Vikings were here
Norse mythology adds to the allure of a Scandinavian cruise
Perched on a grassy ridge high above the Norwegian village of Flam, I am recovering from a steep climb that’s left my thighs burning. Just a little out of breath, I declare time out. I need a break from vigorous exercise and pretend the vistas are so magnificent that I simply must stop. So here I am, trying to snap photos as I catch my breath and give my “jelly legs” a break.
Just as I lean against a rock and take in 360-degree views too pretty for words, a couple dressed as if they have stepped off the set of the television series Vikings startles me. A young blonde woman with intricately plaited hair, fur cape and linen dress acknowledges my surprise. “We are only looking like this because of an advertising photo shoot,” she explains.
Her escort, a good-looking chap with Hollywood eyes, dressed in leather and carrying a serious-looking sword, grins broadly. “At least we are friendly, not like the old days.” We all laugh as they rush off to find their photographer. I know I am in old Viking stomping ground, where the fearless warriors once rowed their longboats along sapphire-coloured fjords, but running into two Viking lookalikes does feel a little surreal.
A whistle blows and I hot-foot it down the hill to Vatnahalsen station to board the train back to Flam, where Holland America Line’s sleek MS Eurodam is moored in the deepwater harbour. Pretty, sun-drenched Flam is nestled in western Norway’s Aurlandsfjord, the innermost arm of the world’s second longest fjord, Sognefjord, which stretches halfway to Sweden. It has a permanent population of 450, swelling with tourists in summer; 175 cruise ships dropped anchor last season.
As the Flamsbana train weaves the 20km back to port, spiralling on corkscrew tracks through 20 tunnels mostly dug by hand in the 1920s, the scenery is spectacular. There are ancient snow-capped mountains, steep valleys, forested slopes of myriad greens and tumbling waterfalls, the most impressive of which is Kjosfossen, which not only roars down 225m but, on some days, a young woman with wild hair will appear amid the mist singing a mournful ballad. I’m told it’s a Huldra, a seductive forest creature from old Norse mythology, but discover the sprites are Norwegian Ballet School students who take turns to enchant the crowd.
Back aboard MS Eurodam, I fear my tales of Viking and Huldra encounters might well result in looks that imply I’ve had more than my share of cucumber, lime and vodka cocktails. Among the 2100 passengers on this seven-night Viking Saga circle cruise from Copenhagen there are 351 Australians, and the number increases each season. According to Captain Werner Timmers, who hails from The Netherlands, Australians have fallen in love with Nordic cruises. “I think it’s the ports we stop at that appeal to Australians and there seems to be a fascination with these countries, which are expensive to tour so cruising is a great option,” he says.
Port days include Stavanger, Kristiansand and Oslo in Norway and Gothenburg in Sweden, offering just enough time for a taste. On board, there’s never a dull moment: the daily newsletter lists more than 40 activities on any one day and requires serious perusal. From digital workshops to teeth-whitening sessions, line-dancing lessons to yoga, art auctions to flower arranging, there is something for everyone and all just a few steps from your cabin door.
I gravitate to the loftiest deck, the Crow’s Nest, grab a coffee from the Exploration Cafe and brush up on Norse mythology in the library. I claim a favourite position on the Promenade Deck, too, where people-watching is a pleasurable pastime after collapsing from my daily 5km
deck walk — to justify all those irresistible raspberry macarons. My cosy cabin comes with all the expected trimmings, plus a tub in the ensuite and a balcony that’s definitely the best seat in the house for Norway’s spectacular scenery, with its long fjords, far houses that cling to mountains and tiny villages with brightly painted cottages.
Danni, my cabin steward, ensures all is spick and span and surprises me each night with his creative towel art. In the afternoons, I make a dash to the Green House Spa and Salon’s thermal suite and hydropool to relax in the warm, bubbly mineralised waters then wrap myself in a bathrobe and stretch out on a heated ceramic lounge to gaze out at those fabulous passing views.
Dining is a quandary, with seven restaurants and cafes Fancy a tasty burger or hotdog with a secret sauce and decadent chips? Head to the casual Dive In Terrace Grill for lunch. Maybe Italian tonight? Then it’s Canaletto for the shared plates of eggplant caponata and Vermouthbraised clams, followed by a tasty ricotta ravioli, sauteed veal piccata and decadent tiramisu. My favourite is Tamarind, which serves a tapestry of Southeast Asian, Chinese and Japanese, including a standout pan-seared hoisin and lime-glazed sea bass and Japanese wheat noodles, followed by a nightcap at intimate Silk Den Bar.
At elegant Pinnacle Grill, which also provides a New York Le Cirque dining experience, passengers are treated to a Taste of De Librije degustation menu by Michelin three-star chef Jonnie Boer from The Netherlands. Oysters on the beach, lobster bisque foam and Alaskan crab, baked cod with North Sea shrimps, miso-glazed duck breast and a deconstructed apple pie inspired by a recipe from Boer’s mum’s cannot help but impress.
The two-deck Rembrandt dining room serves formal breakfast and dinner or head to the Lido for buffet ballast. And there’s always cabin service; or join MasterChef wannabes at the culinary arts centre, which draws a crowd eager to discover kitchen secrets while enjoying taste tests and collecting recipes. A galley tour reveals all that goes on behind those swinging doors where 150 staff create 12,000 meals a day.
As for entertainment, there’s a comedian who has a tough gig trying to find the funny bone of passengers from 49 countries, a juggler and magician, plus a polished Broadway-style show. B.B. King’s Blues Club is where we get our Motown on, hit the dance floor and boogie the night away (well, OK, until 11pm) with great singers crooning those old Memphis hits.
Back in my cabin, I step out on the balcony for one long last look at the moonlit waters. And I fall asleep as the stars of Norse mythology — Odin, Thor and Heimdallr, born from nine mothers who could hear the grass grow — dance across my dreams.
Sue Wallace was a guest of Holland America Line.
The pretty village of Flam nestled in Aurlandsfjord, top; MS Eurodam docks in Flam, above left; Green House Spa and Salon, above right; waterfall at Kjosfossen, below