Ask any Norwegian what is the most beautiful coastline in the world and there’s a strong chance you will get the same reply.
‘It is the stretch that runs north of Bergen all the way up to the Russian border,’ they will tell you with a proprietorial gleam in their eye.
Few who have been there would disagree. It’s not only the fjords with their almost sheer cliffs plunging down to inky black water below.
There’s something else equally alluring. As you head up towards the Arctic Circle, as the trees and houses thin out and you enter the land of the midnight sun, you have an inescapable sense of leaving the mess and muddle of daily life behind. Of venturing out to the edge of things.
The problem in the past was that anyone who wanted to venture to the edge of things had to do so either on board a giant cruise liner, or on a sturdily utilitarian ship which gave the views all right, but not much in the way of comfort to go with them. Until now, that is.
Sheer delight: John Preston and his family board a six-night Havila cruise (pictured), tracing the Norwegian coast from Bergen up to Kirkenes
For the past 18 months, Havila has been plying this route in hybrid boats that run on a mixture of liquid natural gas and electricity – the battery packs are the largest ever installed on a passenger vessel. As a result, they have zero emissions. What’s more, all their waste is recycled on board.
Not only are the boats extremely comfortable, with vast picture windows to take in the views, a walkway that runs round the circumference of the ship, two gyms and two plunge pools, but they also have terrific food that regularly changes to reflect the specialities of regions you pass through.
One day reindeer could be on the menu – the taste is somewhere between beef and venison – the next it’s king crab.
And for those whose appetites have been sharpened by all the sea air, there’s a special gourmet restaurant with a nightly five-course blow-out.
Four of us – me, my wife and our two deeply apprehensive teenage children – join the 400 other passengers at Bergen for a six-night cruise up to Kirkenes.
‘They’re very big on grey here, aren’t they?’ says my 15-year-old daughter sniffily, as she gazes at the soft furnishings.
It’s true that a certain monochrome madness does prevail throughout the ship. But their apprehension soon disappears when they see their cabin – a junior suite with double bed, sofa bed, flat-screen TV, a balcony and – perhaps best of all – a shower that actually works.
Our fellow travellers are a predictably mixed bunch. Mainly Scandinavian, a few Brits – but by no means oldsters – and several outliers: A Lutheran pastor as well as a man with the shortest shorts – and most knotted legs – I have ever seen.
‘The Havila boats function both as cruise ships and passenger ferries – in six days they make 34 stops,’ explains John, pictured above with his wife
John reveals that the ship’s menu changes to ‘reflect the specialities of regions you pass through’. Above, local king crab
The one thing I guess we all have in common is that none of us have come expecting nightly entertainment: which is just as well, because there isn’t any. And so, with a discreet parp on the horn, we are off.
The Havila boats function both as cruise ships and passenger ferries – in six days they make 34 stops. Not that you would be aware of it; thanks to hybrid engines, you slip almost silently from port to port.
As well as giving you the opportunity to meet locals who use them much as commuters would a train, this also gives you a sense of being part of whatever action is happening on shore, rather than just surveying it from afar.
At every stop of any significant length, there are excursions. In Trondheim, we go e-biking, pedalling around the old town with its river lined with red wooden warehouses. Then it’s back on board to head into Geiranger Fjord.
Some 18 years ago, Geiranger was designated a Unesco World Heritage site – thus putting paid to lunatic plans to string power cables from one side to the other.
As we enter the fjord, the captain turns off everything but the electric engine, so that the boat is now completely silent. ‘It’s a bit mystical today,’ says an announcement over the ship’s PA. It certainly is. Along the mist-shrouded coast lie abandoned farms – the farmers all eventually gave up and went off in search of less arduous lives in the city – while huge plaits of water cascade down the cliffs into the sea.
Not surprisingly, the further north you go, the more the temperature drops. Slowly at first, and then with a sharp bump as soon as you cross the Arctic Circle.
John visits the Lofoten Islands ‘where elk (pictured) roam the forests’ and ‘the water teems with sea otters’
Colourful: The picturesque town of Reine in the Lofoten Islands
We pass a lighthouse that until 20 years ago was inhabited by its keeper, his wife and their three young children. The children were only allowed outside at low tide, then had to be tethered to the lighthouse on a rope to ensure they didn’t get swept away.
Perhaps the most unexpected delight about travelling through a landscape where the sun never really sets, but just sits on the horizon for most of the night, is that what film cameramen call ‘the golden hour’ – that time around sunset when everything seems to give off a golden glow – goes on throughout the evening until the small hours of the morning.
And it’s not only the light that’s different. One of the odd things about Norway is that the Gulf Stream actually works.
John recalls passing through Geiranger Fjord (pictured) and its ‘mist-shrouded coast’
For anyone who grew up being constantly told at school that the Gulf Stream is the reason why the UK enjoys such a gloriously temperate climate, at the same time as staring gloomily out of rain-lashed windows, this comes as quite a surprise. But although there are only occasional patches of white along the coastline, the mountains behind are covered in thick snow – even in what passes for high summer in Norway.
At Bodo, we disembark, put on floatation suits and climb on board a fleet of motorboats which take us bouncing across the water to Saltstraumen, where the strongest tidal current in the world forms great frothing whirlpools that are believed to have sucked entire whaling vessels to their doom. Five days after leaving Bergen, we come to the Lofoten Islands, where elk roam the forests, the water teems with sea otters and every year around June the Lofoten Insomnia cycle race is held for those whose idea of fun is spending 24 hours cycling the 230 km from one end of the chain of islands to the other.
Enveloped in a grey haze, we finally arrive at Kirkenes, just 15 km from the Russian border. If you wanted to, you could stay on board and spend another six days going back down to Bergen.
But for us, it’s journey’s end. Or not quite.
We’re off to the famous Ice Hotel nearby to don special harnesses and go walking with huskies. I spend the entire time being dragged through thick birch forests by my unflaggingly energetic husky. But do I complain? Oddly enough, no.
Along with everything else on what has been a week unlike any other, it’s been extraordinary and worth every moment.