Of my nearly 100 cruises over the past 15 years, there is a handful that have really stood out above the rest. One was a cruise I took with my family last summer aboard the Costa Atlantica along the Norwegian Fjords round-trip out of Copenhagen.
The scenery was just breathtaking, and that's coming from a somewhat jaded traveler who really has been-there-done-that. Alaska's Inside Passage is beautiful with its glaciers and fjords, and if you're lucky you'll spot whales, eagles and bears; but wildlife aside, in my book, Alaska can't hold a candle to the stunning landscape of the Norwegian Fjords.
Read my column in the December 22 Frommers.com cruise newsletter for a full report on the Costa Atlantica. For now, here's the low down on those amazing ports and the best way to explore them with children in tow.
Part 1: The Ports
Our seven-night Norway cruise last July called in five ports, with just one sea day at the start of the trip. We stopped in Flam, Hellesylt/Geiranger, Bergen, Stravanger, and Oslo. Except in Stravanger where we had just five hours in port, in the other four we had a nice, long nine- to twelve-hour stay.
All five ports were very worthwhile. Like New Zealand, Norway has great roads and infrastructure for tourists, but luckily neither country is over-run by visitors (or locals). Norway has just four million people, so that means you won't get stuck in traffic jams, have difficulty parking or breathe polluted air.
We opted to sign up for two of the ship's organized tours and to go off on our own in three ports. In Norway, most excursions involved a scenic drive along winding switchback-y roads and through long tunnels blasted through the steep granite mountains. I've never been a huge fan of bus tours, but in Norway, it was different. The buses were state-of-the-art and super comfortable, the guides articulate and clear, and the scenery though the huge windows was so breathtaking that even my 6-year-old twin boys were mesmerized by the views. The spectacular landscape was one long reel of majestic fjords, wild flowers, waterfalls, shiny lakes and charming fishing villages. Needless to say, your camera will get a work out.
We signed up for the Â?Flam, Voss and StalheimÂ? excursion, a 6.5-hour tour by both bus and local train ($180 per adult and $125 per kid). Half of the day was spent in a comfortable bus with huge windows. Highlights were a stop to stomp around the picturesque Tvinde Waterall that cascades down the mountainside and a drive along Norway's steepest road, Stalheimskleivane. Flanked by numerous waterfalls, the bus makes 13 turns while passengers are glued to the windows gasping at the farmland, rustic wooden houses and those amazing fjords. Stops for tea and lunch along the way offer plenty of photo ops. Our guide Anders was excellent.
The other half of the tour was the main event: a 45-minute train ride on the charming Flam railway. The train slowly crawls and twists through gorgeous landscape, through tunnels and up steep slopes between the mountain station of Myrdal and Flam (80% of the rail line has a gradient of 55%). There's a short stop at the Kjosfoss waterfall, where passengers can get out and have a close-up view of the falls. To prove just how mesmerizing the emerald-green farmland, snow-capped peaks, canyons, wild flowers and waterfalls were, my six year old boys were entertained solely by the amazing scenery. Mind you, we didn't have any electronics along with us to keep them busy on the bus and train rides, they were simply just as awe-struck by the mind-bogglingly gorgeous Norwegian landscape as we were.
The ship makes a 1-hour stop in Hellesylt to drop off passengers for shore excursions; the main port of call is up the coast a bit at Geirganger. We hopped off at Hellesylt for an excellent excursion, one of the best I've ever taken (and I've taken hundreds). The four of us signed up for the Â?Hiking Across the Flo MountainÂ? excursion; it was 7.5 hours and we traveled by both bus and our good ole feet! The cost was $171 per adult and $120 per kid.
After a short ride in the bus, we were dropped off in the village of Vollset and were left to our own devices to enjoy a 10-kilometer (6 miles) hike across the Flo Mountain. We all walked at our own pace and met up at the end of the trail about three hour later. There was a tour leader bringing up the rear just in case any one needed assistance, but for the second half of the walk, the group of 40 or so had stretched out enough that we were alone to enjoy the truly unbelievable landscape. These three hours were the highlight of my entire week (and that's saying a lot because there were a lot of highlights). We followed a well-worn earthen path dating back to medieval times that weaved along a river and hugged cliffs, and meandered though wind-swept fields, past wild-flower strewn summer farms and tree-lined cow paths. Around every bend was a view better than the last, from snow-capped peaks in the distance to the region's ubiquitous rustic cottages with turf-lined roofs (for insulation). During the last 30- to 60-minutes of the walk, the view ahead was of the huge and gorgeous bright turquoise Strynsvatnet Lake. At the end of the hike, we hopped back on the bus and headed for a local feast of salmon and potatoes, before embarking on the second half of the tour. Just when I thought the scenery couldn't get any better, we started a zigzagging drive up to the mountain peak called Dalsnibba, at about 5,000 feet. Up top the terrain was rocky and moon-like with patches of snow; we were bowled over by the absolutely stunning views of the Geiranger fjord way down below. We could see our ship and it was just a tiny sliver from up there. As the skilled bus drivers carefully steered the buses back and forth across the steep and narrow mountain road to and from Dalsnibba, the views of the fjords below literally made you catch your breath. It was surreal.
The colorful yacht-filled harbor and Bergen's easy-to-explore old town make it a great city for strolling on your own. We focused on the nearby 700-year-old Bergenhus Fortress and its restored five-story Rosenkrantz Tower dating back to the 1500s. We walked around the inside of the 16th-century stone tower, exploring the bed chambers, chapel and other rooms, imaging what it was like to have lived there hundreds of years ago. We ended up at the top, walking along the turreted terrace for city views. Afterwards, we happened upon a couple of young men in medieval garb that had set up a staging area for traditional jousting and axe throwing for tourists. My husband had good aim and landed all three axes on the tree stump target, while for my boys, dressing up in period vests and dueling with rubber swords and shields was a thrill. If we had taken a tour and gone further a field, I would have made sure we had a look at the home of Edvard Grieg, Norway's most famous composer and pianist.
The ship docked on the waterfront right in town and within minutes we were walking amidst Stravanger's quaint 18th and 19th century wooden homes. We spent an hour at the Stravanger Maritime Museum (which incidentally, is right next store to a modern art gallery displaying graphic paintings of nudes) which is set in a well-preserved shipping merchant's home. Walk through the living quarters, an office and a general store, part of which houses a collection of ship models and another part, an interactive area for kids, with a mini old-time ship and general-store props that kids can touch and play with. Upstairs we explored the living quarters, which remain as they were a century or two ago. Best part, we practically had the place to ourselves.
Otherwise, we strolled around the small city, past the imposing 900-year-old Stravanger Cathedral, beautifully framed with brilliant pink and red flowers. What the boys will remember most about Stravanger, though, is the street market where we bought them their first official knock-off soccer jerseys (Liverpool and Brazil), they were absolutely thrilled.
This beautiful easy-to-navigate 1,000-year-old city at the northernmost end of the Oslofjord was the perfect place to tour solo. We got on board a local hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus (called City Sightseeing; about $90 for a family of four) right outside the ship terminal and crawled past the city's highlights, including the gorgeous stately homes near Slotts Park and the Royal Palace. We hopped off the bus to have a look at the famous Vigeland Park, where some 212 bronze and granite sculptures of humans in different stages of life by Gustav Vigeland are set in the sprawling green park. The bulbous rounded sculptures of babies, children and adults thoughtfully and sweetly portray the cycle of life. After lunch at the park's visitor's center, we hopped back on the bus and headed toward the Viking Ship museum, where three excavated ships from the 9th century are on display. Needless to say, my boys loved the place. Next, it was a short walk to the nearby Kon-Tiki & Fram Maritime Museum, a tribute to the explorer Lars Heyerdahl. In 1947 he built a balsa wood raft called the Kon-Tiki and traveled 4,300 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to French Polynesia with a small crew to prove it had been done by ancient Peruvians hundreds or thousands of years before. I've always been fascinated with his story and my children enjoyed seeing several of his expedition vessels. Afterwards, it was a 15-minute walk to the ferry (included in the bus fare), which took us across the pretty harbor and back to the town center, within walking distance of our ship. Another great day.