We had been standing in line at the cruise terminal for nearly two hours. I had eaten my way through my protein-bar stash, and my shoulders were aching from the weight of my backpack. “Why are we doing this again?” I asked my husband, Mike.
“Don’t look at me,” he replied, looking up from the book he was trying to read over the din of 2,400 fellow passengers. “You’re the one who wanted to see the fjords.”
I was an unlikely candidate for a Norwegian Cruise Line 10-day fjords cruise. I’m an independent-minded traveler who gravitates toward quirky bed-and-breakfasts and relishes local foods. A mass-market cruise is the opposite of my usual travel style. But Norway is a notoriously expensive country, and a bargain-priced cruise was the only viable option for checking the fjords off my bucket list. By doing my research ahead of time — and skipping the cruise line’s packaged excursions — I was able to craft a Norwegian cruise vacation that appealed to my independent travel style.
Our trip started in Hamburg, Germany, an inland port connected to the ocean by a 68-mile stretch of the Elbe River. After a day of sailing across the North Sea, we arrived in Kristiansand, a city at Norway’s southern tip. From there, we hugged the country’s western coast, with port stops in the cities of Haugesund, Ålesund and Bergen as well as the rural villages of Flåm and Geiranger.
Along the way, the cruise took in many of Norway’s fjords. Glaciers carved the steep-sided, deep valleys that eventually filled with seawater when the glaciers retreated. Our route took us through several fjords, including the Sognefjord — the country’s longest and deepest — and Geirangerfjord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered by many (including our ship’s captain, a native Norwegian) to be the most beautiful in Norway.
Our experience boarding the ship (we did eventually make it through the cruise terminal, onto the Norwegian Jade, and into the buffet line for a very late lunch) validated my cruise survival strategy: the DIY shore excursion. Many cruisers appreciate the convenience of packaged shore excursions organized by the cruise line: sign up, show up, and hop on a tour bus.
For me, independently planning a vacation itinerary is half the fun. I love poring over train timetables, scoping out cafes and planning walking routes through interesting neighborhoods. I balked at the idea of doing my sightseeing from behind the windows of tour buses. There was also the expense factor: Excursions started at about $100 per person for a three-hour guided walking tour and ranged up to several hundred dollars for a day trip with lunch. If we relied on packaged outings at each of our six port stops, our bargain-priced cruise would end up being anything but.
DIY shore excursions
My first crack at a self-organized excursion was in Haugesund. The city itself didn’t seem to have enough activities to keep us occupied for the day, so I set my sights on a day trip to Skudeneshavn, a picturesque historic fishing village about 24 miles south of Haugesund on the island of Karmøy, connected to the mainland by a bridge. We took advantage of a public bus route to Skudeneshavn, and had the bus almost to ourselves as we set out through a downpour from Haugesund’s city center. The rain continued as we rode through an increasingly rural landscape, stopping occasionally at roadside bus shelters and gas stations. Toward the end of our 90-minute ride, the sun emerged just as the road turned to hug the rocky coastline. Herds of sheep grazed on brilliantly green seaside pastures.
We found Skudeneshavn nearly as empty as our bus. Thanks to an early start, we had beaten the crush of fellow cruisers. The helpful staffer at the tourist information office gave us a brochure with a self-guided walking tour of the old town that took us through narrow lanes of white wooden cottages, among the best preserved in Norway. Most were built in the early 1800s during a boom in the herring industry, and the sailors of the town’s shipping fleet brought back architectural inspiration from across Europe. Modest homes are graced with columns and carvings inspired by ancient Roman temples, executed in wood. Our walk eventually wound through a small park of pines where I half-expected a troll to pop out from behind a boulder. Instead, we were rewarded with a panoramic vista of the town and harbor, ringed by three lighthouses.
The following day in Ålesund, we joined a scheduled (and budget-priced) daily walking tour focusing on the city’s Art Nouveau architecture. All we had to do was show up at the tourist information office at noon, where a local guide joined the assembled tourists. She began with an explanation of Ålesund’s unique architectural cohesion. A fire destroyed virtually the entire city center in 1904, leaving 10,000 homeless. The massive reconstruction effort that followed reflected the Art Nouveau style of the time, with architecture featuring fanciful towers, turrets and ornaments. Some buildings are decorated with brightly painted flowers, while others have flourishes inspired by Viking motifs.
While pointing out notable buildings, our guide filled us in on other local history, including Ålesund’s prominent role in the fishing industry. She was quick to distinguish between locally produced klipfish (dried, salted cod) and pungent lye-soaked lutefisk. “I have heard,” she told us, her nose wrinkling in disgust, “that there are Norwegian-Americans who still eat lutefisk. They have it at Christmas!” As she shook her head in bewilderment, Mike and I tried to look suitably appalled.
In Geiranger, we booked tickets for a fjord cruise with Geiranger Fjordservice, a company offering sightseeing cruises, scenic bus rides and kayak tours to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Geiranger (population 200) each year. Although we had cruised through Geirangerfjord on our way into port, Geiranger Fjordservice’s 48-passenger vessel allowed us to get a closer view. As I gazed at the Suitor, a 1,444-foot waterfall tracing the steep side of the cliff to the water below, I set down my camera. It was a moment too transcendent to be photographed.
On our mass-market cruise ship, we faced a crowd-pleasing menu of spaghetti Bolognese and molten chocolate cake. While the ship’s food was plentiful and well prepared, one of my favorite aspects of travel is sampling the local cuisine. Accordingly, we made an effort to search out Norwegian specialties during our days in port.
In Skudeneshavn, we ate lunch at Tåkelurfabrikken, a cafe and folk arts and crafts center housed in a former foghorn factory. Platters of open-faced shrimp and salmon sandwiches were arranged on the front counter, along with heart-shaped waffles, tightly rolled lefse and a pan of almond cake topped with whipped cream. The proprietor kept a running total of our purchases on a notepad and gave us change from a battered metal cash box. Antique woolen mittens dangled from the wooden ceiling beams, and long communal tables provided seating for the groups of Norwegian grandmas savoring black coffee and pieces of almond cake.
That cake in Skudeneshavn was a harbinger of the delightful sweets ahead. Norway is an excellent country for pastries, and I made a point of visiting a bakery in each port. Twisted cinnamon rolls were lighter than the American version, flavored with cardamom in addition to cinnamon and finished with a modest dusting of sugar. My favorite find was the skolebolle (school bun), a puffy roll filled with custard and covered with shredded coconut.
In Bergen, we ate lunch at the harborside fish market, established in the 1200s. Today, it caters mostly to tourists — there are far more people snapping photos than purchasing sides of salmon — but there are vendors serving an array of Norwegian fare, including Bergen’s namesake fish soup, grilled salmon and cod cakes. Mike opted for whale. I looked at the fatty slab of browned meat, served with potato salad and bread, with no small amount of skepticism.
“Come on,” Mike urged, “When else are you going to have a chance to eat whale?” I did try a bite (it had a gamy taste similar to venison), but I was happier with my selection: a seedy baguette piled high with fresh shrimp and salmon.
Between independent shore excursions and a focus on local food, my vacation was mostly structured in ways to make a cruise feel unlike a cruise. However, seeing Norway via ship did offer some unexpected benefits. My tendency to insomnia is usually a challenge when traveling — I wake up far too early, spending hours tossing and turning in an unfamiliar bed. During our August cruise, the sun had risen by 5:30 a.m.; instead of struggling to fall back asleep, I could slip on a bathrobe and watch the fjords glide past our balcony. In the early morning damp, clouds hung low over snow-topped mountains, and waterfalls emerged from the mist. Delicate streams trickled their way down 3,000-foot cliff walls. Colorful clusters of houses were perfectly reflected in the tranquil water, its glassy stillness masking depths of up to 4,000 feet.
Another favorite place to admire the view was the ship’s fitness center, with its row of treadmills facing a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. On the evening that we sailed out of the Sognefjord, my planned 5-mile run stretched to 5 ½ miles, then 6, then 6 ½. Just when I was ready to turn away, there was another waterfall, each seeming more beautiful than the last. My legs started aching but I was mesmerized.
After our final port stop in Geiranger, the ship started the heartbreakingly scenic cruise out of the Geirangerfjord. Mike and I spent a couple of hours admiring the view from our balcony, then settled into window-side seats in the lounge on Deck 13. Mike ordered a mai tai, much to the amusement of the British couple playing cards and sipping gin at the next table. As the fjords faded into the dusk, a cabaret-style floor show began, the ship’s performers crooning a medley of Broadway hits.
This certainly wasn’t the way that I had envisioned I would see my last glimpses of the Norwegian fjords. But somehow, it was perfect.
Stacy Brooks is a freelance food and travel writer based in Minneapolis. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.