Discovering Norway's Scenery on Coastal Ships

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Reporter Theodore Scull and his wife, Suellyn, cruised the Norwegian coast between Bergen and the North Cape aboard the Lofoten and the Nordkapp coastal ships, which are marketed by the Bergen Line. His report follows:

OFF THE COAST OF NORWAY -- The Norwegian Coastal Voyage offers a comfortable, moderately priced way to visit an expensive country and to get to know its people, towns and wonderful island and mountain scenery.

It's a true Norwegian experience on a Norwegian ship, which the locals refer to as the Hurtigruten -- the fast route.

These working cargo ships, however, do not offer many of the amenities, entertainment or gambling found on big cruise liners, nor do they penetrate the deepest or best known fjords.

We sailed northbound on the Lofoten, which was built in 1964, and south on the newer Nordkapp, built in 1996, and one of three newer ships.

The 2,600-ton Lofoten, a veteran of an estimated 65,000 dockings, exhibits a battered hull with many layers of black paint, but it also sports a trim white superstructure above.

Climbing aboard the 209-passenger vessel, one enters a well-maintained country inn with polished wood floors, brass fittings and paneled walls covered with Norwegian maritime art.

Deck space is well designed for shelter from the wind and sun and offers numerous recesses for privacy. There is also an aft-facing glass solarium.

Most cabin accommodations would be considered primitive by today's standards, and the majority have upper and lower berths, but there are also a few with two lowers. The best cabins are snapped up quickly.

In ours, beds were arranged L-shaped and, with limited closet and drawer space, we lived out of suitcases stored under the bunks.

The washbasin was in the cabin, while the toilet and shower were in an adjoining space.

At embarkation, the Norwegian courier asked in Norwegian, German and English if anyone had not specifically chosen to sail on this older ship, and not one hand in 85 went up. That set a positive tone, and meeting one's fellow passengers came easily.

Half of the passengers were German-speaking, while the rest came from Norway, other parts of Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S.

At 11,300 tons, the younger Nordkapp is more than four times the size of the Lofoten and can take up to 490 cabin passengers. It is a sister ship to the Nordnorge and Polarlys.

Most of the vessel's cabin accommodations are of a uniform design with two lower beds, a vanity, decent storage space, private facilities and a picture window.

The Nordkapp is decorated in bold colors with paintings of landscapes, seascapes and historic steamers, plus lots of glass and mirrors, all creating a cheerful atmosphere.

The 110-seat panorama lounge, decorated in blues and greens, has sweeping views in three directions, and aft a spacious lounge bar looks out to port and starboard.

A second deck of public rooms includes a lounge with musical entertainment offered during the high season; a conference room; a quiet reading room; a 24-hour cafeteria; a souvenir shop; a children's playroom, and a long gallery lounge that leads aft to a dining room, which features large windows and seats 240 guests.

There is limited outdoor seating on three after-decks and a wraparound walking deck.

Cargo is wheeled though doors in the ship's side: watching the handling and loading is less a pastime than on the older crane-loading ships, where the cargo may be tree samplings, frozen fish and building supplies.

On all the Bergen Line ships, the food is Norwegian and that means a buffet of eggs and bacon (on some mornings), cold meats, cheeses and varieties of herring along with typical continental breakfast items.

Lunch, also a buffet, is the most elaborate meal with a choice of hot and cold entrees such as salmon, halibut, lamb chops and veal, soup, salads, cheeses and desserts.

Dinner is a set three-course menu unless advance special dietary requests are made.

Although the food preparation has improved over the last decade, especially with less overcooking of meats, fish and vegetables, a certain sameness sets in after a week aboard.

Alcohol is heavily taxed, and as this is a domestic service, a bottle of beer costs about $6 and wine starts at $25 per bottle, so some guests bring their own.

Tourists are attracted to Norway's scenery, which does not disappoint in good weather. The ships cruise spectacular narrow passages, between the mountain ranges and off-shore barrier islands and skerries.

But the country has more to offer.

The 35 ports, called at different hours northbound and southbound, range from small villages and good-size fishing ports to major market centers, most of them rebuilt after the devastation of World War II.

Time in port ranges from 15 minutes to several hours but, with the ship docking adjacent to the town centers, a quick walk is nearly always possible.

In the south there are attractive shoreline farms with pretty red houses and barns, and lots of lighthouses, fishing boats, ferries and coastal cargo shipping operations to see.

Further north, the landscape becomes more rugged and less populated, and at Honnigsvag, when the roads are clear of snow (usually by the middle of May), a coach excursion crosses an open landscape populated with reindeer and the Sami people to reach the North Cape.

Rounding the top of Norway, the ship skirts some of Europe's highest sea cliffs home for nesting gannets, and in the open sea the ship may pitch before reaching safe harbor at Kirkenes, where one-way passengers leave to fly south and others join.

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