A cruise that will leave you giddy
BREATHTAKING LANDSCAPES, SUMPTUOUS LUXURY AND SERVICE – AND A FEW WONDERFUL DRAMS THROWN IN FOR GOOD MEASURE. WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE ABOUT A NORSE CRUISE? LOUISE CAHILL SETS SAIL TO FIND OUT
IT was time for a taste of Scotch whisky. But alas not time for the $299 shot at a tasting session onboard Koningsdam, Holland America’s first Pinnacle Class ship. My husband Ron and I are enjoying the seven-day Norse Legends cruise from Amsterdam, sailing to Eidfjord, Hardangerfjord, Ålesund, Geiranger, Bergen and Amsterdam.
We find ‘Notes’, an illuminated bar and seating area, showcasing more than 120 bottles of whisky, of which 69 are Scotch. Among these is the $299-per-shot one – a rare bottle of 36-year-old Royal Lochnagar, one of three owned by the ship.
Beverage manager Mariusz welcomes us, saying: “We try to consolidate the world of whisky in one place”, and tells us about the different tasting experiences, including bourbon, tatoosh and the connoisseur’s collection.
We eschew the priciest and sample (slowly!) a Macallan 18-year-old, at $45 per shot. Fiji water’s our companion – but not mixed with this precious whisky. Speyside rules, with the three most popular whiskies.
Feeling mellow, we note the Music Walk near Notes. At night-time, three venues are packed with guests, choosing from different genres including rock and blues, chart-toppers played by two pianists, and classical. We continue to be captivated by the ship’s music and art focuses; it’s brimming with 1,920 pieces of art, many music-themed such as a wooden, masted ship with a cello as its hull.
But the most captivating aspect of this cruise is its destinations. Sailing towards Eidfjord, our first, we enjoy a gala night in the Pinnacle Grill, one of several speciality restaurants. Its menu includes caviar, lobster bisque, Alaska king crab legs, and a 36oz steak.
Full of fine food, our group awaits dessert. And then the surprise. Holland America pulls out the stops for our first wedding anniversary, proudly presenting us with a chocolate, strawberry and kiwi cake and champagne.
Next day, we dock early, so order room service breakfast in our verandah stateroom on Beethoven deck, before the “Waterfalls and Waffle” excursion, led by guide Matteo. Eidfjord is the innermost settlement on the 179km long Hardangerfjord, the “Queen of Fjords”. The first tourists were attracted about 200 years ago by salmon fishing, when this fish apparently could weigh up to 60lb. Norway now produces farmed salmon and trout and is the second largest seafood exporter.
Norway’s experiencing perfect, hot weather, but Matteo has some sounds advice: “Don’t take sunny days for granted”. He added that people here are fond of weather forecasts, however shortlived they might be. ‘They can last forty minutes!’
On Road 7, linking Bergen and Oslo, our coach climbs past birch, aspen and spruce. We pass summer and weekend cabins, then stop at the stone and gravel walled Sysen Dam, holding back Lake Sysen, the main reservoir for Sy-Sima Hydroelectric Power Station. The scene’s calendar perfect – blue water contrasting with snow.
The best bit’s on the Hardangervidda, Northern Europe’s largest mountain plateau. We’re above the tree line, with snow, grass-roofed cabins and a tough landscape, where Roald Amundsen trained. The Star Wars move The Empire Strikes Back was filmed on the glacier in frozen Finse (Hoth in the film).
Our coachload’s getting peckish as we reach Halne Mountain Lodge, a familyowned and managed business, 3,700 ft above sea level. Long tables are set for hot drinks and waffles with sour cream and jam. Sated, our group listens to Matteo talking about Norwegian fauna – lemmings, moose, arctic fox, bears, and reindeer with hollow hairs which allow them to lie in snow without freezing.
The day’s highlight is Vøringsfossen, a spectacular 182-metre waterfall. We navigate the narrow pedestrian walkways and stop at viewing platforms. A rainbow’s settled on the rocks amid the cascade.
It’s impossible to surpass the Norwegian Fjords’ scenery. But other
scenes are exquisite too. Holland America’s partnered with BBC Earth. To our delight, our cruise is a BBC Earth Experiences feature cruise, and its programme of events, including masterclasses and “Trivia from Earth”, a quiz testing our natural history knowledge, enhance our voyage.
On Lido Deck, we meet two members of the BBC Earth team. Peter Bassett’s a freelance wildlife producer, who has worked with the BBC Natural History Unit for more than 20 years, including on three David Attenborough series. Mike Dilger’s a broadcaster and naturalist (The One Show), who has worked extensively in Scotland and is excited about the plan to re-introduce lynx here.
Peter and Mike (“My binoculars are stitched to my neck”), enthuse about wildlife. Though Ron and I haven’t spotted wildlife, we’re assured by eagle- eyed Peter that it’s there: “You see the fjords but don’t see birds. Mike and I see them and identify them.”
Koningsdam berths in Geirangerfjord, the top destination and star of millions of photos. Like countless visitors before us, we travel up Eagle Road, with its eleven hairpin bends, to the first crowded viewpoint, where cameras go crazy as everyone captures our ship way below, waiting in the serene fjord. There’s more serenity as we travel though a valley, to a landscape like the Siberian tundra. The trees are getting smaller and smaller and then there’s only grass. Eventually, we reach conifers and snow-decorated mountains.
The Herdal Mountain Summer Farm as been used as a pasture farm for 300 years. A few hundred goats are due the following weekend to holiday in this grand mountain setting and most of their milk is sold to a co-operative to make cheese.
Eva, from the Czech Republic, does a sterling job in explaining how brown cheese is made. Their appetites whetted, most people head into one of the many barns, to sample and buy products like brown and white goat’s cheese, and goat’s milk caramels. A summer worker from Namibia sits in another barn, stirring a huge, black pot of steaming whey and milk – the sweet, caramelly smell wafts, while a crowd of penned goat kids clamour for attention nearby.
We long to linger longer, but the highlight sailaway along Geirangerfjord beckons. We rush to the bow and secure a front row position to sail up to The Seven Sisters, a bucket-list, group of waterfalls. Legend says the sisters were unmarried; the bottle-shaped waterfall opposite was named The Suitor after he unsuccessfully courted them.
After the this spectacular show, the temperature drops on deck and crowds disperse. We hover awhile, though, before dinner at Tamarind, the pan-Asian restaurant. The extensive menu includes sushi and sashimi, shrimp-filled wontons, Peking duck, and larger meals divided into Water, Fire, Wood and Earth sections. I choose Earth for Vegetarian. Indonesian-style laksa, served from a teapot, spring rolls, and Thai basil, lychee and yuzu sorbets are yummy. The standard of service is high, as it is everywhere onboard.
As our time on board, one of the last of many highlights is the BBC Earth’s “Planet Earth II in Concert” on the World Stage. Enthralled, a full house watches footage on three huge, panoramic screens, while musicians play a specially composed score to enhance scenes such as racer snakes chasing newly hatched iguanas, a pair of snug sloths, and somersaulting penguins.
Koningsdam’s Norse Legends’ cruise is gasp-worthy. It’s a joy to linger and look closely at astounding scenery, on and off a beautiful ship. And a tot of Scotch whisky helps too.
There were many highlights on the trip, but the astounding Geirangerfjord stood above them all