[Frommer's writer Heidi Sarna contributed this story.]
I cruised with my family last summer aboard the Costa Atlantic round-trip out of Copenhagen to the Norwegian fjords. In a word: ohmygod.
My boys were six at the time, and the stunning scenery even kept their attention on all-day bus tours and long hikes. The 7-night itinerary called on five ports, with a convenient sea day at the start of the trip. We called on Flam, Hellesylt /Geiranger, Bergen, Stavanger and Oslo, with long 9- to 12-hour stays in each port, with the exception of a five-hour stay in Stavanger.
Among the many things I love about Norway is that it’s very tourist-friendly, with great roads, infrastructure and guides, but yet with a population of fewer than 5 million, the place never feels over-crowded or over-developed.
Unlike many other popular ports of call in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean (St. Thomas comes to mind of course), in Norway, you won’t get stuck in a traffic jam or breathe polluted air. In my book, Norway is a dream destination for families and a great place to explore by ship.
I typically avoid bus tours, but in Norway, I took a chance and couldn’t have been more pleased and impressed with the two excursions we signed up for aboard the Costa Atlantica.
In Norway, most tours involved a scenic bus drive along winding switchback-y roads and through long tunnels blasted through the steep granite mountains. The buses were state-of-the-art and super comfortable, the guides articulate and clear, and the scenery though the huge windows was so breathtaking that even my 6-year-old twin boys were mesmerized. The spectacular landscape was one long reel of majestic fjords, wild flowers, waterfalls, shiny lakes and charming fishing villages. Needless to say, your camera will get a work out.
Fun In Flam
In Flam, we signed up for the “Flam, Voss and Stalheim” excursion, a 6.5-hour tour by both bus and local train ($180 USD per adult and $125USD per kid). Highlights were a stop at the Tvinde Waterall, where my boys promptly raced out of the bus and up to the terraced falls, hopping over pools of crystal clear mountain water, scampering across rocks and getting as close to the cascading falls as possible. They loved it, even with my nagging to not get too close or too wet, and mom and dad were impressed by the lovely waterfalls as well.
Another highlight was the drive along Norway’s steepest road and most hairpin-y road, Stalheimskleivane. Flanked by numerous waterfalls, the bus makes 13 turns on the road while passengers are glued to the windows gasping at the pastoral green landscape and rustic houses all framed by dramatic fjords and mountains. There were several stops for picture taking and snacks, so there were never uncomfortable, long stretches in the bus.
The other half of the tour was a 45-minute train ride on the charming Flam railway, slowly chugging past gorgeous landscape, through tunnels and up super steep slopes between the mountain station of Myrdal and Flam.
The boys enjoyed the views as we did, and the fun of riding on a train. We all hopped out to have a look at the Kjosfoss waterfall, not paying mind to the mist and light rain. The entire ride was again a surreal montage of mesmerizing scenery. As modern-day Luddites, we had no electronic toys with us, so our boys had no choice but to join us in admiring the emerald-green farmland, snow-capped peaks, canyons, wild flowers and waterfalls our train passed through. They loved it as much as us.
Going With The Flo
On to Hellesylt /Geiranger, the ship ship makes a 1-hour stop in Hellesylt to drop off passengers for shore excursions; the main port of call is up the coast a bit at Geirganger. We hopped off at Hellesylt for one of the best excursions I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken hundreds) – “Hiking Across the Flo Mountain.” We traveled by both bus and our good ole feet for the 7.5-hour tour; the cost was $171 USD per adult and $120 USD per kid.
After a short ride in the bus, we were dropped off in the village of Vollset and were left to trek at our pace along the 10-kilometer (6 miles) path across the Flo Mountain. There was a tour leader bringing up the rear just in case any one needed assistance, but for the second half of the walk, the group of 40 or so had stretched out enough that we were alone to enjoy the truly unbelievable landscape.
These three hours were the highlight of my entire week (and that’s saying a lot because there were a lot of highlights). We followed a well-worn earthen path dating back to medieval times that weaved along a river and hugged cliffs, and meandered though wind-swept fields, past wild-flower strewn summer farms and tree-lined cow paths.
Around every bend was a view better than the last, from snow-capped peaks in the distance to the region’s ubiquitous rustic cottages with turf-lined roofs (for insulation). During the last 30- to 60-minutes of the walk, the view ahead was of the huge and gorgeous bright turquoise Strynsvatnet Lake.
At the end of the hike, we hopped back on the bus and headed for a local feast of salmon and potatoes, before embarking on the second half of the tour. Just when I thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, we started a zigzagging drive up to the mountain peak called Dalsnibba, at about 5,000 feet. Up top the terrain was rocky and moon-like with patches of snow; we were bowled over by the absolutely stunning views of the Geiranger fjord way down below.
We could see our ship and it was just a tiny sliver from up there. As the skilled bus drivers carefully steered the buses back and forth across the steep and narrow mountain road to and from Dalsnibba, the views of the fjords below literally made you catch your breath. It was surreal.
An easier, slower day laid in wait for us in Bergen. The colorful yacht-filled harbor and Bergen’s easy-to-explore old town make it a great city for strolling on your own. We focused on the nearby 700-year-old Bergenhus Fortress and its restored five-story Rosenkrantz Tower dating back to the 1500s. We walked around the inside of the 16th-century stone tower, exploring the bed chambers, chapel and other rooms, imagining what it was like to have lived there hundreds of years ago.
We ended up at the top, walking along the turreted terrace for city views. Afterwards, we happened upon a couple of young men in medieval garb that had set up a staging area for traditional jousting and axe throwing for tourists. My husband had good aim and landed all three axes on the tree stump target, while for my boys, dressing up in period vests and dueling with rubber swords and shields was a thrill. If we had taken a tour and gone further a field, I would have made sure we had a look at the home of Edvard Grieg, Norway’s most famous composer and pianist.
No Stranger In Stavanger
Another short tour day, but no less satisfying, was our call in Stavanger. The ship docked on the waterfront right in town and within minutes we were walking amidst Stavanger’s quaint 18th and 19th century wooden homes.
We spent an hour at the Stavanger Maritime Museum (which incidentally, is right next store to a modern art gallery displaying graphic paintings of nudes). The museum is set in a well-preserved shipping merchant’s home.
Walk through the living quarters, an office and a general store, part of which houses a collection of ship models and another part, an interactive area for kids, with a mini old-time ship and general-store props that kids can touch and play with. Upstairs we explored the living quarters, which remain as they were a century or two ago. Best part, we practically had the place to ourselves.
Otherwise, we strolled around the small city, past the imposing 900-year-old Stavanger Cathedral, beautifully framed with brilliant pink and red flowers. What the boys will remember most about Stavanger, though, is the street market where we bought them their first official knock-off soccer jerseys (Liverpool and Brazil). They were absolutely thrilled.
We were bowled over again, this time by the capital city of Oslo. This beautiful easy-to-navigate 1,000-year-old city at the northernmost end of the Oslofjord was the perfect place to tour solo. We got on board a local hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus called City Sightseeing (about $90 USD for a family of four) right outside the ship terminal and crawled past the city’s highlights, including the gorgeous stately homes near Slotts Park and the Royal Palace.
We hopped off the bus to have a look at the famous Vigeland Park, where some 212 bronze and granite sculptures of humans in different stages of life by Gustav Vigeland are set in the sprawling green park. The bulbous rounded sculptures of babies, children and adults thoughtfully and sweetly portray the cycle of life.
After lunch at the park’s visitor’s center, we hopped back on the bus and headed toward the Viking Ship museum, where three excavated ships from the 9th century are on display. Needless to say, my boys loved the place.
Next, it was a short walk to the nearby Kon-Tiki & Fram Maritime Museum, a tribute to the explorer Lars Heyerdahl. In 1947 he built and traveled 4,300 miles across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to French Polynesia with a small crew on a balsa wood raft called the Kon-Tiki to prove it had been done by ancient Peruvians hundreds or thousands of years before. I’ve always been fascinated with his story and my children enjoyed seeing several of his expedition vessels. Afterwards, it was a 15-minute walk to the ferry (included in the bus fare), which took us across the pretty harbor and back to the town center, within walking distance of our ship. Another great day.
Pre-Cruise: Overnighting In Fairy-Tale Copenhagen
Now, before we hopped on our cruise, we spent two days and a night in Copenhagen, another very family-friendly European city. We arrived a day early in the Danish capital and checked into The Square Hotel, a cute, well-run three-star hotel conveniently set in the center of town just a few blocks from the 19th-century Tivoli Gardens amusement park.
Our room was stylish in that cool minimalist European way, and it had a pull-out sofa bed for our boys and a slick bathroom with tub. Rates include a breakfast buffet and start at about $300 USD per room (note, everything is expensive in Copenhagen; it’s consistently ranked in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world).
After a night flight from New York, we arrived mid-morning, checked in early, and then napped for a few hours to shake off our jet-lag. We awoke just before lunchtime and spent the rest of the day exploring Copenhagen.
Near the hotel, we boarded the orange #11 hop-on/hop-off City Cirkel tour bus for a one-hour overview of the city, hopping off for a look at the Amalienborg, the Royal Palace, to see the changing of the guard at noon and to admire the colorful boat-lined canals nearby, Nyhavn.
Back at Town Hall in the city center, we strolled past a statue of the city’s most famous scribe, Hans Christian Anderson, sampled the ubiquitous Danish sausage (the popular version stuck in half a bun) from a cart in the town square.
Then we spent several hours at the legendary Tivoli Gardens, a lovely throw-back to an era before big-eared mice and over-the-top marketing. We enjoyed the 167-year-old park’s nostalgic carnival games and century-old wooden roller coaster, as well as a few of the modern machines, including The Demon roller coaster, which one of my twin sons was tall enough to ride (the other, just a smidge under). For dinner, we enjoyed a delicious meal at an Asian restaurant nearby.
The next morning after a filling breakfast, we set out to see Copenhagen’s most famous statue, the Little Mermaid. This time we took a pedi-cab, pedaled by a friendly English-speaking local who was happy to answer our questions. The statue is, as we had heard, much smaller in person than most people envision. Cameras flashed and people posed in front of the rock where she sat.
By lunchtime, we were ready to the board the ship. Because of our heavy luggage, we took a taxi to the pier, which was just a mile or two away from our hotel; though it would be possible to get there by bus or train if one’s luggage is manageable (taxis too are expensive in Copenhagen).
Once at the terminal, there were no big lines and check-in was very efficient, impressive considering we’d be sailing with 2,428 other passengers from around the world. And that’s another story (tune in), the multi-culti Costa Atlantica is a destination in and of itself.