There's something very appealing about sailing to a country famed for its Viking seafaring heritage in a freshly christened, 21st-century cruise ship. Holland America Line claims a century and a half of its own maritime history, and its newest ship, MS Koningsdam, is setting off from Amsterdam for its first cruise in the Norwegian Fjords.
It's grey and drizzly as we head into the North Sea but the ship is alive and bright with activity. The 2650-passenger Koningsdam is HAL's first Pinnacle-class ship and its style and features are both breaking with the line's traditions and referencing them. A musical theme runs through it, from artworks to passenger deck names (Beethoven, Gershwin, Mozart, Schubert), the sinuous lines of the Music Walk and the curving harp-string "ribs" in the two-deck dining room. I thought they represented whalebones but never mind, the overall effect is light, spacious and elegant – and the food there is pretty good too.
Dining is done exceedingly well on this ship. New to the line are the Grand Dutch Cafe, where you pay for specialty coffees, teas and alcoholic tipples but eat delicious Dutch savoury snacks and sweet treats for free; French brasserie Sel de Mer, which really does serve a catch of the day (it's displayed on ice); and the poolside New York Deli and Pizza. HAL's signature specialty restaurant Pinnacle Grill is onboard, along with Canaletto, Tamarind and an attractively updated Lido Market buffet.
By the time we enter the magnificent Sognefjord, there has been time to sample several restaurants and bars, catch a joyful session of BB King's All Stars and listen to an engaging talk about Norway by regular lecturer Ian Page. We disembark at the tiny port of Flam fully charged with facts that Page has imparted, such as Sognefjord being Norway's longest fjord and the country being covered by more than 1600 glaciers.
Flam means "little place between steep mountains" but it might have to change its name to "most visited little place by cruise ship". Thousands of visitors flood the town in summer with the main aim of boarding the Flamsbana Railway Line, one of the steepest in the world. It's also one of the most spectacular, so breathe in and join the crowds.
The 60-minute ride takes you through some astoundingly beautiful scenery on its corkscrew route to Myrdal. passing craggy snow-capped mountains, deep glacial valleys, verdant pastures and dramatic waterfalls at a pleasantly slow pace. The train stops at stations to allow photo opportunities; at Kjosfossen we are regaled by slightly scratchy folk music booming over the mountains and the sight of a woman in red dancing in the mist of the thundering waterfall. She represents a "huldra", a seductive forest nymph in Scandinavian folklore – and OK, she's actually a dance student wearing a long blonde wig but the scene looks wonderful in our holiday snaps.
Cameras get another workout as Koningsdam sails into Stavanger, where traditional wooden warehouses ring the harbour. Norway's fourth-largest city is an intriguing mix of old and new; it's a short walk from the 12th-century cathedral to the ultra-modern Petroleum Museum, built in 1999 as a monument to the country's oil riches. Gamle Stavanger – the old town – is a perfectly preserved neighbourhood of cobbled streets and 18th-century whitewashed houses, while elsewhere in town there is ample evidence of the street art that is celebrated in the annual Nuart festival.
Back on the ship, my cruise buddy and I spend the afternoon in the gleaming new Culinary Arts Centre with six fellow passengers, creating a smoked salmon (Norwegian, naturally) main course and moreish maple popcorn dessert. Paris-trained Chef Robert is our good-humoured instructor – he even laughs when one woman accidentally fuses a hot pan to the silicon chopping board. The Culinary Arts Centre becomes a restaurant in the evening, serving up organic fish, meat and vegetarian dishes that use microgreens grown in the kitchen. You can watch the chefs prepping and cooking but it's look and learn rather than a hands-on class. The $US39 ($51) cover charge includes unlimited wine; on our cruise it is organic chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon from the delightfully named Snoqualmie Winery in Washington State.
Another opportunity to quaff is presented at Blend, a venue where you learn to, yes, blend wines. We pass on that as $US129 seems a lot to pay for a bottle of self-mixed vino but other passengers assure me it's an entertaining, educational session.
We arrive in the busy port of Kristiansand in time to hop aboard a sturdy little boat for a scenic cruise of the Kristiansand archipelago. This skerry-studded waterway offers a glimpse into the holiday habits of the locals, who flock to their beautiful, traditional-style summer homes on the islands and make the most of every minute of sunshine in the great outdoors, camping, sailing, swimming and fishing. There's even an extra week's holiday for the over-60s called "senile week", according to our no-nonsense tour guide.
Norway's capital, Oslo, is our last port of call before the ship returns to Amsterdam. The approach by sea, through the 120-kilometre Oslofjord, is stunning; the ship's location guide broadcasts a running commentary in the Crows Nest and outside on decks three and 11 from 7.30am (and if you miss it you can catch it when the ship leaves in the evening).
More than 40 per cent of the country's population of five million live within a 45-minute drive of the fjord, in cities, towns and villages, on islands or the mainland; about 659,000 people live in Oslo itself. It's the smallest city in Scandinavia, and easy to navigate by foot or public transport from the medieval Akershus Fortress, where the ship docks.
We only have one day, so our personal whistle-stop tour includes a ferry ride to Bygdoy Peninsula to visit the Viking and Kon-Tiki museums (there are several more); a tram-trip to Vigeland Park; and a brisk walk from the Royal Palace down Karl Johans Gate, the main shopping and important monument street. Vigeland is worth half a day on its own; it's the world's largest sculpture park, featuring more than 200 imposing bronze, granite and cast-iron sculptures, all created by one artist, Gustav Vigeland.
This year, Oslo was visited by 81 cruise ships and Aussies are catching on to the many attractions Norway has to offer as they head to Northern Europe in record numbers. This glorious region is definitely one to add to your cruise wishlist.
Emirates operates three flights daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai, with two daily connecting flights from Dubai to Amsterdam. Phone 1300 303 77, see emirates.com/au
In 2017, Koningsdam will sail a series of seven-day round-trip cruises from Amsterdam to the Norwegian Fjords. There are departures in May, June and July on Koningsdam; fares start from $1699. Longer itineraries taking in the Norwegian Fjords on other HAL ships are also available.
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Holland America Line and Emirates. See hollandamerica.com
5 MORE THINGS TO DO IN OSLO
AlternativOslo offers tours on bikes, tram or foot to areas of the city where locals live (and used to live), eat, drink, work and have fun. Bike tours take about four hours and you can also request an individual customised tour. See alternativoslo.com
BRUSH UP ON MUNCH
Edvard Munch, best-known for The Scream paintings, is considered a pioneer of the 20th-century Expressionist movement. The artist left the bulk of his work to the city and the Munch Museum displays hundreds of his paintings, drawings and prints. See munchmuseet.no/en
TOUR THE PALACE
The 19th-century Royal Palace is home to HM King Harald V and HM Queen Sonja. It is surrounded by parkland and is open to the public in summer. Guided tours of the staterooms take about one hour and at 1.30pm daily you can see the ceremonial changing of the guards. See royalcourt.no
SEE MICHAEL JACKSON
Modern art and architecture meet at the Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum. Set in the stylishly restored Tjuvholmen area on Oslo's waterfront, it houses an eclectic collection of contemporary art. Its most famous piece is a sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles by Jeff Koons; new exhibitions are held regularly. See afmuseet.no/en/hjem
TAKE A JUMP
Flying down the 361-metre zipline at the famous Holmenkollen ski jump will get the adrenaline pumping – or if vicarious adventure is more your thing, check out the Ski Museum. Fascinating exhibits illustrate the 4000-year-old history of Norway's nordic and downhill skiing and Amundsen and Scott's Antarctic expeditions. Seekollensvevet.no/en/