Steaming up the Norwegian coast: breathtaking vistas, native charm

We had docked at the isolated Norwegian coastal village of Berlevag, several hundred miles above the Arctic Circle and just around the corner from the Soviet border. There, a familiar ritual was being played out. Some 25 teen-agers were standing on the pier in a state of great excitement. The ship's crane dipped down into the cargo hold and brought forth a bright fire-engine-red Honda motorcycle one of the group had bought. Before we set sail again, its new owner was doing figure eights in the parking lot to the delight of his friends -- and of the tourists gazing down from the deck. This was not an ordinary sea cruise. It was an 11-day, 1,500-mile round-trip journey from Bergen to Kirkenes on a 2,000-ton ship, one of 11 that leaves Bergen daily to take mail and cargo to thousands of isolated coastal residents.

Each coastal steamer is in fact a kind of hybrid, a cross between a tourist cruise ship and a cargo-carrying freighter. Tourist passengers can observe coverall-clad crew members loading crates of frozen fish and lumber one minute and be eating with sterling silver on china in the elegant dining room the next.

And although most of the tourists on board are English, German, and American, passengers are not isolated from the natives. Several dozen day-passengers are usually on board, most of them Norwegians using the ship to ``bus'' from one coastal county or town to the next.

This provides for many delightful encounters. On the fourth day of our journey, a Norwegian ornithologist came on board. He was studying the declining gannet and puffin populations above the Arctic Circle and spent most of his time with his binoculars and note pad. But he was always willing to talk about coastal customs and traditions.

One of the most persistent of these traditions involves a method of preserving cod, tons of which are caught in Norwegian coastal waters each year, especially between January and April. Beginning near the Lofoten Islands, some of the richest fishing grounds in the North Sea, a familiar sight greeted us on the jetties of the ports we called on: huge wooden A-frame structures, like tents that had lost their fabric. When we used our binoculars, we could see that hundreds of filleted fish were literally hanging out to dry on these racks.

This was, of course, an essential method of preservation in the days before refrigeration, and in fact many shippers made their fortunes by shipping what came to be called ``clip-fish'' to the Mediterranean -- there to be consumed in Roman Catholic countries on fast days. A tradition born of necessity has become a cultural preference in Norway, where fish sellers do a brisk business in fish that have hung for months in the spring and summer air and must be soaked for days before they are edible.

The coastal steamers play an important role in this continuing commerce in fish, transporting a great deal of the processed cod, halibut, and salmon caught in the northern waters to Bergen, where it is loaded on planes for destinations all over the world. We docked at Risoyhamn, in the Lofoten Island chain, for nearly two hours one morning and watched while 75 palettes (each containing about 20 cases of frozen cod fillets) were stowed in the ship's cargo hold.

Fortunately, not all of the fish is stored. One of the great attractions of the voyage is the opportunity it affords to sample the rich North Sea harvest of fresh cod, halibut, and salmon -- not to mention a varied array of prepared fish, Scandinavian-style. In addition to eggs, porridge, bread, and preserves, the breakfast board was always loaded with several kinds of pickled herring, caviar in toothpaste-style tubes, and anchovies. Lunch spreads usually included shrimp, fish balls, and salt cod or herring.

Fresh fish was often featured at dinners as well. On the evening of National Day, May 17, when Norwegians celebrate their independence from Danish and Swedish rule, we were treated to a native feast: cauliflower soup, poached salmon with sour cream sauce, and new potatoes and carrots, followed by strawberries with cream and a bountiful array of flatbreads and cheeses.

Strolling on deck and eating are not the only activities for passengers. During the several stops the ship makes each day there are ample opportunities for sightseeing and shopping in the surprisingly varied coastal towns along the route. Several bus excursions are also arranged to provide an even closer look at coastal life.

Many of the larger towns boast one of the country's 41 ``Husfliden'' (home craft) shops, run by the Norwegian Association of Home Arts and Crafts. Their buyers select the best works from Norway's rural areas for display and sale -- items such as hand-knit wool sweaters, scarfs, and brightly painted wooden bowls and plates.

The towns in the southern half of Norway are lush with vegetation, as this area receives the full benefits of the Gulf Stream. But above the Arctic Circle, at the halfway point in the ship's journey north, the vegetation grows sparser. By the time the ship reaches the northeasterly towns of Vardo and Vadso, near Kirkenes, there are no trees to be seen.

There are compensations, though. Once past the Arctic Circle (and beginning about mid-May) the midnight sun begins to make its appearance, a spectral orb rising from its own embers to brighten the night sky with a pale, purifying light.

Even without trees, the scenery is consistently breathtaking. Sailing through the fjords is a little like cruising through a succession of flooded Yosemite Valleys -- a royal marriage of coastal water beauty and rugged alpine splendor.

These waters have witnessed a great deal of important history, and not just during the Viking era. In April of 1940, Germany launched an attack on Norway and succeeded in occupying its major coastal ports as far north as Narvik, near the Lofoten Islands. The Germans then used these ports as staging grounds for their inland invasion.

For a short while during the war, Tromso, a coastal city north of Narvik, served as the capital of Free Norway and a center of resistance activities. In fact King Haakon and his government were headquartered here until they were forced to flee to England. And in 1944 British planes attacked and sunk the German battleship Tirpitz near here after receiving information from Norwegian agents.

During the German invasion, many of the coastal towns were severely damaged by bombing raids, and when the Germans fled the Russians near the end of the war, they burned what was left to slow down their pursuers. Thus the architecture of a great many of the coastal towns is modern and uniform. Fortunately, such historic gems as the great cathedral at Trondheim were spared.

The coastal steamer makes two stops of several hours at Trondheim, affording visitors a tour of the cathedral, whose architecture echoes that of Westminster Abbey but possesses a Gothic grandeur all its own.

Unfortunately, the days of this kind of coastal exploring may be numbered. The second officer of our ship said that the extension of roads and air landing strips into the northernmost coastal villages is jeopardizing the future of his ship and the 10 others like it. He predicted that within five years the steamers will no longer be making their year-round runs.

This would be a great shame. The splendor of the Norwegian coast will always remain, parts of it approachable by plane and car. But the experience of becoming a coastal voyager for 11 days can never be replaced.

If you take the coastal express:

Bergen Line Inc., at 505 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 986-2711, serves as the general agent for the Norwegian coastal express ships and will send a sailing schedule and price list on request. The trips are popular, so it is a good idea to write six months in advance to arrange bookings.

The 1985 price for the 11-day round-trip voyage, which includes three meals a day and a private cabin, ranges from $657 per person in a double cabin with private bath in April; $1,100 between May 23 and Aug. 31; and $786 in September.

Most visitors will want to spend several days in Bergen before or after the coastal voyage. A wide range of accommodations, from bed-and-breakfast hotels to private homes, is available. Write to the Bergen Tourist Board, Slottsgt. 1, 5000 Bergen, Norway, and ask for a Bergen Guide, which contains a comprehensive listing.

Both SAS and Northwest Orient fly to Scandinavia. Both airlines offer Super-APEX fares at substantial savings, which a travel agent can arrange.

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