Norway is an absolutely beautiful country, and after spending several months working on a cruise ship that sailed up and down the Norwegian coast and into several of its fjords, I really got to know several of the country’s cities, towns and villages in a way that your average cruise passenger never will. From olde worlde clapboard fishermen’s houses to industrial and not very pretty looking warehouse-filled towns, snow capped mountains and tundra scattered with reindeer, to wide open fields scattered with apple trees, this is a country of contrasts that I wasn’t expecting. So here, in no particular order, is a very brief guide to every port that we stopped at during my time on the ship.
The city of Bergen was my introduction to Norway, and probably the busiest port that we docked at, always chockablock full of a combination of locals and tourists. It’s the first place I ever saw reindeer meat for sale, and the first place a Norwegian ever struck up a conversation with me (after two and a half months of exploring the country. I don’t think Norwegians are rude, it’s just that they tend to keep themselves to themselves) A bustling university city (although size-wise its still very much on the small side), most visitors to Bergen head straight for the famous UNESCO site of Bryggen- colourful wooden commercial buildings from back in the days when Bergen was a major Hanseatic port. Founded in the 1000s, it’s a pretty city in the shadow of the mountains that surround it, with tonnes to do in the form of museums, shopping and heading up mountainsides. Good times all around.
Sailing up Geirangerfjord to reach the minuscule village of Geiranger is a magical experience, pals. Surrounded by steep mountains on all sides, this is the inspiration for Elsa’s kingdom in Frozen (don’cha know), and is one of Norway’s most visited ports. When a sunbeam illuminates the silver sliver of a waterfall cascading down the mountainside, or you notice the droplets of melted snow-water dripping over ferns and flowers to your side, there is no denying the beauty of this place. I loved getting off the ship here and heading straight up the mountain in a new direction; the village really is tiny with only a few permanent residents, though I felt as if whilst tourism plays a big part in the economy here, it’s kind of insane to see two or three ships moor in the fjord and deposit several thousand people into such a small space. To see Geiranger without the cruise ships must be something truly special.
And here we have… Getting to Know Geiranger!
Oh Molde. Molde, Molde, Molde. I have to be honest here guys. Molde and I just did not get on. Partly because something bad always seemed to happen when we docked here (starvation due to no food in crew mess but all the restaurants unexpectedly closed/debit card eaten by the ATM leaving me without cash for a month/ bad news just happening to be delivered whenever we were docked here, but really that’s surely not Molde’s fault), and partly because I just didn’t see the appeal of the place at all. Although in fairness, it didn’t help that we only docked here at around 2.30pm which was too late to really get any further away than the immediate vicinity of the ship. Apparently this town is famous for two things- it’s roses, and it’s jazz festival- which may well be true, but alas, I saw only a high street of drab buildings (although every now and again managed to spy something slightly more interesting, like the pictures below), and the town quickly became known as ‘Mouldy Molde.’ Soz, Molde.
The petite town of Åndalsnes is known as ‘The Mountaineering Capital of Norway’, and I can see why; it really is the gateway to many a hiking or climbing route through the mountains. (Plus they have a Mountaineering Centre right next to the port which really hammers it home that climbing things is what they’re all about round here.) Docking here was a similar situation to Molde, in that we were only there for a few hours, in this case in the morning, meaning that not many crew actually managed to see the town at all. In my final week of our Norwegian route, I finally mustered up the strength to drag myself out of bed, off the ship, and begin climbing uphill, and was absolutely delighted that I did it. Go, me! So pals, the town is nothing special to look at, but the surrounding nature is incredible and sailing away up the wide fjord looking out at the cloud-topped mountains is also nothing short of spectacular.
Have a little look at I Finally Got off the Boat in Åndalsnes!!
I really like Stavanger. The city is a small one, meaning you can walk wherever you need to go, and you can really get a sense of each different area as you walk, from the rows of white wooden fishermen’s houses lining higgledy-piggledy cobbled lanes, to the very hip-looking and brightly coloured shops and cafes on the other side of the harbour, splashed with the odd graffiti-d Norwegian troll grinning back at you from the walls. As a real fan of hunting out a good independent coffee shop (seriously I consider it a very important part of getting a non-touristy tourist experience), Stavanger is full of cozy places to grab a coffee and cake, which gets it bonus points in my opinion. The city used to be a key player in the canning industry (strange but true story, they even have a museum dedicated to it), and now its main money-maker is oil. It’s also from Stavanger that we were able to visit the absolutely gobsmackingly incredible Preikestolen- a slab of cliff that towers above the fjord below like a tombstone. It was a hilariously scary hike at points but it was worth it.
If you feel like learning more…here’s something I wrote earlier…
The furthest North of our regular ports of call, and therefore often the chilliest even in mid-Summer (any more Northerly towns were one-offs), Trondheim contains one seriously old Gothic cathedral, and a whole load of beautiful brightly coloured wooden warehouses. This was another one of the busier ports that we called at, with a great selection of independent shops. In the winter, I’m told that the city is a great base for watching the Northern Lights, though in the Summer time when we were visiting, this was obviously not a possibility. Alas!
For more about this historical place…take a look at this
I love Eidfjord. This part of Norway is well-known for growing apples, and I always appreciated getting off here and heading to my favourite coffee shop (sorry to bang on about coffee, but in Norway of all places it’s important to find your favourite place for a cuppa, mainly because the temperature can suddenly dip or the rain can suddenly start and hinder all your hiking plans), getting a locally-made apple juice, and a coffee, and a salad, and maybe a cake (because truly in the crew mess such things as these are hard to come by), and just chilling out till the rain cleared. Aside from the little village, Eidfjord is another place which is perfect for just heading off into the nature and strolling like there’s no tomorrow. Although there are a few uphill climbs around here, I found open fields filled with lambs and flowers, pine trees closely packed together, and a massive lake which was perfect for chilling out by.
Honningsvåg is the furthest North town on the mainland of Norway, located above the tree line, and is the closest port to Nordkapp (or North Cape), another one of those towering cliffs looming over the water below it. In this case, the water is the icy cold North Sea, and it was very surreal to disembark from the ship in broad-but-gloomy daylight in the middle of the night and make our way across the tundra past little gatherings of white reindeer to reach this most Northerly point of Europe. The town itself is so isolated that I found the atmosphere here a chilling one (pardon the pun), although- granted- it was literally the middle of the night when we arrived, so would have been even more silent than in the daytime.
For an extremely honest account of my visit to Nordkapp, have a read of this: Expectation vs Reality
I’ll be honest here. We arrived in Hammerfest the day after my birthday, and having celebrated the night before I wasn’t feeling too fresh on the morning in question. The only real reason I left the ship was to uncover some buried treasure which my pal had hidden for me underneath a rock outside the port. His ship had docked in Hammerfest the week before, and knowing that I’d be there too, he’d hidden a snow globe from Nordkapp, artfully wrapped in a plastic bag, for me to discover with the help of some clues. It’s like a modern-day Arctic-themed Treasure Island, ya know!
Considering that Hammerfest is one of the oldest towns in Norway, I was pretty shocked discover that anything I could see looked decidedly modern. It turns out that when the Nazis arrived during WWII they were ordered to leave absolutely nothing standing, so practically the entire town was rebuilt from scratch after the war ended. What terrible creatures humans are. Weirdly considering that there hasn’t been a single polar bear around these parts for thousands of years, Hammerfest is home to the Royal and Ancient Polar Bear Society, and there seem to be references to polar bears all over the small town. It turns out that back in the day the town was the starting point for many a hunting expedition to Svalbard, and when the hunters returned with polar bear cubs, they were shipped out from here to zoos across the world. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What terrible creatures humans are.
Guys. I never actually stepped on land when we arrived at Svalbard. I’m literally putting it here anyway because it’s the furthest North I’ve ever travelled in my entire life, I still think that’s pretty cool, and I still appreciated it even though I wasn’t allowed off the boat that day. (Though I was pretty sad that it was my turn to stay on board, don’t get me wrong. It was rather tricky seeing my pals head off to see some husky puppies while I waved them farewell and made do with walking laps around the top deck in the icy air)
Svalbard is part of Arctic Norway, and it took us a day to reach it from the mainland. No children or pregnant women are allowed to live here because it’s too isolated to receive quick medical care, and the majority of those who do live in this icy outpost are here for scientific research purposes only. Even the houses are only temporarily put up, because they need to be able to move quickly should there be an avalanche. Leaving Svalbard was one of the most beautiful moments ever; the water was like glass, and in the distance we could see clearly the white peaks of mountains and pathways of glaciers pouring in extreme slow motion into the sea. What a strange and beautiful world.
The actual cruising bit
Although under normal circumstances I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a cruise to anyone (partly because I appreciate getting longer than a few hours to explore somewhere, partly because of the crowds of people you’ll be landing at each port with, and partly because there’s no arguing with the fact that while technology is improving the situation, cruise ships are a massive pollutant to the environment), there is something really special about sailing through mountains and fjords, especially in as surreal a place as this, where you can sometimes be outside in the Arctic sunshine at midnight. It may have been a decidedly cold Summer compared to what I’m used to, but there’s still something kind of magical about this beautiful country which is unlike anywhere else in the world.