May 25 2010
I am looking at our next port of call on the map, and there appears to be a mistake. For Gudvangen is over 100 miles inland from our present position just off the Norwegian coast, and so far east as to be well on the way to Sweden. But there’s no mistake. For the Seabourn Pride is one of a handful of small, manoeuvrable cruise ships able to penetrate some of the narrowest inlets and which are now bringing adventure to the ultra-luxury class.
Until recently the choice was clear: for experience you booked on an expedition ship, perhaps a converted ice-breaker, to reach destinations such as the Galápagos and the Antarctic, but with quite basic accommodation and facilities aboard. The alternative was a luxury cruise ship carrying 600-700 passengers (still a fraction of the size of the behemoths) with interesting but much less challenging itineraries.
Now the two are coming together, with expedition ships upgrading and luxury vessels getting smaller and more adventurous. At just 134m, and with a maximum 208 passengers aboard, the Pride is certainly smaller than the largest superyachts and can navigate to the head of some of the longest, narrowest fjords amid spectacular topography unseen by most visitors to the region. How the vessel will turn round once the narrow head of Sognefjord is reached remains a mystery for now. But once there the gangplank is lowered on a choice of activities notably more adventurous than the “lowest common fitness denominator” excursions offered by conventional luxury cruise vessels – hence the comparative youth and sophistication of those aboard.
The itinerary and shore excursions are the fruit of an experiment by Seabourn’s owner, Carnival Corporation, the largest operator in the industry. If successful, many more top-end travellers may shift seaward for holidays. In an era of growing disenchantment with air travel, our expedition into a Nordic Narnia scores highly, and more voyages are scheduled to depart from British ports to provide a credible holiday alternative.
The logistics involved is complex enough to give the most hardened seadog a rollicking headache. It goes like this: only smaller vessels can penetrate the most interesting seaways and little-visited ports of call in Norway and elsewhere. But to succeed commercially, they must charge high fares which, in turn, require luxe facilities and a high crew-to-guest ratio. Yet on a traditionally designed ship there is little room for all that. Thanks, however, to innovations in naval architecture, materials and technology, this circle has been squared, providing, for example, private balconies on ships stable enough to operate in more challenging conditions and facilities such as a full spa and fitness centre aboard small vessels such as the Pride.
It has been a long time coming. When Carnival launched the latest-generation Seabourn Odyssey last June – on which 90 per cent of staterooms have private verandas (for, as Seabourn’s British CEO and president Pamela Conover muses, “At this level who wants to look out of a porthole?”) – it was the first small (450-passenger) luxury cruise ship to enter service in the entire industry in more than six years.
Two further vessels in the same class are to follow: the Seabourn Sojourn’s and Seabourn Quest’s maiden voyages are next month. So far, only the competing SeaDream line has followed the “small is beautiful” logic to its natural conclusion by offering cruises aboard what are really large, very luxurious yachts with a maximum of 112 guests.
Making its service (already good on five-star ships) even more personal aboard its small boutique vessels is key to Seabourn’s success. To raise the standard of cuisine, noted Manhattan chef Charlie Palmer was invited to indulge in some expensive lateral thinking. Rather than construct one kitchen to service Odyssey’s main and signature restaurants, he designed twin galleys of a size that might be regarded as optimal ashore, allowing each chef close direction of his brigade. The results approach what one might, with luck, enjoy on dry land.
That is only half the story, given top-end travellers’ taste for authenticity and experience – qualities not easy to deliver even from mid-size cruise ships in the five-star fleets. Striking though the mouths of Norway’s great fjords and ports are (Ålesund is almost entirely art nouveau), the remote interior reached by smaller vessels is even more remarkable, carved into dramatic shapes by glacial action far back in geological time. It also harbours a way of life poised between the dream world of childhood and the harsh realities of survival in an extreme climate. Pride passengers are privileged to be able to explore this extraordinary waterscape and the otherwise inaccessible hinterland with its alien panorama of ice walls and hamlets lit by the shimmering aurora borealis.
Seabourn is not alone in aiming to attract younger, more sophisticated travellers via a portfolio of action-oriented shore activities and more adventurous waters. Similar programmes are coming on stream at, for example, Silversea and Hapag-Lloyd. Silversea has upped the octane rating on its Alaska cruises with float-plane flights, sport fishing and kayaking – notably more action-packed than the traditional “watching the seals from the rail with a martini” approach. Hapag-Lloyd, meanwhile, has in its fleet the only five-star expedition ship, the 184-passenger MS Hanseatic, which will attempt the legendary Northwest Passage this August from Greenland to Alaska. It is also cruising the Pacific Ring of Fire to Japan’s northern islands, through the Kuril Islands and along the Kamchatka coast. And its conventional cruise ship, the highly rated Europa (408 passengers), is cruising more adventurous waters too, including the Black Sea to Sevastopol, Yalta and Sochi.
The appeal to the more intrepid traveller is immediate: at the little port of Flåm we don self-inflating safety suits for a high-speed RIB safari that touches 40 knots past waterfalls cascading thousands of feet down fjord walls. Cutting power, we drift past sunbathing seals, attracting the attention of a sea eagle with a nine-foot wingspan. At the farming and fishing village Undredal (population 84, plus 500 goats), we stop for local cheese and cups of grog before exploring a rural community so isolated that for much of the year it can be difficult to access by land.
In this region, stave churches of palisade construction with flyaway roofs remain centres of community worship; the one here, the smallest in northern Europe, was built in 1147. High above, farmsteads stand isolated atop perpendicular cliffs reached only by a 40-minute climb that leaves the heart pounding. This – and other action activities that include canyoning down rapids and mountain biking through dramatic passes – is real-life adventure no teenager would be shy of admitting and, as my fit 27-year-old son Jamie remarks with an exhausted grin, as good a means of family bonding as might be discovered.
We clamber up to a second world war bunker commanding the arc of mountains enclosing the beautiful Naerøyfjord, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. At the Trollveggen (troll wall) we climb through a delta of waterfalls at the foot of a cliff rising over 5,950ft and with the tallest vertical face (3,300ft) in Europe. It is a world-class (if now illegal) venue for Base jumping, freefalling before deploying a parachute. (Naturally, this is not an activity offered by the cruise line, but is a source of fascination to visitors.) Less “off piste” is kayaking, an altogether different experience when navigating a mirrored waterscape of monumental beauty. As with climbing and trekking, this activity is guided by experienced locals such as Erik, an amateur historian marinated in Norse mythology. As we pause at the head of a valley he points to the Troll king’s seat, a throne-shaped rock commanding the valley, before discoursing upon the local economy and the lifeline now being offered it.
For not only can vessels such as the Pride put into ports well off the conventional cruising chart, but their impact on remote communities is less intrusive – though invariably welcome. At Gudvangen, with its population of fewer than 100, the occasional visits are helping to stabilise a local economy under threat. They also offer a means of approaching closer to the heart of the matter. In Norway, a land that speaks in 100 dialects, the works of Grieg, Ibsen and Munch snap into sharp focus. Norse legends are still recounted here. On one high pass we spot the road sign “Beware Trolls”. “It helps keep the kids in line,” grins Erik. But then, these are children used to close encounters with brown bears, arctic foxes, elk and lynx. The Viking Village near Flåm is no theme park but supported by the local education authority, and traditional dress is still worn for high days.
Few of these are sights to be embraced from the deck of a large cruise ship. From our viewpoint high above Gudvangen a remarkable operation – the resolution to the earlier mystery – can be witnessed below. Barely wider than the fingertip of the Nærøyfjord, Seabourn Pride is using its thrusters to rotate 180° upon its own axis. For a moment even Erik the guide is silenced. Then he begins to clap, the applause echoing up around that majestic landscape of snowcapped canyons.