It is a moment of high drama, and squeezed shoulder to shoulder on the deck the crowd, their cameras clicking furiously, know it. On the port side of the ship is a rubber life raft with a crew wearing orange jackets. Although they wave to us reassuringly, they are an emergency team, poised to take action if needed.
The reason? We are making our way through a spectacular, but perilously narrow Norwegian fjord, and the churning water below our bows conceals a thicket of rocky outcrops. The captain steers the ship through the deepest part of the channel, with all the precision of a tightrope dancer. The passage is so constricted that I feel as though the towering cliffs alongside our vessel are a mere arm's length away.
Our ship, the MS Polarlys, slows to a crawl, and we turn a corner gingerly. The crags fall away, and ahead of us lies a stunning vista of mountains: tier upon tier of gigantic jag-toothed molars thrusting against the Nordic sky. Glaciers flow down steep gradients like spilled cream and islands glimmer mirage-like in the distance.
Then, up ahead of us looms yet another slit where the waters flow between greedy rocks jutting like the paws of some enormous Norwegian troll waiting to pounce on our fly-sized ship. This is the Raftsund Strait, which opens up into the spectacular, and perhaps aptly named, Trollfjord.
On a visit to the bridge, I ask the captain whether he uses electronic devices to guide the Polarlys through these waters. He shakes his head. "Never! I steer the ship manually." He adds with a twinkle. "It's very exciting!"
I'm averse to floating-hotel type cruise ships, so the Norwegian Hurtigruten voyages are a refreshing "no frills" experience. Their main business is transporting cargo to remote fishing communities dotting the Norwegian coastline, but they also offer accommodation for about 600 passengers in small, but comfortably furnished cabins. Many passengers on board are local folks travelling between small coastal towns.
Meals are robust, and the dining room is elegant without being pretentious. However, there are no organized on-board activities or entertainment, and no formal dress code. To my relief, I'm not required to tog up to the nines to shake hands with a politely distant skipper, while sipping watered down cocktails. In addition passengers are free to disembark at all the ports of call-whether just for an hour or two at a rural fishing village, or for an entire day at more sophisticated locales such as Bergen and Trondheim. To accommodate tourists, optional guided bus trips offer city tours and excursions through the adjacent countryside. A huge plus in my opinion.
Norway's fjords, to my surprise, aren't anything like our B.C. Inside Passage or the Alaska coastline. These Nordic inlets are fissures that curl under overhanging cliffs and past pocket-handkerchief sized valleys. They flow by settlements with clusters of houses painted in bright primary colours, steep pitched roofs and square or oblong windows set in symmetrical rows. They look like children's building blocks, sturdy and simple.
And then there is that singular quality of light: the Arctic sky, the water and the mountains bathed in rolling grey clouds, with sunbursts that sheen the waves to silver. At sunset the mountains are navy blue silhouettes against a molten sky. And in some areas the fjords are so still and so deep that they reflect perfectly mirrored images.
Nowhere was this more evident than on a couple of bus tours. In Trondheim an old bridge overlooks a row of 18th century wooden warehouses mirrored in the waters of the river Nid. The mystical landscape of Svolvaer reveals a wooded hillside that forms an "arrow-head" reflection in the lake.
At the gift shop on the MS Polarlys, a display of Norwegian trolls-those horribly unkempt, but cute, little people catch my eye. Norse legend says that these dwarfish creatures are turned into stone if caught by the rays of the sun! I can see why-their faces and outlines lurk in natural rock formations gliding by my porthole window; bas-relief effigies whose "heads" are crowned by evergreen trees sticking up like their spiky brush-cut hair.
Strolling around the little fishing communities bring small moments of delight. At one point I find myself in the midst of a bustling sidewalk fair with stalls selling everything from handmade knitted sweaters to canned fish-and Norwegian souvenirs. I get back to the ship clutching-you guessed it-an adorably ugly baby troll!
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IF YOU GO:
Hurtigruten operates a fleet of sixteen comfortable cargo-cum-passenger ships (including the HM Polarlys) through Norway's fjords all year round. The winter voyages offer the opportunity of viewing the spectacular Northern Lights. Visit GLP Worldwide Expedition Worldwide Travels and Tours www.norwegiancoastalvoyage.ca or the Hurtigruten website at for itineraries, special offers and booking information.
PHOTOS: By Margaret Deefholts unless otherwise attributed.
1. Approaching Raftsund Strait-Trollsfjord narrows
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