The skies darken on the evening we depart Bergen. Billowing clouds mass above the old town like a great burst of trumpet music. We sail past prim houses on wild islands, duck under a suspension bridge and weave our way towards the open ocean. This is the pattern of Viking Star's port departures and arrivals in Norway. Towns hunker deep inside fiords, reached after hours of sailing up narrow channels of brooding scenery. We're seldom beyond sight of land, and often so close I can feel waterfall spray settling on my upturned face like nature's vast wellness treatment.
In Geiranger next morning, the landscape looks as if a mighty Viking god has cleaved the mountains open with a hatchet. Passengers gather on the decks, screeching like gulls in amazement. An included shore excursion brings us to two extravagant scenic outlooks above the fiord for a different, dizzying angle on nature's creation. The road is a madman's rollercoaster through precipitous goat farms. Heaven must be like this, I reckon: a hallelujah landscape dolloped with clouds and draped in waterfalls.
Our excursion is a half day, leaving time for me to explore the intelligent Fiord Centre museum, which provides a less poetic, more scientific look at Norway's coastline. The walk from ship to Fiord Centre via the Waterfall Trail is a must. (The foaming river-cum-waterfall isn't immediately visible on disembarking the ship, but walk around the bay to your right and you'll soon see it.) Steps lead up beside a foaming torrent. Spray coats the railings, and viewing platforms jut over turbulent waters. The river is a splendid sight, as is the outlook over the fiord below.
Geiranger is so deep into its fiord that it takes Viking Star several hours that evening to find its way out. The reward is a scrolling scenery of hissing waterfalls, soaring cliffs and the occasional green opening where towns hunker against the elements. Occasionally I spy dirt-scrabble farms abandoned in the 1950s, precariously clinging to tiny patches of sloping ground in the middle of seemingly inaccessible cliffs.
Our fourth day is devoted to Molde, a pleasant town, unremarkable but for its magnificent hillside setting on a sound gazing towards a string of tree-topped islands and, behind, a spectacular row of snow-capped mountains. My cabin's windows open towards the town, and it's only when I step into the World Cafe for breakfast that I see this panorama, which stops me dead in my tracks. Fellow passengers join me in rushing to the open decks, cameras aloft, mouths agape, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon abandoned.
Molde's Romsdal Folk Museum is a modest yet interesting visit. The open-air collection of relocated old buildings includes examples of log houses and smoky crofter's cottages with open hearths, witness to Norway's pre-oil poverty. Informative local guides explain how the Norwegians once lived, and several passengers are prompted into reminiscences of their Norwegian grandparents' immigrant journeys to America.
Nearby stands a more recently opened museum building. A seven-minute slide show flashes with an absorbing collection of historic photographs that include starting depictions of rheumy, weathered fishermen, and peasants in bare feet. The main exhibition hall tells stories of the region along themes such as early settlement history, medieval trade and the relationship of fiord to farmer.
The sail-away over dinner is magnificent. I alternate between courses of food at the plate-glass windows of the World Cafe and pacing the outdoor deck. We sail out past snowy mountains fanged against the sky. Even out here in the wilds I spot scattered cottages and farms, even small villages. Chugging ferries provide a lifeline for snug, subsidised lives no longer reliant on this harsh environment.
The following day at sea doesn't mean abandoning scenery. By 11 o'clock we're approaching the coast again. Great pyramidal rocks stick out of the sea and more mountains line the horizon. The captain announces a meander through an inside passage of islands. For hours we drift between rocky, scraped-down outer islands and moody, humped inner islands, some with precipitous mountains still sporting melting caps of snow.
Just after lunch – a Norwegian buffet of salmon, seared cod, creamy meatball gratin, and venison with mushrooms and mustard sauce – we cross the Arctic Circle. Passengers gather on the pool deck as King Neptune demands rites of passage from the ship's captain. "Kiss the fish! Kiss the fish!" we chant as a waiter holds a salmon aloft. The captain complies before being doused in a bucket of iced water.
It pays to be up early on a Norway cruise. The sun barely sets and the landscapes are always striking. The long sail into Tromso is magnificent. The day is surprisingly warm and crisp blue, and the ship is cupped in a 360-degree ring of white mountains. The snow is melting, and waterfalls and torrents skip down the rocks.
Viking's light-flooded ship, with its big plate windows and ample decks, sucks up the scenery. My favourite spot is the upper level of the cosy Explorer Lounge right at Viking Star's prow, but even the windows of my cabin display passing mountain vistas. My balcony tempts me to hypothermia, surely a reasonable risk in the face of such splendour.
It's good to be on a Norwegian-owned ship here in Norway. Cruise ships constantly on the move have difficultly creating any sense of place on board, but Viking Star's minimalist Nordic-design decor is the perfect complement to the geography outside. Its Scandinavian heritage is highlighted too in artworks by Norwegian artists and projections of paintings by Edvard "The Scream" Munch in the atrium.
Incredibly, as everywhere on the Norwegian coast, there are signs of habitation on the wildest of coasts: ferries, roads and communications relay posts, the tell-tale yellow floats of fish farms, houses on small islands off bigger islands off a convoluted coastline. It reminds me that the planet designer Slartibartfast from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy won a prize for designing Norway, and was particularly pleased with its "lovely crinkly edges".
No edges are crinklier or more beautiful than the Lofoten Islands, Viking Star's last port of call in Norway before we head across the North Sea to Viking outposts the Shetland and Orkney islands. Pared down and simple, Lofoten is the ultimate creation of a god entranced with Nordic design. Mountains rear from the sea, beaches curve with chilly supermodel beauty, and its waters are disconcertingly tropical in their blue and green intensity. Farmland is scattered with a confetti of apple blossom and yellow flowers, as if celebrating this extraordinary marriage of sea, sky and rock.
A SHORE THING
This Viking cruise begins in London and finishes in Bergen, and isn't all about landscapes. Here are the top cultural highlights.
Viking Star anchors on the Thames in London, an appropriate place to start a cruise. The world measures time and latitude from Greenwich, whose maritime heritage shaped navigational history. Attractions include Royal Greenwich Observatory, Old Royal Naval College and the National Maritime Museum. Passengers embark Viking Star beside the Cutty Sark, a superbly restored 1869 tea clipper.
One of Britain's most beautiful (if austere) cities sees medieval streets run from crag-bound castle to Holyrood Palace. Expansion and imperial wealth in the 19th century added an elegant Georgian new quarter of trim townhouses and gracious squares. Optional shore excursions focus on attractions such as the National Museum, Royal Yacht Britannia or the historic Royal Mile.
Two shore excursions highlight Stone Age or WWII history, but the included overview tour romps through several thousand years and includes the Standing Stones of Stenness, which date from 3100 BC, and the Georgian-era seafaring town of Stromness. That still leaves time for independent exploration of port town Kirkwall, whose gnarly cathedral is laden with the memorials of empire.
For most, this remote port is a chance to journey to wild North Cape, but you could also make an excursion to Sarnes for coffee with Norway's indigenous people in a traditional Sami tent scattered with reindeer pelts. Alternatively, Karmøyvær is a typical fishing port where you can hear tales of the fiord's fantastic 10-kilo king crabs.
This isn't just a convenient departure or arrival port for cruises but an elegant city, birthplace of Grieg and Ibsen and considered Norway's cultural capital. One optional shore excursion takes you to Grieg's country home for a music recital. A glimpse of Hanseatic trading Bergen's past is revealed along Bryggen Wharf, a short walk from the docks.
The writer journeyed on Viking Cruises' 14-night Into the Midnight Sun itinerary between Bergen and London. The next departures are in June and July 2018 on Viking Star, as well as on near-identical sister ships Viking Sea and Viking Sky. Prices from $11,199pp twin share including shore excursions, mealtime beverages, Wi-Fi and gratuities. Phone 138 747. See vikingcruises.com.au
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Viking Cruises.