Some parts of the world are as well experienced from the sea as they are on dry land. The Caribbean may be warmer, but the Scandinavian coastline has charm and drama in equal parts, writes Glyn Brown
With its endless coastline and ocean-front ports, Scandinavia seems almost to belong to the sea - and, since the time of the Vikings, its culture and landscape have been shaped by it.
Norway is the major player here, boasting 13,624 miles of coast - the sixth longest coastline in the world, just pipping the States and astonishing for a landmass so small. On an aerial map, the fjords cut fingers deep inland, making the western coast a sea-weedy frill.
This means Norway can be a cruise on its own, and you’ll rarely be out of sight of land. Any time of year will work - in summer it won’t get dark, in winter, when the sun rises only briefly, the eerie light adds drama - but in spring the fjordland scenery is at its best, full of alpine blooms and with thousands of cherry and apple trees spicing the air with their scent.
Most fjord tours start from pretty Bergen, “gateway to the fjords” - included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, these are deep and narrow, the snow-capped peaks surrounding them reflected in their crystalclear water. You’ll come across mistshrouded waterfalls, glaciers and tiny farms perched on cliff-top meadows.
Cruising north from Bergen, you’ll pass Ålesund, so much of which is surrounded by water that it appears to float alongside passing boats. Further on is bustling Trondheim, first Viking capital. Small islands scatter the coastline here, then at 66.5° north, you cross the Arctic Circle. Tromsø, voted ‘world’s best cruise ship destination’ by travel publisher Frommer’s, was once the staging point for expeditions into the Arctic.
Like seafarers before, take your telescope: north from here lie the peaks of the Lofoten Islands, blessed with ja Gulf Stream jet that keeps them so warm they’re home to the world’s largest deep coral reef, plus puffins, moose, otters and sea eagles. Even further north, there’s a chance to see humpback, minke and giant sperm whales, an astonishing sight from up on deck.
But coastal Scandinavia is not all about Norway - indeed, according to Cruise Baltic, passenger numbers for the coastal cruises in the region are expected to increase 12 per cent to some 3.5 million over next year, with Helsinki and Copenhagen key destinations. For most people, coastal Denmark means Copenhagen, voted Europe’s leading cruise destination for the last four years. Now the whole of Denmark is opening up. Hanne Andersen, tourism advisor for the VisitDenmark tourism organisation, recommends a mini-cruise island hop from the historic waterfront Aarhus to the unspoiled South Funen islands, “in my view, the prettiest place in Denmark. Islands like Aerø, in particular, are fairytale heavens”.
It is the sheer number of such fairytale spots along the Scandinavian coastline that is proving such fertile ground for this sector of the tourist industry. Never mind the summer homes of the Stockholm Archipelago, reckons Bo Larson, director of Cruise Baltic. The newest destination for cruise ships is Visby on the island of Gotland, south of Stockholm and right in the middle of the Baltic Sea.
It’s also the best-preserved medieval city in Scandinavia and astonishingly lovely. “Even,” he adds cautiously, “during the annual Medieval Week, when there’s a medieval market, jesters and jousting to contend with.”