Fjord explorers

Norwegian coastal voyage is ligh on luxuries, but overflows with spectacular scenery


ABOARD THE FINNMARKEN, ALONG THE NORWEGIAN COASTShaking my shoulders to dislodge the ice cube that was slithering down my back, I stepped forward to claim the certificate verifying that I had crossed the Arctic Circle into the land of the midnight sun.

This was a rite of passage on Day 5 of a six-night Norwegian fjord cruise. "King Neptune," a ship's officer in a grotesque rubber mask, was doing the honors, aided and abetted by the captain. No ice, no certificate.

The Finnmarken is one of 13 ships of the Hurtigruten (coastal express) line that carries passengers and cargo between Bergen in southern Norway and Kirkenes in the north, near the Russian border. The company, Norwegian Coastal Voyage, bills this as "the world's most beautiful voyage," a superlative that's hard to dispute.

The scenery along the journey, 1,438 miles each way, is so spectacular that it's like trying to eat five desserts all at once - almost too much to take in. The deep green water of the fjords, carved into the snow-frosted mountains by melting glaciers. Waterfalls tumbling down sheer cliffs. A glacier up close. Lighthouses. Islands silhouetted against the sun.

It's a great experience. For me, it began when I flew to Amsterdam, connecting there with a friend, Pat JaCoby, for the two-hour flight to Bergen, Norway's second-largest city (with about 240,000 inhabitants) and embarkation point for the Finnmarken.

When Pat and I boarded, I was surprised at how pretty the Finnmarken was. It's not a cruise ship, and it doesn't put on cruise-ship airs - no casino, no shopping mall, no room service, no musical revues. But it has some delightful public rooms, with cheerful splashes of primary colors and nice nooks for reading.

The Finnmarken, which entered service in 2002, is one of Hurtigruten's three Millennium ships, the newest of its fleet. They carry on a tradition begun in 1893 when the line started hauling mail and goods to remote villages along the route.

The Art Nouveau-style Finnmarken is something of a floating art gallery, with paintings, weavings and sculptures by leading Norwegian artists.

I had booked the least-expensive outside cabin available for single occupancy. Way, way forward, it had portholes - no big window, which was fine. It was on Deck 2, the lowest passenger deck (shared with cars), which wasn't so fine. When we stopped at a port during the night, I was often jolted awake by the noise of the ship's thrusters and the vibration of my bunk.

On the plus side, my cabin, although small, was well designed with plenty of storage. The bath with shower even had a heated floor. Cabin amenities included a telephone, a mini-fridge, a safe and a TV (CNN was usually accessible). Pricier cabins on upper decks have picture windows; balcony suites have a sitting area and hotel-style beds.

Passengers choose the 6:30 p.m. or 8:15 p.m. dinner seating in the restaurant, where expansive windows take advantage of views. (We chose the later seating.) Breakfast and lunch are buffets, and those are open seating. The food? On the high-calorie side, not really tuned to the American palate. The Brits (there were many) seemed to go for the sweet puddings, gelatin salads and canned fruit. There was plenty of smoked salmon and, for the Europeans, herring and more herring, beets and meats and cheeses for breakfast. Cereal, bacon and eggs were also offered.

The three-course dinners were uneven, with the fish usually better than the meats, which included a forgettable reindeer roast. As soon as we set down our dessert spoons and paper napkins, we were shooed out of the dining room so the crew could clean up; there was self-service coffee in the nearby Floybaren lounge.

The Finnmarken does not strive for elegance.

Passengers grumbled about the price of wine and bar drinks. A bottle of the house wine was about $40, or about $10 by the glass. Most wines by the bottle cost $48 to $65; bar drinks were $10 to $11.50.

The Finnmarken's cabins, accommodating 643 passengers, were sold out. It also carries up to 350 deck passengers and day trippers. With a crew of 80, the ship seemed understaffed, with some people doing double duty. But most of the crew members were helpful enough, if not effusive.

The ship has an outdoor pool for the few who dared brave the cold. There was a small exercise room and a hairdressing salon, but the lone hairdresser departed, as scheduled, at a port midway through the trip and was not replaced.

The entertainment? Scenery, scenery, scenery. In the evenings, a guitarist played, and the mostly mature crowd enjoyed dancing.

When it was light - as it was into the wee hours in the north - the place to be was the aptly named Panorama Lounge on Deck 8 in the comfy, highly coveted chairs facing the angled, floor-to-ceiling windows. From here, the scene was an ever-changing picture postcard.

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