Good fortune and a 30th birthday celebration gave us the opportunity to take a cruise, just a few weeks after returning from Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the summer of 2019.
The cruise in question had us sail up the coast of Norway, with stops in Alesund, Bergen, Flaam and Stavanger. Despite it being the height of summer, temperatures were low and rain, even snow, was forecast over the course of the week.
Sailing through the Aurlandsfjord and Sognefjords
Setting off from Southampton aboard the Britannia, fortunately not the same journey that made the news because of a mass brawl a few weeks later, was an occasion in itself. Climatised to the hustle and bustle of airport travel, the journey was very much a key part of the holiday here, and the Britannia didn’t disappoint.
P&O Britannia –
The cruise ship itself was huge. That may sound obvious, but when inside it was often like trying to navigate a town. Staff were fantastic, and despite the huge amount of people on board, this only really became apparent when getting on or off ship.
The room we called home for the week was without a window, but this was no bad thing. Something of respite from what otherwise might be an overwhelming amount of water lapping at the flanks of the ship. The room had air condition and heating, meaning we were kept cosy and comfortable when away from the lights and noise of the floating city.
The P&O Britannia docked in Stavanger
The extras on board were exceptional, and an experience far beyond what you could expect from any other accommodation or transport. Gareth Gates singing at the Limelight Club, dressing up for in best suits on a couple of nights, posh restaurants and free buffets, all gave us the chance to really enjoy what was in actual fact the commuting stage of our holiday.
In between stops, announcements gave us the chance to get up at sunrise, around 5am, to enjoy travelling up the coast of Norway on top deck. This floating metropolis weaving through the staggeringly beautiful Norwegian fjords, Aurlandsfjord and Sognefjord. Despite essentially being on a floating town, the peacefulness of the fjords at the crack of dawn on a cold morning was a wonderful experience.
The first port of call in Norway was the old wooden town of Stavanger. Famous for having a disproportionate number of fires, especially given the deluge of rain we experienced in our day there, it is a beautiful, predominantly wooden town of many colours on one side, and white on the other.
Taking a guided tour through the streets of the old town, we went through the historically preserved white wooden buildings and down into the trading quarters before up to the cathedral.
Stavanger, like much of Norway, boasts a rich history of trading but is now overwhelmed by cruise ship tourists (like us) arriving by the thousand at any one time. Stopping for a drink at a café on the multicoloured Ovre Holmegate, we did a bit of jellyfish spotting in the harbour before visiting a museum which depicted how a typical Norwegian family would have lived, back long before the modern market for fridge magnets and postcards came to fruition.
A Norwegian flag on one of the many white houses in Stavanger
Alesund and the Strajndafell fjords –
The first of two days of tours took us from Alesund to the mountains. Stopping on the way to take in some of the more inland fjords, and an optional troll museum. The troll being mythically synonymous with Norway.
We ascended through impossibly winding, mountain roads by bus to a ferry and over to a cable car which fed up until the whitening hills.
The cable car took us up into a pure white mountain, covered in snow, with a blizzard still falling. Whilst this seriously impacted the views of the fjord below, the experience of snow falling so heavily in July was something in itself, and the café and waffles we were provided with at the summit was worthy compensation.
Snow in July atop a mountain near Alesund
Our second major tour was in Flaam, with a trip down the famous, winding railway.
Our first stop from the bus out took us to a waterfall just off the main road. An impressive natural wonder, the fall itself is strangely off private land, a quirk of Norway’s land ownership, and therefore sits as strangely untouched.
A large waterfall on private land on the way to Flaam
Arriving at Flaam, we went for a buffet lunch before heading out to explore the city. Stopping at a café on the coast, we walked past the cathedral and up to the train station where we went on a journey through the Norwegian countryside.
We stopped and changed trains at another station, which enabled us to head down the winding route of the mountainside. Along the way, stopping off at another waterfall, just off the railway platform, with music playing, before re-embarking on our way back down to the station near the port.
Bergen was our final stop in Norway and it didn’t disappoint.
We decided to forego the organised tours, partly because we felt we had done two main tours in the previous couple of days, but also to bookend our time in Norway with the chance to relax at our own pace in a comparatively large city.
Our first stop was the funicular railway up Mount Floyen. As a note, we had pre-purchased tickets on the ship and went to the funicular first allowing us to get on fairly seamlessly. However, as we descended it was clear that had we not been so prompt to go here, we would have been queuing for a considerable time – not ideal when on a strict, non-flexible deadline to get back on board ship. This is the jewel for Bergen though, as the views from the top of the funicular are absolutely incredible, and there are parks and lakes to enjoy for those who want to avoid the crowds in the city itself.
The view of Bergen from the top of the funicular railway
Walking down through the main square, we picked up some lunch before going down to the Magic Ice Bar. Not dissimilar to what you would find in a number of major cities with a bar in sub-zero temperatures, with the seats and glasses made of ice, but the chance to enjoy a drink in such an environment is always a pleasure!
On our way back up through the town, we went past the almost cliché Norwegian wooden buildings and structures, picking up some final souvenirs before getting back on the open waters to the UK’s south coast.
The colourful buildings of Bergen
It’s fair to say that the cruise was a fantastic experience, regardless of where it had been, and when placed directly in comparison to Norway, it works less expensive as you might expect. Norway on the other hand is extremely expensive – not just in an eco-friendly, sin tax way, but in terms of general affordability. Not helped by us having just come back from the Balkans, which is significantly cheaper than the UK let alone anywhere else. To say Norway is three or four times more expensive for any item you might see in the UK, from alcohol to fruit and veg, would not be an exaggeration. Whilst it sounds like a negative, and inevitably has an impact of nightlife and social meetups, it does mean that the cruise experience adds to this and is the perfect excuse to splash out on such a trip.
Whilst there is a certain restriction to having a set off and return time, this may be at the saving of a lot in terms of car rental and hotel bookings, and really does provide an incredible experience.
Article and images by Tom McBeth & Natasha Bryan