AT LAST, MY TRUE IDENTITY WAS REVEALED.
I’d long suspected that I’d been meant to be a princess. Clearly my ocean-cruising vessel, the new, nine-deck Viking Sky, had straightened out the story, so I was pampered like royalty.
The cabin steward folded my flung pajamas, kept the room’s espresso machine stocked, replenished luxe products and furry towels in the bathrooms (with heated flooring) and even delivered breakfast at 4 a.m. on the day of (sob!) our flight home.
The dining rooms’ crews had been alerted, too. My glass was never empty of the complimentary wine, my four-course meals (foie gras, lobster in the shell, Angus beef and local specialties such as Norwegian salmon) were served at tables with panoramic views. Towels awaited at the heated swimming pool. High tea arrived in the Wintergarden lounge. And the spa welcomed us with a sauna, plunge pool and even snow room (really!).
Then I realized that all 900 passengers onboard for the 15-day all-inclusive trip received the same royal treatment.
A quick confession: I’ve enjoyed many an intimate river cruise, but fretted that a bigger oceangoing ship would mean hordes in line at the breakfast buffet (eggs Benedict, smoked salmon) or before the departures for daily complimentary land tours.
But no. The team clearly had been drilled to forestall waits in line. I’d also assumed it would be difficult to encounter the same folks twice — never mind making lasting friendships — among hundreds of passengers. But no again. Chance conversations often led to dinner dates.
We chose the voyage called Into the Midnight Sun, celebrating both our state’s Norwegian heritage and the near-24-hour daylight Norway boasts in summer. (Our error: Sunlight doesn’t always deliver warmth. Pack woolies.)
Our July expedition then took us to the northern Scottish isles, followed by the more urban ports of Edinburgh and London.
We began Norway in Bergen, where we anchored in its beyond-beautiful Old Town harbor, site of UNESCO-cited wooden guild halls, now serving as boutiques, museums and cafes, and its iconic open-air fish market, where we found whale sausage, seal oil, shrimp and even moose and reindeer burgers. Shops bloomed with Norwegian knitwear.
Walking inland, we circled the town’s manmade Lille Lungegardsvann lake with a string of art museums hugging the shoreline, hosting paintings by Norway’s Impressionists as well as local hero Edvard Munch, with his angst-fueled portraits. There’s an entire contemporary building, too, where a cement mixer spews red poppies.
Next, from our private balcony, we watched as our ship set sail and silently slunk along the fjord to the open sea. By 5 a.m. we were sliding into Geiranger, perhaps Norway’s most breathtaking fjord. Its 27-mile path flows between steep, rocky walls pleated with the silver threads of waterfalls and tufts of snow (yes even in July). Camera overload!
We then clambered aboard buses to maneuver the corkscrew turns up the mountainside, past goats munching in picket patches of green to Geiranger’s fjord museum, which recaps the area’s wild and scenic history.
From there we set off on an Inside Passage cruise to picturesque Molde, nestled amid an archipelago of tiny islands. Its modern cathedral — raised after Nazis virtually destroyed the town — is a mirage of white brick and modern glass in jewel colors. The town museum, too, is another modern showstopper of blond wood peaks/triangles. Inside, the story of fishing, hunting and lumbering plays out.
Close by stretches an open-air museum of historic buildings — grass-roofed cottages, a schoolhouse, church and bakery — gathered on the site, where peppy costumed children sing and dance for visitors.
After a day at sea (one of three), we glided north through the inside passage to Tromso with its stunning snow-white Arctic Cathedral rising from the waterfront.
On the shore, the Polar Museum documents the challenging life of Arctic whalers and seal hunters with a Husky dog providing a soundtrack. Norway’s heroic explorer, Roald Amundson, discovered the illusive Northwest Passage; his challenging feats (and follies) play out here, too.
Soon we set sail yet again — even farther into the Arctic — where we were surrounded solely by windswept boulders, populated by reindeer herds. Our icy destination was the rugged North Cape, a pinnacle of barren tundra — the virtual top of Norway and all of Scandinavia — chillier than a January Minnesota day, earning even us Minnesotans new bragging rights.
After turning south, we meandered through the Lofoten Islands with their craggy peaks to anchor at Leknes, a fishing village where cod is God. (Skiffs lined the shore and V-shaped drying racks served as lawn art.) As we traveled, the landscape segued from gray back to green, and the houses wore the hues of Easter eggs. Zany sheep scattered mindlessly on our approach to Leknes’ white-sand — but ice-cold — beach along the Lofoten “Riviera,” dotted with boulders big as Buicks.
And with that, we said goodbye to Norway and headed southward still.
Scotland was calling, so we anchored at one of the Shetland Islands, in a subarctic archipelago, where the homes are built of slate-gray stone.
Wandering the main street, we browsed shops selling works of yarn transformed into high art, as in Norway, but this time in the traditional Fair Isle pattern. We gossiped with vendors of these handmade knits as we headed toward a museum celebrating Shetland’s wild history, starting with arrival of the Picts in 297 A.D.
Our island tour took us through the rolling, heather-clad hills, including a stop at Carol’s Ponies, where Carol, a third-generation owner, introduced her herd of Shetland’s famous miniature horses, strong enough to pull twice their own weight.
Past salmon cages and ropes where mussels clung, we returned to the ship for dinner — this time in its Italian restaurant. Another night, we reserved a space at the chef’s table to explore a tasting menu. But it was hard to beat the main restaurant with its menu changing nightly — and the servers greeting us by name as they start the wine flowing.
By dawn we’d arrived at the stunning Orkney Islands for a jaw-dropping exploration of this Scottish outpost’s Stone Age. We made our way past grass-covered burial mounds to Skara Brae, a prehistoric excavated village. We passed the Ring of Brodgar — older than the pyramids — where 27 man-high stones stand upright to form a giant circle, their origin still cloaked in mystery. Back in town, we gazed with wonder at the majestic Romanesque power of the St. Magnus Cathedral of 1137.
From there, we headed to elegant Edinburgh, where we kept an eye out for Queen Elizabeth, who was reportedly spending the night at Holyrood Palace. No luck. But the consolation prize was pretty special — encountering a lively marching band heading her direction, garbed in jaunty red jackets, kilts and mile-high bearskin hats as they played their drums and tubas.
London was the grand finale. Our full-day optional tour of the city included its iconic Tower, where we gasped at the crown jewels (including a diamond big as a lemon), the armor of Henry VIII and scary prison cells. We hit all the high points — Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square (blanketed with pigeons, just as promised) and a lunch of fish and chips in Covent Garden.
It couldn’t get better, right? Well, it did.
As we packed for our next day’s flight home — from our balconies on the Thames River — we watched fireworks explode in a brilliant climax.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said our Norwegian captain, “we hope you’ve enjoyed your cruise.”
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.