“Head for the high seas” the editor barked at me, “I want something unusual and not just sun and waves”. Such was his mood that day I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was planning to sail up to the Arctic Circle and beyond taking in some of the planets most beautiful scenery as he sat in a darkened room spiking copy from renown journalists across the globe.
This was to be my first cruise; I have never managed a full steam ahead heading for the horizon cruise. Yes, this was to be the real deal, setting off from Liverpool and heading north up to the Arctic Circle via Norway and calling in on The Shetlands on the way back. Thirteen nights aboard the splendid Black Watch. Not a large ship by modern standards but the better for it in my view.
With 423 rooms and a shade under 800 passengers at full occupancy and a crew of 330, comfort was ensured. The five restaurants, outdoors pool, numerous bars, theatre, cinema, rib boat tours, spa and general feeling of space certainly helped as well. Åge Danielsen the captain has been at sea since he was 16 years old and became captain in 1985 so he knows a thing or two about running a good ship. The crew and serving staff were fantastic. They love the little memory game in the first few days of trying to remember your name and what you prefer to drink and at what time. Speaking of which it’s possible to do absolutely nothing on a cruise except eat and drink all day long if you want. All meals are included, even room service, breakfast in bed anyone? And drinks are charged to your account but the smart money is on a drinks deal where you get a choice of (good) house wines, spirits, beers etc included, so you don’t have anything to settle up at the end, a truly relaxing thought and that’s what a cruise is all about relaxing.
My cabin was roomy with two single beds, a bathroom with shower and good wardrobe space and a desk. I also had a small balcony allowing the fresh air to waft in when I wished. The weather in September was amazingly good, sunny most days for the first week and the temperature didn’t really drop until we sailed much further north.
Being a smaller ship at only 205m in length meant that it could manoeuvre into the more interesting and less travelled nooks and crannies of the Norwegian coastline, which is peppered with tiny islands and inlets and fjords created by glaciers.
Leaving Liverpool, I was at sea for two days, a chance to get into the swing of ship life. Breakfast is a buffet affair or a cook to order sit at your table and be waited on. The day ahead could offer anything from a yoga class, solo travellers meeting up, golf putting or deck quoits weather permitting (it was gloriously sunny). Or maybe just a sit down in a wing backed armchair reading a book from the library and watching a group of dedicated jigsaw puzzle fiends doing all the hard work.
Lunch is sit where you like with whom you like in either of the two main restaurants, one is a smaller intimate room with sea views and tends to be quicker and the other is in the main dining room and can stretch out to a few hours if you like. A buffet selection of international food or an à la carte menu with waiter service is available. Oh and of course your favourite tipple is always on hand. The food was excellent with great variety and with a team of only 66 in the kitchen, of astonishingly high standard.
One of my afternoon guilty pleasures was not to take dance lessons, something, I’m sure due to childhood traumas of being forced to give up my Saturday mornings and go for ballroom dancing lessons instead. Of course, with mature hindsight it would be wonderful to dance well now. No, my pleasure also related to a childhood occupation was to sneak off to the cinema on one of the lower decks for the daily afternoon screening. Quiet, cosseted and full of memories of school holidays, going to the flicks on my own I was as happy as Larry.
Come the evening it’s all change. There were three formal nights on my trip which means for the ladies that’s a chance to get dressed up to the nines and for the gents it’s a black tie or smart lounge suit. But don’t fret if that’s not your thing, the smaller restaurant is dress casual every day and evening so you can go there with sartorial impunity.
As a solo traveller I was allocated a large table with a group of strangers mostly on their own. A bit strange at first as we got to know each other but as we established some unwritten ground rules (no politics etc) it became a bit of a hoot. Each night we’d catch up on the daily goings on. Everybody was doing different things, so it was a kind of info exchange that allowed everyone to understand the ship a bit more.
The food at night in the main dining room is a five-course feast with superb food. And always something for everybody, for example if the exotic items were not for you that night there was a British favourite to choose from, steak pie, fish and chips you get the picture. If you really wanted to push the boat out (excuse the pun) then The Black Watch room is for you, an upgraded menu, and more serene surroundings are worth the surcharge. And by the end of the first week I had convinced our group the virtues of a post prandial brandy, which always went down well, often leading to another before the nightly show.
So unbelievably every night there was a show in the theatre. Some West End like shiny floor shows, others musical concerts with the house band, other nights variety acts. Quite amazing really. There were also little ‘breakout’ musical endeavours in some of the other bars onboard for a more intimate late-night evening.
Another benefit of the daily programme is the selection of port lectures. Jane Anne Davey presented an amusing and highly fact filled hour about the Vikings before I even set foot on Norwegian soil. Useful and interesting it was a pattern of the trip, various lecturer’s thoughts on the next location and of course it gave me a chance to work out what excursions I was going to do.
Kristiansund, spread across four islands on the edge of the Atlantic is a place of beauty. I went along the 36km Atlantic Road that cuts through the scenery like a ribbon frozen in full flow. Mesmerising architecture and exquisite painted wooden houses are only part of what’s on offer. I sailed on a replica Viking boat and called in on Håholmen Havstuer, a former fishing community now a hotel and collection of private houses, it was supremely tranquil and beautiful.
Continuing up the Norwegian coast the next two days were sailing and taking in the impressive Torghatten (Hat Mountain) and the Seven Sisters Mountain range. I then crossed the Artic Circle. This momentous occasion is captured by the ‘Kissing the Fish’ ceremony on board. A bit of fun and pantomime that involves receiving a blue nose thankfully took place on deck in glorious sunshine and I managed to wash the blue off my nose (eventually)!
The Lofoten Islands were dominated between 8th and 11th centuries by those famous raiders and traders the Vikings. And latterly in Svolvær the Nazis marched into the region. There is a very well stocked museum looking at the occupation and its impact on the inhabitants. With plenty of unusual exhibits (I have never before seen Nazi Christmas decorations adorned with Swastikas for example), small but powerful it’s worth a visit.
This is of course Northern Lights country and if you’re lucky you might catch some. I saw a little flicker one night, but others saw more at different times. Tromsø, that jewel of the north, was another stop with plenty to see and do and Leknes where you’ll find the largest reconstructed longhouse in the world. As part of a spectacular museum you can experience all things Viking and soak up the local history.
On the return journey we called into Lerwick, the principal city of The Shetland Islands (a rather grand term as it’s quite small) where there’s more Viking history as well as beautiful countryside at the mercy of the weather. Things can change in minutes in these parts. I saw three seasons all in the space of half an hour. So it’s best to come prepared with layers, waterproofs and a sense of adventure.
The Viking cruise experience for me was rather wonderful, it did take a day of two to gain my sea legs and when we had a small swell for a day or so I can hold my head up high and say it wasn’t too bad. There is a great sense of camaraderie on board, literally being on the same boat does count for something. My only regret? Not making more use of the gym on board. I returned with clothes that were just a little bit tighter than when I left, but still it was a holiday, so if it’s not OK to treat yourself then when is it?
Black Watch’s 12-night W2027 ‘Norway’s Northern Archipelagos with Lofoten’ cruise, departing from Liverpool on 25th September 2020 start from £1,749 per person. Ports of call: Liverpool, UK – Kristiansund, Norway – Cruising Rørvik, Norway – Cruising Torghatten, Norway – Cruising Seven Sisters Mountain Range, Norway – Crossing the Arctic Circle, Norway – Cruising Trollfjord, Norway – Cruising Raftsundet, Noway– Sortland, Vesterålen, Norway – Tromsø, Norway (overnight stay) – Leknes, Norway – Cruising by Reine, Norway – Lerwick, UK – Liverpool, UK.
For more details please visit: W2027 ‘Norway’s Northern Archipelagos with Lofoten’
Neil Hennessy-Vass is Contributing Editor for Our Man On The Ground as well as a widely-published globetrotting food and award-winning travel writer and photographer.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass