If the train I’m travelling on stops at a station and someone suggests I get out to have a look, it usually means something annoying or dreadful has happened. This is emphatically not the case when you get down onto the platform at Kjosfossen waterfall in the Flåm valley. You feel your face kissed with mist from an impressive 225 metre-high waterfall and suddenly ethereal-sounding music slips into your ears and you catch sight of a huldra – a wood nymph, all in orange and with long, blonde, flowing hair – dancing on the side of the mountain. It’s quite an enchanting and unexpected thing to encounter. (It’s also fun to imagine how the performer of this unusual spectacle passes the time between trains. I like to imagine the study of home brewing techniques is involved.)
This is one of the highlights of the famous train ride on the Flåmsbana, often named as one of the most breathtaking rail journeys in the world. It starts at Flåm and goes up to the mountain station of Myrdal, affording gobsmacking views over the lush green valley as it winds through sharp turns, narrow tunnels and sharp slopes (almost 80 per cent of the railway line has a gradient of 1:18).
It’s one of many tours available to passengers on board the MS Boudicca, a Fred Olsen ship, on its week-long journey from Greenock to the Norwegian fjords, stopping Olden, Flåm and Bergen, and at Orkney on the way home. Another highly recommended trip is the excursion to the Briksdal glacier in the Jostedalsbreen National Park, less than half an hour’s drive from the pretty little port of Olden. We all jump in a “troll car” (a bit like a mini-tractor that pulls a small trailer with seats) to avoid the challenging walk up the mountain, driving past some dramatic scenery and chunky waterfalls. There’s something quite otherworldly about being up close and personal to a glacier. It’s also quite sobering to see the markers that indicate how much bigger it used to be; it’s lost half its size in ten years due to global warming.
Another memorable trip takes us over the glaciers and fjords in a helicopter. When the silt in the melted glacier water mingles with the algae in the fjords, it creates a distinctive, dense turquoise colour that makes your photos look like you’ve been getting a trigger-happy with the filters. It’s exquisite.
Later in the week we spend a day in Bergen, Norway’s picture-perfect second city. The Fløibanen funicular takes you all the way up to Fløyen mountain, affording wonderful views of the city and surrounding sea, but in peak season there’s a good chance you’ll spend what seems like a lifetime queueing to get up. That’s time you could be spending admiring the beautiful little houses and parks, and eating reindeer burger and brown cheese (it’s that colour because they boil the cream, which gives it a caramel flavour that’s a little bit like Marmite – in more ways than one). There’s a gorgeous fish market near the port in Bergen, serving all manner of delicious and colourful looking dishes, but beware – it ain’t cheap. In fact, everything in Norway is so expensive that when you do see worse-for-wear people drinking in parks you can’t help thinking they must be pretty loaded to afford that lifestyle.
There are dozens of other trips to choose from, including a visit on the way back to Skara Brae and the Italian chapel (built out of a Nissen hut by Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War) in Orkney, but even if you’re not paying for an excursion, you can disembark and have a wonder around whichever port Boudicca’s docked in.
On board you can do as much or as little as you choose – the (usually) gentle rocking of the vessel is so deliciously soporific that you will frequently surrender to the sweet temptation of an after-meal nap, and you won’t be the only one. It’s quite easy to spend an entire day gazing out at the water, whether that’s the dramatic fjords or the North Sea, watching the sea birds playing on the wind.
Every evening a daily newsletter gets slipped under your cabin door, detailing the many entertainment and educational activities on offer. These include dance and bridge classes, lectures, table tennis, deck quoits (a game involving aiming rings at a targets on the deck) and several exercise groups. There are a couple of swimming pools and some Jacuzzis, a well-equipped gym, a games room, a library, a spa, a shop and a golf practice net. And there are also regular gatherings for people who are travelling alone and fancy a bit of company.
Every night there are several shows put on in the large theatre area. Towards the end of the cruise one of the shows is performed entirely by the ship’s staff – almost everyone from the cabin stewards to the engineers gets involved, many of them performing dances and songs from the Philippines, which is where most of them originate from. They certainly are a talented lot (on top of being enormously hard-working, patient and welcoming).
Going on a cruise is most likely to suit people who enjoy being social, as you often have to share a table with other folks during mealtimes. And dining really is a big deal on this ship. Breakfast and lunch are buffet arrangements, though table service is on offer too. For breakfast there’s a huge range of hot and cold options, fresh fruit and juices, with tea and coffee brought to your table. Lunches usually have a large selection of cooked food and salad, and there’s always a very British option if you have a hankering for something familiar. If you’re a fan of fruits of the sea, do make sure you’re around for the seafood special lunch (on our trip it coincided with the Bergen stopover), during which the buffet table is absolutely groaning with a generous load of treats.
It’s table service for evening meals, of which there are two sittings (you need to select in advance which one you prefer), and every evening there’s a five-course meal with really good quality dishes, and more than enough to prevent vegetarians from feeling neglected.
There are two formal evenings during the week, and most people make quite an effort with their outfits. During the first one, guests are invited to a captain’s reception, and everybody queues to have their photos taken in front of a mural of a grand staircase (in fact, the ship’s resident photographer seems to be on duty most of the time, snapping people as they disembark at various ports, then displaying the photos for sale on board the ship). During formal nights, a handful of guests will be selected to dine with the captain and hear some interesting stories about life at sea.
Another culinary highlight is the traditional tea, which you need to book in advance. At around £7, it’s quite a bargain, as it comes with a multi-tiered cake stand afternoon delights including scones, cakes and dainty sandwiches, all served by white glove-wearing waiting staff. There’s no extra charge for room service, though the options are limited, and you can make some big savings on the duty-free alcohol for sale on board.
At the end of the trip everyone has a gratuity added to their bill, which seems more than fair considering how hard the staff work, and how long they spend away from home.
Prices start at £899 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board, and port taxes.
For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website atwww.fredolsencruises.com or call Reservations on 0800 0355 242 (Monday – Friday, 8am – 8pm; Saturday, 9am – 5pm; Sunday, 10am – 4pm).
This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 15 October, 2015.