Seaside Norway

THE warmest memories of my Norwegian cruise were also the coolest. Even though it was July, gloves and a scarf would have been welcome additions to the heat from my cup as I stood on the deck of the Ocean Princess at 7 a.m., savoring a long-awaited first sight of the Sognefjord. During the long hours of daylight that followed, striking Nordic scenery would elicit many en masse exclamations, but in the misty early morning, with few others yet on deck, there was time for solitary appreciation as we glided serenely up the spectacular glacier-carved gorge.

I had placed a wake-up call and set a travel alarm to make sure that an enjoyable night of dancing at the ship's disco didn't deter me from rising early for the Sognefjord. Up to 4,000 feet deep, and surrounded by 4,000-foot mountains, many of which show avalanche scars, Sognefjord is home to water's-edge hamlets that limit contact with the rest of the world.

A mail boat making its way from dock to dock is the only sound to break the solemn stillness. On the face of the forested mountains, the timberline here is as low as 1,500 feet. Occasional houses and upland pastures appear, along with electric lines, seemingly inaccessible to anyone but sea gulls.

After tendering in to tiny Flam - where Norse knitwear and reindeer-hide hats are popular purchases - we catch a high-climbing electric train that runs past red and white wooden houses. The scene is further brightened by flower boxes, mammoth barns that house cattle and sheep throughout the long winter, and Evangelical (Lutheran) churches with distinctive square steeples. Drying hay is hung like laundry on rope lines.

During a delectable smorgasbord lunch, talk with our excellent local guide turns to the subject of trolls. According to Norwegian legend, trolls are grotesque, malevolent creatures of the dark that turn to stones if they are out after sunrise.

Later, on the drive to Gudvangen to join the Ocean Islander, we pass numerous waterfalls of glacier runoff and rushing salmon-rich streams. Back on board, we relax on deck with afternoon tea and continue to marvel at the magnificent scenery.

There is enough light to see the fjord through both the early and late seatings of dinner, and during post-prandial turns on deck. Although there's no true midnight sun - since we remain south of the Arctic Circle - it is midnight when the last rays of the spectacular sunset disappear.

The first full day of our week-long cruise from Copenhagen has been at sea - sailing up the Skagerrak to the North Sea - so we had become familiar with the 5,000-ton, 250-passenger Ocean Islander. The ship quite successfully combines something of a yachtlike intimacy with the features and facilities of a much larger vessel. Officers are Greek, and the personable, cooperative English-speaking crew is made up of some 20 nationalities. Americans predominate on the passenger roster, with a mix of Europeans.

Ocean Cruise Lines runs its tidy ships with attention to detail. Food and dining room service are of a high standard. In addition to the gala captain's welcome and farewell dinners, there is a Viking theme night in the dining room, along with imaginative midnight buffets.

The next morning we cruise the Geirangerfjord, considered by Norwegians to be their country's most majestic. From Hellesylt, an optional overland tour traverses a lovely landscape of green forests and fields and startling ice-blue glacier-fed lakes. Those who remain on board the Ocean Islander to Geiranger can tour the 4,500-foot summit of Mt. Dalsnibba for a grand and far-reaching view.

We take special note of its being Thursday, since the name of the day was derived from the Norse god Tor. We arrive in Bergen, which was founded a thousand years ago by the seafaring Vikings and was an important member of the Hanseatic League by the 13th century. Despite multiple fires and rebuildings, the wharves, warehouses, and pastel-colored dwellings on the surrounding hillsides are said to look much the same as they did centuries ago. We dock conveniently by Haakkan Hall.

With only a five-hour port call, it's difficult to decide what to see. Many of us opt for an excursion to the Stave Church of Fantoft, begun in 1150, and composer Edvard Grieg's country home, Troldhaugen.

Back in Bergen, there's time to explore the Hanseatic Museum, housed in a marvelous wooden building that faces the outdoor market, filled with flower and fish stands, at the harbor. After we sail, recordings of Grieg are played in the ship's lounge.

After 25 hours on shipboard with sea schedules, we arrive at Oslo, Norway's capital, via the Oslofjord. The Ocean Islander's berth is just beneath the 13th-century Fortress, which, with the imposing, once-controversial 1950 Oslo City Hall, dominates the waterfront.

Our last port is Gretnaa, in Jutland, Denmark. With its flat farmland and grazing land and seaside resorts, this region is in sharp geographic contrast to Norway. We visit one of Denmark's many castles, Rosenholm, which has been occupied by the Rosencrantz family since the 16th century. In Shakespeare's time, a member of the family was a delegate to the English court of Elizabeth I, and later appeared as a character in ``Hamlet.''

Back in Copenhagen, the Ocean Islander's passengers debark just a short walk from where the ``The Little Mermaid'' statue poses pensively on a rock at the harbor's edge. Many plan a stay in the city, before or after the cruise, to sight-see, shop for Danish products, and delight in Tivoli at night. Practical information

Ocean Cruise Lines' Fjords & Fairytales cruises depart from Copenhagen every other Sunday from June 7 to Sept. 13. Prices per person, double occupancy, begin at $1,195. Alternate Sunday sailings from May 31 to Sept. 20 cover a Baltic Sea itinerary of Stockholm, Leningrad, Helsinki, and Visby (from $1,295). For further information, contact your travel agent or Ocean Cruise Lines (toll-free), 1-800-556-8850.

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