Vik­ings were here

Norse mythol­ogy adds to the al­lure of a Scan­di­na­vian cruise

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - SUE WAL­LACE

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

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