Call me unimaginative but if you’d asked me a month earlier what I’d like to be doing on this particular morning in mid-May, I wouldn’t have replied, “I’d like to be standing in a wet swimsuit in the snow. Indoors. On a ship. In the middle of the North Sea.” And yet that’s exactly where I find myself. My sparkly, snowy sanctuary is in a corner of a Nordic bathing spa on the Viking Star cruise ship that’s making its maiden voyage from London to the Norwegian port of Bergen.
As I ponder the improbability of the situation I’m in (yes, it’s actually snowing on me), my bare toes are freezing into 10 blocks of ice inside the Snow Grotto. Now what to do? Back to the steam room or the sauna? The thermal pool or the bubbling hot tub? The question is: would I like myself well done, medium or rare?
I’ve been travelling for more than 30 years – I’ve pushed a bogged plane out of the sand in Botswana, fought for a seat on a rickety train chugging to Punjab and squeezed sweaty backpacks into ratty tuktuks and rickshaws all across Asia – but I’ve never been on a cruise.
It seems to me that cruising has always been a bit of a cheat, as it is for every traveller who fancies that “intrepid” is stamped in their passport. Instead of slogging your way to your destination and arriving sweaty and, let’s admit it, a tad angry and bewildered, cruising sees the destination come to you. If I step on board a cruise ship, will I become not a “traveller” but a mere “tourist”?
But on boarding the Viking Star from the bank of the River Thames at Greenwich, the attraction of cruising is suddenly blindingly obvious. I’ve been to London a dozen times but I’ve never seen the city from this fascinating aspect. I’m on the water – “The Thames is liquid history,” said the MP John Burns in 1929 – and as doughty tugs escort the Viking Star to the mouth of the mighty river, London is giving up her most thrilling secrets.
For centuries, royalty, wealthy merchants and city burghers built their palaces, imposing civic buildings and stately homes on Europe’s waterways to impress traders, diplomats and visitors who arrived by boat. They must have had the same view I do this late afternoon as the setting sun breathes warmth into ancient stone walls and reflects jewelled glimmerings from a thousand secret windows, illuminating castle turrets and church spires.
At a more mundane level, hanging clothes in my cabin on the fourth deck, I realise that for the next few nights at least, my shoes, clothes and books don’t have to be packed and repacked. I have a balcony with windows that slide right back and invite the seascape inside, a big television, a comfy couch and a soft bed, which should see me disembark in Bergen as perky as a Norwegian spruce.
“Like-minded travellers” is how Viking Cruises founder Torstein Hagen describes his passengers. There are just 930 of us on this maiden voyage of the brand-new ocean-going Viking Star. Quite a modest company given some cruise behemoths carry more than 4000 people.
Hagen, who is on board for the voyage to his native Norway, welcomes those who still have the spirit of adventure but wish to travel in comfort. “If you want to bring your children, your dogs, get drunk or go to the casino then you’re on the wrong ship,” says the pink-cheeked, silver-haired Hagen. “We are not here to be everything to everybody.” Sure enough, the people I meet in the soft-carpeted corridors on my first night are mostly older “comfortable” Americans well past their backpacking days. And Hagen is right – no-one on this vessel is doing tequila shots until dawn.
Just as well. The Viking Daily newsletter is slid under my door at sunrise offering a host of activities: 7am yoga, 9.30am shuffleboard, 2.45pm backgammon, an afternoon of piano and classical music, an evening lecture on the Northern Lights and dancing and cocktails in the Torshavn bar that closes at midnight.
At breakfast, looking like a red-faced, frozen-toed denizen of Edvard Grieg’s March of the Trolls after my bracing round of “thermotherapy”, I plump for hot waffles, made to order. “Plump” is the right word. How could you escape this ship and its many bars, restaurants and cafés without a few extra kilos in your kick?
In the waffle queue, I meet Ted and Kath, septuagenarians from Florida. “We’re addicted to cruising,” says Kath. “We’ve worked hard all our lives, the kids are grown, they have their own kids and now it’s our turn to see the world.” Today they’ve scheduled an afternoon martini tasting, a round of backgammon with a couple from New York and, after a candlelit dinner with French wine, an evening concert – Rat Pack Revisited. They’re in cruise heaven.
I sneak away and throw myself into the heated infinity pool cantilevered off the stern and slosh for ages in splendid isolation, watching seagulls swoop on dotted oil rigs as the ship ploughs north through white-capped waves.
Next morning I wake to a magical landscape as the Viking Star skims through the still and quiet waters of the Byfjorden fjord. Brightly painted wooden houses totter down the forested hillsides on picture-perfect headlands.
Docking in the historic Bergen port bright and early, it’s down the gangway to stroll the delights of Bryggen, on the eastern shore of Vågen bay, where gabled weatherboard buildings lean against each other like drunken sailors. Narrow alleyways through the buildings lead to a maze of art galleries. I’m keen to cart a huge sculpture of soaring seabirds back but opt instead for a tangle of knitted scarves and a stuffed troll doll.
At a sunny café on the wharf, I order a glass of white wine and lunch on a delicious seafood platter of crab and langoustines – Norway lobster – in garlic butter. I’m extremely lucky, I’m told, to find Bergen bathed in sunshine, as it rains here 250 days a year.
A ride on the Fløibanen funicular to the top of Mount Fløyen is rewarded with a view that seems to span the whole of Norway but is, in fact, just a glimpse of the deep blue fjords, shimmering lakes and wooded mountains. Then, armed with my walking map, umbrella and sturdy shoes, I’m off to see as much as
I can while the weather holds. Storm clouds are already rumbling over the peaks of the Seven Mountains that surround the city. Back on board the Viking Star, someone – I hope – is shovelling snow and pouring another scoop of pine-scented water in the sauna, waiting for me to return and soothe my weary toes. Oh, and there will be hot waffles and Sinatra. Helt sikkert! ￼