One of the top recent cruise trends, according to CLIA’s State of the Cruise Industry Outlook report this past summer, is: “Travelers warm to chilly destinations.” CLIA projects that the industry will see an increase in popularity of colder climate destinations. Viking Ocean Cruises’ carefully planned 14-day Into the Midnight Sun voyage — a summer sail up nearly 1,000 nautical miles of western Norwegian coastline — is one way for chill seekers to get their thrills. We took this cruise last summer; there will be five more sailings in June and July 2019 and another five in 2020.
For about two months above the Arctic Circle, the luxury of gazing upon soaring fjords, thundering water-falls and clustered hamlets shrouded under skeins of mist can be a 24-hour experience. As the topography is ever-changing, the temptation to miss nothing is strong.
The ship itself, the Viking Sea, is relatively small at nine decks and 930 passengers, which allows it to traverse narrow fjords with nary another vessel in sight. The itinerary is all Norwegian Founder and Chairman Torstein Hagen promises it to be. You may have seen Viking’s alluring TV advertisements, where Hagen extolls (paraphrasing here) that the only scarce commodity is time, and thus, we realize what free time we have is well-spent broadening our minds and collecting experiences through travel. Hagen calls Viking, “The thinking person’s cruise,” and in that vein the pre-cruise packet is housed in a travel pouch embroidered with an Albert Einstein quote, “The important thing is to never stop questioning.”
For the curious traveler who values knowledge in the lap of luxury, this cruise hits all the marks. The personalized documents are the first step in designing the voyage that takes passengers from Bergen to Honningsvag, Norway (the northernmost point in continental Europe), to Scotland and down the Thames river to Greenwich, London.
What largely shapes the individual cruise and subsequent memories is choosing included or optional tours, or both, as scheduling permits. The included “panoramic tour,” led by an informative guide, provides a broad brushstroke of the villages in which the ship docks. The tours that dominate memories (and likely camera storage) are the special optional excursions, may be pricey, but they provide exceptional, well-crafted experiences travelers may be hard-pressed to find, book or traverse on their own. Viking offers about 10 optional shore excursions at each of the 10 ports on this voyage; every outing is distinctive and well-organized.
In the coastal village of Geiranger, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where most of the postcard shots of Norway are taken, a scenic bike tour takes passengers from the bustling and picturesque Geiranger Pier 1600 feet up Opplendskedal mountain, around hairpin turns, past waterfalls, across a hidden 19th-century road and onto a farm where fresh Norwegian waffles await. It’s limited to 12 guests who journey on electric bikes with multiple power levels.
Another optional tour highlight happens on Day 6 in Tromso, a picturesque city, long considered the gateway to the Arctic. Here, an hour away from the port, is the Tromso Wilderness Center on Kvaloya Island (Whale Island) where passengers can visit, play and hike with a few of the 300 Alaskan huskies in residence. These mid-sized, muscular canines regularly compete in winter events, often sledding more than 1,000 miles. Viking passengers aid in their summer workouts, with a dog harnessed around each person’s waist before embarking on a rigorous and exhilarating two-hour hike up uneven and sometimes boggy terrain. Norwegians like to say their country is “powered by nature,” and some guests elected to walk alongside dogs harnessed to other individuals. Before and after, passengers are encouraged to visit the husky pups, walk among the kennels and interact with these gregarious hounds. The Viking Daily newsletter, port talks and daily lectures by resident and visiting historians enhance the experiences.
Norway has 37 national parks that cover 15 percent of the country, and everyone has the unrestricted right of free access to hike, camp or walk anywhere. And, with only 36 people per square mile (coupled with ultra-courteous drivers), Norway was listed as #2 Happiest Country in the World according to the UN Happy Cities report.
For eight days, passengers cross the Arctic Circle (and receive a personalized certificate in their staterooms), see a midnight sun dip into the Norwegian Sea, and walk the edge of the Barents Sea on Nordkapp (North Cape), one of continental Europe’s northernmost and windswept points. The remainder of the voyage takes them to Scotland,
the Shetland and Orkney Islands (to greet Shetland ponies, and walk the 5,000-year-old Standing Stones of Stenness, which predate Stonehenge and are much less crowded), and Edinburgh, ports steeped in Viking history and lore. Greenwich, England, is the last stop, into which Captain Johan Malmberg navigates the narrow Thames with several tugboat and shipboard pilots.
The amount of fascinating information delivered daily on this trip could fill a book, only to be augmented by the Viking Sea’s own carefully curated Viking Heritage museum, and a Viking art app to explore the 86-piece original art collection, including paintings by Edvard Munch, H.M. Queen Sonja of Norway and a stop-in-your-tracks oil on canvas self-portrait by Markus Brendmoe. These, plus two pools, several libraries with books for borrowing, daily British High Tea in the light-filled Wintergarden, and the Spa, with its thermal pool and Scandinavian tradition of sauna, steam and Snow Grotto, ensure time well-spent on sea days. A ninth-floor sports deck with gym equipment, croquet, putting green and shuffleboard is rarely used, and it has a little-known lounge seating area that offers a private and unobstructed perch from which to view sea, sky and fjords. Many passengers vie for spa treatments on sea days, so book early.
Viking Sea guests enjoy views of the Norwegian fjords while strolling the decks of the ship.
Plush staterooms sport sleek Scandinavian style with light fabrics and blonde wood. Every space serves a purpose, be it ample clothing storage, a lighted makeup mirror hidden in the desk, heated bathroom floors or balconies outfitted with table and chairs from which to gaze at breathtaking landscape, swirling clouds and ever-changing colors, or indulge in room service, which is included.
Viking Sea bars, lounges and specialty restaurants are abundant, diverse and casual gathering spots in which passengers convene with new friends to share experiences, all the while surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable furniture and live music via a classical trio or resident pianist in the Explorer’s Lounge and Atrium bar, dance band in Torshavn cabaret lounge or musical revues in the Star Theater. Four superb restaurants are open for dinner, from the most casual World Café, to the casually formal Manfredi’s Italian restaurant, where it seemed the entire ship was raving about the chef’s Bistecca Fiorentina (voted “best rib eye we’ve ever had” in an informal poll). The Chef’s Table offers an elegant five-course menu with wine pairings that changes every two days. All is included, and passengers can make multiple dining reservations when available.
After two weeks, one can’t help but feel a pang of sadness at leaving the beauty and discovery of new lands and people, staff that remember names and preferences, and the pounds gained in gastronomic ecstasy.