Copenhagen, a popular starting point for cruises in this region. Since we were there just a year ago, we skipped the tours and sightseeing, and just caught up on our sleep before our "Above the Artic Circle" adventure began.

Heading up the west coast of Norway, the first port of call is at the Geiranger Fjord. This is Norway's largest fjord, and one of the most frequently visited. (There were 3 other cruise ships there the same day we were.) The fjords are an awesome sight - deep and steep carved canyons, heading miles inland from the sea.....with towns and farms out close to the ocean end, and huge waterfalls plus some snow and ice at the "back" end. (Of course in the winter, "some" changes to "tons.") A few pictures provide a glimpse, but hardly do it justice - this is the fjord from its entrance at the sea, from the top of the mountain at its end (yes, that's our cruise ship down there), in the mountain valleys past the water, and some of sights along its length.

The weather cooperated very well at Geiranger, but as we headed further north, it got cold and windy. The North Cape is the northern-most part of Europe, and we call at the little town of Honningsvag, near by. Here we are not far from the Russian border, although our itinerary doesn't take us into Russian waters. The little town of Honningsvag is quaint, and the North Cape itself is on a high bluff about 1000 feet above the water. Although the North Cape is way out in the middle of no where, almost a quarter of a million tourists stop by here every summer, where the sun shines 24 hours a day from mid May through the end of July.

Here's an overview of the town's harbor, Sandy and the local troll, some reindeer in a field, the big globe at the tip of the North Cape, the domed visitor center, and the visitor center as seen from the ocean below as we passed it hours later.

Now we really get our coats and wool hats out, as the ship turns north-west, aiming for the North Pole. (We don't expect to actually reach the Pole, as even in July, the warmest month, the ice pack is too thick -- previous cruisers on this itinerary have reported they got within 400 to 500 miles of the Pole before being forced by the ice to turn back. We hope to see some Polar Bears while on this part of the trip, but they are apparently rather reclusive, and not prone to rear up on the ice and wave at passing tourists.

In our case, we never got to see the ice pack, although we tried -- just as we reached the area where hunks of ice were starting to be seen, really, really dense fog set in, and after several hours, the captain decided "safety first," and turned out ship around. This picture is from the GPS plotter, showing our location (we turned around at 81 degrees north latitude -- way further north than the most-northerly point in Alaska -- and some of the glaciers on islands we passed nearby.

The island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard region, is administratively part of Norway, but its position so far north of the "mainland" makes it pretty independent. Originally settled for hunting and coal mining, tourism is also now a major industry. The ship called at Longyearbyen (Long Year City), named after John Longyear, an American who established the first coal mining company.

This was our coldest stop of the trip, with the high of the day being below freezing (but at least it wasn't raining!) This is the little town's "main street," its surprisingly nice museum (where Sandy encountered a polar bear), their shopping center, and industrial/coal shipping area.

Now once again seeking a bit warmer weather, the ship turns south for a couple of days at sea, cruising the Norwegian sea and the North Atlantic.

Alesund is our next port, back down on the Norway coast, actually not too far from our first fjord vist at Geiranger. Alesund has interesting architecture, mainly because the entire town burned down in 1904, and was rebuilt all at one time in the then-popular art nouveau style. We visited two small islands nearby to get a feel for how people live "out in the country." The pictures show an overview of the town, and some scenes on our travels (including visiting a country church and cemetery with a fellow traveler from Canada).

Next port was Skjolden, up at the end of Sognefjord, another one of the big fjords -- this one the longest navigatible fjord in the world. At the little town of Skjolden, we were over 150 miles inland from the ocean, and were greeted by a little band from the local school. Our excursion there took us way up in the mountains beyond the fjord to visit Jotunheimen National Park - amazing scenery, glaciers, waterfalls, being above the clouds, etc.

Our last stop in Norway was Bergen, the country's second largest city, although still a charming seaside town (population is only about 250,000). This is the largest cruise ship port in Norway (yes, more ships call here than at Oslo). We took the leisurely way to sightseeing, with a tour of the royal hall (built in 1261) used by the King of Norway when he is in Bergen, a stroll along the historic waterfront, and a ride on the funicular, which whisks tourists and residents alike to the top of a mountain overlooking the city. In Bergen, even the manhole covers are fancy!

The Crystal Serenity is a great ship, carries about 1000 passengers, offers service and food expected on a smaller luxury yacht, but with entertainment and activities you'd find at a Vegas resort or on a mega-ship. Hence its rather high prices - we don't take many trips on Crystal, usually just when there's a special reason, as we find Holland America usually offers 90 percent of the luxury for 50-60 percent of the price. Still, Crystal is very nice, and is hard to beat when you'd like to splurge and be pampered -- they've been rated best luxury cruise ships in the world. The crew and service are flawless, and the onboard speakers, entertainment, etc. are first-rate. We had one of the ship's officers at our table (lots of free wine!), ate too much, and enjoyed the personalities (including a polar bear) on board.

As the trip wound down, it headed south across the North Sea (past LOTS of oil platforms -- too bad our politicians can't figure out how we could use more of our own oil), and towards our disembarkation at Dover, England. There, Crystal's bus took us up to Heathrow airport, and off we flew home (thanks, United -- we appreciated the upgrades!).