John Wilmott, The Daily Telegraph, January 11, 2014
With its startling landscapes, scenic cities and picture-postcard villages, usually viewed through sparklingly clear air, it’s no wonder that so many cruisers are turning their heads northwards for that summer sojourn.
Heading north from the UK, the default options are the Baltic Sea and the Norwegian fjords and it’s not easy to choose between them; the former promises cities full of architectural highlights and the latter jaw-dropping scenery.
Many of the popular cruise lines offer summer departures from the UK to both regions, maximising the long daylight hours. But over the past decade the range of cruise options has increased considerably, making Iceland, Greenland, the far north of Europe — including Norway’s North Cape and the White Sea — and the polar islands easily accessible.
Here are a few suggestions for 2014 itineraries.
A typical Baltic route includes the capitals — Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn and Russia’s masterpiece, St Petersburg, where a two-day stop is almost standard.
Each of these cities offers a plethora of grand historic buildings and monuments that can be explored on foot, although guided excursions are recommended in Russia — not least because it eliminates visa issues.
Cruising leisurely between these destinations on a 10-to 14-night cruise makes light work of logistics, and plenty of competition among cruise lines keeps prices at a reasonable level.
A number of ships make additional port calls at Oslo (Norway), Gothenburg (Sweden) or Warnemünde (for a fairly lengthy trip to Berlin), but if you have already done the well-trodden route and want to see new places, consider taking a short flight to join a smaller ship — Seabourn and Oceania Cruises offer a good choice of itineraries. Ports of call may include the Hanseatic town of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland; Helsingborg in southern Sweden; Klaipeda on Lithuania’s coast; and Gdansk in Poland, which may conjure images of industrial strife but is in fact a truly beautiful city.
The spectacularly narrow topography of Norway’s fjords means there is a limited number of ports — some of them mere hamlets — where larger ships can stop; often, access ashore is by tender.
However, that does not mean those who have sailed these slender channels can automatically tick the region off their list, because the cruise lines often refresh their itineraries.
First-timers should put Flåm (for its mountain railway), Olden (for easy access to the glaciers) and Geiranger (sheer scenic perfection) on their wish-list; if you’ve visited these, look for routes that perhaps cover Hardangerfjord and Lysefjord further south. Fred Olsen Cruise Lines and Holland America Line have good selections, with durations from one to two weeks.
Norway’s Hurtigruten fleet sails daily up and down the Norwegian coast. The ships only poke their bows into a couple of fjords, although they do call at 34 ports, most of which are never visited by cruise ships.
Whatever style of vessel you choose, “close-up” views from open decks of sheer cliffs, hanging valleys and waterfalls make a fjord trip a must-do voyage for every cruiser.
The North Cape and beyond
Norway’s top end, the icy wonderland of Spitsbergen, which lies tantalisingly close to the North Pole, and the mysterious White Sea are all fertile ground for adventurous cruisers.
Several large cruise lines now make journeys from the UK up to Honningsvåg, from where it’s a short coach journey to the cliffs that mark the limit of mainland Europe, the North Cape. On the way, they call at a few coastal and fjord destinations, and often visit the Lofoten Islands, whose saw-tooth mountains and deep bays push them high up the wish-list in terms of spectacular scenery.
Voyages of Discovery and Saga are among those that offer trips from UK ports in midsummer to take advantage of the midnight sun. And if you can’t make up your mind between the Baltic and the fjords, and still wish to visit the North Cape, Seabourn has a three-week itinerary that does the lot.
Spitsbergen is the realm of the polar bear and, until recently, was the exclusive domain of expedition ships. These are still the best way to travel if you’re seeking a true exploration of these captivatingly wild islands, but a number of cruise ships now trundle up there after visiting Norway. Ports of call are limited but there is usually a decent amount of sailing among fjords and glaciers.
You can even do this in style with luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises, or less expensively with MSC Cruises. Both feature a full day in the island’s capital, Longyearbyen.
Rounding the top of Norway, the border with Russia is crossed and the coastline dips southwards into the little-known White Sea. Few vessels make it this far but those that do call at the Russian outpost cities of Murmansk and Archangel; itineraries offered by Noble Caledonia and Silversea should whet the appetite.
Iceland, The Faroes and Greenland
With its spouting geysers, enormous lava fields and thundering waterfalls, Iceland has been increasing in popularity as a tourist destination over the past decade. Today a surprising number of cruise ships head to the middle of the North Atlantic to visit this island that is still being moulded by violent volcanic activity.
Many voyages combine Iceland with a tour of either some Scottish ports or the Norwegian fjords. A stop in the Faroe Islands, situated halfway between Scotland and Iceland, is frequently featured, and many passengers cite this otherworldly archipelago as the surprise highlight of their holiday.
Greenland, too, is increasing in popularity, with cruises starting in Iceland before heading across to this immense island, or taking in both countries on a longer itinerary.
Iceland’s capital Reykjavik and the town of Akureyri in the north are the classic ports of call for larger ships and the range of excursions cruisers can take from both is ample for a decent taster of this remarkable country.
Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International both offer summer itineraries that combine Iceland with Norway’s fjords. Cruise & Maritime Voyages offers departures from London Tilbury, Bristol, Liverpool and Greenock, which include five stops in Iceland, along with the Faroes. Princess Cruises has an interesting 14-day trip from Dover that covers the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway.
If you’ve always wanted to make an in-depth exploration of Iceland and prefer not to do so by car, Noble Caledonia offers a comprehensive circumnavigation of the island on one of its small luxury vessels.
As for Greenland, if you wish to sail around the sensational iceberg-choked Disko Bay on the west coast, you’re best off flying out
and joining an expedition cruise — Quark offers some excellent itineraries. The southern tip of the country holds particular appeal, not least the stunning Prince Christian Sound. This giant, barely populated landmass is one of the world’s last great wildernesses that can now
be visited in comfort. Consider itineraries from Silversea, Oceania Cruises and Fred Olsen Cruise Lines.
Wherever you choose to travel in northern seas, if you’re concerned that a trip may involve fleeces and hot toddies, even in midsummer, you may be relieved to know that temperatures can reach the 80s (although you should always be prepared for squalls). Pack sensibly, and a voyage to this pristine world could be your most memorable yet.
MSC Cruises offers a 14-night Northern Europe round trip from Hamburg, departing June 13, 2014, visiting the Norwegian fjords, the North Cape and Spitsbergen. From £1,598pp excluding flights (0844 561 1955; msccruises.co.uk ).
Noble Caledonia offers a 12-night Epic Iceland cruise from Leith to Reykjavik, departing June 3, 2014, also visiting Orkney and the Faroe Islands. From £4,595pp, including flight from Reykjavik (020 7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk ).
Princess Cruises offers a 14-night Iceland and Norway round trip from Dover, departing July 6, 2014, visiting the Shetland Islands, Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. From £2,725pp (0845 075 0031; princess.com ).
Seabourn offers an 11-night Baltic Capitals and Russia cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen, departing June 10, 2014, with calls including Visby, Klaipeda and Gdansk. From £4,071pp excluding flights (0843 373 2000; seabourn.com ).
Telegraph Cruise Show
John Wilmott will be talking about voyages to the fjords, Iceland and the Baltic at this weekend’s Telegraph Cruise Show. Visit the Destinations Stage at ExCeL London today (Saturday), at 12pm and 4pm.
The Telegraph Cruise Show is on Friday January 10, Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 at ExCeL London. See telegraph.co.uk/cruiseshow for more information.