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Cruising Norway's Fjords Aboard the Crystal Harmony

A Midsummmer Night's Dream

The whole town turned out to greet Reidulf Maalen, captain of the Crystal Harmony, as he guided his cruise ship into Vagen Harbor. The welcoming populace assembled on Storkaia pier and cheered the waving passengers, who crowded the decks to watch the hero's homecoming. For the residents of Kristiansund it was a singular event.The captain had been at the helm of the Crystal Harmony during the three years in which it has plied the seas, but it was the first time he had parked the boat in his own backyard, the city in which he grew up, attended maritime school and still calls home.

Vagen Harbor (Credit: Edwin Fancher)

The stop was an agreeable surprise to the 600 guests. When they signed on many months earlier for the two-week North Cape cruise, an odyssey at a time of year, early summer, when the midnight sun is in action, Kristiansund wasn't in theline-up. The harbor was added later to the brilliantly choreographed itinerary, some days in port, some at sea and others navigating the fjords. But all concurred that after Maalen's skillful piloting five days earlier it was fortuitous that a great big thank you was bestowed in the form of a visit home.

To those awaiting the trek down the gangplank the captain was their champion.While cruising the coast to get the best possible view of Norway's incomparable Svartisen Glacier, Maalen had entered the narrowest of inlets, the largest ship ever to do so, and had executed the most daring turnaround, so close to the water's edge that those who leaned over the rails felt they could almost touch the shores.

That event marked the beginning of the ascent to the top of the world along the area called Nordland above the Arctic Circle. For five days the Crystal Harmony sailed in complete daylight. There was no sunrise or sunset as the sun was continuously above the horizon line. And if the effect of living in 24 hours of daylight was stunning so was all the scenery and the sights left behind and yet to come.

The excursions into the fjords Sognefjord and Geirangerfjord and the lands surrounding them provided a panorama of ever-changing breathtaking vistas-rugged snowy peaks reflected in clear deep jade waters, the greenest of meadows, narrow gorges, tumbling feathery waterfalls, rushing rivers, Christmas card hamlets and the earth at its most majestic.

The ship anchored in Flaam at the base of Aurlandsfjord, a web of Songnefjord, the country's longest and deepest fjord. Passengers traveled up the mountainside on the famous Flaam Railway, which zigzaged through tunnels and made hairpin turns to Myrdal, 3000 feet above sea level. The local train continued onto Voss where following lunch a bus carried the sightseers to the Stalheim Hotelwith its celebrated view and back to the boat, which had by then moved to Gudvangen.

It would have been an unparalleled excursion except that the one on the following day, beginning in Hellesylt, was just as dramatic. From the Dalsnibba Observation Point, reached by a road as twisted as a roller coaster, the drop is 5000 feet down to the splendid and sprawling Geirangerfjord into which flows the very publicized waterfalls, the Seven Sisters. Cascades drop millions of misty gallons hundreds of feet. The most photographed sights in Norway are taken at Flydal Gorge, a rocky precipice located near the same byway. From here you can look upon sheer cliffs alternating with green patches of land, in a pattern so artistic it belongs on a canvas, and Geiranger where the Crystal Harmony was anchored in the protective harbor.

Norwegian scenery is legendary and was unquestionably the star of the show. The days in port, however, were like a great supporting cast. Each enchanting town had been chosen for its unique charm and character. Bergen, Norway's second largest city, is a municipality that seems to have made the passage between centuries without architectural compromise. The colorful waterfront, Bryggen, home to the commercial center and the fish market, is lined with wooden buildings dating from the 16th-century Hanseatic period. Yet a few squares away and with seamless transition modern structures appear in a form that is unmistakably Scandinavian.

Trondheim is a town of contrasts, too. Founded more than 1000 years ago, it has a cluttered dignity of former times and a lively center where an open-air market is filled with the brightest of flowers and the freshest of fish and produce.The must-see sites are the Gothic-style Niadaros Cathedral dating from theMiddle Ages, the Ringve Museum, a repository of 2,000 musical instruments,and the turf-roofed Trondelag Folk Museum.

Tromso has been called "The Paris of the North" for its many cafes and restaurants. Located above the Circle, it is also tagged "Gateway to the Arctic" and is the largest city in Norway where the sun shines at midnight. The Northern Lights Planetarium and the Arctic Cathedral, which houses Europe's biggest stained-glass painting, are its major attractions.

Kristiansund is built on three tiny islands so close to each other that they form one community. Kirkelandet is the busiest. Although connected by bridges and accessible by bus, the best way to negotiate inter-island visits is by a ferry that regularly encircles the harbor.

The Crystal Harmony also put down in Honnigsvag, starting point for the trek to the North Cape, Europe's northernmost promontory, which overlooks the vast expanse of the Arctic Ocean. Oslo, the last stop and the country's capital,was teaming with excitement, its tempo as upbeat as any great city on the Continent. By the time the ship reached Copenhagen, the point of disembarkation, the Crystal Harmony had not only been on a voyage of "northernmosts," but of "mosts" the most impressive and the most memorable of journeys.

The Crystal Harmony, Tel. 800-446-6620, www.crystalcruises.com

Spring 1994