Number of Cruises: 33
Cruise Line: Princess
Ship: Royal Princess
Sailing Date: June 23rd, 2002
Itinerary: Norwegian Fjords
This voyage, our third on the Royal Princess, took us from London [Southampton], England up in to the Artic Circle and the North Cape in Norway and then back to Southampton. At this time of year this is the land of the midnight sun. This 12-day cruise is offered by Princess only once per year. We departed Southampton on June 23, and returned there on July 5.
Last year we cruised on the Royal Princess for the British Isles itinerary just after the ship had completed the Norwegian Fjords journey. Some of the passengers had stayed aboard from that cruise to enjoy the British Isles. When we visited with them, we were intrigued by their favorable impressions of the Fjords itinerary and the North Cape. We decided to find out for ourselves this year. This was our second cruise through the Norwegian Fjords. Our previous cruise had gone only as far north as Trondheim.
In a nutshell, it was a fabulous cruise. First of all, we enjoy the Royal Princess. Even though the ship is almost 19 years old, She is one of our favorite ships. A crew of 521 serves the normal passenger capacity of 1,200. The ship is small enough to remember where all the public rooms are located after just a couple of trips around the decks. The ship now has an updated and expanded fitness center, an Internet ‘café,’ and limited personal choice dining options.
We had the privilege of dining with Captain Bob Oliver several times during the cruise. He has served as Master of this ship for the past three years except for his vacations. He told us that the Royal Princess was originally built to serve the Caribbean and Alaska markets. As those markets expanded and as repeat cruisers were looking for more exotic itineraries, the Royal Princess was switched to the less traveled areas of the world. We first cruised on this ship in 1999 in South America, from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Manus, Brazil – about 1,500 miles up the Amazon River.
This Norwegian Fjords cruise included five sea days and stops at the ports of Hellesylt, Geiranger, Trondheim, Honningsvag [North Cape], Tromso, Flaam, Vik, and Bergen, all in Norway. We didn’t spend a whole day in each port. In Hellesylt we stopped only long enough to drop off shore excursion passengers who would rejoin the ship in Geiranger. We spent a long morning in Flaam and then cruised through the narrow and majestic fjords to Vik where we picked up the passengers who had taken the all day land tour from Flaam to Vik. Two of the sea days were spent traveling through fjords. In the northern part of Norway, up in the Artic Circle, the fjords were mostly barren and the valleys were still full of snow. The southern fjords were lush with forests and hillside grazing lands. Snow still covered some of the peaks. The melt off offered spectacular waterfalls. At times we were close enough to the banks that we could almost feel the spray as the water bounced off the rocks.
My favorite port was Honningsvag up in the Artic Circle. This is a small fishing village with a road over to the North Cape. We took a shore excursion from the village over to the visitors’ center right at the North Cape. The Cape is about 1,000 feet above sea level and supposedly on a clear day one can see almost all the way to the North Pole. The day was partly sunny at the pier but as we increased our elevation, it became foggy; almost like driving in the clouds. The temperature at the Cape was 47 F but with the brisk wind and fog, it seemed like about 20 F. The winds blew the fog away for a bit, but it was not clear enough to see the North Pole sticking out of the ground in the distance.
During our drive to and from the Cape, we saw herds of reindeer at various spots. Surprisingly, the waters were not at all rough getting to and from the Cape and the most spectacular aspect of this area was that the sun shone all day AND all night. We were really fortunate to have almost cloudless weather while there except for the fog. It sure seemed strange to look out the window at midnight or 4 a.m. and see the sun. The other side of the coin is that the residents have several months per year of almost total darkness.
We stopped at Tromso on a Sunday. This was an ancient whaling capital and served as a base for expeditions to the North Pole. The island is located in the middle of a bunch of islands and now serves as a regional commercial center. We took the shuttle bus from the pier to town and to our dismay, found the town center basically deserted. The Burger King wouldn’t even open until 3 p.m. After leaving Tromso we passed through some more fjords on our way to the open sea and our journey south to Flaam.
Flaam is another favorite port. There is a train that goes from right near the pier [at sea level, of course] up 2,960 feet in just 12.4 miles to connect with the main rail line to Bergen and Oslo. The train ride lasts about 60 minutes in each direction. Many ferries stop here with passengers from some of the small ports along the coast. They jump on the train and connect at the top with the trains to other parts of the mainland. This train stops for a few minutes about half way to the top at the Kjosfossen Waterfall. The waterfall is similar to a small Niagara Falls.
Bergen was our final port of call before returning to Southampton. The city offers a combination of old and modern Norway. There were 6 cruise ships in port when we were there so the tourist areas were somewhat overwhelmed with people. We planned to ride the Finicular [like a cable car] to the crest of a hill in the upper part of the city. The panoramic view of the city is spectacular from that vantage point. However, it was pouring rain when we arrived in Bergen and continued to rain all day so we didn’t even take the shuttle bus to the center of town. Many who had booked tours were disappointed at the lack of visibility and the wind with rain at the tour stops. Bergen gets over 300 days with rain per year.
The prices in Norway were expensive, even for the necessities of life, as compared with the U.S. and lots of other foreign countries. Everywhere we traveled in the country, the infrastructure was well maintained, the homes and buildings looked freshly painted or cleaned, and the people were friendly and helpful. I was surprised at the large percentage of Norwegian people who speak English. Norway is a pleasant place to visit.
A final word on the ports: if we do this itinerary again, we will not book shore excursions for two reasons. First, the weather is always problematical. Sometimes the cruise ships cannot even dock or tender at the North Cape. If they can land passengers at the various ports, the poor visibility or rain or wind or all of the above may result in the tour not being very enjoyable. Second, for those of us who are mobile and adventuresome, and for those of us who enjoy saving a dollar, arranging the tours or their equivalent independently offers more flexibility and most times at considerable savings. Transportation to interesting sites was always available and reliable in the Norwegian ports and many of the drivers and other locals speak at least some English.
The Royal Princess was almost full for this voyage with 1,164 passengers aboard. Over 900 of these passengers were repeat passengers with Princess and almost 400 passengers were repeat passengers on the Royal Princess. One reason for the huge percentage of repeaters is the itineraries. The Royal Princess offers numerous unusual itineraries compared with many other cruise ships. The Royal Princess is small enough to enter harbors that some of the current mega ships can’t use. Another reason for the loyalty to the ship is the homey atmosphere of the public areas. Additionally, the officers and staff remain virtually unchanged over time except for their vacations. There are always lots of familiar faces aboard.
We have noticed a few changes on the Royal Princess since our first cruise. The gym has been expanded with more walkers and exercise equipment. Wireless Internet access is available from the cabin for a fee and there is an Internet Café, also available for a fee, in part of the Library. There were no “semi-formal” nights; instead we had 3 formal nights and the balance were “smart casual” for evenings.
In the dining room at supper, the pasta course has been eliminated, the soup & salad courses have been combined, and the entrée portions have decreased. None of this is bad because one can still order multiple items from each course including the deserts. There is no longer a wine steward; the assistant waiter brings the wine and any drinks ordered from the bar. The midnight buffet has been eliminated but in its place, the Pizzeria [one half of the Lido Buffet] is open from 5:30 pm until midnight and in the other half of the Lido is the Bistro [offering soups, salads, deserts, and limited entrées from the restaurant] open from 7:30 pm until 2 am. The continental breakfast begins at 4 am and room service is always available. No one need go hungry for lack of access to food at any hour of the day or night.
The food quality, variety and buffet service all remain excellent. Tipping on the Royal Princess is still done in the traditional method with envelopes provided before the final evening. Tips can be charged to one’s shipboard account by signing a voucher for the desired amount with a copy of the voucher put in the envelope to present to the staff member.
An Enrichment Lecture series was offered. The speaker was an expert on Norwegian culture and history. His several presentations were excellent and well attended. There was also the traditional napkin folding, snowball bingo, art auctions, and bridge lessons among the shipboard activities. Prices in the “Duty Free” shops seemed awfully high; there weren’t any bargains.
Entertainment during the cruise included four production shows, two comedians, an illusionist and some vocalists. The production shows are limited by the small size of the stage and limited lighting capabilities. We enjoyed the enthusiasm of the cast and featured entertainers. There were trios for dancing and easy listening each evening in the various lounges and the casino was always available to accept contributions when not in port.
This cruise was really enjoyable. The itinerary with the mix of sea days and interesting ports was great. The passengers came from the United Kingdom and other countries as well as lots from the U.S. and all seemed friendly and interesting. Our dining companions included fun couples from Manchester, England; Toronto, Canada; and Michigan in the U.S. We chatted with many people from other parts of the world as well during the relaxed atmosphere of the cruise.
The officers and staff did a fine job of making all feel like special guests, and the cabins, even though small, were nevertheless comfortable. The Land of the Midnight Sun was a unique experience in cruising. We undoubtedly will return to the Royal Princess when another unique itinerary intrigues us.