For a taste of Norway, it's hard to beat a voyage through its spectacular fjords.
If you are planning a trip to Europe, then Spain, Italy and France are likely to be high on your list of countries to visit. Cruising the Rhine or the Danube might also top the “to do” list.
But what about Norway? Yes, it’s a lot further north and it’s summer weather is certainly not hot, but the scenery in and around some of Norway’s spectacular fjords is breathtaking.
We enjoyed a sample of what Norway has to offer during a week-long cruise from Southampton on England’s south coast. The first full day was spent at sea, heading north in the North Sea, followed by four fjords in four days and another day sailing back to Southampton.
Like most cruises, it was little more than a taste of Norway — but what a taste.
Norway, with a population of five million people, is generally on about the same latitude as Iceland. The weather was certainly in our favour during this cruise and, while there was still snow on the mountain tops, the skies were blue and the sun was warm, with the temperature reaching 23C on the best day.
We were aboard Azura, which was launched in 2010 and is one of the newest ships in the P&O line. It is marketed as a family-friendly ship and the 3000 passengers seemed to be of all ages.
The boarding at Southampton was exceptionally quick. We were expecting to get on board by perhaps mid-afternoon but, in fact, we were able to sit down to lunch on the ship and enjoy the views of Southampton from the top deck.
After the Saturday evening and all of Sunday at sea, the first port of call on the Monday was Stavanger. Norway’s fourth-biggest city with a population of 120,000, Stavanger was a thriving fishing and canning city until oil was discovered in the North Sea in the second half of the 20th century. Now it is known as the petroleum capital of Norway.
As with all cruise ships, there are daytrips at a price and the most popular one was to Pulpit Rock. However, it is for the more adventurous as it takes a boat trip, a bus trip and a hike to reach the aptly named rock platform, which sits an astonishing 600m above sea level.
We settled for a more sedate hop-on/hop-off bus tour of Stavanger, which stopped at the usual mix of churches, cathedrals and museums, and allowed us plenty of time to explore the town centre and the local markets.
Azura then headed north and spent about eight hours winding its way through the 200km-long Sognefjord — the world’s longest navigable fjord with magnificent mountains and stunning waterfalls — to dock at the small village of Skjolden.
Basically, there is little to do in Skjolden itself except enjoy a walk around the bay and admire the scenery. The arrival of a cruise ship floods the local shops and cafes but you can travel inland and enjoy the mountain scenery of Jotunheimen National Park and the spectacular Jostedal Glacier.
The weather was perfect the next day as we weaved through the narrow channels of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Geirangerfjord, with its sheer mountain walls and cascading waterfalls, some of which have been given names such as the Seven Sisters Falls, the Bridal Veil and the Suitor.
We anchored at the village of Geiranger, Norway’s most-visited tourist site. The village has a population of only 300 but is geared up for visitors as it sees about three cruise ships every week.
Incredibly, the steep hillsides were farmed by some hardy Norwegians up until the 60s and there are stories that children working on the tiny plots of land had to be tethered to stop them falling off the slopes.
Again, we decided the local sightseeing bus was the best way to see the surrounding countryside and it was a great choice. Forget hopping on and hopping off. It only had two stops, both high up the mountains and reached only after some brilliant driving on a narrow road with hairpin bend after hairpin bend as it zigzagged up the mountain side.
At Flydalsjuvet viewpoint, we were close to the snowline and the scenery was terrific, with the cruise ship not much more than a white dot at the head of the fjord.
The fourth and final port of call was Bergen, Norway’s second-biggest city with a population of a little over 250,000. Bergen has been around for hundreds of years, was always a major trading port and was the site of the first royal coronation in Norway in 1163.
The city is surrounded by hills and the best way to get an overall impression of the place is to take the short journey by funicular railway to the top of Mt Floyen and enjoy the panoramic view.
Back at sea level, it’s hard to avoid being tempted by what is on offer at the city’s famous fish markets.
A meal of fresh fish and prawns on a skewer brought to an end a four-day taste of the pleasures of Norway.