I tried a Fred. Olsen cruise to Norway and now I'm converted

I tried a Fred. Olsen cruise to Norway - this is what I thought <i>(Image: NQ/ Fred. Olsen Cruises)</i>
I tried a Fred. Olsen cruise to Norway - this is what I thought (Image: NQ/ Fred. Olsen Cruises)

One of the small pleasures of a cruise is pulling back the curtains each morning with anticipation, wondering what view you will be surprised with.

Every day on my trip along the Norwegian coast, I was treated to a different scene, as beautiful as any landscape painting.

Snow-capped mountain ranges, vaulting over a web of islands and inlets; a sprinkling of charming wooden houses painted red, white and yellow along the shore; a city hugging the shore below a wall of rock and ice.

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Even the oil rigs which were the sole disruption across the vastness of the North Sea were oddly riveting.

With the second-longest coastline in the world, these views are plentiful – and it makes cruising one of the best ways to see the natural splendour Norway has to offer.

But for those days at sea and times in between sight-seeing, there is also plenty to do on board too.So how did Fred. Olsen measure up?

Itinerary and excursions

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Setting sail from Newcastle, the nine-night round trip took us across the Arctic Circle to the towns of Bodø and Narvik and finally to Tromsø, nicknamed the ‘Paris of the North’ for its vibrant culture and one of the northernmost cities in the world.

On the return journey, we followed in the oarstrokes of the Vikings through the Tjeldsundet Strait,  brushing the coastline for spectacular views of the Seven Sisters mountain range – so nicknamed for its seven peaks – and the peculiar hole which bores through the centre of the Torghatten, or ‘square hat’, mountain.

Our final stop on Norwegian shores, Ålesund, provided some wonderful man-made sights; its elegant Art Nouveau buildings sprung out of the ashes of a huge fire which razed the town in 1904.

The four days spent at sea were staggered throughout the journey, allowing for a good blend of busy days sightseeing ashore and relaxation.

The purpose of the trip was to search for the Northern Lights – and in theory, a ship at sea would be one of the best places to see it, away from light pollution.

But this elusive sight was one view that was out of the control of the captain and his crew, so although there was one sighting, it was hard to make out with the naked eye.

It is hard to complain, however, when we were so spoilt for other environmental eye candy.

The sight of the mountain tops turning pink during an evening dip in the hot tub is one that will stay with me.

Bodø

Daily Echo: Bodo was one of the stops
Daily Echo: Bodo was one of the stops

Bodo was one of the stops (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines)The fast-growing town of Bodø’s biggest claims to fame are its football team, large colonies of Sea Eagles and the nearby Saltstraumen, one of the strongest tidal currents in the world.

Badly damaged by the Nazis in the Second World War and quickly rebuilt in the aftermath, the city has an almost Soviet feel – complete with a Brutalist concrete church.

Despite our tour guide’s claim that Bodø had once been voted the least scenic town in Norway, I found plenty of charm there – including Rensåsparken, a park with lovely views over the town.

Things are on the up anyway, as it has been chosen as the European City of Culture for 2024.

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You can tick off two of the town’s biggest attractions by taking a RIB tour of the Saltstraumen to spot some eagles.

The mesmerising maelstrom is formed by 400million cubic tons of water flowing between the Saltenfjorden and Skjerstadfjorden at the changing of the tides.

The views by boat are unparalleled – and while you’ll get pelted with water, speaking from personal experience, the suits and googles provided keep you dry.

Narvik

The Sami Experience near Narvik (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)

The industrial town of Narvik has a thriving port and is known for its iron ore, transported via Northern Norway’s only train station.

Its trading credentials mean it also has strong links with the indigenous Sámi people, who call northern Scandinavia home.

To find out more about their contributions to the area’s identity, take a trip out by coach to meet them and learn about their culture.

Gathered around a fire in a large wooden tent, Ronald (like Reagan, he joked) taught us the Sámi ways – including how to joik, a type of musical language.

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He sang us tunes he’d devised for his children, based on their personalities, and made us guess which animal the song was about based on how it sounded.

Over a cup of mushroom tea – which we were assured was not hallucinogenic - the ordained shaman carried out a ceremony where we cast a piece of birch tinder into the flames to commune with our ancestors.

For the Sámi, the Northern Lights are more than just a scientific phenomenon: they are a religious experience, allowing you to see your ancestors.

While mine proved to be notably shy on this trip, it was still an eye-opener.

Tromsø

Daily Echo: The Balmoral docked in Tromso at night
Daily Echo: The Balmoral docked in Tromso at night

The Balmoral docked in Tromso at night (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines)

Norway’s largest northern city, Tromsø has parallels with its southerly cosmopolitan cousins: nightclubs, bars, a university and plenty of chic coffee joints and shops.

But life here is also vastly different. In the summer, the sun does not set, and in winter there is perpetual night, making it a popular spot to see the aurora.

Even in spring, snow covers everything: one of the biggest local hazards are roof avalanches, and vehicles drive around to create rivets in the snow for commuters to travel by ski.

I even spotted a few locals ‘walking’ their dog by ski as well!

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For a bracing morning stroll in these climes, which are often below freezing, don your big coats, hat and gloves and strap on a pair of snowshoes to your boots for a guided walk with Tromsø Outdoor.

I am notoriously Bambi-like on icy terrain – but the shoes allow you to take in the undulating hills of snow and powdery flurries falling from the birch trees without fear of landing on your backside.

Our friendly guide Tomi treated us to a cup of hot blackcurrant and a traditional pancake, sandwiched with cinnamon buttercream, while we also drank in the panoramic vistas of the city and the mountains.

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If you’re not too tired of walking by this point, I would also recommend taking a stroll across the Tromsø Bridge – which also has some stunning views of Tromsø Sound if you can take the wind pummelling your face – and stopping off at the angular Arctic Cathedral on your way to the cable car for yet more scenery soaking.

Ålesund

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With the UNESCO-listed Geirangerfjord on its doorstep, this postcard-pretty town holds its own against the natural beauty it is surrounded by.

Almost entirely rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style in the early 20th Century, its swirling facades and conical turrets makes it feel like you’ve stepped into a fairytale.

For a deeper dive, and some lovely keepsakes to take home away from the tourist traps, visit the The Art Nouveau Centre & the Art Museum KUBE in the heart of the town.

If your knees can take it, take a short walk to the Byparken Town Park and climb the 418 steps up to the Mount Aksla viewpoint: there are plenty of seats to take a break on, and you can reward yourself with an ice cream from the café at the top.

It’s endorsed by former US President and First Lady Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who are all smiles in a photo hanging on the wall.

Best excursion: Saltstraumen and sea eagle safari in Bodø

Best town: Ålesund

Best views: Tromsø

Accommodation and amenities

Daily Echo: The superior suite on board the Balmoral
Daily Echo: The superior suite on board the Balmoral

The superior suite on board the Balmoral (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)Fred. Olsen’s unique selling point is the size of its ships: none hold more than 1,400 people, allowing them to access harder-to-reach destinations and with the goal of creating a more intimate atmosphere on board.

I found this to be the case on the Balmoral; so many of the staff took the time to remember my name.

Built in 1988 and lengthened to 218.5m in 2007, with a capacity for 1,325 guests and 551 crew, the Balmoral is the smallest (just) and oldest of the company’s fleet.

With traditional décor, I thought the Balmoral had the best of both worlds: small enough to create a friendly yet calm atmosphere, but big enough to have the range of restaurants, pools and lounges you would expect from a modern cruise liner.

Many of the mid-range rooms come with a large window, so even the more budget-conscious can admire the view while getting ready.

Daily Echo: The balcony junior suite on board the Balmoral
Daily Echo: The balcony junior suite on board the Balmoral

The balcony junior suite on board the Balmoral (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)For those with a bigger budget, the suites offer an extra level of luxury, including complimentary canapes each afternoon, a walk-in wardrobe, living area and private balcony complete with sun loungers.

With panoramic windows at the front of the ship, the gym certainly beat my one at home for views – but it could do with a wider range of equipment.

That being said, the yoga and Pilates classes were a good way to reinvigorate the appetite, and the spa’s full body massage and foil mud wrap - which left me swaddled like a big jacket potato – helped moisturise away the myriad jacuzzi visits.

Daily Echo: Balmoral's aft deck pool and hot tubs - with the best views on the ship. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises
Daily Echo: Balmoral's aft deck pool and hot tubs - with the best views on the ship. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises

Balmoral's aft deck pool and hot tubs - with the best views on the ship. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)Due to the brisk temperatures, which got as low as minus 3 degrees C, these were in much less demand than I was expecting.

But you’re only a waddle away from a warm doorway, and the contrast of temperatures is actually quite euphoric, and supercharged me throughout the day.

In fact, my friend and I used them so much that one of our fellow travellers quipped over the breakfast buffet: ‘I barely recognised you with your clothes on’.

Entertainment

Daily Echo: The Neptune Lounge on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises
Daily Echo: The Neptune Lounge on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises

The Neptune Lounge on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)By day, performers could be found singing or playing throughout the ship and there was a variety of crafts and talks, from the culture of Northern Norway, to its involvement in World War Two, to stargazing.

But by night, the entertainment well and truly ramped up, offering everything you would expect from a cruise.

From Strictly Come Dancing-inspired shows to classical recitals of showtunes and pop songs, there was a varied schedule to pick from – and if you didn’t fancy what was on that night, you could always settle down in bed and put on a film from the decent selection available.

Daily Echo: The silent disco was a lot of fun!
Daily Echo: The silent disco was a lot of fun!

The silent disco was a lot of fun! (Image: Newsquest)While not strictly entertainment, the Captain’s welcome and farewell parties on the two formal evenings injected a sense of glamour, as couples dressed to the nines were served complimentary glasses of wine and canapes as the ship’s master gave us a glimpse behind the curtain.

The silent discos which came later in the Lido Lounge were an inspired idea; even if some of the songs were repeated on the second formal night, they still went down a storm with revellers.

My favourite entertainers?

Daily Echo: Impromptu Trio in the Lido Lounge on the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises
Daily Echo: Impromptu Trio in the Lido Lounge on the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises

Impromptu Trio in the Lido Lounge on the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)The pop covers band Impromptu Trio, for whom we became their unofficial back up dancers, and Irish magician Davey McAuley; a jack-of-all-tricks, he took time-honoured ones like the cup and ball and card magic and gave them a modern twist with a self-deprecating humour which won over the crowd.

Some of his stunts had me gawping – like when he put his hand in an animal trap.

Food and drink

Daily Echo: The Palms Cafe on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises
Daily Echo: The Palms Cafe on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises

The Palms Cafe on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)The beauty of a cruise is having all your meals included, so make sure to bring clothes with some give in them.

Our main haunt was the Palms Café, due to its convenience and almost round-the-clock dining: from cooked and continental breakfasts, to salads, soups and hot meals for lunch; sandwiches, cakes and warm scones for afternoon tea; a wide selection of dinner options; and hot dogs, fish goujons and fries from 11pm to midnight at the Supper Club – perfect for soaking up some of the excesses of the drinks package.

Cocktails of the day – predominantly pineapple or orange-based - and house wines and budget spirits were included. But check with your waiter so you don’t accidentally order a tipple that’s not covered.

Daily Echo: The Avon & Spey Restaurants on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises
Daily Echo: The Avon & Spey Restaurants on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises

The Avon & Spey Restaurants on board the Balmoral. Picture: Fred. Olsen Cruises (Image: Fred. Olsen Cruises)For dinner, it was nice to dress up and have a more sophisticated dining experience. We had a table in the Spey restaurant – one of three on board – and opted for the 8.30pm sitting rather than 6pm.

From allowing us to customise our meals and memorising our drinks orders, our waiters Glen, from India, and Jr, from the Philippines, made us feel special; I could get used to being referred to as ‘Sir James’.

At the top end of the spectrum were a range of events hosted in the panoramic surrounds of the Observatory, from a classy afternoon tea to martinis shaken (not stirred) to the hits of James Bond and a cheese and wine evening hosted by the lovely sommelier Martin.

Daily Echo: The Korean slow-cooked beef on kimchi rice was my favourite meal of the trip
Daily Echo: The Korean slow-cooked beef on kimchi rice was my favourite meal of the trip

The Korean slow-cooked beef on kimchi rice was my favourite meal of the trip (Image: Newsquest)Two restaurants also required a surplus charge: the Goan-inspired cuisine of Vasco and the east-Asian influenced fayre at Colours and Tastes restaurants.

Although both had some delicious food, the latter was my preference as it had its own separate room (Vasco was partitioned off behind the Palms Café).

The melting Korean beef, braised for eight hours and served on a bed of kimchi rice, was my meal of the trip.

Daily Echo: The McDonald's in Tromso - if you have any room after all the food on board ship!
Daily Echo: The McDonald's in Tromso - if you have any room after all the food on board ship!

The McDonald's in Tromso - if you have any room after all the food on board ship! (Image: Newsquest)But that does not mean you cannot venture out to sample the local delights.

Top prize for my best offshore eats goes to the Berbusmel bakery and deli in Bodø: jam-packed with locals, shake off the shivers with one of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever tasted and a solbolle – the sunny love child of a custard danish and a cinnamon bun.

It would also be remiss of me not to mention that Tromsø boasts the world’s northernmost McDonald’s – if you fancy sampling a Dijon Mayo Cheese or a Chicken Salsa burger.

Top tips

Daily Echo: The sunset near Rorvik - one of many stunning views we saw during our trip
Daily Echo: The sunset near Rorvik - one of many stunning views we saw during our trip

The sunset near Rorvik - one of many stunning views we saw during our trip (Image: Newsquest)

  • Go up to the jacuzzi at sunset - the views from the hot tubs on the lower deck were much better.

  • Invest in some snow grips you can pull over your shoes – for the sake of £10, you’ll be grateful when confronted with stretches of black ice.

  • Every day, you receive a copy of the Daily Times, detailing excursion meeting points and the day’s entertainment. But there is also an online version on the Fred. Olsen WiFi portal which makes things easier on the go.

  • For the best views in Narvik and Tromsø, take a cable car ride; for about £20 each for a round trip, it is well worth it. To get to the latter, you’ll also walk over the scenic Tromsø Bridge and past the Arctic Cathedral.

  • Make sure to stick your telly on each night to be alerted should the Northern Lights appear.

Fun facts

Daily Echo: Alesund is full of lovely architecture
Daily Echo: Alesund is full of lovely architecture

Alesund is full of lovely architecture (Image: UGC)On our cruise the guests consumed:

  • 420kg of cheese

  • 488 litres of cream

  • 540 litres of ice cream

  • 4,115kg of fruit

  • 8,638.80kg of vegetables

  • 3,116 litres of milk

  • 2,377.5kg of pork

  • 2,066kg of poultry

  • 1,416.8kg of beef

  • 519.17kg of lamb

  • 2,785.16kg of fish

  • 2,386kg of flour

  • 20,905 eggs

For more information about the cruise, excursions and how to book, visit the Fred Olsen website.