Who in the world would sail into the Arctic Circle in winter time?
This is not exactly the escape from cold and snow that we might typically think of when we look at a cruise vacation.
Well, Viking Ocean Cruises offers a new kind of adventure that really appeals to those of us seeking to go to new places and check a few items off our lifetime wish list.
The cruise line this winter began sailing an itinerary it has dubbed “In Search of the Northern Lights.” For the inaugural season, Viking scheduled six 12-day cruises between Bergen, Norway, and Tilbury, England, on the 930-passenger Viking Sky. The cruises have been extremely popular, selling out and drawing passengers from all over the world.
We joined in mid-February for the fourth voyage of the season. Our trip began in Bergen, and we were joined by large numbers of passengers from the United States, England and Australia. Travelers from these countries notoriously love to escape to warmer climates for their holidays, but the chance to see the Northern Lights on a cruise proved enticing, many of them said.
We found several things during our unique trip that stand out about a Viking cruise in Norway during the winter.
Passing into the Arctic Circle
No doubt about it, the temps are cold this time of year in the northernmost part of the country. You have to pack your winter coats and some thermal socks and under layers for when you go out on the decks or ashore for excursions.
The cruise visits Bergen (overnight), Narvik, Alta (overnight), Bodo, Tromso (overnight), Stavanger and Tilbury (England).
In fact, Tromso boasts that it is the world’s northernmost city, some 250 miles above the Arctic Circle. Temps throughout our cruise typically ranged from 10 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It was unseasonably sunny and warm by the time we got back down south into Stavanger.
Upon passing in the Arctic Circle, Viking holds a fun “Order of the Blue Nose” ceremony to welcome passengers into the rugged region. About 100 brave cruisers took a morning plunge into an icy bath (set up in the ship’s hot tub on the main pool deck. The ceremony includes the plunge, a shot of Aquavit spirits and a dab of blue coloring to the nose to mark your inclusion in the club.
A Taste of Norway
During the cruise, we got the chance to try some of the flavors and cuisines associated with Norway and the Scandinavian region. During a shore excursion to visit with the Sami indigenous people of Norway in Narvik, we cooked fresh reindeer sausages on an open flame inside a tent.
In Tromso, we enjoyed a hearty reindeer stew, and on the ship, we were served all kinds of regional specialties. Viking’s program includes several poolside grill events for lunch or dinner.
Reindeer steak, venison and lutefiske were all featured during our voyage. Some foods tasted much better than others to my palate. I much preferred the tender and juicy steaks to the traditional Norwegian fermented fish.
Also, you will be tempted to have one of the traditional Norwegian waffles each day. They are available at Mamsen’s in the Explorers’ Lounge, and make sure to get them with fresh fruits and brown goat cheese.
Along the way, it was nice to be able to wash all the meals down with the ship’s stock of Norwegian beers. (These are available all the time, regardless of itinerary or season, by the way.)
Outdoors Fun and Adventure
We bundled up and enjoyed the true sense of a Norwegian winter and what the residents in these frosty parts like to do for a bit of fun.
During our visit with the Sami family in Narvik, we learned about the tradition of working with reindeer (husbandry) and how they raise the animals and utilize them for food, clothing, crafts and transportation. We also got to interact with the animals.
In Alta, we enjoyed a sunset session of cross-country skiing in the wilderness. The temps were chilly, but we quickly heated up in our warm gear provided by the excursion company Paekastun as we skied a well-groomed track in a forest. We had a great time learning the proper techniques to get up and down the gentle hills.
We also toured an ice hotel in Alta and had an amazing time dog sledding with a team of huskies in Tromso, where we also went cod fishing during a fjord cruise. In Stavanger, we did a cruise in Lysefjord out to see Pulpit Rock.
So, our days were filled with thrilling adventures that could only be appreciated in winter time.
Sailing in Fjords
A definite highlight of coastal cruising in Norway is the enjoyment of the nation’s stunning physical features along the coastline of western Norway.
Cruisers on Viking’s “In Search of the Northern Lights” itineraries are treated to breathtaking views all along the way. During times of sailing and on sea days, you can see snow capped cliffs and mountains from the comfort of the ship’s Explorers’ Lounge at the top bow area.
Passengers also took daily walks on the top deck or on Viking Sky’s promenade that encircles Deck 2 to be out in the fresh air while gazing out at the seascape, which could be filled with rocky islets, small lighthouses, hillside homes, fishing villages or even oil platforms.
Every stateroom on Viking ocean ships features a balcony, so we also frequently popped out for a bit of sightseeing, especially when first waking up in the morning to check the sunrise.
The Northern Lights
Days are short in the winter in the Arctic Region, and we had about eight hours of light each day during our cruise (about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Night time was when people would get excited about the chance to see the rare phenomenon known as Aurora Borealis, though.
Viking offers several Northern Lights hunting excursions that take passengers out in coaches with specially trained guides to head off to spots where the skies are clear and offer the best chance to get great sightings and photo opportunities.
You also can be fortunate enough to spot the lights while on the ship, and we had a great show during our third night of sailing, from Narvik on our way to Alta. The skies were clear overhead around 11 p.m., when the show began. Passengers scrambled to the top decks with cameras and cell phones ready. Gasps of “ooh” and “ahhh” and exclamations of “This is amazing” could be heard almost in unison as the Northern Lights danced overhead for about 20 minutes.
This was why most of us had taken this voyage, and special moments like this made it worthwhile to cruise in Norway in the dead of winter.
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