Why a cruise to the Norwegian Fjords is a journey through time
At heart, I am a Victorian explorer. A century-and-a-bit late, I often find myself seeking out the new frontiers of my spirit era, so a week-long cruise from Amsterdam to the Norwegian fjords onboard Holland America Line’s new flagship, Rotterdam, is just the ticket.
Gliding serenely between steep cathedrals of towering rock to the soundtrack of countless foamy-white waterfalls is a mesmerising, almost hypnotic, experience.
The Rotterdam, with her smart dark blue hull, is the seventh ship to honour the Dutch maritime city. Back in the day, the original Rotterdam was part of a fleet that transported 18 million European immigrants across the Atlantic in search of a better life in the New World. Today’s ship offers new adventures in exquisite comfort and nowadays it’s just as common for Americans to dream of European treasures as it is the other way round.
But while I may be a wannabe Victorian, I’m far from old-fashioned and the Rotterdam is decidedly 21st century. The wide selection of bands on “Music Walk” – a collection of stages on Deck 2 – perform at the kind of volumes music begs to be played at. There’s classical, rock, piano bar, New Orleans jazz and soul – a music festival with no muddy boots or tents… Facial glitter is still an option.
Away from the dancefloors, the spread of restaurants puts my local high street to shame and my taste buds travel as far as South Asia and as local as freshly caught Norwegian fish.
It was the Norwegian fish that first brought the Victorians to Eidfjord – our first port of call, after a charmingly smooth day at sea. The English aristocrats first flocked to this remote village for its salmon fishing; salmon return to the same place each year to lay their eggs. However, with my fellow Victorians unable to control themselves, the salmon were eventually unable to satisfy demand, and they stopped returning.
I take one of the ship’s excursions of the wider area as the port village itself is so compact it could fit on a postage stamp. It’s our first day in the fjords, and even the chilly drizzle can’t dampen the excitement. Camera slung carelessly around my neck, I dart about, dodging puddles and the last remaining ice, on a mission to fill my memory card.
Our guide, Gaia, is full of fascinating trivia and is a particular authority on the local troll and reindeer populations. Did you know, for instance, that Santa only employs female reindeer for his annual global gift gallivanting? Rudolph is actually Rudolpha. We know this to be true, Gaia says, because males drop their antlers in the autumn and, well, we’ve all seen pictures of Rudolpha performing her mission-critical duties on Christmas Eve, resplendent with her complete antlerage. Fascinating.
The Norwegian fjords are one of those cruise destinations that continue to delight even once the ship has departed port. As we sail towards our second stop – Ålesund – the outside decks crackle with the click of cameras, capturing the masterpiece of nature on the other side of the lens. There’s an eagerness to snap every crag and crevice, and to observe each expertly manipulated manoeuvre as we navigate our way through the complex channels.
Ålesund wears a perfume of mountain fresh infused with marine oil. I climb mount Aksla with a friend I’ve made onboard and we sit at a picnic bench gazing out over the nautical town. It must be a magical place to live in summer, with 20 hours of daylight illuminating the dramatic mountain backdrop across the calm water, but I don’t know about those long winters of semi-permanent darkness.
A local tells us that alcohol taxes are especially high in Norway in a governmental effort to dissuade people from turning to the bottle in the desolate depths of winter. What a difference a season makes, from our picnic bench, Ålesund is inspiring.
The fifth day of our voyage is a highlight I’ve been looking forward to since booking the fjord cruise. I’m visiting the mountain goats at Herdalssetra – a family farm in Geiranger. Farm animals offer a certain solace to the Victorian gentleman, and I often find myself enjoying the company of a goat or pig – surprisingly sensitive companions, should you be in need of a patient ear.
Forty minutes into the mountains, Åshild and Jostein run a goat farm that has been in her family since the 1700s. Once bursting with farming activity, this lush valley has few survivors. Herdalssetra keeps goats, while there’s a farm “over there” – Jostein waves his hand vaguely – that keeps cows.
The husband-and-wife team is supported by a roster of visiting students who pitch up from across Europe to milk the goats and live the farm life for a season.
It’s easy to see why Åshild and Jostein never need to advertise vacancies; one student recommends the next, keen for their dose of pure mountain air, cupping their hands to drink the pure snowmelt from the glacial fjords and experiencing life in the Norwegian region famed for the longevity of its population.
I feel a world away from the ship and an age away from modernity. With its rudimentary simplicity, life on a Fjordic farm is revitalising. Åshild wants to show me how she makes cheese using their goats’ milk. I want to taste the cheese, so I agree to a demonstration. Outside, under a wooden veranda, she stirs a smouldering black-iron cauldron of milk over a wood fire. This may be for dramatic effect, as the ship will have departed long before she’s evaporated that much milk.
After a few committed strokes of the milk, like a rower in shallow water, she relinquishes the wooden paddle and instead lifts a round wheel of white cheese out of a wooden mould. This one’s about a month old, she says, as if describing a child… or perhaps a kid. But it’s the block of caramel coloured brown cheese that I’m more intrigued by. Brown cheese is a local delicacy “made from what is given to the pigs in other countries”. They ought to finesse the sales pitch.
Brown cheese takes the wasted whey from the original cheese-making process, combines it with cream and fresh milk and repeats the process, resulting in a dense block, with a distinctive salty sweetness. Åshild sells 4kg slabs to neighbours for Christmas and back at the port I enjoy brown cheese cookies and brown cheese chocolate fondant.
The fjord cruise concludes with a special event. Her Royal Highness Princess Margriet of the Netherlands – the godmother of the ship – is onboard to bless the vessel in a once-in-a-ship’s-lifetime naming ceremony. I never believed it would be possible to bring a theatre-full of people to tears over the christening of a floating hulk of metal, but by the time Princess Margriet blesses “this ship and all who sail on her”, there’s not a dry eye in the house.
There are over a hundred cruise ships currently in construction and I will be eying up tickets for their inaugural sailings. With an enduring Victorian spirit, cruising continues to be a marriage of tradition and innovation, a way to discover – nay, create – the future.
NEED TO KNOW
7-day cruises to the Norwegian Fjords onboard Rotterdam start at $979 for an “Inside Stateroom”. “Verandah Staterooms” start at $1349. For more information, visit www.hollandamerica.com
Top tips for shore excursions
- Book Ahead: Book online before you sail as the most popular excursions sell out fast.
- Think food: If an excursion is longer than a couple of hours or goes over a meal time, check it includes food. A local meal adds authenticity to your experience, and stops you getting hangry.
- Go private: Ship excursions guarantee you won’t miss the ship, but private operators offer tours to suit your personal interests. Just check their reviews first.