When I first started cruising, I frowned upon days at sea as dead time, which I compared to standing in a lift or transiting through an airport. It was destination ports I wanted to see, and cruise ships were just a means – albeit a convenient luxury means – of getting there. Over time, though, I've come to appreciate a sea day. In the hotbed hurry of modern life, a day of enforced idleness is a rare treat. Sea days demand that you slow down, take time to muse on your experiences, and rediscover simple pleasures such as a lazy lunch, or an hour spent reading or pool flopping.
I also now appreciate that cruise ships aren't just moveable hotels: they can be an experience in themselves. Not that Viking Star, which I've boarded in the port of Bergen in southern Norway, is a floating resort bulging with casinos and water slides. Far from it. Viking Star carries 930 passengers and is a fraction of the size of mega-ships, with a fraction of the entertainment and amenities.
Though Viking Star is an experience, it isn't one suited to passengers looking for raucous bars, sequined evening shows, pool parties or climbing walls. Viking Cruises thinks its passengers travel to enjoy destinations and absorb local culture, not sit around on cruise ships. The company cut its teeth on rivers, and its style of ocean cruising has much in common with river cruising. Itineraries have depth, not flash, and are port-intensive, usually with a port overnight or two. Viking's chairman Torstein Hagen likes to quip that he aims to provide a thinking person's cruise, not a drinking person's cruise.
No fancy-dress parties or wet T-shirt competitions on Viking Star, but a day at sea will pass very pleasantly for those looking to relax, engage their minds, or indulge in agreeable pursuits. I'm rather happy, therefore, that after visiting Bergen, Geiranger and Molde, day five of my cruise has no port call. I sleep in, mosey through a buffet breakfast and at 10am wander down to the Living Room, where resident historian Jeremy Paterson – a British university lecturer on ancient history and early Christianity – discusses the first written account of Norway, written in 890 by a voyager whose coastal route is followed on our cruise.
By 11am I'm in the ship's theatre for a lecture by musicologist Karen Hansen about Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's epic Peer Gynt and the music it inspired, particularly its influence on compatriot composer Edvard Grieg. Even this esoteric topic is well attended. Viking Star's passengers are well-educated, mostly retired, widely travelled but still curious about the destinations and cultures they visit.
As I emerge from the theatre, Viking Star approaches the coast. Lumps of rock thrust from the sea and snow peaks fang the horizon as we navigate through confetti scatterings of islands. It's a fitting landscape for admiration during a Norwegian buffet lunch at the World Cafe, where I sample Arctic char tartare, salmon laks and a shrimp cocktail with celery and apple called reker. We drift past red cottages hunkered between bare-rock hills and a pale, glittering sea. In the background, mountains are piled with snow like the whipped cream on my Kvaefjord kake, a delicate meringue cake considered Norway's national dessert.
By two o'clock, many passengers are gathered on the swimming-pool deck as the Arctic Circle approaches. King Neptune, who seems to have borrowed Santa's beard, appears to demand ritual sacrifices from the ship's captain. Passengers line up after him to kiss a raw salmon, be dribbled with frigid water, and get inducted into the Order of the Blue Nose for crossing the Arctic Circle. It's a silly event that puts us all in a good mood. Some passengers still have blue noses at dinnertime.
I once imagined sea days would drag on. Now I have to consciously take a couple of hours out, folding myself into an armchair in the Explorer Lounge for a spot of reading. By 5pm, though, I'm back in the Living Room for an informal Q&A encounter with Jeremy Paterson. Passengers' questions range from whether the Vikings knew the Earth was round to how they navigated, and how 10th-century King Harald Bluetooth gave his name to wireless technology. I learn that Viking women could own property and initiate divorce, that the Vikings kept bees but didn't have horns on their helmets: a late 19th-century invention of opera costume-makers.
The Q&A, informative but as relaxed as a pub conversation, encourages me to find out more about Norway's ancestors in Viking Star's little Viking museum on Deck 2. Here I discover that the Vikings were big on grooming; archaeologists have uncovered abundant combs, tweezers and ear scoops. Also on display is a fire-starter pouch that would have contained a flint stone, linen tinder, birch-bark tinder and splinters of spring pine infused with flammable resin. I'm particularly taken with a sculpture of Thor, god of thunder, and a reliquary from Trondheim dating from 1125 that, though made to contain the remains of a Christian saint, bears Viking design motifs.
The Vikings, I also learn, never recorded anything on paper. Most of what we know about them comes from the hostile views of others. Still, their vocabulary supplies us with some of our most basic English words – egg, birth, die, husband, knife, bag, leg, get and give, sky, four of our names for days – as well as navigational terms such as keel and starboard.
By early evening, on-board pianist Eva is presenting traditional Norwegian music on the ivories while Edvard The Scream Munch's paintings celebrating nature and architecture grace a big screen. Ocean ships often labour to convey a sense of place – after all, they tend to wander the world – but Viking Star is proving the perfect match for this Norwegian cruise. Norwegian culture is celebrated, and the ship's Nordic design of blonde wood and stone is complemented by etchings, paintings and sculptures from mostly Norwegian artists.
Viking patterns are woven into carpets, cushions and the metal lattices of the Wintergarden. Scenes from the Bayeux tapestry decorate Viking Star's stairwells. Perhaps they'd look strange in the Caribbean but here, this story of Norman invasion is another reminder of the Norsemen whose influence was once felt across Europe.
I'm not sure where the day has gone, but I've missed the shuffleboard and team trivia, and afternoon tea in the Wintergarden, and a talk by lawyer Dr Christopher Whelan on the dilemmas posed by the science of therapeutic cloning. I've no time for a visit to the spa, with its hot tub and warm-water pool and the challenges of its cold-bucket shower and ice-filled snow grotto. Still, I sneak in the port talk on Tromso, our next port of call.
The summer sun is still high in the sky as I head down to the main restaurant for dinner. Mountains provide drama through the windows. I tuck into a starter of crispy soft-shell crab with roasted pepper aioli, followed by chicken breast wrapped in Iberian ham with rustic vegetable casserole. Shall I finish with a Grand Marnier souffle with orange-caramel custard? I think so. It's a day at sea, and I'm in no hurry.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.
The writer sailed an 'Into the Midnight Sun' cruise between Bergen and London, with next departures in June and July 2018 and 2019, from $9999 a person, twin share. Viking Star sails until June 2018 in the Mediterranean; June to September in Scandinavia; and September to February, 2019 in North America, Cuba and Panama.