ABOARD THE M/V VIKING SEA — We cross 66-degrees, 33.8 minutes north latitude, better known as the Arctic Circle, just after midnight; hot golden sunshine is everywhere, as though someone had spilled it.
Summer in northern Norway is the time of the midnight sun, when sunrise and sunset are virtually indistinguishable. Around midnight there is for a moment a flickering bluish twilight, but then the sun reasserts itself. Dusk segues into dawn, illuminating a ripe pumpkin sky streaked with pink.
At first it seems an aberration, a sleight-of-hand. Adding to my disorientation is the temperature. It’s 23C!
We are at the same latitude as Alaska and Russia, but the Gulf Stream flows up from Florida to Norway’s west coast, keeping temperatures moderate. Norway, I decide, should declare the Gulf Stream a national treasure.
The guidebooks say that the currency of Norway is the kroner, but in reality it’s scenery — and after a few days I feel like I’ve won the lottery. And it’s is available 24 hours a day in the summer. I struggle to keep up with it all.
Jagged granite mountains, capped by glaciers, drop straight into the sea. Green mountains, with thick pine and birch forests, provide backdrops for farms and fishing villages. But Mother Nature’s masterpiece is the fjords, narrow elongated seas surrounded on three sides by towering walls. Language founders amid it all.
Above: Before reaching Norway, passengers aboard the Viking Sea get to explore the Shetlands.
Our journey actually began where time begins, in Greenwich, a borough of London, and home to the Prime Meridian, longitude zero, the beginning and end of Greenwich Mean Time. We cruise down the Thames into the North Sea and, after a quick stop in Edinburgh, we began our northward journey in earnest.
Our first stop is the Orkneys, some 75 low, treeless islands scattered over a wide area where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. They are home to some 21,000 people, all of whom pay taxes to Scotland but most of whom think of themselves first and foremost as Orcadians. It’s an agrarian society, and at the harbour in the capital of Kirkwall, there is a stiff wind that carries the lusty odours of earth and livestock .
In the middle of town people are walking with well-mannered dogs and the few shops all have bowls of water out for their canine customers. The skyline is dominated by St. Magnus Cathedral, Romanesque and majestic, with alternating red and yellow sandstone.
The next morning we approached the Shetlands, more than 100 islands that comprise the northernmost part of the United Kingdom. The Viking Sea was scheduled to dock at the capital of Lerwick, but high winds prevented this; instead we anchored in the bay and rode tenders into the harbour.
As I stepped on the dock, the wind got up on its hind legs, and I anchored my hat with my hand. Atop the Town Hall, the Union Jack was snapping as though trying to free itself from some agony. I recall that Ian Rankin, the Scottish mystery author, wrote somewhere that the Shetland wind can “strip the skin off your face.”
There’s nothing pretty about Shetland. Rather its wild beauty has a haunting, ethereal quality, and the landscape is hallucinatory.
After a full day at sea, we crossed the Arctic Circle and a few hours later we saw a wall of jagged granite peaks stretching across the entire horizon. This is the Lofoten Archipelago and these mountains were sculpted during the Ice Age. We docked at the town of Leknes, whose main thoroughfare was very quiet, but it was weather-perfect — a day to be sniffed, rolled on the tongue and drunk slowly.
During the night, the Viking Sea has moved to Honningsvag, a collation of weathered fishermen’s houses that is one of many claimants to the world’s northernmost village. But it is the gateway to Nordkapp, the North Cape, which we reached by a 35-kilometre coach ride on an undulating, 1-1/2-lane ribbon of a road. Reindeer looked up as we passed.
En route we were treated to spectacular vistas and glimpses of life among the principal inhabitants of the region — the Indigenous Sami people, traditional reindeer herders and Europe's northernmost Indigenous group. They used to be called Lapps, but this is now considered a derogatory term. Many continue to wear ancestral red and blue felt clothing.
Above: Bergen is a compact city surrounded by the sea and mountains and its homes are neatly gathered along the harbour.
When we reach Nordkapp, we climbed up a 300m cliff and stared into the Barents Sea.
That night, the Viking Sea moved some 500km southwest to Tromso, the largest town inside the Arctic Circle. Among its 75,000 inhabitants are some 15,000 university students. Tromso’s harbour was prickling with masts and wooden houses painted bright colours gave it a festive look.
The days are still infinite here, but the midnight sun was hiding behind a thick cloud cover. The great upheavals of the Lyngen Alps provided the main scenic attraction, but within the town the major sight was the Arctic Cathedral, whose triangular shape represents the open-air timber racks used to dry cod throughout northern Norway.
We began heading south and re-crossed the Arctic Circle, but instead of following the coast we took an inside passage. The scenery was no less spectacular — more jagged mountains robed in clouds and topped by snow.
When we reach Molde, we’ve left the midnight sun. Dawn came at 2:34 a.m. and sunset would be at 10:30 p.m. The day’s commerce had begun in downtown Molde, and locals emerged from trendy shops loaded down with packages. Norway, once one of the world’s poorest countries, is today one of its wealthiest. It has the highest standard of living in Europe, thanks to the fishing industry and highly profitable oil and natural gas industries.
Because Molde was heavily bombed in World War II, nearly all its buildings are new, including the cathedral, which was completed in 1957. An unusual feature is a free-standing bell tower next to the main building.
After 13 days I thought I had reached scenery overload, but when we entered the Geiranger fjord I found I was wrong. This is the poster-child of Norwegian scenery.
The Viking Sea was dwarfed by sheer cliffs on either side, Thick, silver ribbons of water fell 250m, shimmering with slanting shafts of light and shadow. Small wonder the entire fjord is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The fjord ends at the village of Geiranger (population 225), where we board a coach that took us up some 1,000m to an overlook. When we passed the tree line, we burst through the clouds and the sun came out in a bright blue sky. Norway’s scenery is a gift perfected over the centuries.
“It’s all very simple,” the guide tells me. “Norway is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and this is one of the most beautiful places in Norway.”
We leave the Viking Sea at Bergen, the ancient Norwegian capital. Today it is most famous for Bryggen, a cluster of brightly painted wooden buildings near the harbour that first appeared as part of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of commercial towns established in the 13th century.
Bergen is known as the city of rain because on average it rains 250 days a year, and today was one of them.
There are endless rounds of jokes about Bergen’s rain (tourist goes up to a boy and asks, “Does it ever stop raining here?” Boy replies, “I don’t know, I’m only 7”).