Story and photos by Hope S. Philbrick
In Norway I gained new respect for seagulls. I’d always thought of them as loud and messy creatures, but when a flock trailed our boat for some distance I discovered that they’ve got a sense of humor and are natural hams in front of the camera.
This insight came aboard the MS Orca, sailing north of the Trollfjord on a sea eagle safari. Like a standup comedian warming up the audience for the headline act, the seagulls were encouraged to follow us because we tossed chunks of stale bread into the air. Each individual seagull would squawk, flap, stare and flutter to draw attention to itself in hopes of getting a piece of the loaf. The birds were savvy enough to ignore any humans on board who weren’t holding bread while flirting shamelessly with those who did. Whenever one bird grasped a morsel it would drop down to the water surface to devour it then rejoin the flock and continue its antics.
The seagulls’ purpose, from the tour guides’ perspective, was to attract the attention of nearby sea eagles. Much like it’s obvious that a neighborhood has a pool even if it’s obstructed from view thanks to the distinctive sounds of splashing and squealing children, the sea eagles understand they’ll get fed a juicy fish dinner if they swoop down to join the seagulls’ party. It’s a system that works – six eagles made an appearance during our excursion. And though the eagles are large, graceful and joyous to watch in their natural environment, I must admit that the seagulls were more entertaining. The sea eagles are more timid and strictly business-oriented. They dive in, grasp their catch and take off. But the seagulls get close and hang around. (I suspect that had we anchored for the night and left the bread accessible, in the morning we’d have found those seagulls stumbling around the deck like frat boys nursing hangovers.)
The sea eagle safari promises and delivers memories to last a lifetime. In addition to bird watching, though, another benefit of the safari is the opportunity to trail and watch the Hurtigruten ship—our main vessel of transport during the trip along the Norwegian coast—as the captain skillfully navigates it through the shallow waters of the Risoyrenna Channel, through the steep cliffs of the Raftsund Strait and through the Trollfjord, which just so happens to be the oldest geographical region in the world. We then sailed to Svolvaer, where we re-embarked.
The safari occurred on day three of a six-day summer cruise aboard Hurtigruten’s MS Nordlys. The Norwegian company Hurtigruten has been operating for over one hundred years and currently sails eleven ships up and down the Norwegian coast every day all year. Hurtigruten ships comfortably accommodate passengers, but are primarily working ships that carry cargo to the various ports of call. These aren’t like the big luxury party ships common in the Caribbean; they are cozy, relaxing, well organized and arguably the most effective way to explore Norway.
Cruising combines the convenience of unpacking once with the thrill of exploring new territory every day. Cruising Norway’s coast offers the chance to see regions of the world that are otherwise inaccessible and passes vistas so gorgeous that words like breathtaking and spectacular seem inadequate. Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun.
On a route that included thirty-four ports of call sailing south from Kirkenes to Bergen and into dozens of fjords (long, narrow sea inlets between steep cliffs), our group took advantage of disembarking whenever possible and also experienced several different excursions—from sea safaris to walking tours to bus trips—in order to maximize our exploration of Norway. Each fjord brought unique delights, not the least of which was the water itself, which throughout the journey shifted from black to turquoise and every conceivable shade of blue and green. Among the highlights:
- Vardøhus Fortress is the world’s northernmost and Norway’s easternmost fortress. Constructed from 1734 to 1738, it is surrounded by low, stone-clad earthen walls that are arranged to form an eight-pointed star. Though today the fortress is primarily a flag hold and salute station, an onsite museum and nine picturesque buildings make it worth a visit. The fortress is located in Vardø, the only city in Europe located in the arctic climate zone.
- North Cape, the northernmost tip of the European continent, is a cliff rising 920 feet out of the Arctic Ocean. The site houses a restaurant, coffee shop, monuments and a wide-screen movie theater that plays a film profiling the region. From the gift shop I sent home a postcard that was then postmarked to prove I stood at 71° 10’ 22” N—even though that’s still about 1,000 miles from the North Pole, it’s likely to be as close as I’ll ever get.
- The small peninsula of Trondeneshalvøya is home to Trondenes Kirke, a white medieval church that’s filled with art and is considered to be a premier cultural heritage site from the late Middle Ages. Next-door is the Trondenes Historical Center with exhibits from the Viking Age to present day.
- Throughout the journey from Harstad to Sortland, the photogenic view included quaint farms, dramatic mountains, crystal clear lakes and stunning fjords.
- Located north of the Arctic Circle at the 67th and 68th parallel, the island group of Lofoten boasts beautiful scenery with steep mountains, colorful fishing villages, calm bays and white sandy beaches. Home primarily to generations of fish industry workers, Lofoten also attracts artists from around the world whose work is showcased at the Henningsvaer Art Gallery.
- Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city (after Oslo and Bergen), is home to the world’s northernmost cathedral, Nidaros, Norway’s National Sanctuary that’s built over the grave of sainted King Olav Haraldsson. Constructed entirely of soapstone, the cathedral’s roman and gothic architecture is unique in Norway.
- Built into a steep mountainside, Bergen is reminiscent of San Francisco with streets and walkways climbing sharp inclines. It’s also a world heritage city with great restaurants and bars, extensive retail outlets, impressive museums (including Troldhaugen, honoring composer Edvard Grieg), comfortable accommodations and active entertainment options (such as fjord rafting, glacier walks and more). Colorful architecture alone would make Bergen picturesque, but it also happens to overlook a gorgeous fjord.
I hope to visit Norway again and again. I absolutely fell head-over-heels in love with the country, despite some initial misgivings about the possibility of freezing to death—I’m not someone who always dreamed of crossing the Arctic Circle. But Norway isn’t as cold as you might think: Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Norwegian coastline waters never freeze over! And its global position offers certain advantages each summer: Longer daylight hours for picture taking. That certainly comes in very handy when sailing a route that’s billed as “the world’s most beautiful voyage.”
If You Go
Hurtigruten sails 365 days a year. North- or south-bound and round-trip itineraries are available. If a particular port most interests you, it’s possible to plan an itinerary that allows you to disembark and stay on land for a few days and then board another ship sailing through to continue the cruise route. Tel: 800.323.7436
You’ll eat well aboard ship, but when on land don’t miss these restaurants:
Beyer’en Bar & Restaurant
Excellent traditional and fusion cuisine
Bryggeloftet & Stuene
Best mussels ever.
Great food in a historic setting.
Go on a clear day to best appreciate the view. Savor your meal then don’t skip dessert.
De Fem Stuer at Holmenkollen Park Hotel Rica
Explore Norwegian cuisine at the suburb lunch buffet.
Spectacular food, breathtaking views.
Don’t miss the seafood soup.
Excellent service, even better food. Try the reindeer steak.
Top photo: Bergen fjord.
Hope S. Philbrick is a freelance writer because she doesn’t think work and fun should be mutually exclusive. For more of Hope’s writing on food, wine and travel visit her blog at www.insathope.blogspot.com.