Cruising in Northern Europe can mean one of three things – a voyage around the coast of Norway, a cruise to Greenland and or Iceland, or a cruise around Spitsbergen – but whichever you choose the main attraction is scenery and wildlife rather than sightseeing and history.
Norway, which gets the most cruise passengers by far, is a long, thin country bisected by the Arctic Circle, where deep fjords and outdoor activities such as walking, fishing and whale-watching are the big attraction.
Traditionally it’s been a summer cruise destination but increasingly ships are taking passengers there in winter to see the Northern Lights. At sea, away from the light pollution in towns and cities, is the best place to see the solar activity, although there are never any guarantees.
Iceland is just below the Arctic Circle and usually a one-stop destination – ships call at Reykjavik , the capital, where a popular outing is to the Blue Lagoon – but a handful of lines also circumnavigate the island.
Greenland , which is part of Denmark, is the largest island i n the world and sits almost entirely above the Arctic Circle. About 80% of the land is covered by the second-largest ice sheet in the world after Antarctica.
Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago, is within the Arctic Circle and the nearest most cruise ships can get to the North Pole.
Traditional cruise ships visit Greenland and Spitsbergen, but for a day or two only. To do and see more, choose an expedition ship with an ice-strengthened hull as they can circumnavigate Spitsbcrgen or cruise through the giant icebergs that litter Greenland’s coast north of the Arctic Circle.
Cruises to the Norwegian fjords depart from the UK, Amsterdam and Copenhagen and are anything from seven nights to two weeks or more. There are about 41 cruise ports along Norway’s coastline, which stretches 1,300 nautical miles, but Bergen, Stavanger, Olden, Troms0 and Alesund are the most popular.
Hurtigruten offers 1 2-night cruises along the Norwegian coast from Bergen to Kirkenes and back on working ships that visit 34 ports during the journey. There are also cruises from the UK to the Arctic Circle but these tend to be two weeks or more, with several days at sea. Expedition cruise lines fly passengers into Spitsbergen and Greenland for one-week voyages.
The town, at the entrance to the Geirangcr fjord, was destroyed by fire in 1904 and rebuilt in Art Nouveau style, which has earned it the title most beautiful town in Norway. Cruise ships dock by the town so it’s easy to get off and walk ashore alone.
Alternatively, there are guided walks of the Art Nouveau district and in search of the Yoogon Trolls on the buildings’ facades. Go to the top of Mount Aksia for views over the town and surrounding fjords.
The city is a favourite stop for most cruises to Norway for walks at the top of Mount Fl0yen (but it’s easier to take the funicular and walk down), the aquarium and, if time allows, longer tours into the fjord region. Ships dock about 10 minutes’ walk from the centre of the town so it’s easy to explore alone.
The fjord is on UNESCO ‘s list of Natural World Heritage Sites. Ships can either tender passengers ashore from an anchorage at Geiranger or dock at Hellcsylt. Excursions are geared around the scenery, with trips to some of the fjord’s best viewpoints. One of the favourites goes along Eagle Road ( 11 hairpin bends) to Eagle Bend for views of the fjord, mountains and Seven Sisters waterfall.
The end of the line for the Norwegian coast because next stop east of the town is Russia. Excursions go to Pasvikdalen, home to the largest population of brown bears in Norway, and there are also quad bike rides to the border. In winter there are snowmobile safaris and husky-dog sledge rides.
The North Cape is the northern-most point on the European mainland. Ships dock at Honningsvag, from where it is a 30-minute drive to the cape. Once there, you ‘ll find a tourist centre and a 307-metre high cliff that plunges almost straight down into the sea.
Olden is a tiny town with a population of just 800 people at the end of the Nordfjord that would be unremarkable except that it’s just a short drive from the dock to the Briksdal Glacier, one arm of the jostedal Glacier, which is the largest glacier on the European mainland. It’s a steep hike to the glacier; at the top you can take a boat rides on thesmall lake and get close to the ice. There are also fast RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) rides on the Nordljord and fishing excursions.
Cruise ships dock close to the small town, where the main attraction is a boat ride into the Lysefjord to see the famous Pulpit Rock. It rises 604 metres above sea level, has a 600 square metre top and sheer drops on three sides.
Troms0 lies above the Arctic Circle and is another top stop for cruise ships, which dock close to the city centre. The Arctic Cathedral is a big attraction cruise ships that stay overnight after midnight concerts there. Polaria,
which is part Arctic aquarium and part exhibition hall dedicated to the Arctic, and the Polar Museum, dedicated to Polar exploration, are other popular attractions.
This was Norway’s first capital, founded in 997 by the Viking king Olav Tryggvason. Cruise ships dock near town, where the main attractions are the Nodaros Cathedral, built over the grave of King Olav, and Archbishop’s Palace. Harbour tours visit Monk’s Island, once an execution site and now a popular recreation area.