Cruising the longest navigable fjord in the world
The Arizona Republic — August 18, 2019
SKJOLDEN, Norway – There is a reason the Sognefjord – the longest navigable fjord in the world – has earned the nickname “The King of the Fjords.”
In addition to its length — 127 miles – the Sognefjord’s majestic offerings include waterfalls cascading down snow-capped cliffs that soar more than a mile-high from the sea, emerald-green lakes resulting from thousands of years of glacial melting, and brightly painted Norwegian houses and fertile farmland that dot the base of where the sea meets the massive peaks.
Cruising the Sognefjord was the highlight of a seven-day “Norse Legends” cruise on the 2,800-passenger Nieuw Statendam, Holland America’s newest and largest ship that just began sailing last December. It officially was dedicated at a ceremony in February by the ship’s “godmother,” Oprah Winfrey.
Our 1,800-mile journey started and ended in Amsterdam, with four Norwegian port stops – Eidfjord, Skjolden, Alesund and Bergen.
About one-third of the ship’s passengers were Americans; there also was a large Dutch contingent. The weather in Norway was surprisingly – and unusually — warm. Some days the thermometer neared 90 degrees. The light parka I brought never once came out of my cabin’s closet.
I found Skjolden, which lies at the innermost point of the Sognefjord on a branch of the fjord called Lustrafjord, to be the most captivating stop during the cruise. With a population of only 200 – “not including two dogs and a cat,” as our guide quipped – Skjolden is one of the smallest ports in the world visited by large cruise ships.
Norway has more than 1,000 fjords, the most of any country in the world. In fact, fjord is a Norwegian word, which describes a long, narrow watery inlet flanked by steep cliffs that was created by a glacier.
The Sognefjord begins in the Atlantic Ocean in western Norway and winds its way inland past small, idyllic villages, fruit farms and popular hiking trails. Its most famous arm is Naeroyfjord, only 820-feet wide at its narrowest point. Since 2005, Naeroyfjord has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is believed to have been an inspiration for the 2013 Disney movie “Frozen.”
It never got tiring sitting on one of the Nieuw Statendam’s outdoor decks soaking in the scenery, listening to the ship’s port lecturer describe the geological wonders we were passing.
Skjolden is a gateway to the ruggedly beautiful Jotenheimen National Park. Jotenheimen, which means “home of the giants” in English, is home to a wonderous landscape of waterfalls, rivers, glaciers and some of the highest peaks in Europe north of the Alps. The park is a one-hour bus ride – through hairpin bends and steep, winding roads – from Skjolden.
The cruise offered much more than natural beauty. Our northernmost stop of Alesund, a fishing port less than 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle, was virtually rebuilt from scratch following a fire in 1904. Today it boasts one of the most interesting collections of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe.
Our final port stop was Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city with a population of about 300,000. An ancient Viking port steeped in medieval history, Bergen is known for a bustling waterfront with striking wood buildings, one block from a huge fish market. I rode a funicular up Mount Floyen, where I took a three-hour hike that rewarded us with panoramic views of the city and surrounding fjords.
While Alaskan cruises also offer spectacular natural beauty, the port stops are much more touristy than those in Norway. The western Scandinavian country is a compelling alternative for cruisers who enjoy scenery and hiking, but don’t want to rub elbows with a lot of other tourists in the process.
You will see plenty of Norwegians enjoying the outdoors. There’s even a Norwegian word – friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv) – coined by poet Henrik Ibsen that attempts to shed some insight into the Norwegian mindset.
Loosely translated as “free air life,” friluftsliv describes the deep connection to nature that is such a huge part of Norwegian culture. Some argue the philosophy is one reason Norway consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries on Earth.
At every stop, we would see the locals camping in pup tents, boating, hiking and biking. We learned a Norwegian proverb that helps understand the country’s deep love of the outdoors, even during the dark and frigid winter months:
“There is no such thing as bad weather. Just bad clothes.”
© 2019 Dan Fellner