Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Scenery is the draw of Norwegian cruise

It probably says a lot about a recent 1,200 mile, seven-day voyage up Norway's fjord-laced coast on the M/S Narvik that meeting and greeting another ship of the line was one of the highlights.

It tells us, for one thing, that a ride on the coastal steamer - or “Hurtigrute” as it's called in Norwegian - is not a cruise, in any sense of the word. For onboard entertainment is strictly a do-it-yourself affair.

There's no gambling. Or bingo. No golf or shuffleboard or skeet shooting. No lectures or midnight buffets. There's also no tipping. Or dressing up. Or dancing. And definitely no dining at the captain's table!

Which is all very fine with us, because the Narvik is still a tough working ship where timely freight pick-up and delivery seems just as important, if not more so, than passenger pampering.

This mid-ocean “meet and greet” says something too about camaraderie at sea. And about a group of hardy Viking-heritage sailors who for more than 100 years have been making the arduous and often hazardous voyage from Bergen to the Russian border and back - in fine weather and foul - providing a seamless and vital lifeline for hundreds of isolated communities up and down these rugged Nordic shores.

Whichever way you view it, however, the passing of a sister steamer is still a fibrillating - and much anticipated - event.

The occurrence is announced, day and night, by a disembodied crackling of the ship's loudspeaker. First in Norwegian. Then in English and German.

“In about fife minutes time, vee vill be passing the M/S XYZ (fill in one of the 11 ships of the line) on our port side.”

Thus forewarned, any crew and passengers not otherwise engaged - minus the nautically challenged who have yet to figure out port from starboard - rush to rails and portholes. And as the two vessels pass to an earsplitting exchange of toots ... and the clicks of 100 camera shutters ... sheets and towels and handkerchiefs, and anything else that flaps, are waved madly from every deck.

The normally stoic, laid-back crew always plays a major part in this greeting ritual. Probably because they've done some time on the other ship. Or at least have friends or family on board.

Anyway, in a matter of seconds, the encounter is sadly over. And as the vessels quickly distance themselves, ship routines return to normal.

For the crew, now maxed out at 48 for the summer season, it's back to tidying cabins, cooking food, waiting tables, painting lifeboats, and, hopefully, steering the ship!

For the rest of us long-term passengers - 210 on this particular trip - it's back to dining room or deck chair, cabin or lounge. To watch the passing montage of raw, seductive coastal scenery, which makes this “the world's most beautiful voyage.” To check the daily itinerary and decide whether to disembark at the next port of call. Go for an optional on-shore excursion. Take a nap. Or simply oversee the fascinating antics of the forklifts as they dock-dance pallets from ship to shore and vice-versa. Moving flats of flowers and fish. Motors and mattresses. Whale meat and water bottles. Tiles and toilet paper.

There is, thankfully, no end to this choreographed action, as every ship of the line makes 35 stops on both northbound and southbound journeys - stops ranging from just a few minutes to several hours in larger places like Alesund, Trondheim, Tromso, Harstad, and Hammerfest.

Here, frankly, the prime objective for many of us was to hotfoot it to the nearest wine monopoly (state bottle shop), for beer on board ship cost a whopping $8 a glass while ordinary bottles of wine ran between $30 and $50.

With such vital missions successfully accomplished, however, there's still ample time to visit the local churches and museums, markets and craft shops - uniformly stocked with woolen sweaters and hats, socks and slippers, as well as some very nicely designed and crafted silver jewelry, carved wood, and artwork - almost certainly born of those endless Nordic winter nights ... and the occasional nip of aquavit!

As the ship climbs farther north, crossing the Arctic Circle on Day 4, there's another ritual “meet and greet” on board the M/S Narvik. And thus another highlight.

This is when King Neptune emerges from the deep. Trident. Cloak. And tresses in place. To visit the ship and anoint each passenger's neck with a good dollop of ice-cold water. Then, to the cheers of the assembled, the captain hands out a comforting drink and a certificate suitable for framing.

This is excitement and frivolity indeed, Norwegian-style.

It must say something, too, about this writer's distant heritage, latent thespianism - or ultimate ambition - because on all three summer trips taken aboard the M/S Narvik, he's been randomly chosen to play the part of this noble God of Sea and Water!

Highlights and mythic kings aside, after a week on board the coastal steamer, you inevitably become more than just a mere observer of events and awesome coastlines. Instead you're now an integral part of an important tradition, a great network of ships and sailors servicing the far-flung peoples of northern Norway. And you can hardly wait to go out and help again!

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