For the seafarer, whistle stops along Norway's coast

The whole town seemed to be there: the boys who were playing soccer the day before; the family in whose guesthouse I had spent the evening; even the bank teller who cashed my check. It was only when the whistle blasted did I realize what the excitement was about.

The Coastal Express ship was coming into port. Nobody misses this event, especially here in Kirkenes. For this is Norway's remotest port, the end of the line, a harbor town high above the Arctic Circle near the Finnish and Russian borders. Not many visitors make it this far north in Norway.

I had flown here specifically to take the ship to Bergen, the home berth of the Bergen Line's Coastal Express fleet. There are 13 of these cargo-mail-passenger vessels that ply between Kirkenes and Bergen, and among the 30 other ports of call, sailing every day of the year.

Covering 2,500 miles of changing scenery, from the fertile, green fjord country in the south to snowcapped mountains and tracts of vast, treeless lands in the north, the Coastal Express sails onward, never losing sight of land. There's Vardo, Honnigsvaag, Hammerfest, Tromso, Trondheim, and others, each with its own characteristics.

As the Nordstjeren began its voyage south, in the deep blue Barents Sea out of Kirkenes, the passengers felt their way around the deck, taking in the fresh sea air; the sea gulls, gliding gracefully above the Norwegian flag in the stern , were silhouetted against the sunny sky. It was very peaceful here at sea, and the waters were calm.

At some ports, the ship stops just long enough to pick up a bundle of mail or drop off a single passenger; at others, it may be longer, to deliver an auto. At Hammerfest, an international port, the ship ties up for a couple of hours. But just before Hammerfest, if sailing southbound from Kirkenes, are Honnigsvaag and the North Cape.This promontory is said to be the northernmost part of Europe. And here on this jut of land is the best view of the midnight sun, which can be seen hovering on the horizon, yet never setting. This phenomenon occurs only during the summer above the Arctic Circle.

North Cape is less than an hour's bus ride from the dock in Honnigsvaag and passes through barren plains and Laplanders' summer camps. Each summer these indigenous people of Lapland, an area that stretches across the USSR, Finland, Sweden, and Norway, bring their herds of reindeer to higher elevation to graze and escape the heat and mosquitoes of the south.

The advantage of a port-to-port ticket is that a passenger can get off at one place and continue overland by bus, which allows more thorough sightseeing and exploration. Disembarking at Tromso, I spent the night, then went to Navik, a harbor town that was destroyed during World War II and has been rebuilt. From Narvik to Skutvik I ferried across to Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands, a chain of rock and granite, with needle-sharp, jagged peaks formed by glaciers.

Cod fishing is the chief source of income for the small population, which is accustomed to the fierce winds and cold temperatures during the winter season. The main islands are Austvagoy, Vestvagoy, Flakstadoy, Moskenesoy, Gimsoy, Vaeroy, and Rost, of which the latter two are rookeries for millions of sea birds such as kittiwakes, puffins, auks, sea eagles, and petrels. A synchronized bus-and-ferry system connects the many villages on each island. The Lofotens are an unusual part of Norway.

There are many islands to visit, and nearly all offer the foreigner the opportunity to rent fishermen's shanties, which are built right at the water's edge on pilings. (The first shanties in the Lofotens were built around 1100.) The shanty, called a "rorbu," has an anteroom and living space with a kitchenette and modern plumbing. Each has retained its original simple charm.The Coastal Express makes two stops in the Lofotens, at Svolvaer and at Stamsund, which is about midpoint between Kirkenes and Bergen.

Norway's Coastal Express voyage is unlike any cruise in the Mediterranean or Caribbean. It is distinctly Norwegian: a mixture of down-to-earth people, beautiful scenery, a colorful array of life styles. It is a smooth-sailing trip and not touristic, for these vessels are a vital link in bringing food to these remote northern coastal towns, some of which are inaccessible by road.

The 11-day round-trip excursion ticket includes all meals and a cabin. The price varies with the time of year: April 1-30, $548; May 1-20, $832; May 21 -Aug. 31 (peak), $1,053; Sept. 1-20, $758; Sept. 21-30, $685; Oct. 1-March 31, 1982, $548. Shore excursions going north at Molde, Trondheim, and North Cape, and going south at Harstad and Trondheim, cost $64 extra. Atmosphere aboard is informal and the dress code is casual. This may not be a luxury liner, but the ship does provide deck chairs; and there are a cafeteria, lounge, and dining room.

For booking information contact the Bergen Line Inc., 505 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 986-2711, or the Norwegian Tourist Office, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York 10019, (212) 582-2802.

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