We're midway through a 13-day Majestic Fjords small ship cruise with APT on the MS Hebridean Sky and I think I've seen it all, so spoilt have we been. We've meandered along a good distance of Norway's coastline viewing dramatic landscapes, carved by vast glaciers and we've stopped off in the Shetland and Orkney islands on the way.
We've spied lush pine forests, ribbons of waterfalls, even, in the distance, an avalanche. And puffins with their baby pufflings have paddled by, gannets and guillemots have swooped and dived. But no one warned us about Huldra.
We're deep into Norway's longest fiord, the Sognefjorden in Flam Valley where we board the historic Flam Railway and make the steep climb to our destination, Vatnahalsen. Up there, we're told, the best waffles on earth await. It's one of APT's "Signature Experiences".
My cruise companions, all from Australia and New Zealand, are seated in a private section of the train. We all sit silently transfixed at the vista, eyes following steep mountainsides and deep valleys, spotting hardly cyclists along the way. But it wasn't just this view, nor the waffles (though they were good), nor the friendly black cat at the Mountain Hotel in Vatnahalsen, that make this journey memorable.
On the Flam Railway's descent, our guide tells us of Huldra, a blonde-haired beauty from Nordic folklore who lured men into the mountains. As we disembark to see the cascading 225-metre Kjosfossen waterfall, a tinny sound system cranks up an ethereal sounding Norwegian folksong while high up on a ledge, a woman dressed in a flowing layered red frock starts dancing dramatically, in a 'come hither' fashion.
It's Huldra. The spray from the waterfall has made her long blonde wig clump and her dress a mess. The performance is so incongruous with the surroundings that it crosses over into pure campy humour, and we can't get enough. She's up there wooing us, a terrible soundtrack is warbling, the mist is blinding, the rain has started to pour, the wig is coming off, but she's still hoofing it. Pity the Norwegian ballet school students who take turns donning the damp costume every time the train pulls up.
The Norwegian fiords were always going to be spectacular, it's a given. To be able to view this mythical landscape up close, to almost caress the inlets, or the "fingers" as they are known, is something else. When not taking photos, most of us on board the Hebridean Sky spend a good deal of every day and night (it's summer, there are 19 hours of light) on the deck gazing out in open-mouthed awe.
Ever wondered how Norwegian painter Edvard Munch could evince so much emotion in his most famous work, The Scream? The subject is standing in front of a fiord.
The beauty of a small ship cruise such as this is you can experience areas that bigger ships are unable to traverse. The ease of passage is enhanced by a flotilla of rubber Zodiacs, always available to take us, 100 passengers in all, to land when we are not in port. Days are filled with hiking up to glaciers, learning how to dry cod and drinking mead with modern-day costumed Vikings.
Any experience is enhanced by APT's enthusiastic panel of expert guest speakers onboard. An ecologist, a historian, a geologist and a naturalist — all with detailed knowledge on the destinations (they can identify every bird, every landscape, every troll myth), give presentations and daily recaps, and often join us for lunch or dinner.
Days before, our first land experience on Norway was Rosendal, where at the jetty, holidaying locals were sunning themselves on their boats.
Our local guide, Gjermund, the perfect fiord escort, took us inland for a four-kilometre hike to Bondhus glacial lake. Along the wildflower-strewn pathway we pick lingonberries and try to spot prized cloudberries. "In Norway you never even tell anyone in your family where your cloudberry field is," he says.
Of course, just sitting back in the comfort of the ship watching the scenery unfold is a large part of the cruise experience here. The 59 all-outside cabins (they are also very spacious, almost twice the size of suites on some big cruise ships according to my brochure) mean everyone has a view.
The ship has been newly refurbished. Public areas have had a makeover and in the cabins, soft furnishings feature modern pops of purples and greens and the en suites — the largest I have seen at sea — have been tastefully renovated.
Days pass and habits form in such a short time, I'd be first in line for the warm scones and cream for afternoon tea after a leaf through the books in the library. After dinner I'd take a seat near the pianist and hum along to the Kenny Rogers numbers while chatting with fellow passengers.
When I return to my cabin, the Molton Brown toiletries are magically replaced, pillows fluffed, blockout curtains drawn and a chocolate placed on my pillow. The excellent service is matched by delicious food and wine offerings, from formal five-course meals in the dining room to more casual al fresco buffets.
It's not all floating by fiords, we also make stops in cities. In Bergen, Norway's second-largest city after Oslo, after an APT Signature Experience tour of composer Edvard Grieg's home with a private recital, we stroll the streets of the port and ascend the city's funicular to the Mount Floyen viewpoint.
In the university city of Trondheim, some choose to take a tour to Ringve Manor, but I prefer to wander the streets, fossicking for antiques and browsing galleries.
It's 9.45pm when we cross the Arctic Circle and celebrate by clinking Champagne glasses. The sun hadn't gone down yet, it wasn't due until 10.41pm. And it would rise again at 3.25am. The next day we're bidding farewell to our floating home but not before one last highlight.
We're called to deck to watch Captain Andrey Rudenko skilfully manoeuvre the ship through the narrow Trollfjord, a two-kilometre long sidearm of the Raftsund between Lofoten islands and Vesteralen archipelago. Everyone stands in silence.
The water is glassy, seabirds fly above and we can almost touch the jagged edges of the rocks from the railing. Afterwards, as we feast on Lobster Thermidor, a fellow passenger tells me that in the 13 days of incredible experiences, this last fiord close-up has been the highlight.
"It's really like an endless work of art," she says.
APT's Majestic Norwegian Fjords — Edinburgh, Scotland to Tromso, Norway 13-day cruise aboard MS Hebridean Sky departs June 30 and August 5, 2017. Fares from $13,995 a person twin share with airfare credit of up to $1500 a couple if booked by October 31, 2016. The cruise is all-inclusive including gratuities, beverages, airport transfers, excursions and porterage. See www.aptouring.com.au
The writer travelled as a guest of APT