August 21, 2014
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Norway: How Cool

At latitude 71 north, the country can dazzle you with its picturesque fjords, vast glaciers and brave huskies mushing across the tundra.

Fjords never looked so good.

Fjords never looked so good.

 

It’s 8 p.m., early July in the Land of the Midnight Sun, the world above the Arctic Circle where for several weeks the sun never sets. I know it’s summertime because I’ve already seen the purple heather blanketing the landscape and goats grazing on the rooftops of grass-sodded cabins. I’ve seen beautiful bare-armed Scandinavians soaking up the rays along the seawalls of centuries-old harborfronts and sidewalk cafes. And I’ve seen what I’ve dreamed of seeing all my life—the morning sun slicing like Viking swords through jagged mountains, casting ethereal light on the ribbons of deep water called fjords, where melting glaciers cut through the mountains in the last days of the Ice Age.

But at this particular moment, the world is enshrouded in a dense gray fog. In its folds looms a dramatically stark cliff, presiding over the last significant land mass between my luxury ship, Serenity, and the North Pole. On deck, a lone crew member in a yellow slicker provides the single spot of color here at latitude 71 north: Nordkapp (North Cape), Norway. Icy polar winds are whipping my hair across my face, sea spray into my eyes and threatening to toss my 105-pound frame into the deep. I’m still wearing dance shoes from my waltz class with world champions Ashleigh and Ryan Di Lello. But I may never pass this way again, and the considerable sacrifice of even a moment with Ashleigh and Ryan, or the mere lack of proper wardrobe, cannot stop me from leaving my partner mid-step, to waltz from the glass-walled top-deck dance floor into the elements.

An hour earlier, we’d received the disappointing news that we were sailing past the famous landmark, but zero visibility prevented any views. That’s the nature of nature, especially here at the top of the world. But unbeknownst to his passengers, Capt. Birger Vorland was monitoring a break in fog behind us and decided to swing around for another sail-by.

“Swinging around” a 791-foot, 68,000-ton ship isn’t exactly easy, but Crystal Cruises is renowned for performing extraordinary feats of indulgence for its passengers. This surreal moment—and dozens of other sweet ones to come—is tucked into my 15-day voyage through the fjords of Norway like cloudberries on the Arctic moors.

The western coast of Norway consists of some 50,000 islands, spanning 1,100 miles as the gull flies. But if you count its inlets, coves, beaches and fjords, you can add another 12,000 miles to the coastline. The region shares its north latitude with Siberia, but its position in the Norwegian Current, part of the Gulf Stream, creates balmy air and temperate summers. Everything’s relative, of course, from our Southwest Florida perspective at latitude 26.1, barely north of the Tropic of Cancer. I’m glad to have packed both my short sleeves and my Patagonia jacket. My traveling companion and son, Christopher, who works on a remote island in the South Pacific (latitude 17.7 south) and doesn’t own a pair of gloves, is re-learning the fine art of layering.

The Crystal Serenity, ranked by Conde Nast Traveler as the world’s top luxury ship in its class, has just undergone an extreme makeover, particularly in its coveted Crystal Penthouses, and on this sailing, “North Cape and Beyond,” I’m on a mission to see if the renovations can possibly live up to the hype.

Oh yes, they can. I’m not just talking about the sophisticated elegance of the glass-walled balcony suites with walk-in closets and massive Jacuzzi baths. Or my suite attendants, Gloria and Ines, and white-gloved butler, Danijel, who appears at the touch of a button in his morning coat with my breakfast of Norwegian salmon or whatever else my heart desires. I don’t mind any of that, one bit. Or the lavish, themed food and wine presentations. I’m also talking about the refreshing, casual-chic new look that fits an emerging paradigm of cruise traveler who wants to pack fewer gowns and jewels and spend more time indulging in fitness, spa, cultural and enrichment programs at sea. They want eco-friendly and hypoallergenic environments, and healthful (though not necessarily less extraordinary) food choices. Savvy cruise travellers—and especially travelers who aren’t convinced that cruising is their style—demand increasingly creative and adventurous shore excursions.

The most stressful aspect of this dream-come-true sailing on the most luxurious cruise ship in the world, through the most dramatic fjords on the planet, is narrowing down the choices. A surreal moment can happen in an instant, onboard and onshore. Here are some of mine.

 

Copenhagen: A Reunion

For our Norway adventure, we board the ship in Copenhagen. The staterooms haven’t yet opened for guests, so there’s a heady air of anticipation as arriving passengers mingle in the glamorous Crystal Plaza. While violinists play and waiters glide around with trays of champagne, I’m staring, unblinking, at the gangway like a loyal dog waiting for its human to come home. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen my firstborn, and every wave of incoming passengers would have set my tail wagging, if I’d had one. Some new acquaintances are gently amused. Two (or possibly three) bubbly refills later, I can’t wait another second. Leaving my carry-on in the care of my sympathetic new friends, I retrace my steps to the port entrance. As I reach the security gate, that tall, handsome man whose stride I know so well reaches it, too. The months between dissolve in an instant. I can’t stop smiling.

It’s midway through the citywide Copenhagen Jazz Festival, and the entire population appears to be out along the picturesque pastel-hued waterfront, Nyhavn, celebrating the warm weather and the music. We check out the geography of the square at Amalienborg Palace for tomorrow’s changing of the guard, one of my must-do photo ops in every royal city. I’m most enchanted by the wooden boats at anchor on the quay, and the narrow cobblestoned lanes of the old quarter, especially the maze of tile roofed houses along Sankt Paulsgade in paintbox shades of deep ochre, yellow and red.

 

Norway: Arctic Garden at the Top of the World

I discover it completely by accident, having missed my turn into the Tromsø city center. Who would expect that this leading base of polar expeditions also claims the world’s northernmost botanical garden? There’s no admission to the Arctic-alpine Botanic Garden. No gift shop, no docents, no gardeners in sight. Only a few people, silently walking the terraced paths that spill over with brilliant flowers, both familiar and new, their faces turned to the sun and their backs to jagged snow-peaked mountains. It feels like a garden of the gods. I can’t remember where I was headed before making this wrong turn, but the best moments often happen just this way.

 

Hiking with Huskies

We hear the howling before our bus comes to a stop at Tromsø Villmarkssenter, where 300 young Alaskan huskies are training to become sled dogs. The owner and lead trainer, Tove Sørensen, was once named Most Inspirational Musher in Alaska’s Iditarod, and she has competed many times in Europe’s longest dog sled race, Finnmarksløpet. In summer, her dogs think a hike across the tundra with adoring tourists is like vacation. We hikers get to take turns harnessing ourselves to a pup. The goal is to remain upright as it bounds over the mushy, peat-like moors and through a boreal forest of fragrant Christmas trees. Boots are provided.

Christopher and his dog bond like old souls, and later he serves as ballast when one exuberant pup proves too much for a teenage guest. I had planned to take my turn, but a good news/bad news incident caused a slight revision in the agenda. The bad news: This same pup, running in joyful circles, executed a perfect lasso around my ankles, sending me to a nice cushy seat of heather and—what is this?—cloudberries! That’s definitely the good news. The juicy orange fruit, which look a lot like raspberries except they grow like groundcover, is the Arctic’s most cherished. As a guest on this private moor, I have permission to pick them, which is good, because poachers in these parts can do some serious jail time.

After our hike, there’s cake and coffee in the lavvo, a traditional-style shelter of the indigenous Sami reindeer herders.

The view from the Troll Road.

The Troll Road

While Christopher strikes out on an all-day hike to test his new Nordic walking poles, I opt for a full day of fjord viewing from the vantage point of ski lifts, ferries and one adrenaline- pumping, 11-hairpin mountain road.

The Geiranger-Trollstigen Road—Troll Road for short—is among the steepest roads in Norway, and that’s saying something. It features sheer cliffs, lush green hillsides dotted with isolated white houses and red barns, and the main event: deep fjords surrounded by rugged mountains that pre-date the Ice Age. On the ascent to the top, one can encounter occasional obstructions in the forms of reindeer, large tour buses executing scary three-point turns and, some say, trolls. I believe it, because it’s said that when a troll is exposed to sunlight it turns to stone. And if you look closely, you can see their less-than-harmonious faces etched into the mountainsides. The excursion includes a stop in a small farming village for a lunch of traditional Norwegian fare.

 

Tea, Scones and Clotted Cream

I’ve sipped tea in some of the most amazing places on earth, from Russian tearooms and Asian palaces to English castles—and my fjord-view table on the Lido deck aboard Crystal Serenity ranks among one of my sweetest tea moments. White-gloved, black-tie waiters move gracefully among the guests with polished silver trays and carts laden with tiny sandwiches and pastries, none so perfectly presented than the one bearing fresh-baked scones, strawberries and clotted cream. Tiny villages glide by. Ancient mountains watch in silence.

 

Bergen Fish Market

Christopher has plans for a flightseeing tour of the fjords. I’m on my own in the ancient town of Bergen, established in 1050, capital of Fjordland, stronghold of Vikings and home of kings. The waterfront architecture with its gargoyles, artful doorways and a fearsome bronze sea dragon fascinate me, but I’m more drawn to the cacophony of sounds and smells of the open market at wharfside. Fishermen in orange waders are unloading fresh-caught king crab, salmon, shrimp and herring to display under the red canvas awnings; a savory fish soup is bubbling in a giant cauldron; and the fragrance of fresh-baked baguettes mixes deliciously with the salty air. Sami vendors are selling smoked reindeer and elk, and there’s a silhouette of a Viking ship among the fishing vessels. From my stone bench on the far side of the quay, I admire the pointy roofs of the row of 1700s wooden houses painted red, yellow and orange. If it hadn’t started to drizzle, I might be sitting there still.

 

Views from the Balcony

There’s no sleeping in for me on port days in the Land of the Midnight Sun. The most spectacular views occur early mornings as we sail toward our day’s harbor. Some mornings, giant white cotton puffs and gossamer scarf-clouds float low over the emerald hillsides, punctuated with fairy-sized farm cottages and pretty church steeples. Other days, we’re treated to an outrageously colorful Art Nouveau cityscape, or layer upon layer of jagged mountains in shades of silver, blue and gray, softened by foamy white waterfalls emptying into the cobalt-blue fjords.

 

Jostedal Glacier Hike

Can I pinpoint one clear highlight of a 15-day cruise through the Norwegian fjords? Hard to say, but trekking up a steep mountainside to touch a two-million-year-old field of ice is most certainly up there. We catch a public bus from the tiny village of Olden to the 300-squaremile Jostedal Glacier National Park, home of Norway’s largest glacier. The path to a fingerling at the glacier’s base is blacktopped, sacrificing some of the ruggedness of the experience, but it’s a steep enough climb to elevate the heart rate. Wildflowers spike their way up through lush meadows and goats graze behind an old post fence. There are craggy overlooks, a bridge high above a fast-flowing ice melt, and a raging waterfall spraying an icy mist across the landscape. The experience is spiritually exhilarating and physically exhausting, and back on board, a long Jacuzzi soak gives me time to change gears. The boots and Polartec are tucked away in exchange for a sparkly dress and deliciously impractical stilettos.

Later, after a Broadway-quality show and our gourmet Italian feast in Prego, Serenity’s five-star Italian restaurant, I’m refreshed and ready for dancing till dawn (if there was a dawn).

Sleep can wait. We have a whole day at sea soon, and there’s a private glass-walled sauna calling my name.

 

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