David Whitley is awestruck on a Norwegian fjord cruise that doesn't rock the budget.
WHAT Norway in a nutshell package.
WHERE Bergen, Norway.
HOW MUCH Kroner 935 ($185).
WHY GO As a general rule, cruises on the Norwegian fjords are horrendously expensive, multi-day affairs. To get one for less than $2000 is usually something of an achievement and that's before the excursions are tacked on.
Most cruises are not ideal for travellers who fancy a taste of the fjords without having to spend a week sailing up and down.
For those people, the Norway in a nutshell package is an outstanding deal. It can be done over a day or stretched out to allow for more time in the Western Fjords region, used on a hop-on, hop-off basis.
Most do it as a full-on day trip from Bergen, however. The fjord cruising aspect of it comes on two arms of the longest and deepest of the fjords, Sognefjorden. They're not just any arms, either. Aurlandsfjorden would be a cast-iron highlight of any cruise but the World Heritage-listed Naeroyfjord trumps it.
It is incredibly narrow and the cliffs surrounding it can rise up to 1200 metres above the water level. The glacier-hewn rock has a powerful craggy majesty and the water acts almost as a mirror. Everything appears in symmetry, with pine trees, green farmland and snow-covered mountains all reflected.
Some sheer drops, of course, are unquestionably waterfalls. These include some of the tallest in the world. For the two-hour journey between Gudvangen and Flam, it's a case of standing on the deck in a state of awe.
It's not all about the fjord cruise, however. Also included in the package are two of the world's greatest train journeys. Flam is home to the Flamsbana, one of the steepest railways in the world. Operating on a normal gauge, it twists around the hillsides for 20 kilometres at a gradient of 1:18. And when it finally pulls in at the mountain station at Myrdal just under an hour later, you're 864 metres higher than you were when you started.
As the train makes its way through 20 rock tunnels en route, the change in scenery is remarkable. It starts with the postcard fjord view, then moves on to rivers, streams and waterfalls before plunging through mountain terrain covered in deep snow. If the sun is out the glare is blinding as it bounces off the unsullied white blanket. Myrdal station itself looks like it has been magically placed at the top of the alps.
It's across these mountains that the second great railway journey goes. The Oslo to Bergen line is something of an engineering feat, conquering the mountainous terrain between Norway's two biggest cities.
The standard Norway in a nutshell package only includes the section from Myrdal to Bergen but this contains much of the landscape that gets rail enthusiasts excited. It starts as a magnificently bleak winter wonderland before slowly descending towards the sea alongside deep blue lakes and yet more fjords.
Norway in a nutshell is far more than a fjord cruise it's three world-class experiences squeezed into one day and the beauty is that it doesn't feel like a tour. There's no guide herding you around; you board the trains, bus and ferry as independent travellers. It's transport that exists anyway, synchronised perfectly and with the tickets sold as a package in advance. It's that difference between being shunted around magnificent scenery and feeling like you're exploring it. And luckily, such an opportunity is affordable or should that be a-fjord-able?.
FREE STUFF Between May and September, the bus ride between Voss and Gudvangen has an extra element. The hairpin bends of the steep road up to the Stalheim Hotel are too dangerous in winter but on summer tours the road trip is thrown into the package as an extra.
ADDED BONUS The Norway in a nutshell package doesn't have to be completed in a day. It's possible to organise to stay-over at certain points on the route most notably Voss and Flam. Plenty of activities are available for those who do break the journey, including walking trails, downhill cycling, white-water rafting and further fjord trips. The other possible extension of the journey involves completing the Bergen to Oslo train trip and arriving at the Norwegian capital in the late evening.
DETAILS The package is available through fjord-tours.com. For more information on stay-over options, see visitscandinavia.com.au. Return flights to Bergen from Sydney cost from $2108 with Scandinavian Airlines (flysas.com.au).