ABOARD THE M/S NORD NORGE — "I love a rough sea," says Norah Cockroft, a game septuagenarian Englishwoman grasping the table. "It's so bracing."
As we dine on lamb medallions and baby carrots, our 400-foot vessel has indeed begun to pitch and roll. Not violently, but enough to remind us that we are above the Arctic Circle in waters that the captain himself describes as "some of the most difficult in the world."
The M/S Nord Norge is the newest of 11 sister ships that sail the jagged edge of northern Norway 365 days a year. It's now October. The big luxury liners have headed south for the winter. Not counting fishing trawlers, the Nord Norge ("North Norway") and the rest of the Norwegian Coastal Express fleet have the majestic fjords and ice-capped archipelagos to themselves.
It is a matter of choice whether to call these vessels modest cruise ships or glorified ferries. Fully booked, the Nord Norge carries 691 passengers in fine style, with restaurant, a 24-hour cafe, bars, and lounges and an appealing decor of thick carpeting, brass hardware, and imitation teak.
The Coastal Express is a historical operation with a split personality. In midsummer the ships are packed with international tourists, including aristocratic cruisers, Bohemian backpackers, and Norwegian-Americans in search of their roots, all thrilling to the dramatic landscape as it glows in the midnight sun. The full excursion takes 11 days and costs between $1,440 and $2,270 per person, depending on the season, for a comfortable double cabin with toilet, sink, and shower.
But the ships also supply basic transportation for isolated coastal Norwegians. The terrain ashore is so rugged that no road can compete with the century-old ship service, which the locals call Riksvei En, or National Route 1.
On the six-day stretch from Bergen north to Troms and around the North Cape to Kirkenes, on the Russian border, the Coastal Express ships stop in 33 ports, often for only a few minutes. Then they visit the same ports on the return to Bergen. The two companies that operate the Coastal Express have somewhat daringly labeled it, "the world's most beautiful sea voyage."
After a summer of cruising at capacity, the Nord Norge had only about three-dozen people aboard when it left Bergen on our autumn trip.
In summer, the weather can be outright balmy, with temperatures in the high 80s and gentle seas. Even the country's northern tip, which corresponds to the latitude of Barrow, Alaska, is washed by the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream. In the dead of winter, the only Coastal Express harbor that sometimes ices over is Kirkenes. When that happens, the ships simply plow through.
But make no mistake. From late autumn to early spring you are likely to be lashed by gales and slush storms. Moreover, you may begin to doubt the sun ever existed. The sky is dark except for periods of mystical blue twilight called skumringstid.
Around Christmas, the ships carry full, festive loads.
"Many people seek out the bad winter weather," says Capt. Bengt Dybfest, master of the Nord Norge. "I tell them they have come to the right ship at the right time."
Much of the sea lane is sheltered between the mountainous mainland and towering islands offshore. But the guide book is honest in warning of exposed stretches that "allow you to experience the full dimensions of the ocean."
Bob Jacobson and Sandy Humphreys of Lake Oswego, Ore., chose an autumn cruise to avoid the crowds. Ms. Humphreys says that apart from the first two days, when "all you could see were whitecaps and fog," the couple had excellent weather. They saw the Coastal Express as a relaxing way to get from Bergen to Troms and were not disappointed.
"The ship is much nicer than we expected," Mr. Jacobson says. "We thought there would be more of a freighter atmosphere."
In their 16 daily circuits of the Nord Norge's promenade deck, the Oregonians enjoyed the foliage and thousands of islands. But what struck them most was the life force of the coastal inhabitants. Prosperous fishing villages are mounted on shelves of rock while shepherds' cabins nestle in the clefts between mountains.
With 213,000 residents, Bergen, the trip's starting point, is Norway's second-largest city. Around its colorful wharf area, ancient wooden buildings lean on one another for support and the smells of fish and seaweed predominate. Beautiful fjord towns lie to the north. Appearing on Day 3 is Trondheim, Norway's first capital and a former Christian pilgrimage destination. It is the site of Scandinavia's finest Gothic structure, Nidaros Cathedral, replete with gargoyles and flying buttresses.
As the ships sail north they enter the starkly beautiful realm of the Lofoten chain, which includes the world's richest cod and herring fisheries. It is also the center of the controversial Norwegian whaling industry. In springtime, Coastal Express passengers often see orca, but there is no need to worry about whizzing harpoons. Norwegian whalers hunt only the minke whale and must travel far out to sea to find their prey.
Early on Day 6, the ship rounds the North Cape, mainland Europe's northernmost headland, then completes the leg to Kirkenes, an iron ore outpost with 5,000 residents. Then the ship heads back to Bergen.
In the high season, passengers are lured off the ship by a number of excursions. South of the Lofoten archipelago, for example, you can board a smaller vessel and sail up a fjord to view Svartisen, Norway's second-largest glacier. The passengers then switch to a bus to catch up with the ship. On the way they stop at an overlook to see Saltstraumen, a vast whirlpool of currents that inspired Edgar Allen Poe to write the story "Maelstrom," in which the main character is swallowed, then disgorged, by the angry Norwegian Sea.
* The Norwegian Coastal Express route is operated by two companies with tongue-twisting names: Ofotens og Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab (OVDS) and Troms Fylkes Dampskipsselskap (TFDS). Their 11 ships carry tourists, local residents, cargo and a small number of cars. In the United States, reservations are handled through Bergen Line at 800-323-7436.